By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
After World War II, Korea split in half, with North Korea becoming radically isolated. It has shut down communications with the rest of the world to the point that residents have no access to internet sites outside the country. COVID-19 medical supplies are a rare exception.
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that North Korea has recently accepted shipments of medical supplies such as medicine and emergency health kits from outside the country. As one of the most isolated and withdrawn nations on Earth, North Korea’s decision is a rare break from tradition. How did it get to where it is today?
Prehaps unsurprisingly, Joseph Stalin and the Cold War played key roles. In his video series Communism in Power: From Stalin to Mao, Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Lindsay Young Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, explained how North Korea became the last standing Stalinist state and the world’s only dynastic communist country.
The Cold War Creates Two Koreas
After surviving an annexation by Japan that began in 1910, Korea was set to unify and become independent again after World War II. Unfortunately, the Cold War brought division within the country, and the Soviet Union and United States decided—mostly without Korean input—to split the nation into two occupation zones. Korea was divided into two states, much like East and West Germany, along the 38th parallel.
“In 1948, South Korea emerged under American patronage,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “North Korea was established with Soviet guidance, with the official title Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and with its capital in Pyongyang.”
After this, North Korea obtained Stalin’s approval to invade South Korea to forcibly unify the country. United States and United Nations troops pushed the invasion back north, only to face troops from the People’s Republic of China who had intervened on behalf of North Korea. At the end of the Korean War, some three million lives were lost and the border remained at the 38th parallel.
There is no formal peace treaty between the two nations, which have taken opposite trajectories since World War II.
“After World War II, all of Korea was devastated, but only in South Korea did prosperity take off dramatically,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “In fact, estimates from 2019-2020 suggest that North Korea has only 5% or less of the GDP of the South, which by contrast according to the IMF was the world’s tenth richest economy.
“South Korea began with an authoritarian system and moved toward democracy, while North Korea settled into brutal repression and isolation, becoming the ‘Hermit Kingdom.'”
The Kim Family and Juche
Born in 1912, Kim Il-Sung became an anti-Japanese guerrilla in his young years and served in the Soviet army during World War II. Stalin appointed him to rule North Korea in alliance with the Soviet Union and China. Kim eliminated rival communist factions in his country and consolidated power, balancing his position with both of his allied nations and asserting communist force over Albania and Romania.
“To underline this assertion of independence and a Korean form of communism, Kim Il-Sung crafted the ideology he called juche, or ‘self-reliance,’ pursuing autarky and radical isolation,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “The four central principles of juche were defined as ‘autonomy in ideology, independence in politics, self-sufficiency in economics, and self-reliance in defense.'”
What does this mean for the daily lives of North Korean citizens? Mandatory conformity in most aspects of life, no access to foreign media of any kind, and a radio receiver in every household that broadcasts marches, songs, and proclamations and cannot be turned off. Loudspeakers on streets blare the same messages. An extreme cult of personality presides, where citizens are taught that the Kim family are equal to gods.
Failure to comply leads to concentration camps for rebels and their families, where they undergo reeducation based in hard labor and abuse.
Kim Il-Sung died in 1994 and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Il, who continued the isolationism and propaganda-fueled regime of his father. In 2011, Kim Jong-Il died and was replaced by his third son, Kim Jong-Un, who rules North Korea to this day.
Accepting COVID-19 medical supplies from foreign nations sounds directly contrary to juche, which may or may not be a sign of a changing nation.