North Korea is officially designated the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The country has described itself as a juche style socialist state—not as a communist regime or with Marxist-Leninism as a part of its official description. Juche connotes self-reliance. Kim Il-sung explained juche to journalists in 1994: “It’s anathema to me to follow others. We can learn from foreigners, of course. You must chew first. It its agreeable you swallow. If it’s disagreeable, spit it out” (Michael Breen, The Koreans, 1998/2004: 129).
In time, however, songun (military-first) tended to replace, or at least augment, the spirit of juche. A declining economy (especially in contrast to the South) and a severe famine at the beginning of the 21st century’s first decade seemingly brought about the policy of songun, “military first.”
North Korea exists in the northern half of the Korean peninsula, which juts southward from the Asian mainland. Its northern border is mostly with China—with a small portion bordering Russia. Its capital, Pyangyang lies roughly in its southeast.
The close of WWII in 1945 ended Japanese occupation of Korea but also brought a division of the country at the 38th parallel. The present line of demarcation, the North’s southern boundary, is a result of the Korean War (1950-1953). It runs from somewhat south of the 38th parallel in the east to to rather north of the parallel in the west. Neither North nor South Korea recognizes the legitimacy of this boundary and its demilitarized zone. Diplomatically, the North and South remain in a state of war.
Kim Il-sung shaped the country’s socialist system with significant land reform and nationalization. By 1992 his health was deteriorating. At this point, Kim Jong-il became the country’s strong leader. His death in 2011 brought his named successor and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to power.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What is your interest in North Korea? Has it changed over time?
What has been your contact with Koreans? Have you ever been to any part of Korea? Would you like to visit Korea?
Have you read any books or seen any videos about life in North Korea, about its immigrants (or refugees)? What do you think of them?
How important do you consider the two Koreas to be to the rest of the world? Do you think it necessary to discuss what we know and don’t know about the two Koreas?
Are you aware of the current relations of other world powers to North (and South) Korea? Do you know of food aid that has been sent to North Korea?
How do you think the world should treat the threats and belligerence of North Korea?
There is a large Korean diaspora around the world. Some are immigrants or refugees especially in South Korea. They are part of, and provide important clues to, the reunification of Korea.
The reasons for North Korea’s belligerency are complicated, fearful to the South, and of grave concern to most of the world. But for a country determined to be united on their (northern, socialist) terms, while being independent from, and respected by, foreign powers, the actions of North Korea’s leaders can be understandable.
We should be concerned about the many North Koreans in terrible detention, about the privations and fear among its people, and about the need for liberation and unification under a slow process determined by the people themselves.