Backed by the USSR, Kim Il Sung assumes the premiership of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The Soviet-style centralized government is controlled by the Korean Workers' Party (KWP), of which Kim becomes secretary general. Study groups and reeducation meetings in party ideology are mandatory. The charismatic Kim rules through a cult of personality, calling himself "The Great Leader."
At the Korean War's end, North Korea is in ruins from years of bombing. The state-owned, command-style economy focuses on reconstruction and industrialization, particularly heavy industry, which yields record growth rates. Kim performs several purges of the KWP, removing the "domestic faction" -- Communists who remained in Korea during Japanese occupation -- and pro-Chinese and -Soviet factions.
North Korea's economic growth falters with the decline of Soviet and Chinese aid. The country proceeds with a dramatic buildup of military power coupled with efforts to build a self-reliant economy. The North develops its principles of chuch'e, or "self-reliance," an economic and political independence from foreign powers that places Korea first in all things.
North Korea becomes nuclear-capable when a Soviet-supplied nuclear research reactor is put online. It attempts to subvert and destabilize the South through infiltration of South Korean security, with more than 750 incidents in two years. In 1968 a team of 31 commandos sent to assassinate South Korea's President Park reach within one mile of the presidential residence.
In 1972 the Great Leader's birthday becomes a national holiday. Chuch'e ideology replaces Marxism-Leninism. Hoping to boost its economy through a sweeping modernization of heavy industry, North Korea reluctantly imports large amounts of Western technology. It assumes between US$2 and US$3 billion in debt and, failing to meet projected growth estimates, falls behind in repayments.
Per capita GNP, once equal to South Korea's, falls by 1979 to one-third of the South's. Intense protectionism produces low-quality domestic consumer goods. The North spends 25 percent of its GNP on the military. Exports of minerals and agricultural products suffer from the oil crisis and global recession, and North Korea is the first communist state to default on loans from free-market countries.
A new economic policy stresses domestic production of essential goods and agriculture and a new openness to foreign trade. Kim designates his son, Kim Jong Il, successor. North Korea defaults on its Japanese loans and loses significant sources of foreign aid with the independence of Eastern European communist states and the Soviet Union's collapse. Public payphones begin to appear in Pyongyang.
Kim amends the constitution, although the exact details are not made public. A new, three-year "transitional" economy stresses agriculture, light industry, and trade. Production and distribution problems keep the country from producing enough grain for itself, let alone for export, and the lack of parts and fuel for electrical generation created by the isolated economy keep many factories closed.
Kim Il Sung dies; a grief-stricken nation plunges into mourning. Power is transferred to his son, the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il. The North agrees to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for eased economic sanctions. Trade opens with the South, primarily the export of goods assembled from South Korean materials. The North blames its economic decline on the collapse of other socialist states.
The North destabilizes regional security by test launching its long-range ballistic missile. The North-South Joint Declaration leads to efforts toward increased economic cooperation between the two countries. Two major South Korean chaebol propose industrial complexes just inside North Korea, but the economic slide continues as the North experiences its eighth straight year of negative growth.
North Korea enters its seventh year of a major food crisis, brought about by natural disasters and a lack of resources like fertilizer and fuel. Reduced grain harvests yield annual agricultural production more than one million tons short of domestic demand. International food aid keeps the population from starvation, malnutrition is a constant threat, and living conditions continue to fall.
North Korea's announcement that it has continued its nuclear program in violation of international agreements leads to a major security crisis and diplomatic standoff. Foreign fuel deliveries are suspended, making worse conditions inside the country more likely. The regime remains reclusive; a newly opened road from the South leads only to a fenced-off resort for Southern tourists.
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