Korean Peninsula A to Z

Brief History of NK


The Death of Kim Il-sung and Rule by Legacy

Although the end of the Kim Il-sung era boasted total political stability under the unchallengeable one-man rule system, as a country, North Korea was ailing from economic stagnation and diplomatic isolation due to the shortcomings of its socialist economy. In many aspects, time was ripe for change in North Korea. Although cancelled due to Kim Il-sung’s death, the proposed North-South summit talks may also be explained within this context. The death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 marked the end of an era.

The Death of Kim Il-sung

Kim Il-sung died at 2:00a.m. on July 8, 1994. However, an official announcement by North Korean authorities was announced in the form of a ‘special broadcast’ 34 hours later. The officially stated cause of death was ‘myocardial infarction caused by strains from his tireless and selfless efforts’. The funeral service was held 11 days after his death, on July 19. As done to Lenin and Mao, Kim’s body was embalmed and then enshrined in Pyongyang’s Kumsusan Presidential Palace.

Rule by Legacy

Because Kim Jong-il, groomed as his father’s political heir since the 1970s, was fully prepared to succeed his office, he was expected to take power with very little difficulty. However, not only was succession of power an unprecedented event in a communist state, designated heirs seldom were able to rise to power successfully.

This caused the eyes of the world to focus on Pyongyang. Meanwhile, to the astonishment of most outside onlookers, Kim Jong-il did not succeed to any office but merely proceeded to rule North Korea as Commander in Chief of the KPA. During a period of three years, Kim Jong-il simply stated that he would rule North Korea according to his father’s last wishes. This was intended to maintain the authority and mysticism surrounding Kim Il-sung while allowing Kim Jong-il to rule as the de facto President. Therefore, Kim Jong-il did not immediately succeed to any official position. This period is thus called the time of ‘bequest rule’.

Bequest rule was made possible through North Korea’s unique and deep-rooted ideological mixture of Marxism-Leninism and an authoritarian system based on traditional Confucian principles of patriarchy and self-reliance, also known as ‘Juche’ or ‘Kimism’. Kim Jong-il, having risen to power amid troubles such as the burden of being a political heir and inheriting the North’s stagnating economy and international isolation, chose to gradually fortify his position by momentarily relying on his father’s authority. The deification of Kim Il-sung, which continued by borrowing from traditional virtues such as loyalty and filial duty, gradually led to the transfer of Kim Il-sung’s authority and cult of personality to Kim Jong-il. This prevented possible opposition by dissidents while serving to solidify a one-man rule system under Kim Jong-il.

‘Buffer’ Economic Planning (1994∼1996)

North Korea officially acknowledged the failure of the 3rd seven-year plan at the 21st meeting of the 6th Central Party Committee in 1993. A transitional ‘buffer period for the construction of a socialist economy’ was implemented, during which priority was given to agriculture, light industries, and trade. Although the buffer period had been planned prior to Kim Il-sung’s death, by coincidence it also served as a period of economic transition to the Kim Jong-il system.

North Korea Nuclear Crisis

The so-called 1st North Korea nuclear crisis began when North Korea withdrew from the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) in 1993. North Korea had signed a safeguards agreement with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) in January 1992. As stipulated in the agreement, the IAEA conducted six inspections in North Korea and discovered sufficient evidence to believe that several kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium had been extracted, in stark contrast to North Korea’s report to the IAEA stating that only 90 grams of the material had been extracted.

This result prompted the IAEA to request a special inspection, at which North Korea withdrew from the NPT as an act of protest. Almost a full year of fruitless negotiations passed, and the peak of the crisis came in June 1994, when it nearly reached the brink of war.

Talks resumed following a dramatic visit by former U.S. President Carter, who held talks with North Korea President Kim Il-sung. U.S.-NK negotiations led to the Geneva Agreement in October 1994 realized by U.S. ambassador Robert Gallucci and North Korea Foreign Ministry 1st Division Chief Kang Suk-ju. The agreement, which stipulated that North Korea would suspend its nuclear program in exchange for the provision of crude oil and light-water reactors, effectively concluded the 1st North Korea nuclear crisis. Although announced after Kim Il-sung’s death, the Geneva Agreement set the basic framework for North Korea-U.S. relations at the end of the ‘Kim Il-sung Era’.

The Kim Jong-il Era - the Garrison State

North Korea’s unique political system - a rule based on Kim Il sung's legacy - had directed all power into the hands of Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-il finally came into its own in 1998, when he was reelected as Chairman of the National Defense Commission. Although the basic format of the ‘bequest rule’ remained in place because the position of President ‘eternally’ belonged to Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il began his era as the sole and unchallenged ruler of North Korea under a new motto: ‘the military first’.

The Kim Jong-il Era Begins

In states under a one-man rule, the absence of a leader easily translates into a crisis in the regime. The power struggles that followed the deaths of communist dictators serve as prime examples. North Korea would likely have followed a similar course, had it not made such painstaking preparations as the prior elimination of dissidents and the ‘bequest rule’.

Kim Jong-il’s election to the position of Secretary General of the KWP on October 8, 1997 marked the transition from the ‘bequest rule’ period to the true Kim Jong-il era, in that this was his first public office in a leadership position. The meeting of the 10th SPA was held a year later, on September 5, 1998. Because no SPA meetings had been held following Kim Il-sung’s death, this in itself signaled that a new era had begun. Additionally, the SPA meeting reelected Kim Jong-il as Chairman of the National Defense Commission, and validated a new constitution. Although there was no inauguration or proclamation, Kim Jong-il had become the de facto ruler of North Korea.

