North Korea Under Communism 1948-2014 | Victims of Communism

Victims of Communism — Memorial Foundation

North Korea Under Communism 1948-2014

By Suzanne Scholte


Viewing a satellite photo of the Korean peninsula at night, one can see what communism has meant for the people of North Korea.  There is a wide dark black band between the border of China and Russia and the border of South Korea suggesting perhaps a body of water or an uninhabitable area, but this is North Korea.  Over 24 million people live in a darkness of isolation and deprivation that the communist dictatorships of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il have produced and that continues today under the Kim Jong-un dictatorship despite increased awareness and appreciation for the atrocities being committed against the North Korean people.

The Korean peninsula also provides a vivid illustration of the effects of communism vs. democracy on a people group.  Korea is a divided country where we can see and compare the results of two governmental systems: the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea.)

Measurements of the health of a country provide a stark contrast between the two systems.   South Korean men have a life expectancy of 76.67 years, women 83.13, while North Korean men have a life expectancy of 65.96 years and women 73.86 years.  The most revealing contrast is the infant mortality rate, the number of infants that have died within a year of their birth.  In South Korea this figure is 3.93 per one thousand births, while in North Korea this figure is 24.5 per one thousand births.  Years of living under communism have even stunted the growth of the North Korean people, with North Koreans several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.

The economic systems also reveal a stark contrast in living standards with the annual per capita income of democratic South Korea $33,200 compared to communist North Korea’s $1,800.  News coverage of North Korea tends to center on the threats and provocations of the Kim Jong-un regime and the regime’s development of its nuclear weapons program.  But a new focus is emerging on the human rights conditions in North Korea, due to twenty thousand defectors and a landmark 2014 United Nations report that have confirmed what has long been suspected: North Korea is a land of unrelieved repression with no human rights or freedom for its citizens.  It is a regime unlike any other in modern times.

North Korea Today: Kim Jong-il

By 2014, over 23,000 North Koreans had escaped to live in South Korea and other free nations. Their testimonies have confirmed that Kim Jong-il, the late father of the country’s current ruler, was among the world’s worst violators of human rights.  Between failed economic policies, diversion of international food assistance, and a vast network of political prison camps, Kim Jong-il killed millions of Koreans.  He was also involved in proliferating weapons of mass destruction; the transfer of nuclear technology to countries like Syria and Iran; international drug trafficking; currency counterfeiting; the abduction of South Korean, Japanese and citizens from at least ten other nations; and having continuously detained prisoners from the Korean War.

There are five main methods the Kim regimes have used to maintain power: brainwashing, isolation, an elaborate classification system known as songbun, controlling access to resources, and fear through an elaborate system of “reeducation centers,” i.e. political prison camps.  North Koreans are brainwashed from early childhood to revere and honor Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il as gods.  They are fed a steady diet of propaganda to believe that they live in a “paradise” and are far better off than the rest of the world, and that South Korea is occupied by the “yankee imperialist wolves,” i.e. United States.

To control the population, Kim Jong-il established juche or kimjongilism, a national policy of self-reliance to differentiate his brand of Marxism from that of his Soviet sponsors.  In North Korea’s first years, its citizens were taught both Marxism and juche.  Once the Soviet Union collapsed, juche became the central source of education and “group think” in North Korea.  Every citizen is expected to study regularly at the hundreds of thousands of Kim Il Sung Revolutionary Research Centers.  Daily allegiance is given to the required portraits of Kim Il Song and Kim Jong-il found in every home in North Korea.  There are no opportunities for independent thought or even independent discussion as organizations such as unions, civic associations and even alumni groups are not allowed.  Only the Worker’s Party with its unswerving allegiance to the regime is permitted.

Isolation plays a central role in keeping the population literally “in the dark” about the outside world.  All newspapers, books, and magazines are distributed by the government to glorify Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un.  North Koreans are forbidden to listen to foreign broadcasting or read foreign newspapers.  They cannot travel outside their country without permission, nor can they even travel from one city to another without a permit.

In the 1960s, the regime established the songbun classification system in which there are 51 categories, almost like a caste or apartheid system.  All resources are controlled—livelihood, school, lodging, whom one can marry are all based on your ranking.  Songbun is inescapable and generational.  Those highest on the songbun system, the “elites”, are considered the most loyal and are able to live in Pyongyang and have access to material goods, medical care, and other benefits.  But, if your grandfather fled to South Korea or you had a relative who owned land or was a professional, no matter your talents or abilities, you will have a low songbun and be denied access to the best schools and best jobs in North Korea and forced to live outside the capital city.

