North Korea, a land and its people

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What comes to mind when you think of North Korea? Most people would probably recognize the name from the news. Recently, North Korea has been involved in a dispute with the United States and other countries over its suspected nuclear weapons production program. Let's take a look at the country's roots, in hope of gaining a clearer perspective of the country and its people.

Brief Political History

North Korea has been in turmoil throughout its history. It is currently under a communist system of rule. The leadership of the country recently changed from Kim Il Sung to his son, Kim Jong Il. Kim Il Sung ruled with absolute power. The brand of communism practiced in North Korea is highly influenced by chuch'e sasang which are ideas about self-reliance of the country.

Early Government

Before 313 A.D., the area which is now North Korea was inhabited by Chinese tribes.

One city in the area, Lolang, was a great center of Chinese culture including commerce, industry, and art. The Chinese inhabitants of the area patterned much of their civilization and government after the traditional Chinese system. The early residents organized themselves into 70 clan states over time, which were also grouped into broader tribal confederations known as Chin-Han, Ma-Han, and Pyon-Han. The Chin-Han confederation was situated in the middle of the peninsula, Ma-Han in the southwest, and Pyon-Han in the southeast. Their economies were based on agriculture.

Around the middle of the 400's A.D. the Chinese threat from the north became a cause for the three kingdoms to unite. They eventually merged into two kingdoms to increase their defense capabilities. The reason the three kingdoms merged into two instead of one is a geographic one because, certain features naturally separated the two. These features are the T'aebaek mountain range, and the Sobaek range. The fact that two separate kingdoms were created instead of one would prove to be significant for Korea, and the entire world.

Silla unified Korea in 668, but was constantly watching the Chinese, who still had their eye on the peninsula. The first 215 years of the Silla dynasty are remembered for their new political, legal, and educational institutions, which possessed great energy. Domestic and foreign trade prospered. Higher learning in Confucian teachings, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine flourished. Buddhism, in 372, reached the height of its influence on the peninsula. Silla began to decline in the later part of the 900's, when rebellions threatened his rule. The chaos led to the Koryo dynasty in 932 under former general, Wang Kon.

Koryo and his heirs consolidated control over the peninsula and strengthened the economy by more closely following China's traditions of land grants. The rise of the Khitan Liao tribe in the north, threatened Koryo. When they invaded, Koryo was caught in a state of war from 1010 to 1020. After peace was restored, nearly a century of prosperity followed, not coincidentally, because at the time the Song Dynasty of China was also prospering, and ties were close. By the twelfth century A.D., the Koryo Dynasty was crumbling do to both internal conflicts, and external problems. This situation further deteriorated when the Mongols invaded in 1231. The Koryo armies were no match for the mounted Mongol armies, who had invaded most areas of the East Asians' known world by this time.

Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor, forced Koryo to participate in its Japanese campaigns. Expeditions to Japan were unsuccessful in 1274 and 1281. Both times, the Mongol-Koryo fleet was destroyed by seasonal typhoons. These unsuccessful expeditions are the root of the myth of Kamikaze, or divine wind. Koryo remained under complete Mongol domination until the mid 1300's.

During the mid 1300's, the Mongol empire began to disintegrate as the Ming Dynasty of China pushed them back to the north. Koryo then regained its independence. In 1359 and 1361, Koryo was invaded by Chinese armies, known as the Red Banner bandits, who burned and destroyed the capital.

When the Mongols were pushed out of Koryo and the Chinese set up an army garrison in the north of Koryo, the high court was torn apart by pro-Chinese and pro-Mongol factions. General Yi Song-gye, who was sent to destroy the Ming forces in Manchuria, revolted against his own country and took over the capital. Yi took the throne in 1392, beginning Korea's most enduring dynasty. The new state was called Choson, after the name used by the first Korean kingdom, 15 centuries earlier.

The Yi Dynasty put many reforms into action, including a much needed reform of the land system, which was being abused by Buddhist temples. Because during the Koryo Dynasty many Buddhist monks were corrupted by money and power, the new largely Confucian government launched an attack on Buddhism and its institutions. This attack was to have long lasting effects on the character of the civilization on the peninsula. Korea became a secular society.

During the reign of the fourth monarch of the Yi Dynasty, Korea made great improvements in the arts, science, and technology. Members of the court started to argue on fine points of Confucian rituals concerning death of leaders, and succession. If a ruler died leaving no heir to his throne, matters became even more difficult. Royal families gained more and more land which they exempted from taxes, thus decreasing the dynasty's sources of revenue. The economy was devastated for a long period thereafter.

