North Korean Missile Tests Prompt Review of Dictatorship’s History

latest show of bravado earns retaliatory missile launches by south korea

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

North Korea fired dozens of missiles toward Japan on November 2 and November 3. The missile tests set off alarms in Japan, including an emergency alert system in three prefectures. North Korea has been ruled by a dictatorship since 1948, after World War II.

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il statue - Pyongyang, North Korea
Statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il stand in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by Andreas.Mattsson / Shutterstock

North Korea fired off nearly 30 missiles on November 2 and November 3, including an intercontinental ballistics missile (ICBM). The tests were the latest event in a months-long series of escalating tensions involving the Korean Peninsula: North Korea has performed many missile tests and South Korea, the United States, and Japan have conducted several joint military drills.

South Korea responded to these latest North Korean missile tests by launching missiles of its own into international waters.

North Korea has long been the focus of international concern and morbid fascination for its extreme isolationism and single-party totalitarian dictatorship. In his video series Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century, Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Lindsay Young Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, explains how North Korea got to this point.

Establishing a Dictatorship

“North Korea had earlier been a Chinese satellite that was annexed by Japan in 1910,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “After World War II, it was to become an independent country. In the Cold War, however, it was divided into two states: The South Korean under American patronage, and the North Korean under the Soviets.”

In 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea with the permission of Stalin, igniting the Korean War, which left 3 million dead. Since no peace treaty was ever formalized, a shaky and tense standoff between North Korea and South Korea has lasted over half a century.

“North Korea remains a massively militarized and isolated hermit kingdom, spending an estimated third of its gross domestic product on one of the world’s largest armies,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “At the same time, famine has stalked the land, killing, perhaps, over 2 million in the 1990s.”

The Rulers of North Korea

The first ruler of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, was installed by Soviet forces and known as the “Great Leader.” He was born near Pyongyang and became an anti-Japanese guerrilla. Kim Il-sung was trained and educated in the Soviet Union before serving in the Soviet army. When he became the leader of the North Korean state, he developed a philosophy of juche, or “self-reliance,” beginning North Korea’s slide into isolationism.

“In 1984, upon his death, he was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Il,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “In the propaganda, he was called the ‘Sun of the 21st Century.’ This man was born in Siberia, was schooled in East Germany, and [had] the reputation of being a volatile and cruel narcissistic playboy. Elaborate cults of leadership were built up around both leaders, including the declaration of Kim Il-sung, even after his death, as ‘president for eternity.'”

This trend continued following Kim Jong-Il’s death and succession by his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, in 2011. Jong-Il had six children, many of whom remain active in Kim Jong-un’s regime. In Kim Jong-un’s 11-year reign, North Korea has shown no little to no sign of reconciliation with the South or the rest of the world.

Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily