Politics of North Korea

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The Juche Tower symbolizes the official state philosophy of Juche.
Emblem of North Korea.svg
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
North Korea

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, Korean Democratic Women's League, 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.

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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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, it's adoption of a certain ideological form of Marxism-Leninism is specific to the conditions of North Korea.[14] Juche was enshrined as the official ideology when the country adopted a new constitution in 1972.[15][16] In 2009, the constitution was amended again, quietly removing the brief references to communism (Chosŏn'gŭl공산주의).[17] 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.[18] North Korea has a strong relationship with Cuba;[19] in 2016, the North Korean government declared three days of mourning period for Fidel Castro's death.[20]

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. Some outside observers have suggested that Kim Jong-il himself favored such reforms but that some parts of the party and the military resisted any changes that might threaten stability for North Korea.[citation needed]

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.[21] 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 Seong-Cheong-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.[22]


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. [23] 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." [24]

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.[25]

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 KWP and the cabinet. Because of his political lobbying, the KPW'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 KWP, 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.[25]

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 Wikisource link to Constitution of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (2012). Wikisource. 2012. 
  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. ^ Herskovitz, Jon (28 September 2009). "North Korea drops communism, boosts "Dear Leader"". Reuters. Archived from the original on 1 October 2009.
  11. ^ Wiener-Bronner, Danielle (6 March 2014). "Yes, There Are Elections in North Korea and Here's How They Work". Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  12. ^ "[1]," Associated Press, 8 March 2009.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ s:Constitution of North Korea (1972)
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ DPRK has quietly amended its Constitution (Archived 31 March 2013 at WebCite)
  18. ^ "13th International meeting of Communist and Workers' Parties in Athens". Act of Defiance. 29 November 2011. Archived from the original on 14 March 2014.
  19. ^ Ramani, Samuel (7 June 2016). "The North Korea-Cuba Connection". The Diplomat. Archived from the original on 8 June 2016.
  20. ^ "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.
  21. ^ 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,
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ "North Korea shuts down universities for 10 months". The Telegraph. 28 June 2011. Retrieved 16 October 2018.
  24. ^ "The symbols of the Kims' power under attack, North Koreans are waking up". Retrieved 16 October 2018.
  25. ^ 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]