Western ideas reached Korea through China during the 17th century. The government of China banned all forms of 'western learning' because they were alarmed at the rejection of tradition. Western ships began to try to trade with Korea during this time. When news of the Opium War in China reached Korea, the government had even more reason to deny any contact with Western powers. This was good, however, because there were many internal problems in Korea at this time. Floods, famines, epidemics, and large scale revolts of the masses were prevalent.

The Japanese were the first to succeed in penetrating Korea's isolation. China failed to come to Korea's aid in 1875 when Japan provoked Korea militarily. As a result, the Japanese forced an unequal treaty on Korea giving Japanese access to three Korean ports. In retaliation to Japan's actions, China attempted to broaden Korea's external relations. Treaties between Korea and the U.S., Britain, Italy, Russia, and other countries were signed.

American influence was apparent in 1884 when Korea emphasized independence from foreign influences and a more western political practices. In 1886 a newspaper called Tong'ip Shinmun, or Independence News, was published using the han'gul writing system developed in the 1400's for the first time.

The Tongak rebellion in 1894 and 1895 had a great impact on all countries in Asia. The rebellion started in the southwest, and spread to the north, threatening Korea's capital, Seoul. Since the Koreans felt unable to cope with the rebellion, they invited China to send troops in to help put down the rebellion. Japan felt this gave them a reason to send troops to the peninsula. Soon, the first Sino-Japanese War had started. This war accelerated the decay of the Qing Dynasty in China. After Japan won the war, they established their control over Korea in the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. This treaty dictated a series of measures to prevent further domestic disturbances to the Korean government.

In response, the government initiated various reforms including abolition of class distinction, liberation of slaves, discontinuation of the civil service examination, which had grown less accurate over the centuries, and the adoption of a new tax system. After the Japanese-Russian War in 1905, Russia acknowledged Japan's interest in Korea. Korea was annexed as a colony of Japan in 1910.

Up until 1937 Japan gave the Koreans a considerable amount of room as to how they wanted to run their country. In 1937, when Japan started its expansionist war against China, it sought to totally assimilate Koreans into Japanese culture. The use of the Korean language was forbidden in 1938. The Japanese army also started to enlist Korean youth as volunteers and later as draftees. Worship at Shinto (religion of Japan) shrines became mandatory, and any attempt at preserving Korean culture was treated as a serious offense.

The original Japanese plan was to increase Korea's agricultural output to feed the people of Japan. Large scale industry was also planned. The economic developments had little benefit for the Koreans. Nearly all industries were owned by Japan, or by Japanese owned companies. Korean entrepreneurs were charged twenty-five percent higher interest rates than the Japanese. More farmlands were taken over by the Japanese. More Korean sharecroppers migrated to Japan or Manchuria. Per capita consumption of rice in Korea declined because more rice was being exported to Japan. 1

On August 8, 1945, during the last days of World War II, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and launched an invasion of Manchuria and Korea, which were occupied by Japan at the time. The Japanese military was in no position to provide a defense because their resources had been depleted by the long war with the United States. The Japanese soon surrendered to the United States.

The Japanese surrender and the Soviet occupation of the peninsula radically altered the history of modern Korea. At the Yalta conference, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Soviet Marshal Josef Stalin agreed to establish an international trusteeship for Korea, similar to what took place in Germany. The suddenness of the Soviet invasion required that something be done quickly. On August 15, 1945, the same day as the Japanese unconditional surrender, Truman proposed to the Russians that Korea be divided at the 38th parallel. Stalin agreed.

During later talks, the U.S. proposed that a democratic government be phased in over a period of five years. The Soviets objected, and refused to let the commission have a say on the northern half. The next day, all ties with the south were severed.

The Soviets helped North Korea to set up a communist government. Many laws were passed to make the country more like the Soviet Union. Land was confiscated from the villages by the government. The impact of this was that the village elite no longer controlled the peasants under them absolutely, and they were much more compliant with the wishes of the government.

In September 1948, Kim Il Sung took the office of Premier, he held the office until 1972, when he moved into the newly created title of President, which he held until his death in 1994.

One of the main objectives of Kim Il Sung was to 'liberate' South Korea. As early as 1946, anti-U.S. propaganda was released. Hundreds of thousands of North Korean youths were sent to China and the U.S.S.R. for military training. By June of 1950, the North Korean forces numbered between 150,000 and 200,000 troops organized into ten infantry divisions, one tank division, and one air force division. Soviet equipment including various automatic weapons, T-34 tanks, and Yak fighter planes began to pour into North Korea. South Korea possessed only a poorly equipped army of 100,000 troops who lacked tanks, heavy artillery, and combat planes. On June 25, 1950, communist forces rolled across the border. Within three days, Seoul fell to the North Korean army. By early August, nearly the entire country was under North Korean control.

