How Did North Korea Become an Authoritarian Regime?

Roy Calley

6 mins

28 Aug 2019

The route taken by North Korea (or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to give it its correct name) to the authoritarian regime that it has become today, was certainly a tortuous one, and one that pays thanks to the cult of personality as much as anything else.

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Foreign occupation

The original Great Korean Empire came into being on 13 October 1897 following a peasant revolution, one of many in previous years by the Donghak religion against the controlling Chinese, and later the Japanese.

It was announced by Emperor Gojong, who was forced to flee almost immediately after the assassination of his wife, and sweeping reforms were called for and planned.

Unfortunately, the country was in absolutely no position to defend itself, and with the strategic importance to the Japanese, and only faced with around 30,000 badly trained and inexperienced soldiers, they ceded by agreeing the Japan-Korea Protocol in 1904.

Japanese marines landing from the Unyo at Yeongjong Island which is near Ganghwa on 20 September 1875.

Despite international pressure, within six years the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty was declared and the permanent cession of sovereignty to Japan was implemented. There then followed a brutal 35 years of oppression by the Japanese, which still leaves scars on the nation today.

The cultural heritage of Korea was suppressed, with its history no longer taught in schools. All historical temples and buildings were closed down or razed to the ground, and it was forbidden to print any literature in the Korean language. Anyone who failed these draconian rules was dealt with in ruthless fashion.

Protests took place sporadically, and many of the leaders are martyrs today, not least Yu Kwan-soon, who at the tender age of eighteen, led an uprising in 1919 – later to be described as ‘The First Arduous March’ – but it resulted in thousands of deaths and the continued barbarism of the invaders. She is now revered across the country and her story is taught in all North Korean schools.

A photo from ‘The First Arduous March’, also known as the March 1st Movement, 1919.

Korea divided

By the Second World War, Korea was a complete annex of Japan and it’s estimated that around five million of its civilians were forced to fight for the Japanese, with casualties amongst the highest in the area.

Of course, history tells us that the war was lost, and Japan surrendered alongside Germany to the American, British and Chinese forces. It’s at this point that Korea became the two nations we see today and how the DPRK came into being.

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With the allies looking to control the country, but with the Soviets and China also seeing the importance of Korea, the nation was effectively divided, when two inexperienced soldiers, Dean Rusk – later to become Secretary of State – and Charles Bonesteel III, picked up a National Geographic map and drew a pencil line across the 38th parallel.

This seemingly simplistic act created the two Koreas that we know today.

The Korean Peninsula first divided along the 38th parallel, later along the demarcation line. Image Credit: Rishabh Tatiraju / Commons.

The North’s road to isolation

The South does not concern us in this brief history, but the North then started along a tumultuous road to isolation and abandonment by the rest of the world. The Soviets and China now controlled the Northern State of Korea, and on 9 September 1948, they nominated a military leader, Kim Il-sung as the head of the new Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim Il-sung was a 36-year-old unremarkable man who had actually been removed from the head of his regiment in World War Two due to his inability, and his initial appointment was greeted lukewarmly by a suffering population, but he turned into the most powerful leader of the age.

From 1948 he self-appointed himself as the Great Leader and his sweeping and ruthless reforms completely changed the country. Industry was nationalised and land redistribution almost completely rid North Korea of rich Japanese landlords, turning the country into the beyond-communist State that it is today.

His cult-of-personality was confirmed during the 1950-53 Korean War, essentially against the ‘Imperialistic America’, where his leadership was the only thing that stood between his people and certain defeat. This is how the story of one of the bloodiest and brutal conflicts in modern times is taught to all schoolchildren.

Kim Il-sung conversing with female representatives.

‘The greatest military commander ever known’

To give some idea as to how quickly the people turned to Kim Il-sung (not actually his real name but one he allegedly took from a fallen comrade in World War Two), this is how he is described in a history book that is a staple diet of children’s education.

‘Kim Il-sung…devised outstanding strategic and tactical policies and unique fighting methods based on Juche-orientated military ideology at every stage of the war and led the Korean People’s Army to victory by translating them into practice…

…Portuguese President Gomes said of him…”General Kim Il-sung defeated them single-handedly and I saw it with my own eyes and came to know that he was the most ingenious military strategist and greatest military commander ever known in the world.”

This is the type of adoration that he received from a grateful public, and combined with a personally-devised Juche Theory (a political maxim that now dictates the lives of every North Korean citizen, despite its almost incomprehensible designs) that he implemented, the country was in awe of their Leader.

He kept their respect with some of the worst examples of brutality, massacring anyone who stood against him, imprisoning thousands of political prisoners and ruling a country that slowly fell into starvation and a backward economy. Yet he was, and still is, loved and adored by the people.

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This had a lot to do with his son, and eventual successor, Kim Jong-il (the Dear Leader), who turned his father into a figure of near-worship, commissioning the hundreds of statues and portraits in his honour and composing and writing numerous odes.

He used his skills as a film producer to bombard the populace with propaganda messages so that no one could be unaware of the guiding influence his father had in transforming the country into the paradise they all believed it to be.

Of course, his devotion was rewarded when he was named successor after his father’s death – an event that was mourned for thirty days in Pyongyang in scenes that are incredibly distressing to watch – and despite taking over at the time of Great Famine in the 1990s and implementing even stricter atrocities, he became as loved and adored as his father. He now has as many statues and portraits in the kingdom.

Idealized portrait of Kim Jong-il.

Sorting fact from fiction

The cult-of-personality was bestowed on Kim Jong-il when it was announced on the day of his birth in 1942, that a new double rainbow appeared in the sky above him on the sacred Mount Paektu, a nearby lake burst its banks, lights filled the surrounding area and swallows passed overhead to inform the population of the great news.

The reality was that he was born in Siberia after his father fled the country during the war, being pursued by the Japanese. That reality is not recognised in North Korea.

Now of course the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, has the unwavering adoration of the people as he tries to drag the country into the twenty-first century, although parts of the technology-free farming areas may have to leapfrog a hundred years or so, and this is the point.

It’s an authoritarian regime, but it’s no jackboot dictatorship in the eyes of the North Korean public. They genuinely love the Kim dynasty and there is nothing that any other foreign country could possibly do to change that.

A mural in Pyongyang of a young Kim Il-sung giving a speech. Image Credit: Gilad Rom / Commons.

There is a saying that translates to ‘Nothing to Envy’ in the literature of the country. It basically means that everything is better in North Korea than anything anywhere else.

They don’t need the internet. They don’t need to know about how others live. They want to be left alone and they want to be understood. This is North Korea.

Roy Calley works for BBC Sport as a TV Producer and is the author of several books. Look With Your Eyes and Tell the World: The Unreported North Korea is his latest book and will be published on 15 September 2019, by Amberley Publishing.

Featured Image: Visitors bowing in a show of respect for North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansudae (Mansu Hill) in Pyongyang, North Korea. Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / Commons.