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Tuesday, September 8, 1998 Published at 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK

North Korea: a political history

On parade: North Korea has made no secret of its military strength

Hear the people's emotional outpourings at Kim II-sung's funeral
When Kim Il-sung died in July 1994, North Koreans had never known anything else.

The 'Great Leader' had shaped and dominated political and economic affairs for almost half a century.

The outpouring of grief was extraordinary: a product of decades of exposure to a grotesque cult of personality.

Indeed such has been the isolation of this tiny country that it may be many years before North Koreans realise the true legacy of the Kim Il-sung years, and how far and how fast their fortunes have fallen.

Cold war warriors

The northern half of Korea was born on 9 September 1948 amid the chaos following the end of World War II.

Supported by the Soviet Union, the charismatic Kim Il-sung embarked on a series of popular social and economic reforms, including the redistribution of land and nationalisation of Japanese property.

This gave the communists considerable support, while simultaneously driving many of the skilled and richer parts of the population to the South.

The subsequent Korean War was the result of irreconcilable political differences between Communist North Korea and the US-controlled South.

Neither the Soviet Union, which had occupied North Korea in 1945, nor the USA could bear the peninsula falling into the other's hands, and the formal division of the Korea in 1948 set the stage for military conflict.

The war lasted between 1950 and 1953, causing devastating human losses and eventually more distant relations with the Soviet Union, especially after Stalin's death in 1953.

From self-reliance to self-destruction

With support from the Soviet Union less assured, Kim Il-sung in the 1950's, began a move towards "self-reliance" or Juche.

[ image:  ]
This led to some industrial success and good economic growth but by the 1970s a combination of higher oil prices and a growing technology gap had undermined the strategy.

While other communist countries, including China, opted for reform, North Korea maintained the ideological purity of its economic policy but this rigid state controlled system led to increasing problems exacerbated by high levels of military spending.

In 1980, the country defaulted on all of its loans, except those from Japan. By the late 1980's output was declining by more than four per cent a year.

But even then Kim Il-sung refused to countenance opening the country to foreign investment or allow private enterprise.

The result was been years of stagnation and an increasingly out of touch leadership, entirely dependent on the cult of personality and increasingly concerned over the issue of political succession.

Power struggle follows Kim's death

When Kim Il-sung died, his son, Kim Jong-il, took control as head of the armed forces, but did not immediately assume his father's titles of state president and general secretary of the Korean Workers Party. Analysts saw the delay as a sign of weakness.

[ image:  ]
Rumours of a power struggle were confirmed with the defection of senior ideologue Hwang Jang Yop in February 1997.

Hwang fled to the South Korean embassy while on a trip to Beijing on 12 February 1997.

In the following weeks, the prime minister was replaced and the defence minister died suddenly.

Although accurate information is hard to glean, it now appears that Kim Jong-il is in control, taking the title of General Secretary of the Communist Party in October 1997. In September 1998 his position as head of armed forces was been widened to cover powers of head of state while the post of president was assigned "eternally" to his father Kim Il-sung.

The army remains the main danger to Kim Jong-il, but he has been careful to woo them since coming to power and he has promoted generals above members of the Korean Workers Party.

He has also promoted a number of relatives: his brother in law Chang Song Taek holds a senior position, as does a cousin, Kim Jong U.

Prospects for the future

[ image: The border with South Korea: a flashpoint again?]
The border with South Korea: a flashpoint again?
The country's fundamental economic difficulties, its inability to feed itself and the internal political contradictions imply it is no longer a question of if the regime collapses but when.

But a rapid disintegration could have a number of dangers for North Korea's neighbours and for the US which maintains a military presence in the South. A number of scenarios have been discussed.

  • A huge wave of refugees could flood across the borders into South Korea, Russia and China.

  • Hardline elements could launch a desperate attack on the South. This is known as the 'nighmare scenario' by western planners.

  • An internal coup could be launched by disaffected groups in the military or government. The outcome could be hard to predict.

The collapse of the North could lead to a serious escalation of tension between China and the United States. US Defence Secretary, William Cohen, has said that it would be necessary for the 37,000 American troops to stay on after unification.

Such a prospect would cause deep unease in Beijing as would the emergence of a stronger unified Korea.

North Korea remains the world's last outpost of Stalinism. Communist ideology remains strong after years of indoctrination.

The support of China may prevent the country's immediate collapse but there is little sign that the leadership in Pyongyang is ready to embark on any fundamental reforms that could save their people from further misery and turmoil.

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In this section

Inside the Secret State

Land of illusions

Profile: Kim Jong-il

North Korea: a political history

Analysis: Korean missiles threaten region

Setting store by military might

Where famine stalks the land

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