It would probably be accurate to state that for many Americans, North Korea is a rather mysterious nation. In part, this may due to the nature of the information presented by the American media; and in part, it is because North Korea’s own will to remain isolated within the world. This sample history essay explores the history, politics, and international relations of North Korea, as a means of improving general awareness regarding the nature of this nation.
- Historical overview of North Korea, including the origins of the nation itself
- Internal politics of North Korea, including its governmental and leadership structures
- Relationship between North Korea and other nations in the world, including (of course) the United States
- Implications of this overview for the contemporary world
North Korea: A historical overview
In order to trace the nation of North Korea back to its origins, it is necessary to turn back to World War II. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has briefly summarized the history of the origins of North Korea in the following way:
“An independent kingdom for much of its long history, Korea was occupied by Japan beginning in 1905 following the Russo-Japanese War. Five years later, Japan formally annexed the entire peninsula. Following World War II, Korea was split with the northern half coming under Soviet-sponsored control” (“Background” section).
The great divide
An important implication of this fact is that the division of North Korea and South Korea is strictly political in nature and does not correspond to any more deeply ingrained ethnological differences. This is different from many of the national divisions that can be found on the African continent, which is quite arbitrary from an ethnological perspective. The peninsula of Korea was unified over the course of the vast majority of its history, and the division of the North from the South is a relatively recent one.
It is worth looking more closely, though, at why the political reasons why the division occurred. As Lee has indicated, the Cairo Declaration found the major Allied Powers agreeing that the independence of Korea should be restored after World War II. However, a “trusteeship” scheme was devised, ostensibly to ensure the secure transition from Japanese rule to independence. At the time, cooperation seemed possible, since the United States and the Soviet Union were in fact allies during World War II. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, though, it proved impossible to reach a workable consensus with respect to exactly how the implementation of the trusteeship scheme should produce. This led to a de facto political situation in which the southern half of the Korean peninsula increasingly came under the sphere of influence of the United States, while the northern half of the peninsula increasingly came under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. This division was consolidated with the creation of two independent Korean nation-states in the year 1948.
The fact that this division would prove to be an antagonistic one became clear in the year 1950, when North Korea launched an invasion of South Korea, with the intention of reunifying the peninsula. This was the beginning of what came to be known as the Korean War, and this event was responsible for the crystallization of some of the main antagonisms that would persist throughout the Cold War (see Office of the Historian). In particular, it became clear that South Korea, supported by the United States and Europe, would belong to the Western bloc; and that North Korean, supported by the Soviet Union and Communist China, would belong to the Eastern bloc. This distinction would thereafter become far more important within the context of the modern world than the fact that the division of the Korean peninsula was such a recent one, with no historical, cultural, or ethnological differences meaningfully marking off the people of the one nation from the people of the other.
Internal politics and social structure of North Korea
From a Western perspective, one of the strangest aspects of North Korea is surely the cult of personality that can be found at the very center of its governmental structure. This began with Kim Il Sung, who was the leader of North Korea from its inception in 1948 to the year 1994; it proceeded with his son Kim Jong Il, who ruled from 1994 to 2011; and it continues to this day with Kim Jong-un, the grandson of the original leader of the nation. As an Editor of the Bio website has put it:
“In the late 1960, the [Communist Party] instituted a policy of ‘burning loyalty’ to the ‘Great Leader’ (Kim Il Sung). This practice of personality cult is reminiscent of Stalinist Russia but was taken to new heights with Kim Il Sung and would continue with King Jong Il” (paragraph 6).
Again, the same cult of personality is now present for the third generation running; and it constitutes a major part of both the international public image of North Korea and the internal politics of the nation.
It is worth pointing out that this kind of dynastic rule has in fact historically never been seen before in a nation that identifies itself as “Communist;” and this reveals that whatever has happened in North Korea is not strictly based on any pre-existing ideology but rather seems to be the product of a kind of emergent ideology that is unique to the nation of North Korea itself. To an extent, though, North Korea may simply be an example of the internal contradictions of Communist ideology having become manifest to an extreme extent. For example, the deification of the “Party” that is characteristic of Communist societies has little in common with actual Marxist theory (see Karl Marx and the effects his ideology had on the world); rather, it clearly hearkens back to sentiments that were much more characteristic of archaic humanity. The model of dynastic rule by a family of quasi-divine overlords is of course not foreign to the history of the human species as such; it is merely strange to see it manifested in the modern world in general, and in particular within a nation that relies on an ideology that is explicitly geared toward the abolition of such illusions.
Moreover, it is perhaps worth noting the important role that the military and the police play within the governmental structure of North Korea and the society of North Korea more generally. This is logically connected with the fact that North Korea is essentially ruled by a totalitarian regime, and structures of coercion and violence are always necessary to sustain the viability of such regimes over the long run. Again, a Westerner in North Korea would likely feel that he has entered a whole different world, insofar as the nation’s value structures are not informed by democratic ideals, and insofar as the political structures of the nation convey the uncanny feeling of having been resuscitated from more archaic eras of human history.
