Korean Peninsula A to Z

Brief History of NK


The Korean War

North Korean troops entering Seoul ? Seoul was captured by North Korean forces in just three days

Following the division of the Peninsula, two distinct governments evolved on both sides of the 38th parallel. Initially, the divide was believed to be only temporary. However, reunification gradually became an issue of one side potentially absorbing the other, instilling hostility on both sides. The Korean War can be interpreted as the result of a growing desire for reunification, finally manifesting itself in a violent explosion.

The KPA (Korean People’s Army), which had grown rapidly under Soviet support, began its invasion on the morning of June 25, 1950, crossing the 38th parallel. The KPA overpowered the South Korean Army in the early stages of the war.

However, following the U.N. resolution to regard the war as an invasion and to commit troops to stop it, the tide of the war shifted abruptly. As U.N. forces kept pushing northward, Korean reunification seemed within grasp. However, intervention by the Chinese Army turned the tables again. A stalemate eventually emerged along the 38th parallel, and a cease-fire agreement was signed on July 27, 1953.

Kim Il-sung Solidifies One-Man Rule

March 1949, at Mt. Keumgang (from the right): Kim Chaek, Huh Ga-yi, Kim Il-sung

Initially, the North Korean government was a federation of diverse communist and anti-Japanese activists such as domestic underground activists, communist activists who returned from China, and those who had received communist education in the Soviet Union. Kim Il-sung, though he enjoyed little domestic support, was installed as a ‘substitute’ leader of sorts by the Soviet Union in order to establish a pro-Soviet communist society in North Korea. Therefore, early political developments in North Korea involved the gradual solidification of Kim Il-sung’s authority, which typically involved eliminating the opposition. First, domestic figures were labeled as erroneous leftists, factionists, and hero-centrists and were then eliminated. This method was used to stifle domestic opposition.

Kim Il-sung’s nemesis, Park Hun-young (man wearing spectacles)

Although Kim Il-sung faced the political responsibility of having failed in the southward invasion during the Korean War, he found a way out by blaming the ‘Namrodang’ (South Korean Worker’s Party), upon which he eliminated members affiliated with it. Park Hun-young, Rhee Seung-yup, Bae Chul, Kim Nam-chun, and others were executed on charges of U.S.-backed espionage. The indictments of Stalin raised during the 20th Soviet Communist Party Assembly meeting led to similar anti-Kim movements and criticism of the heavy-industry centered economic policy at the time.
Amid what was likely the most difficult juncture of his political life, Kim Il-sung succeeded in winning the June 1956 Party Central Committee election, upon which he further strengthened his authority by purging faction leaders (Kim Du-bong, Choi Chang-ik, Park Chang-ok, etc.).

Seung-yup, closest aide to Park Hun-young and Chairman of the Provisional People’s Committee of Seoul City during the Korean War6.25

To complete the purge, those opposed to the adoration and idolization of Kim Il-sung, as well as other dissident left-wing opposition leaders, were the next to be targeted. Some noteworthy cases include the 1967 elimination of the Gapsan faction leaders (Park Geum-chul and Rhee Hyo-soon) on charges of anti-Party factionist movements, and the 1969 elimination of military leaders (‘People’s Guardian Minister’ Kim Chang-bong and KPA Political Bureau Chief Huh Bong-hak) on charges of opposing Kim’s centralized authority.

Following the 5th KWP (Korea Worker’s Party) assembly of November 1970, the North Korean leadership consisted solely of pro-Kim Il-sung members. Kim’s centralized power and his one-man rule had been completely solidified. North Korea’s ‘dynastic’ system was founded upon this background.

Construction of a Socialist Economy

Reconstruction takes place in Pyongyang amid the ruins left by the Korean War

Progress in the construction of a socialist economy was rapid because the process of nationalization had begun before the government was established, directly following independence from Japan. The basis for collective farming was established by the March 1946 Land Reforms, which involved the seizure and redistribution of land. In August of the same year, a law was enacted to nationalize key factories, firms, mines, power plants, transportation, the postal service, banking, commerce, and cultural organizations. Although small-scale economic activity on the individual level was allowed during the Korean War in order to make up for low production levels, most of the economy was nationalized and collectivized. By 1958, agriculture, handicrafts, and small-scale commerce were all collectivized, completing the so-called ‘socialization of production relations’.

