Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

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Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Type of Government

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, defines itself as a democratic republic, but it functions as a single-party dictatorship under the leadership of the military. The commander of the military also serves as the general secretary of the leading political party. The party secretary oversees an executive cabinet consisting of a premier, a vice premier, and government ministers. North Korea has a unicameral legislature, which is constitutionally the nation’s most important political body but is functionally subordinate to the leading political party. The judiciary is appointed by the legislature and serves mostly to maintain the authority of the ruling regime.


After the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Korea was annexed by Japan. Under a repressive colonial administration a strong independence movement arose, with an estimated two million people demonstrating against Japanese rule in rallies staged in 1919. The movement was strongly suppressed, with thousands killed by Japanese police and tens of thousands imprisoned. A government in exile was formed, and during World War II the Korean Liberation Army fought against Germany and Japan.

After World War II, the victorious Allied Powers agreed that Japan would be stripped of its former colonies. Korea was split by the Allies into two parts, with the territory north of the thirty-eighth parallel administered by the Soviet Union and the territory south of that point administered by the United States. While the arrangement was intended to be a temporary trusteeship until the country could be united and granted its independence under a single, stable government, animosity between the communist Soviet Union and the ardently anti-communist United States led each side to promote leaders and a government structure sympathetic to its own goals. In 1948 this lead to the establishment of two different governments, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north and the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south, with each government claiming sovereignty over the entire Korean Peninsula. War between the two factions broke out in 1950 and lasted until a peace treaty was signed in 1953.

Government Structure

North Korea’s first constitution, adopted in 1948, was based on the communist ideology of German political philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Soviet leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870–1924). The document, which was revised in 1972, 1992, and 1998, calls for representative government, with universal suffrage for all persons seventeen years of age and older. In reality, single-party control has led to a dictatorship in which most constitutional procedures are symbolic rather than functional.

The DPRK military, led by the National Defense Commission (NDC), is the country’s largest employer and the center of the nation’s economy. The chairman of the NDC is, according to decree, the head of government and the commander of the armed forces. Since the Korean War (1950–53) the chairman of the NDC has concurrently served as general secretary of the Korean Workers Party (KWP). This close association between the NDC and the KWP means that a single person can assume control over the nation’s government, military, and economy.

The executive branch consists of a cabinet headed by a premier and vice premier. The premier, who is appointed by the legislature, then chooses a foreign minister, a minister of the armed forces, a minister of public security, and a minister of state construction. Each has the authority to appoint deputy and assistant ministers. The executive branch has the constitutional authority to create legislation and to set the administrative agenda for the nation, but it does so under the supervision of the general secretary of the KWP.

North Korea has a unicameral legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly. Its 687 members are elected by popular vote, with elections held every five years. North Korea has three political parties; however, the majority party selects a list of candidates for the assembly who run in uncontested elections; some seats are reserved for representatives of minority parties. The assembly is constitutionally the highest political body in the country, with power to ratify, approve, and amend any legislation and/or administrative orders arising from the executive branch. However, as with the executive branch, the legislature is dominated by the leading political party and takes direction from the general secretary.

The judiciary consists of a Central Court, made up of a chief justice and two people’s assessors, who are elected by the members of the assembly for five-year terms. The judicial system blends procedural rules from the Japanese, Russian, and German legal systems, with the courts serving largely to uphold the authority of the ruling party. The judiciary does not have oversight over executive decisions, and all judicial rulings are subject to executive approval.

The DPRK is divided into nine provinces and four municipalities, one of which is the capital city, Pyongyang. They are served by Provincial People’s Assemblies, whose members are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. Provincial elections are also single-party, uncontested affairs and are subject to approval of the national assembly. Some seats in the provincial governments are reserved for minority parties.

Political Parties and Factions

The Korean Workers Party (KWP) was founded in 1945 by Kim Il Sung (1949–1994), the first leader of the DPRK. Since that time the KWP has been closely linked to the military and has controlled the nation as a single-party state. Minority parties are only allowed to function if they legally agree to accept the leadership and authority of the KWP. Originally the KWP was split into a number of ideologically distinct factions, but by 1960 Kim Il Sung’s bloc had eliminated all competing groups and established itself as the leading political party. The KWP is a pro-military, communist party whose platform is based on the idea of Juche as explained by Kim Il Sung: “Man is the master of everything and decides everything.”

The Korean Social Democratic Party (KSD) was formed in 1945 by a group of business leaders and political moderates who sought a more representative democracy. They took a pacifist stance toward foreign relations and advocated a peace agreement with the United States and its allies. Although the KSD represents the ideological opposition to the KWP, most political analysts believe it has little actual influence and serves mainly as a symbolic competitor.

The Chondoist Chongu Party was formed in 1946 as the political arm of the country’s native Chondogyo religion, which is a blend of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Early in the history of the DPRK the party was an active competitor to the KWP and secured sufficient representation to exert moderate legislative influence. After the Korean War the KWP effectively limited the Chondoist Party’s political power but allowed it to function as a symbolic representative of one of the country’s most influential religions.

Major Events

In 1945 Japanese colonial forces in Korea surrendered to the Soviet Army. In 1948, after failed attempts at reconciliation between Soviet–controlled North Korea and U.S.–controlled South Korea, two separate nations were created. When Soviet–trained General Kim Il Song was elected premier, he proclaimed that the DPRK was the sole legitimate authority for the entire peninsula—he refused to acknowledge the political sovereignty of the ROK.

The Korean War was devastating for both sides, with hundreds of thousands of combat deaths and civilian casualties in the millions. After the war, Kim Il Sung remained the nation’s leader as the chairman of the National Defense Committee and the general secretary of the KWP. The alliance between the KWP and the military transformed the nation into a single-party regime, and in 1972 Kim Il Sung revised the constitution and named himself permanent president of the nation.

His government established control over all aspects of society, creating a “cult of personality” in which Kim’s will translated directly into policy. The government functioned only as a subordinate bureaucracy. Kim used the perceived threat of capitalist invasion as justification for authoritarian rule and military control.

As Kim’s rule continued, he developed the idea of Juche, making it the official state ideology in the 1972 version of the constitution. Juche is sometimes translated as “self-reliance” and is used in government literature to describe a state that is self-sustaining in economic and military terms. Its practical application was central planning: the government made massive investments in heavy industry and infrastructure. The concept of Juche also holds that it is the government’s duty to mold the ideologies of the people and to mobilize the forces of communism.

Kim Il Sung is often referred to in political literature as the Great Leader, and since his death in 1994 he has been given the title of Eternal President. His son Kim Jong Il (1942–) succeeded him as chairman of the NDC and general secretary of the KWP. He has continued to lead the nation as an authoritarian regime.

Twenty-First Century

According to most outside observers, North Korea’s economy is in a desperate state because of external debt, poor internal investment, and harsh climatic conditions. From 1995 to 2006 the country experienced severe flooding, which halted agricultural production and led to widespread food shortages. Since then the government instituted economic reforms, including redistribution of aid from China and South Korea and allowing limited decentralization of agricultural sales in an effort to boost production.

In 2002 North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and announced its intention to develop a nuclear arsenal. In 2005—after negotiations involving the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Russia—North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for international aid and protection agreements. However, the government conducted missile tests in July and October 2006, leading to military sanctions from China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

Oh, Kongdan, and Ralph C. Hassig. North Korea Through the Looking Glass. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000.

Oberdorfer, Dan. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. Rev. ed. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Jeffries, Ian. North Korea: A Guide to Economic and Political Developments. Oxford: Routledge Press, 2006.

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Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

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