The new constitution of 1998 was named the ‘Kim Il-sung Constitution’. Its preface venerates Kim Il-sung as the ‘Eternal President’ and stresses that the nation would ‘defend and build upon the work and thought of Comrade Kim Il-sung, until the glorious day the Great Juche Revolution has been completed’. This ensured that Kim Jong-il’s authority and legitimacy become as ‘eternal’ as his father’s power. Because the new constitution forbade any president other than Kim Il-sung, North Korea was without a ruler in name. The power of the former president was to be distributed among the SPA’s Permanent Committee, the National Defense Commission, and the Cabinet. Formally, the SPA’s Permanent Committee, being the highest political body, gave its chairman the authority to represent North Korea as leader.

However, it was the National Defense Commission that stood apart from other political bodies and wielded the most political power. Therefore, the Chairman of the National Defense Commission was the de facto supreme ruler of North Korea. North Korea remained under a ‘bequest rule’ in that the will of the ‘eternal’ President Kim Il-sung dictated national policy, with Kim Jong-il setting the specific agenda in accordance with the late President’s wishes. This, therefore, conferred upon Kim Jong-il a ‘super-political’ status as a demigod of sorts alongside his father. The Kim Jong-il regime can be considered an extended version of the Kim Il-sung regime.

The Garrison State

Kim Jong-il’s new motto, ‘the military first’, represented a dual strategy aimed at pursuing the security of the regime as well as economic growth, effectively transforming North Korea into a ‘garrison state’. A central concept in this agenda was that of a ‘strong fatherland’. That is, a ‘military first’ system was seen as a means to achieve a strong fatherland. The heavy reliance on the military indicated that the army was North Korea’s only outstanding asset.

Therefore, military power would be utilized to overcome economic difficulties and secure the regime. The ‘military first’ principle as defined by North Korea involves ‘giving all priority to the military and the strengthening thereof’, which would then enable ‘the might of the people’s army to push forth with the revolution and other related endeavors’ (Nodong Simmun).

The final goal would be to construct a ‘strong fatherland’, defined as ‘a strong state, impregnable to invaders and ever-victorious in combat’. The concept of the ‘military first’ system goes hand in hand with Kim Jong-il’s solidification of his regime. The words ‘military first’ had been in use previously and continued to be used even after Kim Il-sung’s death. Kim Jong-il’s concept of ‘military-driven revolutionary thought’ and ‘the military as the spearhead of the party and the people’ as advertised via the North Korea media both refer to the current ‘military first’ system. This system gained dominance in the national agenda following a speech made by Kim Jong-il in October 1997, where he said that “No matter how difficult the economic situation is, strengthen the military first; labor later.”

This speech came at a time when Kim Jong-il was elected as General Secretary of the KWP. Following 1998, ‘military first thought’ and ‘military first command’ became commonplace terminology in North Korea’s official documents and media. The term ‘military first system’ was made official in the 1st meeting of the 10th SPA in September 1998.

The Grueling March

Although Kim Il-sung’s death in itself was cause enough for a crisis in its regime, North Korea was to face even graver problems. The so-called ‘grueling march’, which began in 1995, refers to an overall crisis in North Korean society due to a dire economic depression. The ‘grueling march’, which continued for a period of six years until 2000, was a period of struggle for the North Korean regime. The stagnation and innate limitations of the North Korean economy were a serious problem even before Kim Il-sung’s death.

Furthermore, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East European communist states left North Korea completely isolated both politically and economically. Finally, the death of Kim Il-sung and the ensuing political anxiety ushered in an overall crisis in North Korean society. The most pronounced of all problems was famine. All over the country, North Koreans died from lack of food, forcing the government to resort to the unusual measure of asking the international community for relief. Although reliable data is scarce due to the nature of North Korea’s regime, reliable estimates suggest that the commonplace expression at the time of ‘millions dead from hunger’ was justified. Children tended to become street urchins, surviving through begging and stealing. Experts believe that some 1.5~3 million died of famine during this period. It is presumed that the extent of the misery was part of the reason Kim Jong-il had to justify his rise to power in the form of a ‘bequest rule’.

The expression ‘grueling march’ was originally intended to be compared with the Chinese communist party’s ‘long march’. The 1st ‘grueling march’ refers to a bloody 100-day march led by Kim Il-sung during his partisan guerrilla years. From December 1938, Kim Il-sung led a detachment of independence fighters through some 20 battles against the Japanese army, reaching the border region of the Yalu River in March 1939. Later on, the so-called ‘factionist incident’ of August 1956, during which anti-Kim dissidents revolted against Kim Il-sung’s rule, was dubbed the 2nd ‘grueling march’. Therefore, the ‘grueling march’ of 1995 was actually the 3rd in that series.

The North Korean leadership labeled the economic difficulty and famine a ‘grueling march’ in the hopes of instilling a spirit of perseverance, borrowing from the fact that all of its previous historical ‘grueling marches’ had been overcome. They also referred to the ‘grueling march’ as calling for ‘efforts to protect the Chairman’, suggesting that overcoming the economic difficulties was instrumental for the security of the regime. In October 2000, timed with the 55th anniversary of the KWP, North Korea announced that the ‘grueling march’ was over. A two-page article in the Nodong Simmun (Oct. 3rd) read “No people or nation in the history of mankind has endured a greater period of peril.” Kim Jong-il commented during a visit to China in late May that “the ‘grueling march’ is over. North Korea now finds itself in a different situation.” Although the ‘grueling march’ was the most serious of crises to threaten the North Korean regime as well as a period of unspeakable hardship for most of its people, it also served to solidify the one-man rule under Kim Jong-il.