Politics of North Korea

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The Juche Tower symbolizes the official state philosophy of Juche.
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The politics of North Korea (officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) takes place within the framework of the official state philosophy, Juche, a concept created by Hwang Jang-yop and later attributed to Kim Il-sung. The Juche theory is the belief that through self-reliance and a strong independent state, true socialism can be achieved.[1][2]

North Korea's political system is built upon the principle of centralization. While the North Korean constitution formally guarantees protection of human rights, in practice there are severe limits on freedom of expression, and the government closely supervises the lives of North Korean citizens. The constitution defines North Korea as "a dictatorship of people's democracy"[3] under the leadership of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), which is given legal supremacy over other political parties.

The WPK is the ruling party of North Korea. It has been in power since its creation in 1948. Two minor political parties also exist, but are legally bound to accept the ruling role of the WPK.[4][better source needed] They, with the WPK, comprise the popular front Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland (DFRF). Elections occur only in single-candidate races where the candidate is effectively selected beforehand by the WPK.[5]

In addition to the parties, there are over 100 mass organizations controlled by the WPK.[6][7] Those who are not WPK members are required to join one of these organizations.[8] Of these, the most important ones are the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League, Socialist Women's Union of Korea, General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea, and Union of Agricultural Workers of Korea.[6] These four organizations are also DFRF members.[9]

Kim Il-sung ruled the country from 1948 until his death in July 1994, holding the offices of General Secretary of the WPK from 1949 to 1994 (titled as Chairman from 1949 to 1972), Premier of North Korea from 1948 to 1972 and President from 1972 to 1994. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il. While the younger Kim had been his father's designated successor since the 1980s, it took him three years to consolidate his power. He was named to his father's old post of General Secretary in 1997, and in 1998 became chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC), which gave him command of the armed forces. The constitution was amended to make the NDC chairmanship "the highest post in the state."[This quote needs a citation] At the same time, the presidential post was written out of the constitution, and Kim Il-sung was designated "Eternal President of the Republic" in order to honor his memory forever. Most analysts believe the title to be a product of the cult of personality he cultivated during his life.

Outside observers generally views North Korea as a totalitarian dictatorship[18] particularly noting the elaborate cult of personality around Kim Il-sung and his family. The Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), led by a member of the ruling family,[19] holds power in the state and leads the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland of which all political officers are required to be members.[20] The government has formally replaced all references to Marxism–Leninism in its constitution with the locally developed concept of Juche, or self-reliance. In recent years, there has been great emphasis on the Songun or "military-first" philosophy. All references to communism were removed from the North Korean constitution in 2009.[21]

The status of the military has been enhanced, and it appears to occupy the center of the North Korean political system; all the social sectors are forced to follow the military spirit and adopt military methods. Kim Jong-il's public activity focused heavily on "on-the-spot guidance" of places and events related to the military. The enhanced status of the military and military-centered political system was confirmed at the first session of the 10th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) by the promotion of NDC members into the official power hierarchy. All ten NDC members were ranked within the top twenty on 5 September, and all but one occupied the top twenty at the fiftieth anniversary of the Day of the Foundation of the Republic on 9 September.

Political parties and elections[edit]

According to the Constitution of North Korea, the country is a democratic republic and the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) and Provincial People's Assemblies (PPA) are elected by direct universal suffrage and secret ballot. Suffrage is guaranteed to all citizens aged 17 and over.[4] In reality, elections in North Korea are for show and feature single-candidate races only.[22] Those who want to vote against the sole candidate on the ballot must go to a special booth - in the presence of an electoral official - to cross out the candidate's name before dropping it into the ballot box—an act which, according to many North Korean defectors, is far too risky to even contemplate.[23]

All elected candidates are members of the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland (DFRF), a popular front dominated by the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK). The two minor parties in the coalition are the Chondoist Chongu Party and the Korean Social Democratic Party; they also have a few elected officials. The WPK exercises direct control over the candidates selected for election by members of the other two parties.[5] In the past, elections were contested by other minor parties as well, including the Korea Buddhist Federation, Democratic Independent Party, Dongro People's Party, Gonmin People's Alliance, and People's Republic Party.[24]

Political ideology[edit]

