Communist North Korea: How We Got Into This Mess

In the wake of World War II, the little nation peninsula formerly occupied by Japanese troops, Korea, scrambled to find an identity. Instead of one, it found two.

Never off the radar since that time, North Korea has made more headlines in the last couple of weeks as they continue to push the buttons of the United States.

What little most Americans know about the peninsula is that we have a North and South, and that one is our friend, but the other is not. Most couldn’t tell you how that came to pass, except that there was a war there one time…

It’s true, sorta.

The Korean corner of the world staged the most diverse collection of countries in a war that was never declared, the Korean Conflict. Many consider that the official start of the Cold War.

By the time the dust cleared, the allied countries split Korea, turning one-half into what we consider commies, but that isn’t a perfect epithet.

North Korea is not exactly communist. It’s oppressive, this much is true, but the North Korean government only traces some roots to Marxist ideals.

What exactly North Korea depends on whom you ask, but most would agree that the land sandwiched between actually-communist China and democratic South Korea is something unique.

Before WWII

Korea is a war-torn strip of land, hit by more than one foreign group. Before the Japanese, it was the Chinese. Japan kicked out the Chinese by the end of the 1800s in the Sino-Japanese War.

For a few years after that, Korea was a sovereign nation, but in 1905 Japan came back to put Korea under its wing as a protectorate. That move wasn’t as benevolent as it sounds.

The Japanese attempted to eradicate Korean culture during this time, outlawing the Korean language and teaching the children Japanese.

Outside of Korea, in China, a government of Koreans attempted to maintain the semblance of Korean leadership. They led attacks against their Japanese occupiers.

The first leadership group, the Provisional Government for the Republic of Korea fell apart, replaced by Korean communists, led in part by Kim Il-sung.

This state of occupation-rebellion lasted until WWII when Japan was so pounded by firebombing and nukes from the U.S., they had no choice but to retreat from everywhere and everything.

After WWII

Three days after the U.S. bombed Hiroshima, on August 10, 1943, our Soviet allies landed in North Korea to help fight the Japanese.

There was just one problem. By the 15th there were no Japanese left to fight. They’d surrendered. That was when the allies did with Korea what we would also do with Germany, divide it into parts.

Everything to the north of the 38th parallel would be under Soviet control. The United States would lead in the south.

The original plan was to hand over the reigns in five years, back to the people of Korea. What followed was a messy period of conflict, infighting amongst Koreans, U.S. officials trying to make the right moves, not unlike what happened more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, except in a divided Korea.

In 1948, on August 15, the Republic of South Korea became an official country. With the help of the Soviets, it was in the during this chaos that Kim Il-sung returned from exile to take a more formal leadership role in North Korea.

By 1949, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were out of Korea, but the country remained divided. Having set the stage for the Korean Conflict, which would start a year later, we should have left saying, we’ll be right back.

Kim Il-sung

A younger Il-sung |

North Korea’s first leader started the Down With Imperialism Union in 1926, back when he was a teenager when Korea was still Japanese-occupied. How ironic that all dictators start with such lofty ideals.

The impressionable Il-sung followed Marxism and Leninism at that time. Their ideas would become the foundation of his bastardized version of communism later in life.

Il-sung was more than just a politician. He was a soldier too. He led rebellions and raids, earning the respect of his countrymen from the front lives of legendary war stories.

One legend maintains that, at age 24, in 1937, Il-sung led the capture of a Japanese occupied town on the edge of Korea. The takeover lasted only hours, but the tales of Il-sung’s heroism ballooned in the wake of the battle.

The Soviets brought Il-sung back to North Korea because he was the obvious choice to lead, even if at first it was from the background. It was with the hopes that they could extend their network of communism through him.

At the time, the leadership security in the south was still questionable. There were plenty of voices for communism there, but with the United States directing those in power, the communist fled into hiding.

In 1945, Il-sung established the North Korean Bureau of the Communist Party. It is the same party that still rules North Korea.

By 1950, firmly in place as the leader of North Korea, with sights on annexing the south, Il-sung went about to remove anyone who might depose him. That included the leadership in South Korea, but he failed to take over that nation.

Corrupting A Nation

Image of Il-sung hangs everywhere in N. Korea |

Had Il-sung led a normal Communist government from that point forward, who knows what history would have told? Instead, he set about creating the foundations of a monarchistic [read: dictatorship] caste system, masquerading as a democratic socialist state.

It seems you cannot grow flowers in a swamp. Il-sung had learned to trust no one. His paranoia ran deep, and his mismanagement of those fears would spread like spilled blood.

To ensure he held all the strings, anyone who might challenge his leadership came under scrutiny.

Il-sung imprisoned, exiled, and “lost” many people from the 50s through the 60s. High on the list were Russian leaders still hanging about, Chinese, and many Koreans, including Koreans once parts of Il-sung’s guerrilla unit.

In Il-sung’s caste system, the people of North Korea fit into one of three socioeconomic strata. This is where communist raise their collective hands. That is definitely not communism, not by Marxist definitions.

By 1970, what little remained of Kim Il-sung’s Marxist ideals had succumbed to a system where he was a god. He began moving his son, Kim Jong-il up the ranks, preparing him to take over.

This style of leadership, oppression of anyone who would depose the supreme leader is the status quo for North Korea. Jong-il did the same as his father, purging challengers in the 90s, and his son Jong-un has done the same.

North Korea is only communist in name, only for the people living in the top level of the caste. For the rest of North Korea, they live in a prison, hidden from the truth of their lives and the world outside.

Sources: BBC, Quora