The only problem unforeseen by Kim Il Sung was the timely reaction of American forces. Harry Truman believed that if there was no reaction, it would be interpreted by the international community as a sign of appeasement. General Douglas MacArthur was appointed the commanding general of U.S. forces in South Korea. Soon after his amphibious attack at Inch'on on September 15th, the war took a different direction. A large part of North Korea was taken by the United States and South Korean forces before the war's end on July 27, 1953, when a cease fire agreement was signed at P'anmunjom. The results of the Korean War will not be soon forgotten. There were heavy casualties on both sides. Cities were reduced to rubble. China began to play a more important role in North Korean politics since it had supported them during the war. A Chinese 'volunteer' division remained in North Korea until 1958. The United States stationed troops in South Korea, and a sizable force remains there today. The war also started Japan's economic recovery from World War II and prompted the United States to rearm Japan.

During the period extending from the end of the Korean War to the end of the Cold War, North Korea fared as well as a communist country can be expected to. Industry was expanded, and farms were turned into cooperatives which became the basic social and government influence in rural areas. Kim Il Sung purged all those within his government who dissented. Periods of good and bad relations with the U.S.S.R. and China came and went, but remained positive in general.2

Government Today (Written from the perspective during reign of Kim Il Sung)

The form of government today in North Korea is a modified form of Communism influenced by ideals called chuch'e sasang. Since its creation in 1948, the country has been under the control of the Korean Workers Party (KWP), with Kim Il Sung as general secretary of this body. The party's role is ubiquitous. It is the decision maker, organizer, mobilizer, and enforcer.

The political system was originally patterned after the Soviet model. Since the departure of Soviet occupation forces in 1948, the party leadership has gradually built on these foundations, in part through response to internal circumstances. Kim Il Sung is the 'Great Leader', and revered by the people.

Government committees are regarded as the faithful executors of Party policies. They are expected to explain the policies to the masses and implement them. All government officials are encouraged to behave as 'servants of the people' and not bureaucrats. The Party remains the sole formulator of national priorities and the chain of command goes from Kim Il Sung at the top, down through government agencies, to the people at the bottom.

The legal basis for the formal state agencies is the Socialist Constitution enacted on December 27, 1972, which defines North Korea as an independent socialist state representing the interests of ' the whole people'. The sources of sovereignty are the workers, peasants, soldiers, and working intellectuals. The goal of the state is 'to achieve the complete victory of socialism in the northern half, drive out foreign forces on a countrywide scale, reunify the country peacefully on a democratic basis, and attain complete national independence.'

The constitution provides that all means of production are to be owned by the state. Other things included as state property are: all natural resources, important factories and enterprises, harbors, banks, transport, and communications facilities. Cooperatively owned property may include: land, draft animals, farm implements, fishing boats, buildings, and small and medium factories and enterprises.

According to the Constitution: to work is 'the sacred duty and honor of citizens'. Culture, education, and public health are also important according to the Constitution. The state is directed to build a socialist national culture, provide ten year compulsory education in addition to one year of compulsory preschool education, and to implement a system of universal free medical service and a policy of preventive health care.

The chapter of the Constitution that deals with fundamental rights and duties is elaborate. Citizens over the age of seventeen can exercise the right to vote and be elected regardless of sex, race, occupation, residence, property status, education, party affiliation, political views, or religion. The right to work, to rest, to receive free medical care, and obtain education are extended to all. Also allegedly guaranteed are equal rights for women; the sanctity of marriage and the family; the inviolability of the person, the home, and the privacy of correspondence; the freedom of scientific, literary, and artistic pursuits; the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and demonstration; and 'the conditions for the free activities of democratic political parties and social organizations.'

The legislature, or Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), is unicameral and its members are elected every four years on the basis of universal and direct suffrage. Members each represent approximately 30,000 people. They are guaranteed immunity from arrest. According to the constitution, they have the power to adopt or amend the Constitution, laws, and ordinances; formulate the basic principles of domestic and foreign policies; elect the president of the state and other top government officials; approve the state economic plan and budget; and decide on questions of war and peace. Matters to be debated are submitted by the President (Kim Il Sung) and other government entities. There has never been a case where the SPA did not approve or amend a bill, or suggest an alternative bill. This body is largely un-influencial, and does not initiate legislation independent of other government entities.

