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North Korea 101: The History of North Korea

Watch The History of North Korea in Under 3 Minutes

If you want to go even further back, here's how North Korea came to be!

668 A.D: Ancient Korea

People have been living on the Korean peninsula since prehistoric times, slowly developing their own distinct culture and civilization. The Korean people were first united by the Silla Dynasty in 668 A.D. Since then, Korea has had to contend with the expansionist ambitions of its neighbors.

1910: Japan Colonizes Korea

In 1910, the Chosun Dynasty ended with Japan’s annexation and colonization of Korea. Koreans remember the Japanese colonial rule as a brutal experience. Resistance groups formed in Korea and China, mostly adopting leftist politics in reaction to the right-wing Japanese administration. Memories of the Japanese Imperial Administration’s oppression continue to haunt relations between the people of both Koreas and Japan today. Korea also began to modernize during this period, and the city of Pyongyang in particular became a vibrant center for Christianity and western culture.

1945: The Division of the Korean People

Following Japan’s defeat in 1945 the Soviet Union and United States agreed to split the post-war control of the Korean peninsula between themselves. On August 10, 1945 two young U.S. military officers drew up a line demarcating the U.S. and Soviet occupation zones at the 38th parallel. The divide should have been temporary, a mere footnote in Korea’s long history, but the emergence of the Cold War made this a seminal event. Seeking to ensure the maintenance of their respective influences in Korea, the U.S. and USSR installed leaders sympathetic to their own cause, while mistrust on both sides prevented cooperation on elections that were supposed to choose a leader for the entire peninsula. The United States handed control over the southern half of the peninsula to Syngman Rhee, while the Soviet Union gave Kim Il-sung power over the north. In 1948, both sides claimed to be the legitimate government and representative of the entire Korean people.

August 15, 1948

Syngman Rhee declares the formation of the Republic of Korea in Seoul, claiming jurisdiction over all of Korea..

September 8, 1948

Kim Il-sung declares the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in Pyongyang, also claiming jurisdiction over all of Korea.

1950: The Korean War Begins

June 25, 1950

In 1950, Kim Il-sung attempted to unify Korea under his rule through military force, starting the Korean War. By far the most destructive and divisive event in Korean history, the war altered the life of almost every Korean person. Some historians claim that the U.S. military dropped more napalm on urban centers in Korea than Vietnam. The bombing campaigns reduced Pyongyang to rubble, and North Korea’s population was reduced by 10%.

July 27, 1953

Both sides eventually signed the armistice ending major hostilities in 1953. The DMZ (demilitarized zone) was established at almost the same position as the border before war broke out, separating millions of families caught on opposite sides of the border.

1953-1970s: Building a Stalinist State

From 1953 to the 1970s North Korea was considered by some outside observers to be a successful state. During this period, many North Koreans were actually better off than their southern brethren.

Kim Il-sung remodeled North Korean society along the lines of Juche—North Korea’s radically nationalistic ideology promoting Korean autonomy. The state-seized control of all private property and organizations. Officially, everything in the country, from businesses to the clothes on one’s back, belonged to the North Korean state. The regime rebuilt Pyongyang as a socialist capital and erected numerous monuments to Kim Il-sung, part of nationwide efforts to build a cult of personality to secure obedience by the people. The state took control of all media and restricted international travel. Kim Il-sung also worked constantly to centralize power under the Workers’ Party of Korea under his rule, and implemented a perpetual purge to rid the country of potential internal opponents to his rule.

Songbun

Massive inequalities began to emerge in North Korean society. The regime introduced the songbun system, which is still in place today. Under this system the entire population were sorted into different social classes according to one’s perceived loyalty to socialism and the regime. This classification determined the course of people’s lives. One’s songbun dictates the schools one can attend, the occupations one can be placed in, and even where one can live.At the time, the regime expelled around a quarter of the population of Pyongyang to the outer provinces for being of low songbun. For more on songbun, see this blog post.

The regime silenced anyone who opposed the system with extreme prejudice. Free speech became an offense punishable by imprisonment or even death. Worse, when one was arrested, up to three generations of their family would be sent to political prison camps. The regime instructed children to inform on their parents, and neighbors to inform on each other. Under these conditions, the North Korean people became fearful and distrusting of each other.

Stagnation

By the 1970s, the initial gains of postwar reconstruction and modernization had dissipated, and Kim Il-sung’s ideologically driven governance failed to produce prosperity. North Korea was also highly dependent on trade and aid from the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, so when the economies of those countries began to decline it greatly affected North Korea’s economy. The people’s quality of life stagnated in the 1980s and began to decline until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, at which point the North Korean socialist command economy stopped functioning. Poor agricultural policies and environmental mismanagement increased vulnerability to extreme weather conditions and brought increasingly meager crop yields. To make matters worse, the regime had lost allies to fall back on when the economy failed. North Korea’s reserves were quickly running out. These were the circumstances the country found itself in when Kim Il-sung died in 1994.