Construction of a Socialist Economy
Period Reforms Enacted
05 Mar 1946 Land Reform Law
10 Aug 1946 Nationalization of Key Industries
22 Dec 1946 Nationalization of Subterranean Resources, Forests, and Fisheries
Apr 1954 Initiation of the ‘cooperative organizations’ system
Aug 1958 Completion of collective agriculture, handicrafts, and small-scale commerce
Oct~Dec 1958 Cooperative organizations consolidated at town level (reorganized as ‘cooperative farms’

Cooperative Farms

The completion of agricultural cooperative organizations prompted North Korea to focus on modern equipment to boost productivity

Collective agriculture came into full effect starting at the end of 1953, when ‘cooperative agricultural organizations’ started to be formed. Seeing further progress during 1954 and the following years, by August 1958, all farmers had been registered as members of a cooperative organization. The agricultural sector had been completely collectivized. Initially, there were 13,309 cooperative agricultural organizations, each consisting of an average of 80 households and 130 ‘chung-bo’ of farmland. In October 1958, organizations were consolidated at the town level. The number of organizations now became 3,843, while each of them was expanded to include 300 households and 500 ‘chung-bo’ of farmland. In 1961, parts of the regional and county-level people’s committees were put in charge of agricultural management and were reorganized as ‘Cooperative Agricultural Management Committees’ devoted solely to directing agricultural activities and operating agricultural machineries/factories, irrigation equipment, procurement offices and veterinary services. The next year, these organizations were renamed ‘cooperative farms’, completing North Korea’s cooperative farming system.

The Planned Economy

Due to the economic policies enacted by the Japanese colonialists, most power plants and industrial facilities were located in the northern regions of the Peninsula. This gave North Korea a huge initial advantage in building a modern and industrialized economy. The planned economy system began directly following independence, before the government was established.

Two one-year plans were implemented in 1947 and 1948. In 1949, a two-year plan was enacted to purge industrial sectors of Japanese remnants and to accelerate production, but was halted due to the Korean War. In April 1954, it was decided at the 7th meeting of the 1st SPA that production be increased to pre-war (1949) levels, and a 3-year plan for economic recovery was enacted. This plan, through extensive Chinese and Soviet aid, was completed successfully four months ahead of schedule.

In 1957, a five-year plan was enacted to lay the foundations for an industrialized socialist economy and to provide for the peoples’ clothing, food, and housing. Again, extensive aid from China, the Soviet Union, and other communist states enabled North Korea to achieve its stated objectives two years ahead of schedule.

The Chollima Movement

Torchbearers march by the Chollima statue

The word ‘chollima (thousand-mile horse)’ refers to a mythical horse that was able to travel a thousand miles in a single day. The Chollima Movement was a massive campaign aimed at constructing a socialist economy at a ‘blindingly quick pace’, hence the name of the movement. It embodies North Korea’s style of approach to economic policies: planned, slogan-oriented, and heavily reliant on mobilization.

The campaign, enacted on the belief that indoctrinating workers with communist ideology would lead to more diligent labor and thus higher production, was an example of a movement based on so-calleds ‘socialist labor competition.
There had been similar movements aimed at boosting production before the Chollima Movement, such as the wartime ‘trooper movement’, ’3.1 memorial movement’, ‘5.1 memorial movement’, and ‘ever-ready trooper movement’, as well as the post-war ‘recovery trooper movement’ and ‘Minchungsoon-hwe victory flag movement’.

However, the Chollima Movement, enacted in a summary meeting of the KWP Central Committee held in December 1956, was the first to truly follow the ‘socialist labor competition’ format. After being adopted as a general order of the KWP, it was implemented throughout North Korea along with the five-year plan that began in 1957. In 1959, it became the ‘Chollima Work Team Movement’, which is said to have contributed to the early accomplishment of the five-year plan’s objectives. Until it was superseded by the ‘Three Revolution Red Flag Movement’ of 1975, the Chollima Movement was the dominant labor competition movement of the North Korean society.

The Seven-Year Plan

Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (far left) visit a steel manufacturing plant in Hwang-hae, May 1966

In 1961, North Korea implemented full-scale planned economy policies based on a socialist economic system. These include the three seven-year plans, during which an additional six-year plan was enacted. The 1st seven-year plan began in 1961 with the objective of improving the people’s livelihoods and building on the industrial foundations laid during the five-year plan of the late 1950s.

At the time, the North Korean economy had reached a basic level of industrialization through previous policies emphasizing heavy industries, such as the manufacture of machinery. However, it quickly became apparent that industrialization to meet domestic demand had its limits. Meanwhile, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 prompted the North Korean leadership to fortify its military capacity. This led to the ‘Four Major Military Initiatives’, a policy that focused on increasing military investment.

North Korea found itself in a difficult position as the rift between China and the Soviet Union led to curtailed economic aid from socialist states, causing plans to fall short of their objectives. The timeline for the seven-year plan was extended by three years during the October 1966 Party Representatives Meeting; but the plan nonetheless failed to achieve its stated goals.