Chapter 1A

Map of North Korea
Photo Ctsy. U.N. Dept. of Public Information

In the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Korea which ended with Japan's defeat in World War 11 in 1945, Korea was divided by the Soviet Union north of the 38th Parallel and by the United States south of the 38th Parallel. The Soviets and Americans were unable to agree on the implementation of Joint Trusteeship over Korea. This led in 1948 to the establishment of separate governments in the North and South, each claiming to be the legitimate government of all of Korea. While democratic elections were held in the south, the Soviet Union did not consult the majority of the Korean people when it made the decision to form a separate government.



North Korea (0fficial name: The Democratic People's Republic of Korea) was proclaimed on September 9, 1948, under the supervision of the occupying Soviet forces. Although there was an indigenous Korean Communist Party, the Soviets preferred Korean Communists who had spent the war years in the Soviet Union.

In February 1948, the leading Korean exile Communist, Kim ll-sung, became head of the North Korean Provisional People's Committee, which preceded the formal establishment of the state. Kim's rise to power can be attributed to a combination of his ability to organize grassroots movements in the countryside, and, the political choice of many of his rivals to remain in Pyongyang and seek power. In this way, Kim was able to win out over his political rivals. Kim then became Prime Minister, a post he held until 1972, when he became President. The centre of authority was the Korean Worker's Party, of which Kim was General-Secretary.


The early years

Kim's government moved rapidly to establish a political system that was partly styled on the Soviet system, with political power monopolized by the KWP. The establishment of a command economy followed. Most of the country's productive assets had been owned by the Japanese or by Koreans who had been collaborators. The nationalization of these assets in 1946 placed 70% of industry under state control. By 1949 this percentage had risen to 90%. Since then, virtually all manufacturing, finance and internal and external trade has been conducted by the state.

In agriculture, the government moved more slowly towards a command economy. The "land to the tiller" reform of 1946 redistributed the bulk of agricultural land to the poor and landless peasant population, effectively breaking the power of the landed class. In 1954, however, a partial collectivization was carried out, with peasants being urged, and often forced, into agricultural co-operatives. By 1958, virtually all farming was being carried out collectively, and the co-operatives were increasingly merged into larger productive units.

Like all the postwar Communist states, North Korea undertook massive state investment in heavy industry, state infrastructure and military strength, neglecting
the production of consumer goods. By paying the collectivized peasants low state- controlled prices for their product, and using the surplus thus extracted to pay for industrial development, the state carried out a series of three-year plans, which brought industry's share of the economy from 47% in 1946 to 70% in 1959, despite the devastation of the Korean War. There were huge increases in electricity production, steel production and machine building. The large output of tractors and other agricultural machinery achieved a great increase in agricultural productivity.

By 1958, North Korea's economy was largely independent from foreign aid and it's economy, along with the standard, had surpassed that of it's rival, South Korea. As a result of these revolutionary changes, the population was better fed and, at least in urban areas, better housed, and had access to better medical care than they had been before the war. Standards of living rose rapidly in North Korea in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. There was, however, a chronic shortage of consumer goods, and the urban population lived under a system of extreme labor discipline and constant demands for greater productivity.


The Korean War

Memorial Korean War Veterans Plaque
Photo Ctsy.Wayland Mayo

The consolidation of Syngman Rhee's government in the South with American military support and the suppression of the October 1948 insurrection ended hopes that the country could be reunified by way of revolution in the South, and from early 1949 Kim sought Soviet and Chinese support for a military campaign to reunify the country by force. The withdrawal of most U.S. forces from South Korea in June 1949 left the southern government defended only by a weak and inexperienced South Korean army. The southern regime also had to deal with citizenry of uncertain loyalty. The North Korean army, by contrast, had been the beneficiary of the Soviet Union's, outdated Soviet WW11-era equipment., and had a core of hardened veterans who had fought as anti-Japanese Guerillas or with the Chinese Communists.

Initially Stalin rejected Kim's requests, but in late 1949 the victory of the Communists in China and development of the Soviet nuclear weapons made him re-consider Kim's proposal. In January 1950, the permission to stage an invasion was finally approved by Stalin. The Soviet provided limited support in the form of advisors who helped the North Koreans as they planned the operation, and Soviet instructors trained some of the Korean units. However, from the very beginning Stalin made it clear that the Soviet Union would avoid a direct confrontation with the U.S. over Korea and would not commit ground forces even in case of some major military crisis. The stage was set for a civil war between two rival regimes on the Korean peninsula.

For over a year before North Korean forces attacked the southern government on June 25,1950, the two sides had been engaged in a series of bloody clashes along the 38th parallel, especially in the Ongjin area on the west coast. On June 25, 1950 the northern forces escalated the battles into a full-fledged offensive and crossed the parallel in large numbers. Due to a combination surprise, superior military forces, and a poorly armed South Korean army, the Northern forces quickly captured Seoul, and Syngman Rhee and his government was forced to flee further south. However the North Koreans failed to unify the peninsula when foreign powers entered the civil war. North Korean forces were soon defeated and driven northwards by the United Nations forces led by the U.S. By October, the U.N. forces had retaken Seoul and captured Pyongyang, and it became Kim's turn to flee. But in November, Chinese forces entered the war and pushed the U.N. forces back, retaking Pyongyang in December and Seoul in January 1951. In March U.N. forces retook Seoul, and the war essentially became a bloody stalemate for the next two years. The front was stabilized in 1953 along what eventually became the current Armistice Line. After long negotiations, the two sides agreed on a border formed by the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and a ceasefire was declared. Note that an official peace treaty was never signed, and so the two Koreas have technically been at war since 1950.

After the war, Kim took control of North Korean politics, with the support of the armed forces, who respected his wartime record and long resistance to the Japanese. A key leader of the South Korean leftists, Pak Hon-yong, was blamed for the failure of the southern population to support North Korea during the war and was executed after a show-trial in 1955. Most of the South Korean leftists who defeated the North in 1945-1953 were also accused of espionage and other crimes and killed, imprisoned or exiled to remote agricultural and mining villages. Potential rivals from other groups such as Kim Tu-bong were also purged.

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