The Workers’ Party of Korea will celebrate its anniversary with gusto on Saturday, marking 70 years since it became the ostensibly democratic face of history’s only communist dynasty – and glossing over the inconvenient fact that it has done little more than rubber stamp the decisions of three generations of the Kim family, starting with Kim Il-sung, since 1945.
In the seven decades since the creation of the party, North Korea has started a war that came to the brink of a nuclear exchange, abducted hundreds of foreign nationals, sold weapons to rogue Middle Eastern states,manufactured drugs to earn hard currency and printed counterfeit foreign banknotes.
Arms and the 1.1 million men
North Korea has the biggest per capita standing army in the world and is believed to have extensive stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons. Pyongyang has also developed nuclear weapons and the intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver the warheads – and insists it is ready and willing to use them.
Kim family values
Three generations of the Kim family have also displayed callous disregard for the well-being of their own people. Famine has been a recurring theme of life in North Korea. The elite continued to live in luxury during the four-year famine from 1994, known euphemistically in the North as the Arduous March, during which as many as 3.5 million of the nation’s 22 million people died of starvation.
Tens of thousands of its citizens are still held in political prison camps, with no chance of ever being released, along with three generations of their families also condemned to being worked to death because of the regime’s assumption of guilt by association.
Senior members of the regime who fall out of favour are simply executed, often in the most gruesome of ways. In April, satellites captured images of anti-aircraft guns being used to carry out an execution.
A pariah state
The United Nations released a report in February 2014 that condemned North Korea for multiple alleged cases of murder, torture, rape used as an instrument of torture, abduction, enslavement, starvation and other abuses against its own people.
The North Korean regime “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge and chair of the panel, stated in the final document, adding that many of its excesses reminded him of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in Germany and Cambodia under Pol Pot.
Isolated for its excesses, under international sanctions and regularly condemned by the global community, analysts have more than once predicted the regime’s demise. It has indeed teetered on that brink – there are reports of attempted coups that came to nothing while international sanctions and China’s restriction of aid have undoubtedly hurt the regime – yet it has always managed to limp on while keeping up the colourful rhetoric against its enemies.
And that is testament to the three Kims that have led the country with successive iron fists since Japan’s defeat in 1945 divided the Korean Peninsula into the Soviet Union-sponsored North and the South, supported by the United States and, when war broke out in 1950, the UN.
The personality cult of Kim Il-sung
Born in 1912 and given the name Kim Song-ju, the official version of Kim Il-sung’s life claims that he and his family resisted the Japanese colonisation of the Korean Peninsula and that he joined an underground Marxist organisation, but they were forced to flee to Manchuria.
After Japan’s invasion of north-east China in 1931, Kim joined a guerrilla group under the Communist Party of China and served as a political commissar.
He adopted the name Kim Il-sung – which translates as “Kim becomes the sun” – in 1935 and led raids against Japanese outposts, the most famous of which, the attack on the small town of Poch’onbo, has gone down in North Korean history as a feat of military genius.
With the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union installed Kim as its puppet and set about creating a cult of personality similar to that surrounding Stalin.
War and the DMZ
On June 25, 1950, North Korea launched what it called the Fatherland Liberation War, with the tacit backing of China and the Soviet Union.
Initial successes pushed weak South Korean and US forces back to the edges of the south-east port city of Pusan before a massive UN force, led by the US but with significant British involvement, intervened. Seoul was recaptured after daring landings at Incheon but the conflict degenerated into stalemate when China intervened with millions of “volunteers” flooding over the border.
An armistice was signed in 1953 and a Demilitarised Zone – in truth, the world’s most heavily fortified border – has divided the peninsula ever since.
The two sides have kept up the political sniping and regular military clashes ever since.
Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader
Kim Il-sung – referred to as The Great Leader – died in July 1994, the nation being inherited by his son, Kim Jong-il. The North’s propaganda machine had already been busy lionising the achievements of a man who was to become The Dear Leader, claiming he was born in a secret guerrilla camp on the slopes of sacred Mount Paektu. The reality is more prosaic; he was born Yuri Irsenovich Kim in a refugee camp near Khabarovsk.
North Korea’s economy was already in decline, thanks primarily to a policy of diverting the bulk of the nation’s resources to the military, and chronic mismanagement, but Pyongyang became increasingly reliant on assistance from China, its sole significant ally.
That never stopped the North from playing up Kim’s alleged achievements, which ranged from writing 1,500 books and six full operas during his three years at Kim Il-sung University, to overseeing the nation’s film industry and, after first picking up a golf club at North Korea’s only golf course in 1994, scoring a 38-under par round that included a remarkable 11 holes in one.
There had long been suggestions that Kim Jong-il, who had suffered two serious strokes in 2008, was suffering from diabetes as well as heart and kidney complaints and he died suddenly aboard his personal train in December 2011.
Kim Jong-un – more of the same …
After an official period of mourning, Kim Jong-un was anointed his heir and successor and swiftly dashed hopes that his upbringing and education at a private school in Switzerland might have given him a broader world view and encouraged him to seek rapprochement with the North’s enemies instead of confrontation.
If anything, Mr Kim’s attitude towards the rest of the world has been more obtuse. The North launched a rocket in April 2012 in what other nations condemned as a disguised test of a ballistic missile, and carried out its third underground nuclear test in February 2013, despite international pressure not to. Mr Kim has also restarted the reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear plant.
Mr Kim’s reign has been punctuated by military clashes at sea and along the border, while he has also sought closer relations with Russia since China grew weary of the regime ignoring Beijing’s advice.
Mr Kim will use the anniversary of the founding of the party to call on his people to continue the struggle to build the nation’s unique form of socialism – but with more defectors escaping North Korea’s borders and more information than ever before going the other way, his citizens are no longer in the dark over the realities of his regime.