Originally a close ally of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, North Korea has increasingly emphasized Juche, an adoption of socialist self-reliance, which roots from Marxism–Leninism, its adoption of a certain ideological form of Marxism-Leninism is specific to the conditions of North Korea.[25] Juche was enshrined as the official ideology when the country adopted a new constitution in 1972.[26][27] In 2009, the constitution was amended again, quietly removing the brief references to communism (Korean공산주의).[28] However, North Korea continues to see itself as part of a worldwide leftist movement. The Workers' Party maintains a relationship with other leftist parties, sending a delegation to the International Meeting of Communist and Workers' Parties.[29] North Korea has a strong relationship with Cuba;[30] in 2016, the North Korean government declared three days of mourning period for Fidel Castro's death.[31]

Political developments[edit]

For much of its history, North Korean politics have been dominated by its adversarial relationship with South Korea. During the Cold War, North Korea aligned with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. The North Korean government invested heavily in its military, hoping to develop the capability to reunify Korea by force if possible and also preparing to repel any attack by South Korea or the United States. Following the doctrine of Juche, North Korea aimed for a high degree of economic independence and the mobilization of all the resources of the nation to defend Korean sovereignty against foreign powers.

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the loss of Soviet aid, North Korea faced a long period of economic crisis, including severe agricultural and industrial shortages. North Korea's main political issue has been to find a way to sustain its economy without compromising the internal stability of its government or its ability to respond to perceived external threats. Recently, North Korean efforts to improve relations with South Korea to increase trade and to receive development assistance have been mildly successful. North Korea has tried to improve its relations with South Korea by participating in the Pyeongchang Olympics (North Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics), when Kim Jong-un sent his band and a few officials to visit South Korea. But North Korea's determination to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles has prevented stable relations with both South Korea and the United States. North Korea has also experimented with market economics in some sectors of its economy, but these have had limited impact.

Although there are occasional reports of signs of opposition to the government, these appear to be isolated, and there is no evidence of major internal threats to the current government. Some foreign analysts[who?] have pointed to widespread starvation, increased emigration through North Korea-China border, and new sources of information about the outside world for ordinary North Koreans as factors pointing to an imminent collapse of the regime.[citation needed] However, North Korea has remained stable in spite of more than a decade of such predictions. The Workers' Party of Korea maintains a monopoly on political power and Kim Jong-il remained the leader of the country until 2011, ever since he first gained power following the death of his father.

After the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994, his son, Kim Jong-Il reigned as the new leader, which marked the closure of one chapter of North Korean politics. Combined with external shocks and less charismatic personality of Kim Jong-Il, the transition of the leadership caused North Korea toward less centralized control. There are three key institutions: the Korean People’s Army (KPA), the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), and the cabinet. Rather than dominate a unified system as his father had, each party has their own enduring goals, therefore providing checks and balances to the government. No one party could claim victory and power over the other ones. With changing internal situation, combined with external pressure, the cabinet started to endorse policies it had rejected for years.[32] North Korea politics is gradually becoming more open and negotiable with foreign countries. The fact that the leader of North Korea is willing to talk with other leaders shows a huge step towards peace and negotiation.

According to Cheong Seong-chang of Sejong Institute, speaking on 25 June 2012, there is some possibility that the new leader Kim Jong-un, who has greater visible interest in the welfare of his people and engages in greater interaction with them than his father did, will consider economic reforms and normalization of international relations.[33]


In June 2011, it was reported that the government had ordered universities to cancel most classes until April 2012, sending students to work on construction projects, presumably for fear of similar developments as in North Africa. In the previous months, the regime had ordered anti-riot gear from China. [34] However, "as soon as universities were reopened, graffiti appeared again. Perhaps the succession is not the real reason, but greater awareness among North Koreans could lead to changes." [35]

Transition of Power to Kim Jong-un[edit]

Political power[edit]

After the death of Kim Jong-il on December 17, 2011, his son, Kim Jong-un inherited the political leadership of the DPRK. The succession of power was immediate: Kim Jong-un became supreme commander of the Korean People's Army (KPA) on December 30, 2011, was appointed secretary of the Korean Workers Party (KWP) on April 11, 2012, and was entitled chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) two days later. To gain complete political power, he became the rank of marshal of the KPA.[36]

Differences from the Kim Jong-il regime[edit]