The Public Distribution System, which provided for the distribution of food and material goods until its collapse during the famine years, also provided a means of control: those considered most loyal to the regime had access to food and material goods, while those considered hostile or wavering received limited distribution.  For example, the elites would be given white rice, while those lower on the classification system would get corn meal.  The cruelty of this system manifested itself most tragically during the famine of the 1990s where areas like North Hamyong Province, considered disloyal to the regime, were cut off from international food assistance.  At least one million North Koreans died from starvation (North Korean defectors estimate the deaths totaled closer to three million).

North Korea has an elaborate system of political prison camps that are as deadly as any Nazi death camp or Soviet gulag.  Established by Kim Il Sung to imprison and “reeducate” potential opposition as he established his regime, there are estimated to be at least 150,000 to 200,000 people imprisoned in these camps today where they endure forced labor, beatings, forced abortions, torture, rape, starvation, and unsanitary conditions.  Because the regime imprisons three generations of a family if one person is accused of a crime, even children are sent to these camps, and children are born to parents in these camps and can remain there for the rest of their lives.

Because these camps are in isolated areas and even North Koreans are restricted from knowing their location, it is not known how many have perished; the South Korean government estimated in the late 1990s that at least 400,000 had died but suspected that figure to be as high as one million.   Complaining about the food situation, not properly showing respect for Kim Jong-il, listening to a foreign radio broadcast, or being related to someone who committed one of these crimes is cause enough to be sent to a political prison camp.  There are now a growing number of citizens who are being sent to prison for economic crimes, such as trading and selling, using a cell phone and being in contact with people outside the country.

Dr. R. J. Rummel, in Death by Government, wrote about North Korea:  “In no other country in modern times has control by a party and its ruler been so complete.”

Since his ascension to power in 2011, Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un has given every indication of continuing his father’s cruel policies. The ongoing state of human rights in North Korea demands renewed attention and international pressure because while there has been growing awareness, little has been done to actually improve the human rights conditions for the North Korean people.  For example, the United Nations (UN) launched a Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea in 2013 which concluded in a report released in early 2014 that “unspeakable atrocities” were being committed and that “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”  The UN COI furthermore stated these crimes against humanity had gone on for decades and are ongoing citing:  “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearances of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”  Because of the crackdown on the China-North Korea border and China’s complicity in forcing escaping North Korean refugees back to North Korea, the North Korean refugee situation is worse today than ever before since Kim Jong-un came to power.  The significant drop in North Koreans making it to freedom is clear evidence of this crackdown as there has been a steady decline in refugees making it to freedom each year but no improvement of internal conditions.

Early History: Formation of the Peoples’ Republic of Korea and the Korean War

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, and two days later, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and launched an attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria. On August 9, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and on August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered.

The Soviets quickly took Manchuria and entered Korea.  Because it was impossible for U.S. troops to get to Korea in time and fearing the Soviets would take the entire peninsula, War Department Colonels Charles H. Bonesteel and Dean Rusk hastily drafted an agreement which set out a demarcation line for the zones of influence for Korea marking the Soviet zone from the China/Russia border to end at the 38th parallel, while South of the 38th parallel would be the zone of influence for the United States.  This arbitrary line did not take into account the political boundaries, nor the natural features of waterways and rivers or the rail lines or highways. While the capital of Seoul was in the U.S. zone, almost all of the major industry including coal and electricity were produced in the North.  At that time, northern Korea was the industrialized part of Korea while the south was largely agrarian.

The original plan for Korea was for the Soviets to accept the surrender of Japanese forces in the North and the US to accept the surrender of Japanese forces in the South, and once order was restored, the Korea people would have elections to have a new government and a “free and independent Korea”.

However, it was clear the Soviets had no intention of ever allowing a free and independent Korea, and as soon as U.S. forces arrived in Seoul they began receiving reports of the Soviet military erecting permanent markets along the 38th parallel.  Furthermore, the Soviets selected the leader of the North Korean communists who had fought against the Japanese to serve under their influence.  On February 8, 1946, Kim Il-Sung became the leader of the Interim People’s Committee.  This most important post established Kim’s power and he became the dictator of North Korea until his death on July 8, 1994.

The Soviets sent many specialists to help Kim consolidate power and establish a communist government while simultaneously training and sending thousands of agents into the south to establish Communist organizations and cells to de-stabilize the efforts by the United States to establish a democracy.  In addition, Kim immediately began to form the Korean People’s Army to develop a fighting force in case the political efforts to unite the two Koreans under communism failed.

