With its Western name deriving from the kingdom of Koryò (918-1392), Korea has a long history of political, economic and social development. The political culture is strongly influenced by the legacy of Neo-Confucianism, which was the determining standard for daily life and public administration for several centuries. Preference of formal learning over practical skills, a highly centralized administration, factional strife and a lack of political compromise are only some features of traditional Korean politics.
It took until the opening at end of the 19th century for Western ideas to come to Korea on a broad basis. The current system of legislation and the first Korean constitution originated from the Kabo reforms of 1894, but what followed was the loss of independence to Japan after the treaties of protection (1905) and annexation (1910). After the liberalization in 1945, the country was divided into two spheres of influence by the Soviet Union and the USA roughly along the 38th parallel. In the midst of the Cold War between the superpowers, the division became permanent with the foundation of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the North. The antagonism between the two parts of Korea and their supporters led to the Korean War (1950-1953), which is seen in Korea as the biggest national tragedy and overshadowing the relations on the Korean peninsula until the present day.
In the DPRK, leftist political forces gradually took over power since the liberation on August 1945. While Christian and nationalist groups originally had a very strong position with large numbers of followers, they were either integrated or destroyed by the Worker's Party. This communist party itself was not a homogeneous body; it consisted of a number of factions, namely those who re-immigrated from China (Yenan-faction), the communists who stayed in Korea during the colonial period, and those who were supported by the Soviet Union. The latter were further split into those who actually were Soviet-Koreans, having been born and educated in the Soviet Union, and those partisans who turned to the neighboring country for help during the occupation of Korea by the Japanese. The latter, called Kapsan-faction, was headed by 33 year old Red Army Major Kim Il-sung, who was selected by the Soviet military to serve as the puppet leader of the new Republic. Very much to Moscow's surprise, Kim Il-sung managed to escape the unilateral influence by the Soviet Union by skillfully maneuvering between the latter and the PR China, thereby securing himself a certain degree of independence from both large neighbors. After the pressure against leftist political groups grew too high under the American military government South of the 38th parallel, communists from that part of Korea massively fled to the North and formed another communist splinter group.
After a bloody factional strife in the years 1945-1958, Kim Il-sung's Kapsan faction finally won a complete victory and exclusively determined the DPRK's political scene ever since. Article 11 of the constitution reads: "The DPRK shall operate all of its activities under the leadership of the Worker's Party of Korea". Formally, other parties exist, but they are integrated into a typical socialist umbrella organization which is strongly dominated by the Worker's Party. The lack of plurality in opinion is seen as one of the major structural weaknesses of the DPRK's political system. Another striking feature is the personality cult around Kim Il-sung, which survived the end of similar appearances in the Eastern Bock, grew constantly and resulted in the creation of a religion-like worship of him, his family and his teachings. Among the latter, the Chuch'e (Juche)-Idea is the most important one. It is dubbed the North Korean version of socialism, combining a simplistic adaptation of Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist thoughts with traditional Korean values. Independence and "everything by our own force" is the central theme of Chuch'e, especially in the fields of ideology, politics, economy, and defense. Man is the master of all things, and the individual can only be free in the context of his collective and under the guidance of a leader. Article 63 of the constitution emphasizes the principle of "one is for all and all are for one". The preamble of the constitution states that Chuch'e is the basis of the DPRK, as does article 3. In the preamble alone, the name Kim Il-sung appears more than 15 times, reflecting his extremely dominant role for the North Korean state. After his death in 1994, following the father's will Kim Jong-il effectively and from 1997 formally took over power in the DPRK. The parliament (Supreme People's Assembly, articles 87-99 of the constitution) has all the supreme sovereign power, but only formally. Since Kim Il-sung is regarded as the eternal president (see preamble), this office is left free. Kim Jong-il rules as the chairman of the National Defense Commission (articles 100-105) and General Secretary of the Worker's Party. Remarkable is the at least dual power structure in the DPRK, with a parallel leadership by the Worker's Party often dominating the decisions of the executive. The military controls its own part of the national economy and is independent from the central planning of civil enterprises.