Up until his death, Kim Jong-il maintained a strong national military-first political system that equated stability with military power. Kim Jong-un continues to carry on the militarized political style of his father, but with less commitment to complete military rule. Since he took power, Kim Jong-un has attempted to move political power away from the KPA and has divided it among the WPK and the cabinet. Because of his political lobbying, the WPK's Central Committee has vastly shifted power in April 2012: out of 17 members and 15 alternates of the Committee, only five members and six alternates derive from military and security sectors. Ever since, the economic power of the WPK, the cabinet, and the KPA has been in a tense balance. The KPA has lost a significant amount of economic influence because of the current regime, which continually shifts from what Kim Jong-il built his regime on, and may cause later internal issues.[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Becker, Jasper (2005), Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, New York City: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-517044-3
  2. ^ B. R. Myers: The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. pp. 45–46. Paperback edition. (2011)
  3. ^ Chapter I, Article 12 of Constitution of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (2012). 2012 – via Wikisource.
  4. ^ a b s:Constitution of North Korea
  5. ^ a b "Freedom in the World, 2006". Freedom House. Archived from the original on 14 July 2007. Retrieved 13 February 2007.
  6. ^ a b Scalapino, Robert A.; Chun-yŏp Kim (1983). North Korea Today: Strategic and Domestic Issues. Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, Center for Korean Studies. p. 84. ISBN 978-0-912966-55-7.
  7. ^ Kagan, Richard; Oh, Matthew; Weissbrodt, David S. (1988). Human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee. p. 166. ISBN 978-0-929692-23-4.
  8. ^ Understanding North Korea 2014 (PDF). Seoul: Institute for Unification Education. 2015. p. 367. OCLC 829395170. Archived (PDF) from the original on 1 January 2017.
  9. ^ Lansford, Tom (2015). Political Handbook of the World 2015. Singapore: CQ Press. p. 3330. ISBN 978-1-4833-7155-9.
  10. ^ Spencer, Richard (28 August 2007). "North Korea power struggle looms". The Telegraph (online version of United Kingdom's national newspaper). London. Archived from the original on 20 November 2007. Retrieved 31 October 2007. A power struggle to succeed Kim Jong-il as leader of North Korea's Stalinist dictatorship may be looming after his eldest son was reported to have returned from semi-voluntary exile.
  11. ^ Parry, Richard Lloyd (5 September 2007). "North Korea's nuclear 'deal' leaves Japan feeling nervous". The Times (online version of United Kingdom's national newspaper of record). London. Archived from the original on 26 July 2008. Retrieved 31 October 2007. The US Government contradicted earlier North Korean claims that it had agreed to remove the Stalinist dictatorship’s designation as a terrorist state and to lift economic sanctions, as part of talks aimed at disarming Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons.
  12. ^ Walsh, Lynn (8 February 2003). "The Korean crisis". CWI online: Socialism Today, February 2003 edition, journal of the Socialist Party, CWI England and Wales. socialistworld.net, website of the committee for a worker’s international. Archived from the original on 3 December 2007. Retrieved 31 October 2007. Kim Jong-il's regime needs economic concessions to avoid collapse, and just as crucially needs an end to the strategic siege imposed by the U.S. since the end of the Korean war (1950–53). Pyongyang's nuclear brinkmanship, though potentially dangerous, is driven by fear rather than by militaristic ambition. The rotten Stalinist dictatorship faces the prospect of an implosion. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which deprived North Korea of vital economic support, the nation has consistently attempted to secure from the US a non-aggression pact, recognition of its sovereignty, and economic assistance. The US's equally consistent refusal to enter into direct negotiations with North Korea, effectively ruling out a peace treaty to formally close the 1950–53 Korean War, has encouraged the regime to resort to nuclear blackmail.
  13. ^ Brooke, James (2 October 2003). "North Korea Says It Is Using Plutonium to Make A-Bombs". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 6 December 2007. Retrieved 31 October 2007. North Korea, run by a Stalinist dictatorship for almost six decades, is largely closed to foreign reporters and it is impossible to independently check today's claims.