The title of 'president' or chusok was newly adopted in the 1972 Constitution. Prior to that time the position of Chairman of the Standing Committee of the SPA was equivalent.

The top executive decision making body is the Central People's Committee (CPC). It is composed of the president, vice presidents, a secretary, and members. All CPC members are elected by the SPA for four years. The CPC provides the most visible link between the Party and the government, serving as a 'Super Cabinet'.

The highest administrative arm of the government is the Administration Council, previously called the Cabinet (before 1972). The Administration Council has less authority than the President and the CPC. It is composed of the premier (ch'ongni), vice-premiers, ministers, and other cabinet level members. The council is responsible for foreign affairs, national defense, maintaining public order and safety, and safeguarding the rights of citizens. It also has the responsibility to prepare the state's budget. Most economic activities also come under the Administration Council.

The Judiciary, according to the Constitution, is independent of the Party. In reality, this is not the case. The Central Court functions as the highest court of appeal. Provincial courts serve as courts for medium level civil and criminal cases. People's courts, established in cities, counties, and urban districts are at the lowest level. Special courts handle matters dealing with the armed forces and with railroads. The chief prosecutor of the Central Court is in theory, but not in fact, accountable to the SPA.

As of January 1981, administrative divisions of North Korea included: nine provinces, four special provincial level cities under direct central authority, seventeen ordinary cities, thirty six urban districts, and 152 counties. Counties serve at the lowest level of the organizational pyramid. People's assemblies, people's committees, and administrative committees serve as local extensions to the SPA, CPC, and Administrative Council respectively.

Chuch'e Sasang becomes important when discussing the politics of North Korea. According to Kim Il Sung it means: 'The independent stance of rejecting dependence on others and of using one's own brains, believing in one's own strength, and displaying the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance.' Basically, this is an ideology to satisfy Korea's contemporary needs of an independent foreign policy, a self-sufficient economy, and a self-reliant defense posture. It has been used throughout the last forty years of the country's history as a psychological tool to bring out the spirit of nationalism in the people. For the first ten years of the country's existence, it was toned down in favor of promoting Marxism/Leninism as the creed of the people because of the strong Chinese and Soviet presence, and North Korea's dependence on these countries. It was used tactically by Kim Il Sung when he sought to purge those that were too pro-Chinese or pro-Soviet from his government.


The entire population of North Korea is of Asian descent. Most people could trace their ancestry back to China. The Chinese inhabited the area from a very early date.


As was discussed previously, Chinese tribes inhabited the area for centuries. Thousands of people fled to the south during the last days of the Korean War to avoid being captive in the country.

At this time there is no immigration to the country, or emigration from the country.

Social Classes

There are three main social classes in North Korea today, as in most communist states. There are the high government officials, such as Kim Jong Il. Next are other governmental officials. At the bottom are the 'masses'.

Population Density

The population density of North Korea is 477 people per square mile. In 1990, sixty percent of the population lived in urban areas. Total population was estimated at 22.2 million inhabitants in 1992.3


The Korean peninsula's location between China and Japan served as an important link in early times. Traders traveling between China and Japan would stop in the area. It is in this way that the location of Korea (North and South) has had an effect on culture that developed. The main affect of the topography is the population distribution. Because the north and east coasts are quite rugged, most of the population lives on the west coast or in valleys in the interior of the peninsula.

Droughts are common in late spring, and are usually followed by extreme flooding.4

Natural Resources

The primary natural resources of North Korea are: coal, lead, magnesite, iron, ore, copper, gold, pyrites, salt, fluorspar, and hydropower. Most of the minerals and metals on the peninsula are in North Korea. South Korea possesses the best farm land. Most commercial forests are also in the north. Owing to the fact that North Korea is a closed country, there is little information about how their natural resources are used. We do know that heavy industrial manufacturing takes place. North Korea has been fortunate to have good metal and mineral deposits at their disposal, for heavy industry is the staple of their economy.


Agriculture in North Korea accounts for about twenty-five percent of the Gross National Product (GNP) and thirty-six percent of the work force. The principal crops are: rice, corn, potatoes, and soybeans. Livestock and related products include hogs, pork, and eggs. The country's fish catch in 1987 was estimated at 1.7 million metric tons. Since they can not produce enough grain to feed their people, grain products are a major import. Trading partners in this area include the former U.S.S.R. and Japan. Around twenty percent of the land is arable. The main factor influencing the type of agriculture that has developed is the land. There is simply not enough good land in North Korea on which to produce a sufficient quantity of food to feed the people.5


The manufacturing emphasis in North Korea is centered on heavy industry. Light industrial development is lacking. The following is a list of products that are manufactured in North Korea (that we are aware of): sawnwood, paper, nitrogenous fertilizer, phosphate fertilizer, cement, iron and steel, pig iron, copper, lead, and zinc.

