North Korea

North Korea (1945–2009)

officially named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),North Korea is neither democratic nor a republic. Rather, it is a dictatorship. The country has had just two leaders in the more than half-century of its existence: Kim Il Sung (1912–94) from 1948 to 1994 and his son Kim Jong Il (b. 1943), who has been in control since 1994.

North Korea is a communist country. Its institutions are closely modeled on those of the Soviet Union, and its methods of leadership resemble those used by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during the 1930s and 1940s. The resemblance has many facets, including North Korea’s command economy, the cult of personality that surrounds its leader, the abusive style of its propaganda, and the government’s intru-sions into the personal and mental lives of its citizens, who suffer from malnutrition yet are required to shout that they live in a utopia.

Yet some important aspects of the DPRK’s governing style and ideology are entirely its own and unique in the communist world. One special feature of North Korea is its extremely secluded, isolationist nature, harkening back to the isolation of the Choson era, so that it seems more appropriate than ever to call this half of Korea a “hermit state.” It and Cuba are the only communist states ever to have a hereditary succes-sion, and it has carried the public adulation of its leader to religious extremes that might have embarrassed even Stalin.

North Koreans, expressing the thoughts of their leader, describe their state as indepen-dent and self-reliant. They have a unique word for this stance, juche, a philosophy supposedly originated by Kim Il Sung, who DPRK propa-ganda insists was a genius, and best interpreted by his son Kim Jong Il, also described as a genius in official pronouncements. To judge by their speech and behavior (strictly controlled, so their actual feelings are a mystery) North Koreans are fiercely proud of the concept. They insist that it is a model for the world to emulate.

North Korean leaders have limited their diplomatic and trade con-tacts even within the communist world. The collapse of international communism in the late 1980s left the DPRK friendless and unable or unwilling to make the reforms that were bringing a better life to the people of China, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Vietnam. The country’s only bargaining tools were its ability to produce a nuclear weapon and a history of unpredictable behavior that made outsiders wonder if North Korea would use the weapon even if it meant suicide.