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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Squid Game and the Stories of North Korean Defectors
**Warning: Contains plot spoilers
Netflix’s Squid Game has taken the world by storm, becoming the platform’s most-watched show debut and infiltrating popular culture. The high-stakes thriller juxtaposes nostalgic kid’s games with brutal consequences, hooking viewers with a compelling cast and pointed social commentary.
One of Squid Game’s most captivating characters is Kang Sae-byeok, a tough-as-nails North Korean defector who wants nothing more than to reunite her family. While she and her little brother managed to safely reach South Korea, their father was killed during the border crossing and mother was captured.
Sae-byeok’s story reflects the real experiences of the North Korean refugees we work with who have risked everything for freedom. Many were separated from family, have little support when resettling, and face prejudice.
The Perils of Defecting
Crossing the heavily guarded border between North and South Korea is virtually impossible. Instead, refugees must escape through China and journey 3000 miles through a modern-day-underground-railroad to safety in Southeast Asia. This has only become more difficult with pandemic-related restrictions on movement and border lockdowns.
If caught fleeing North Korea or arrested in China, which doesn’t recognize defectors as refugees, North Koreans will be sent back and face harsh punishment - brutal beatings, forced labor, and even internment in a political prison camp.
This is the reality that people like Sae-byeok’s mother face.
Still, thousands of North Koreans have risked everything to seek a better life. An estimated 33,000 refugees have resettled in South Korea.
“I wasn’t sure if I would see my family again because of the possibility of getting caught while escaping to China. Before I left, I got some opium and carried it underneath the collar of my shirt so I could take it to kill myself in case I got caught.”
- Joy, escaped through LiNK’s networks in 2013
Continue reading Joy’s story to freedom here.
Once they reach safety and begin their new lives, refugees face a new set of challenges. Some have described the experience as stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. Amidst figuring out the everyday intricacies of modern life, many refugees are still coping with the trauma of their past.
In addition to struggling to make ends meet, Sae-byeok faces social pressure and stigma as a North Korean. She deliberately masks her North Korean accent around everyone except her brother and is subjected to remarks about being a “communist” and “spy.”
While it is not specified how her brother ended up in an orphanage, one can assume that Sae-byeok left him there in hopes that he’ll receive care and education that she cannot provide. Tragically, the difficulties of establishing a new life in South Korea separated her from her family once again.
“At first I struggled a lot. There were many times when I either didn’t understand South Koreans or they didn’t understand me due to our different accents and words...Another difficulty was loneliness…I still feel lonely from time to time. I really miss my family.”
- Hae-Sun, rescued while hiding in China in 2013
Read more from Hae-Sun’s experience starting a new life in South Korea here.
Working with Brokers
Hoping to bring her mother to South Korea, Sae-byeok was in contact with shady brokers who scammed her of her money. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to fund these risky escapes, especially directly out of North Korea, and then from China to Southeast Asia.
With the prize money from the games, Sae-byeok hoped to reunite her family and live under one roof again.
This is Not Where the Story Ends
Working with the right people who can help safely smuggle people across borders is the real deal. Liberty in North Korea helps North Korean refugees escape safely through a modern-day underground railroad, without ANY cost or condition.*LiNK’s rescue efforts begin in China
LiNK reunites families, supports their new lives in resettlement, and helps individuals, like Sae-byeok, reach their full potential in freedom.
When LiNK’s field staffer told me I was finally safe, I was overwhelmed. I had endured so much to make it this far - hard labor, imprisonment, and torture. And even though I was overjoyed to make it to freedom, I was deeply saddened that [my daughter] Hee-Mang wasn’t with me… I hold onto the dream that one day we will live together again.”
- Jo-Eun, escaped North Korea through LiNK’s network in 2018
Read the story of Jo-Eun’s journey to freedom here.
When North Koreans successfully resettle, they become some of the most effective agents of change on the issue by sharing their stories with the world and sending money and information back to their families in North Korea.
Kang Sae-byeok’s story has come to an end, but you can do something to stand with the North Korean people today.
→ Watch undercover footage from real rescue missions.
→ Read more stories from North Korean refugees.
→ Donate to make rescue missions possible.