North Korea finds itself in a very favorable position concerning raw materials and the potential for hydroelectric energy. Furthermore, the biggest part of the heavy and chemical industry built up during the Japanese occupation was situated on the area of the DPRK. On the other hand, the natural conditions for agriculture (climate and arable land) are much worse than in the South, where agriculture and light industry were concentrated. Far reaching reforms were started as early as 1946, including a land reform, formal equality for women and introduction of the 8-hour workday. After the Korean War, the Eastern Block had to strongly support the DPRK economically in a showcase competition with the West. The DPRK leadership quickly realized the opportunity and squeezed a remarkable amount of aid mainly out of the Soviet Union, the PR China, East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. With the help of this aid, destroyed cities, infrastructure and production facilities were rebuilt, simultaneously laying the foundation for a modern economy. The DPRK never was a member of the military and economic alliances in the Eastern block (Warsaw Treaty and Council of Economic Cooperation), by this ambivalence keeping high the pressure on the Soviet Union to win over the support and loyalty of P'yòngyang. A crucial situation for the DPRK was the conflict between the two socialist superpowers starting at the end of the 1950s. Kim Il-sung first avoided to explicitly take sides and managed to conclude Mutual Assistance Treaties with both Beijing and Moscow in 1961. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union proved to be an unreliable ally after the official condemnation of Stalinism at the 20th party congress under Chrustchev and the retreat during the Cuba crisis. At a time when in South Korea the military took power, Kim Il-sung needed an ally who would support him in case of war. So, economic prosperity was traded against military security, and the DPRK sided with the PR China at least until the mid-1960s. That marked the beginning of an economic downturn which has resulted in today's complicated situation. The mass use of work as production factor is characteristic for North Korea's economic policy and has long reached its limits. As in South Korea, the constitution contains both the right (article 70) and the duty to work (article 83). The Chòllima-Movement encourages the people to work hard and harder to make great leaps forward. The access to capital is limited, especially since the DPRK faces harsh boycotts internationally. Major sources for hard currency are the well organized pro-DPRK Korean community in Japan, raw materials like gold and exports of weapons. Kim Il-sung and his son and heir Kim Jong-il use(d) to travel around the country and giving thousands of so-called on-the-spot-guidance. That covered nearly all kinds of decisions from the right time for seeding rice to the best area to build dams, educating the children, producing films and economic management. Like the Chòllima-movement, the two most important management methods originated is such a guidance. The Ch'òngsanri-method for agriculture aims at the integration of the ordinary people's opinion into the actual administrative work by the cadres, who are encouraged to "go down" to the basis and listen to the citizens. It is explicitly named and described in article 13 of the constitution. The Taean-system for the industry is of similar content, prescribing a collective leadership of production facilities by managers and a party committee, the latter containing workers from the basis. People's property and cooperative property still coexist, but the latter is to be gradually replaced (article 23). In the view of capital shortage and the limitations of extensive investment policies, technological development is given the highest priority in economic activities (article 27).
The weak overall performance of the DPRK economy, the lack of global integration and a number of natural disasters like flood or drought catastrophes in the 1990s led to insufficient food production, resulting in hunger with an unknown number of casualties. In 1994, the USA were on the brink of a military intervention when the DPRK rejected to stop its nuclear program. With the Agreed Framework, economic support is given to the DPRK in exchange for freezing its nuclear program and thereby a nuclear threat. The responsible organization is the Korea Energy Development Corporation (KEDO), financed by the USA, Japan, South Korea and many other countries including Germany. Another sense of urgency was created by the DPRK's missile program, which to a large extent served as the pretext for the USA's missile defense program.
For many observers, the DPRK remains a mystery since there is hardly any trustable information available, especially in economic statistics and the inner workings of the political circles. This combines with repeated acts of terrorism and espionage. In the last years, the number and scale of such acts is declining, leading to the assumption of a cautious rapprochement course by P'yòngyang's leadership. Like 50 years ago in the conflict between the Soviet Union and China, in the present time the DPRK skillfully exploits the complicated situation in the Asia-Pacific region. The goals of this policy are the security of the country's political system and maximizing economic assistance. The DPRK's leadership is well aware of the fact that a loss of its information monopoly over the own population will have incalculable effects and may result in an unstable situation. The latter is what all surrounding powers including Japan, China and South Korea want to avoid at all means, thus providing the bargaining power the DPRK needs in its negotiations. Like in the South, or even more, the reunification of Korea is the most important political goal (article 9 of the DPRK's constitution). The USA with its military presence in the ROK regarded as an occupation, and the ROK government, which is dubbed puppets of Washington, are the most important political enemies. In this respect the recent negotiations and the historical summit meeting of Kim Dae-jung with Kim Jong-il in P'yòngyang of June 2000 are remarkable developments. Through Special Economic Zones like the one in Namp'o and in the North Eastern Rajin-Sònbong area, the first cautious experiments with alternative economic models are being made, although a Joint Venture Law was introduced already in the 1980s. After the end of the Soviet Union, the unchallenged closest - and almost only - ally of North Korea is the PR China. The Russian Federation is just recently seriously trying to reestablish its formerly good relations with the DPRK and to become a decisive force on the Korean peninsula. Currently, a large number of Western countries including Germany have decided to establish formal diplomatic relations with the DPRK, thereby trying to end the unproductive and dangerous isolation of the last decades. There are signs that Russia and China could form together with the DPRK a counter-balance to the tripartite alliance of the USA, Japan and the ROK in East Asia. The European Union could then play the important role of a mediator.
For a very revealing comparative study of the 1972, 1992 and 1998 DPRK constitutions, see Vanin, Yuri: Changes in the Constitutional System of North Korea, in: Far Eastern Affairs, No. 2, 1999, pp. 36-50.
History and News
- 1998: Constitution adopted.
- 1994: DPRK rejects to stop its nuclear program; U.S.A. are on the brink of a military intervention.
- 1994: After Kim Il-sung's death, his son Kim Jong-il effectively rules anf from 1997 formally takes over power in the DPRK.
- 1992: Constitution adopted.
- 1972: Constitution adopted.
- 1945-1958: In a bloody factional strife, Kim Il-sung's Kapsan faction eventually wins a complete victory and exclusively determines the DPRK's political scene.
- 1950-1953: Korean War.
- 1894: First Korean constitution adopted after the Kabo reforms.
For methodology see:
Comparing Constitutions and International Constitutional Law.
1994 - 27.6.2020
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