Economic Collapse

Kim Jong-il took power in the post-Cold War era when North Korea was on the brink of disaster. Realizing the need to handle both external and internal threats, Kim Jong-il instituted a “military first” policy that prioritized the military and elites over the general population to an even greater extent than before. This policy made the coming crisis even worse for the average North Korean. Many North Koreans blame Kim Jong-il’s leadership for the famine. In reality, Kim Jong-il’s policies exacerbated a crisis that was long in the making.

The economic collapse and subsequent famine in North Korea had its peak in the mid-to-late 1990s. It is estimated that up to one million people died—roughly 5% of the population. Even many of those that survived suffered immensely. Starvation in childhood has stunted the growth of an entire generation of North Koreans. The North Korean government had to lower the minimum required height for soldiers because 145 cm (4 feet 9 inches) was too tall for most 16-17 year olds.

In Barbara Demick’s book “Nothing to Envy”, a North Korean doctor tells of how even she became desperately hungry. After fleeing to China, she discovered a bowl of food left out for a dog. Upon examining the white rice and generous chunks of meat, she concluded that “dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.”

July 8, 1994

Kim Il-sung dies and his son Kim Jong-il takes over as leader.

Social Changes

The collapse of the command economy led to widespread social changes. The need for food drove the North Korean people away from the regime’s control, as when the government stopped providing food, the survivors found other ways to feed themselves. People foraged and sold anything they could to buy food at small, illegal markets that began to spring up, creating a process of bottom-up marketization. Some fled to China, leading to a wave of refugees from North Korea, while information about the outside world slowly began to flow back into the country. Some resorted to prostitution or crime. What was once a highly ordered and controlled society gave way to a disorganized and fluid society, with new independent paths to wealth and power for those who defied the regime and pursued the markets. These social effects would continue even after the worst of the famine had passed.

2000s: The People & Markets Prove Their Resilience

By the early 2000s, the people began to recover. The markets, which initially emerged as a survival mechanism, gradually grew to encompass a broader range of goods and services and became better established. The markets today are the major source of food for ordinary North Koreans. South Korea also adopted the “Sunshine Policy”, in which it gave unconditional aid to North Korea, and increased economic cooperation between the Koreas. Established in 2003, the Kaesong Industrial Complex just north of the DMZ was part of this policy and now allows South Korean companies to hire over 50,000 North Korean workers. China also gradually strengthened its economic relationship with North Korea, and today is by far North Korea’s most important economic and political partner. Nevertheless, ordinary North Koreans continue to face the severe challenges of chronic food shortages and grinding poverty, while their basic freedoms are curtailed by a repressive regime whose number one concern is staying in power.

Always uneasy about the growth of the markets, in late 2009 the regime made their most drastic attempt to restrain the markets to date: a currency reform aimed at wiping out private wealth. The resultant market disruption and rapid inflation reversed the people’s hard-won progress, and even regime projects were derailed. North Korean refugees have described this as a watershed moment in their diminishing belief in the regime, with anti-regime sentiment so strong that it even rose to the surface in some communities. It is now absolutely clear to the regime that the markets are a fact of life they must learn to live with.

December, 2011

Kim Jong-il dies and his son Kim Jong-un takes over as leader.

Now: The Third Kim Era

In December 2011, Kim Jong-il died and his son Kim Jong-un inherited control of the nation. Thought to be just 27 or 28 years old at the time of his succession, Kim Jong-un was largely unknown to the North Korean people as well as to the outside world. North Koreans that escaped the country in 2011 told us that there had not been a lot of propaganda about Kim Jong-un during that year. By contrast, Kim Jong-il was much better known to the North Korean people when he came to power in 1994.

In his first years in power, Kim Jong-un has implemented a new PR style that has portrayed him as a modern version of his grandfather, while purging, demoting and promoting regime officials to secure his power base. The new leadership also moved to crack down on illegal cross-border movement and the inflow of foreign media, increasing repression in the border regions and reducing the number of defectors who managed to make it to South Korea by almost half. Meanwhile, there have been signs of cautious experimentation with economic liberalization in order to adapt to the reality of the entrenched de facto market economy inside the country.

North Korea’s history is far from over. In fact, it may be entering its most interesting phase. The people are becoming increasingly empowered and the grassroots changes spreading across North Korean society are steadily increasing the people’s physical and psychological independence from the regime, making the system as it is currently structured unsustainable. We cannot know the pathway that North Korea’s change and opening will take, but change and opening will happen, and the future of North Korea will be increasingly driven by the North Korean people themselves.

Foreign Media in North Korea - How Kpop is Challenging the Regime

April 22, 2022

Movies, TV shows, and music hold power. They’re a way for us to connect through common experiences, reckon with different sides of humanity, and revel in the beauty of being here at all. They transport us to another time and place- perhaps one of our imaginations- and most importantly, allow us to dream and imagine a limitless future.

Popular South Korean drama Crash Landing on You. Photo credit: Netflix and IMDb.