In 1947, the United Nations established the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) to oversee a free and fair election in Korea and elections were held on May 10, 1949.  But the Soviets refused to participate in the elections, so no one north of the 38th parallel participated.  On August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea was established with President Syngman Rhee as its president and the United Nations recognized the Republic of Korea as the only legitimate nation on the Korean peninsula.

Ten days later, on August 25, 1948, under Soviet sponsorship, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established with Kim Il-Sung as leader.  The same year the United Nations, in reaction to the atrocities of World War II, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the only nation in the world today that does not enjoy one single human right enshrined in this document is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

To consolidate power, Kim launched the Concentrated Guidance Campaign: a massive ideological census and registration of the background and political purity of each and every North Korean and began rounding up, jailing and even executing “counter-revolutionaries.”    From August 1945 to September 1948, approximately 800,000 North Koreans fled to South Korea, an exodus that would affect millions during the next decade.  Counter-revolutionaries were defined as anyone whose family members had fled South Korea, former members of any anti-Communist organization; property owners and businessmen, natives of South Korea and their families, and perhaps the worst counter-revolutionaries of all: Christians and their families.

Kim Il-Sung was setting up a state in which he would be “god,” something Christians would not accept.  Kim knew that the church had played an important role in preserving Korean culture and resistance to Japanese colonization and therefore would be an obstacle to his own consolidation of power.  By 1962, Kim Il-Sung boasted that: “We have executed all Protestant and Catholic church cadre members and all other vicious religious elements have been sent to concentration camps.”

Soviet style reforms under Kim Il-Sung were enacted including the nationalization of major industries, seizure of privately owned land, labor reforms and a propaganda campaign to enhance Kim Il-Sung’s image in the minds of the Korean people.

Korean War

Having successfully consolidated power with the Soviet Union’s support, Kim was obsessed with attacking South Korea and reunifying Korea under communism.  He prepared by getting substantial help from the Soviet Union including military advisors, who drew up invasion plans, and military equipment.  By 1950, he had double the army, double the artillery and a six to one advantage in aircraft and tanks compared to South Korea.  The month before the invasion, Kim Il Sung cynically and publicly wished for peaceful unification and a unified national assembly.

South Korea, weary of the constant threat of an invasion from the North, was totally caught off guard when the North attacked.   The North Korean Army invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, and took Seoul in just three days.  President Harry S. Truman authorized U.S. air and naval support and sought and won support from the United Nations to intervene on behalf of the Republic of Korea.  Without the Soviet Union’s presence, the UN Security Council voted for the first time for the United Nations to commit troops and support in defense of a member country.

Sixty seven nations participated in the effort, the most nations in history to ever support an ally in war.  Of that number, sixteen provided troops, with the vast majority of those troops coming from the United States of America, as well as the UN Force Commander: General Douglas MacArthur.

During 1950, the UN Forces were driven back to the Pusan perimeter, but by September following a daring landing at Inchon planned by MacArthur, the UN Forces were able to liberate not only South Korea but drive the North Korean Army back across the 38th parallel to the Manchurian border.  Coming to Kim’s rescue and motivated by concern that a united Korean democracy might be at China’s border, Mao Zedong responded with the deployment of 300,000 Chinese Communists troops in its “War to Resist America and Aid Korea.”  The November, 1950 attack caught the Allies by surprise and the overwhelming number of Chinese troops forced an allied retreat which enabled the Chinese and North Korean forces to recapture Seoul in three months.  The UN forces launched a counter offensive that retook Seoul and pushed the Chinese and North Korean forces back to the 38th parallel by the summer of 1951.

Only in recent years has the People’s Republic of China acknowledged that it was North Korea that attacked South Korea and started the conflict.  Its earlier statements blamed the United States for assembling a United Nations force and invading North Korea.  Even today, however, there is debate about the number of Chinese casualties.  The PRC officially recognized 183,108 deaths including noncombatants.  The UN Forces estimate places the number at least 400,000 while others believe the Chinese casualties were close to one million.  It is generally believed that China lost more soldiers than any country in the Korean War.

A formal treaty ending the Korean War has never been signed, but a ceasefire has remained in effect since the Korean War Armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.


Author bio: Noted human rights advocate Suzanne Scholte has served since 1988 as the President of the Defense Forum Foundation, a non-profit foundation that promotes a strong national defense and freedom, democracy, and human rights abroad. She is also the Vice Co-Chair of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. She is the recipient, in 2008, of the Seoul Peace Prize and, in 2010, of the Walter Judd Freedom Award.