We believe that North Korea has been producing nuclear weapons for some time now. In March of 1993, they became the first country to formally withdraw from the Nuclear Non - Proliferation Treaty. Conventional weapons and military equipment are manufactured also.6

Rivers, Seas, and Canals

In general, the rivers on the Korean peninsula are short and swift. They have great value for production of power, but are not navigable in places. The most important rivers in North Korea are the Yalu, T'umen and Taedong. The Yalu River is used mainly for hydroelectric power and heavy freight transport; the Taedong mainly for heavy transport.

North Korea claims its national waters extend 50 miles into the Sea of Japan. The Yellow Sea is totally claimed by North Korea (and China). All vessels and aircraft without permission in this area are prohibited.7


Coniferous forests, including pine, fir, and spruce trees grow extensively in North Korea. Seventy-four percent of the land is covered by forests. The materials and natural resources available in the area are a direct result of the types of vegetation available. If the area was less forested, North Korea might have had a stronger agricultural sector instead of an economy largely based on manufacturing and industry.8


Summers in North Korea are warm and wet. Fifty to sixty percent of the total annual precipitation falls in June, July, and August. The southeastern monsoons can cause typhoons during this time. Because of the prevailing westerly winds blowing in from the Asian mainland, winters tend to be dry and cold. About fifteen percent of the total annual precipitation falls in the winter months. Spring and fall are generally mild, and the 'best' weather occurs during these seasons.9


All but a negligible percent of the population are of Asian descent, primarily Chinese. The Korean language is a member of the Altaic family of languages originating in Central Asia. Many similarities can be noted between Korean and Japanese, as they come from the same origins. The phonetic writing system is called han'gul, and was developed by scholars in the fifteenth century.

Koreans have never traditionally followed a set of religious beliefs unequivocally, rather they tend to mix structured religion with ancient beliefs. Taoism and Buddhism were brought by the Chinese in the fourth century A.D. Christianity arrived in the area from the west in the late 1700's. The government today is officially atheist and discourages all forms of religion. During the life of Kim Il Sung, it could be said that the population worshipped him in a cult-like atmosphere showing absolute devotion to their 'Great Leader.'10

Since the late 1950's, families have been organized into groups of five per household in what is called the 'five-family system.' Relatively few specifics are known to us about this system. However, we can infer that its purpose is peer guidance to help raise standards of living in rural and urban areas.


North Korea is a closed communist run country, I have not been able to locate any information on environmental matters in the country.

Present Status

Today North Korea is in a state of transition. Communist states are falling apart worldwide. With the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the weakening and 'westernizing' of China, North Korea has lost major allies. The death of Kim Il Sung in July of 1994 signified the entrance of a new era marked by uncertainty and pressure for the country.

North Korea's potent military is gradually eroding as the government puts off upgrading and maintaining its weaponry. There no longer exists a reliable source of cash flow from China and Russia, causing budget cuts. According to experts, North Korean forces are still capable of launching a war that would cost up to one trillion dollars, and more than a million lives, including 80,000 American lives.

The bottom line is that North Korea is on a steady downward slide. With one third of their GNP being spent on the military, the economy is eroding.11

What The Future Will Bring

The future of North Korea is uncertainty. The collapse of communism in former U.S.S.R. has caused North Korea to lose the strong financial support it once enjoyed from that nation. China has recently come under increasing economic pressures and can no longer be counted on to support North Korea the way it once did.

In conclusion, North Korea is a potent force on the Asian continent. The country has constantly been in turmoil since the early days when Chinese tribes inhabited the peninsula. The recent death of long time leader Kim Il Sung adds even more uncertainty to the politics of this nation. North Korea is sure to be a 'wild card' for decades to come.


1. Clement, Deborah. North Korea : a Country Study, Foreign Area Studies, 1981.

2. Funk and Wagnalls Corp., The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1994, 1993.

3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., FAO Production Yearbook, 1989.

4. The Software Toolworks Inc., Software Toolworks Atlas MPC, 1993.

5. The Stars and Stripes., 'N. Korea's Readiness Cut, General Says', January 29, 1995.

6. Columbia University Press., Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, 1991.

7. Hammond Inc., The Hammond Atlas, 1993.

8. U.S. Department of State., Background Notes : North Korea., 1992

9. Millward, Celia., Handbook For Writers, 1980.