Korea’s international relations
In the international arena, North Korea has won the antagonism of the Western world for several reasons. One of these reasons would surely be its human rights record. The organization Human Rights Watch has reported the following:
“On November 18, 2014, the General Assembly endorsed a recent UN Commission of Inquiry report detailing crimes against humanity in North Korea and recommended that the Security Council discuss the report and consider an ICC [International Criminal Court] referral” (paragraph 1).
It is unclear whether such a referral would ultimately come to fruition, given that China and Russia are both allies of North Korea and also both permanent members of the Security Council. What is clear, however, is that a nation surely cannot be a leading perpetrator of human rights abuses and still expect to receive a warm reception within the broader international community of civilized nations.
Another major point of conflict between North Korea and the Western world consists of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the threat of a weapon of mass destruction. Writing in May 2014, Wienner-Bronner reported:
“North Korea’s last nuclear test, which took place in 2013, prompted increased Western sanctions against the country and escalating tensions between Pyongyang and its rivals. At the height of the tensions, North Korea temporarily shuttered an industrial complex that it operates jointly with South Korea, harming its own economy in the process, and offered repeated invectives against Seoul and Washington” (paragraph 2).
Western powers are highly concerned about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions both because of the general international objective of non-proliferation and the specific perception that North Korea would seem to be a fairly unstable nation which could not be trusted to manage nuclear technology in a responsible fashion.
North Korea, however, does also have some allies in the world. Perhaps the most important one would be China. Xu and Bajoria have discussed this relationship and pointed out that although the alliance between the two nations can be traced all the way back to the Korean War, China shows at least some signs of discomfort about continuing a close relationship with North Korea. This is because China is clearly emerging as a dominant and competently governed global power in the contemporary world, whereas North Korea has displayed a tendency to engage in what could only be called erratic behavior that does not seem to be in congruence with a broader long-range strategic plan for the nation as a whole. This is not to say that China is likely to completely dissociate itself from North Korea anytime soon. However, there would seem to be evidence that even China recognizes that the North Korea’s governmental structures as a nation may be something less than ideal.
How does North Korea’s ideology impact the world?
In summary, this essay has sought to develop a general overview of North Korea. The main points included a historical overview and then proceeded to a consideration of internal politics and international relations.
The picture that has emerged would seem to cast North Korea in a somewhat negative light. However, this is not so much due to bias as to the fact that even basic objective information about the nation would seem to inevitably point toward such a conclusion. Broadly speaking, North Korea’s dynastic governance system is archaic; and there is even reason to believe that the cult of personality has led to leaders becoming increasingly less competent in the actual art of governance over the generations. This assessment is supported by the fact that even strong allies such as China would seem to recognize that there is something at least a little “off” with how North Korea tends to conduct itself.
Nevertheless, it is clear from the present discussion that the historical division of the world into two major spheres of influence is by no means entirely a thing of the past. For example, the United States implicit antagonism toward the nations of China, Russia, and North Korea, as well as the fact that these latter nations still remain connected with each other through a network of alliance, are nothing other than echoes of the international world order that emerged in the aftermath of World War II, when North Korea was first created as a nation. Although there was no meaningful difference between the cultures of North Korea and South Korea at that time, it is quite clear that the two nations have developed radically different cultures over the course the past several decades. In order to understand the role of North Korea in the world today, then, it would probably be necessary to consider it in light of its historic role during the Cold War as a member of the Communist bloc. While this distinction is not as important as it once was, it clearly still continues to exert an influence on international relations today.
Central Intelligence Agency. “North Korea.” The World Factbook. 2014. Web. 10 Jan. 2015 https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kn.html.
Editor. “Kim Jong Il.” Bio. AE Television Networks, 2015. Web. 10 Jan. 2015. http://www.biography.com/people/kim-jong-il-201050#early-life.
Human Rights Watch. “North Korea: UN Condemns Crimes against Humanity.” 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 Jan. 2015. http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/11/18/north-korea-un-condemns-crimes-against-humanity.
Lee, Jongsoo James. “Korea: Post-WWII Partition.” The History Reader. 23 Jun. 2011. Web. 10 Jan. 2015. http://www.thehistoryreader.com/contemporary-history/korea-post-wwii-partition/.
Office of the Historian. “The Korean War, 1950-1953.” U.S. Department of State, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2015. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/korean-war-2.
Wienner-Bronner, Danielle. “North Korea’s Next Nuclear Test Could Serve as a Regional Tipping Point.” The Wire. 30 May. 2014. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.http://www.thewire.com/global/2014/05/north-koreas-next-nuclear-test-could-serve-as-a-regional-tipping-point/371878/.
Xu, Beina, and Jayshree Bajoria. “The China-North Korea Relationship.” Council on Foreign Affairs, 22 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 Jan. 2015. http://www.cfr.org/china/china-north-korea-relationship/p11097.