In recent years, South Korean media and entertainment has gained international recognition. People like Hyun Bin and Son Yejin, the stars of popular Korean drama Crash Landing on You, have become household names, while Parasite swept the 2020 Academy Awards and music from K-pop groups like BTS are charting globally.

Meanwhile, just across the border, North Korea remains one of the most closed societies in the world. Yet even in the “hermit kingdom,” foreign media is accelerating empowerment of the people and change within the country!

Forced Isolation and the Regime’s Information Monopoly

The North Korean government has maintained power for decades through a system of imposed isolation, relentless indoctrination, and brutal repression. A complete monopoly on information and ideas within the country has been key- outside media threatens to challenge the legitimacy of their propaganda, and by extension, their control.

The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea reported an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as of the rights to freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and association.

North Korea is technologically isolated from the world


The regime employs a range of strategies to enforce information control:

  • Restricting movement across borders and within the country
  • Random house searches
  • Severe punishment, including public executions, to deter foreign media consumption and sharing
  • Sophisticated digital surveillance
  • Jamming phone signals and locating users through signal triangulation
  • Mobile OS file signature system that only permits government-approved apps and files


The Spread of Foreign Media

Despite this isolation and unparalleled internal restrictions, the North Korean people have been quietly changing their country from within, including through foreign media access. Through market activity and the movement of people and goods across the Chinese border, they have forced the gradual opening up of their society. Movies and music are smuggled into the country on USBs, SD and MicroSD cards, and small portable media players, offering illicit access to information from the outside world.

With lights off and windows shuttered, North Koreans will watch foreign media despite the risks. If all else fails, bribes are a way for people to reduce punishment if caught. Most North Korean police and government officials rely on bribes to survive, and some defectors complain that they are actually the biggest consumers of foreign media because they confiscate so much.

A representation of how North Koreans watch illegal foreign media

Information Technology in North Korea

Within North Korea, a broad range of information technologies are available, although they should be registered with authorities. Laptops and computers officially run on a government operating system, Red Star OS, while the North Korean intranet, Kwangmyong, is air-gapped from the internet and heavily surveilled. However, in practice, many North Koreans have non-networked devices used for games, editing software, watching videos, and to copy, delete and transfer media on removable devices.

Mobile phones are also common with approximately 6 million on the North Korean network, meaning roughly 1 in 4 people have one. These North Korean phones generally cannot make international calls and the operating system limits users to approved state media (programs have been developed to bypass this security). On the other hand, smuggled Chinese phones can be used in border regions on the Chinese network. These have been crucial for staying in touch with relatives who have escaped or defected, who often send back money and information from the outside world.

North Korean woman with phone. Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue.

Radios are the only channel of foreign media and news available real-time across the country. While they should officially be registered and fixed to North Korean stations, it is relatively easy to tamper with radio sets to pick up foreign broadcasts. In border regions, some TVs can also pick up live programming from South Korea and China. Traditionally, TVs were connected to DVD players, but newer LCD televisions also have direct USB input ports.

How Foreign Media Changes Perceptions

Among foreign media, entertainment from South Korea is particularly attractive, produced in the same base language by people with the same ancestry. They contain glimpses of rich and free realities just across the border. In comparison, domestic North Korean media seems old-fashioned and disingenuous, designed to reinforce the regime’s ideologies.

As North Koreans learn more about life, freedom and prosperity in the outside world, and their own relative poverty, the regime’s ideology and control are eroded.

North Koreans watching a Korean drama on a laptop

“At first you see the cars, apartment buildings, and markets and you think it must be a movie set. But the more you watch, there’s no way it can be just a set. If you watch one or two [movies] it always raises these doubts, and if you keep watching you know for sure. You realize how well South Koreans and other foreigners live.”

- Danbi, escaped North Korea in 2011


Empowered by foreign media, North Koreans are exploring their creativity and potential through everyday acts of resistance- using South Korean slang, copying fashion styles, and sharing pop culture references. In this culture war, Kim Jong-un has called for crackdowns on "unsavory, individualistic, anti-socialist behavior" among young people to restrict freedom of expression.

Foreign media also facilitates shared acts of resistance. People will swap USB devices with trusted friends and neighbors, increasing confidence in one another through a symmetrical transaction. Some people may also watch and discuss movies and shows together, increasing the media’s subversive influence and creating social networks.



The Regime’s Response

During the pandemic, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of isolation and restrictions, closing off the country more than ever before. To buttress control, Kim Jong Un has simultaneously increased crackdowns and punishments on foreign media consumption. In December 2020, the “anti-reactionary thought law” made watching foreign media punishable by 15 years in a political prison camp.

While the situation is harrowing, the government’s extreme response underscores the power of foreign media. The regime recognizes that social changes driven by North Korean people are a threat to their authority and control in the long term.


Accelerating Foreign Media Access and Change 

Moving forward, increasing access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to help the North Korean people and bring forward change.

Information and technology support for North Korean people has historically been an under-utilized and under-invested strategy. LiNK Labs is our area of work focused on this opportunity- we’re developing technologies, networks, and content to empower North Korean people with access to information and ideas from the outside world.

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