  14. ^ Buruma, Ian (13 March 2008). "Leader Article: Let The Music Play On". The Times of India. Archived from the original on 12 January 2009. Retrieved 27 March 2008. North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is one of the world's most oppressive, closed, and vicious dictatorships. It is perhaps the last living example of pure totalitarianism – control of the state over every aspect of human life.
  15. ^ "Freedom in the World, 2006". Freedom House. Archived from the original on 14 July 2007. Retrieved 13 February 2007. Citizens of North Korea cannot change their government democratically. North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship and one of the most restrictive countries in the world.
  16. ^ "Economist Intelligence Unit democracy index 2006" (PDF). Economist Intelligence Unit. 2007. Archived (PDF) from the original on 8 March 2007. Retrieved 9 October 2007. North Korea ranked in last place (167)
  17. ^ "A portrait of North Korea's new rich". The Economist. 29 May 2008. Archived from the original on 2 August 2008. Retrieved 18 June 2009. EVERY developing country worth its salt has a bustling middle class that is transforming the country and thrilling the markets. So does Stalinist North Korea.
  18. ^ [10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17]
  19. ^ Audrey Yoo (16 October 2013). "North Korea rewrites rules to legitimise Kim family succession". South China Morning Post. Archived from the original on 28 October 2013. Retrieved 16 October 2013.
  20. ^ "The Parliamentary System of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea" (PDF). Constitutional and Parliamentary Information. Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments (ASGP) of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. p. 5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 March 2012. Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  21. ^ Herskovitz, Jon (28 September 2009). "North Korea drops communism, boosts "Dear Leader"". Reuters. Archived from the original on 1 October 2009.
  22. ^ Wiener-Bronner, Danielle (6 March 2014). "Yes, There Are Elections in North Korea and Here's How They Work". Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  23. ^ "[1]," Associated Press, 8 March 2009.
  24. ^ Dieter Nohlen; Florian Grotz; Christof Hartmann (2001). Elections in Asia and the Pacific: South East Asia, East Asia, and the South Pacific. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 404. ISBN 978-0-19-924959-6.
  25. ^ Lankov, Andrei N. (2002). "Kim Takes Control: The 'Great Purge' in North Korea, 1956-1960". Korean Studies. 26 (1): 91–92. doi:10.1353/ks.2002.0010. ISSN 1529-1529.
  26. ^ s:Constitution of North Korea (1972)
  27. ^ Martin, Bradley K. (2004). Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. New York City, New York: Thomas Dunne Books. p. 111. ISBN 978-0-312-32322-6. Although it was in that 1955 speech that Kim gave full voice to his arguments for juche, he had been talking along similar lines as early as 1948.
  28. ^ DPRK has quietly amended its Constitution (Archived 21 April 2013 at the Wayback Machine)
  29. ^ "13th International meeting of Communist and Workers' Parties in Athens". Act of Defiance. 29 November 2011. Archived from the original on 14 March 2014.
  30. ^ Ramani, Samuel (7 June 2016). "The North Korea-Cuba Connection". The Diplomat. Archived from the original on 8 June 2016.
  31. ^ "N.K. declares 3-day mourning over ex-Cuban leader Castro's death". Yonhap. 28 November 2016. Archived from the original on 28 November 2016.
  32. ^ Kang, David C."They Think They’re Normal: Enduring Questions and New Research on North Korea—A Review Essay." International Security, vol. 36 no. 3, 2011, pp. 142-171. Project MUSE,
  33. ^ Song Sang-ho (27 June 2012). "N.K. leader seen moving toward economic reform". The Korea Herald. Archived from the original on 3 July 2012. Retrieved 28 June 2012.
  34. ^ "North Korea shuts down universities for 10 months". The Telegraph. 28 June 2011. Retrieved 16 October 2018.
  35. ^ "The symbols of the Kims' power under attack, North Koreans are waking up". Retrieved 16 October 2018.
  36. ^ a b Woo, Jongseok (June 2014). "Kim Jong-il's military-first politics and beyond: Military control mechanisms and the problem of power succession". Communist and Post-Communist Studies. 47 (2): 117–125. doi:10.1016/j.postcomstud.2014.04.002. ISSN 0967-067X.

Further reading[edit]

  • Buzo, Adrian (2018). The Guerilla Dynasty: Politics And Leadership In North Korea. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-429-97609-4.
  • Heonik Kwon; Byung-Ho Chung (2012). North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4422-1577-1.
  • Lankov, Andrei (2015). The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-939003-8.

External links[edit]