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The History of North Korea: Creation, Politics, and Future

By Sania Patel

Edited by Danika Suh

~ Op-Ed ~

Totalitarianism and Democracy - two political systems, two extremely different implications. Totalitarianism is a form of government that asserts complete control over the lives of its citizens. Individual freedoms are oppressed as strong central rule grips all aspects of individual life through coercion and repression. Under totalitarianism, individual rights, freedoms, and aspects of privacy are diminished. Some examples of totalitarian regimes include Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, and the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong.

Democracy, however, is the exact opposite. Democracy promotes the representation of individuals as it is a system of government in which laws, policies, leadership, and other major undertakings are directly or indirectly determined by “the people.” Through democracy, individuals experience greater personal freedoms and privacy. Aspects of an individual’s life are not determined or controlled by the government and, unlike totalitarianism, equality and justice is commonly practiced. Some examples of democratic regimes include Switzerland, the United States, and Canada.

One example of totalitarianism is North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Located in East Asia, North Korea borders China and Russia to the north and South Korea to the south at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. North Korea is seen as one of the most repressive countries in the world and their government uses prison camps, torture, forced labor, threats of execution, and arbitrary punishment to maintain fearful obedience among the population. John Sifton, an Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch states, “The people of North Korea suffer under constant surveillance and face the daily threat of imprisonment, torture, sexual abuse, and execution – and it’s been this way since 1948.”

In 1948, Korea was divided into the northern and southern states. While South Korea experienced an influence of Western culture and welcomed Democracy, North Korea did quite the opposite. Citizens of North Korea are heavily influenced by the totalitarian regime that restricts them from the outside world, natural rights, and overall freedom. Since the division, North Korea has been ruled by the unforgiving hands of a hereditary dictatorship. Currently, Kim Jong-Un has claimed his position as the Supreme Leader of North Korea and keeps a tight grip on his citizens, just as the generations before him did.

The Human Rights Watch also reports, “The government tries to prevent North Koreans from leaving without permission by jamming Chinese mobile phone services at the border, targeting for arrest those communicating with people outside the country or trying to leave, and publicizing punishments of people caught escaping.” Due to the oppressive rule of Kim Jong-UN travel, information, freedoms, and other aspects of daily life are heavily restricted. This systematic repression forces citizens to depend on their leader and lack any education or understanding to unite and rebel against Kim Jong-Un.

Japan formally annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910 and over the next thirty-five years, it dramatically modernized and industrialized, although many Koreans suffered brutal repression at the hands of Japan’s military regime. During World War II, Japan sent many Korean men to work as soldiers or forced them to produce weaponry in wartime factories. Women were often used to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union divided the peninsula into two zones of influence along the thirty-eighth parallel. The U.S. established a strongly anti-communist regime in South Korea, while the Soviets installed a communist regime in North Korea under the leadership of Kim Il Sung.

Both leaders of the opposing regimes attempted to claim jurisdiction over the entire Korean Peninsula, resulting in the Korean War. After three years of bitter fighting, both sides signed an armistice in the Korean War in July 1953. Although the agreement left both sides unchanged, there was a heavily guarded demilitarized zone established, which divided the two areas. A formal peace treaty was never signed.

After the Korean War, Kim Il Sung shaped his country according to the nationalist ideology of self-reliance. The state assumed tight control over the economy, agricultural land, and ownership over all private property. With the Soviet backing, Kim focused on the growth of his military to create one of the world’s strongest forces, even as many ordinary citizens grew poorer. However, while North Korean growth had stagnated, South Korea’s economy boomed. North Korea initially outpaced its southern rival due to investment in mining and steel production. Eventually, when the Soviet Union was dissolved, North Korea’s economy was left hurting and with China as its only ally.

Although North Korea’s survival seemed bleak in the beginning, the U.S. and South Korean governments have watched closely as its future became quite the opposite. The main advancement that may be seen in the future is the advancement in military technology. In 2017, North Korea proved itself to be very capable of improving its military capabilities. From 2017 to 2019, North Korea mass-produced intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). The rapid development of this technology provides plausible evidence that the nation may be able to mass-deploy its ICBMs by 2040.

All in all, North Korea practices dictatorship, as it focuses on complete control of individuals and only benefits a few. North Korea controls all aspects of daily life and eliminates personal freedoms, rights, and privacy. Information is completely controlled and the spread of misinformation is rampant. The North Korean government, currently under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, focuses on creating an environment filled with propaganda in order to control its citizens to submit to poverty and limited choice. The only real advancement to be seen in the future from North Korea is the development and increased usage of military technology. Given the current time period and societal standards, North Korea is an outlier in political regimes. However, due to South Korea’s relations with the U.S., little is expected to be done to end the dictatorship.

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