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Five Things You Should Know About North Korea
Decades of congressional research reports reveal the history of North Korea, its leadership and the people who live there
By Alison Roth
North Korea’s bold demonstrations of nuclear capabilities, followed by recent vague promises to disarm, coincide with the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – which North Korea withdrew from in 2003.
This bit of serendipity got us thinking about this mysterious country and its leadership. We dove into the ProQuest Congressional Research Digital Collection, searching through decades of primary sources that reveal the interesting history of North Korea and its people. Here are a few things we learned…
1) North Korea’s first leader was responsible for more American deaths than any other Communist leader. Kim Il-sung, grandfather of current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, led the country from 1948 to his death in 1994. “Kim Il-sung has the honor, in Communist eyes, of being responsible for the killing and maiming of more Americans than any other Red leader,” according to “Who are they? Part 6: Kim Il Sung and Ho Chi Minh (North Korea-North Viet-Nam),” published by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in October 1957. At the time, war-related U.S. casualties under Kim Il-sung were believed to total nearly 55,000 (that number was later revised).
2) The Korean War technically isn’t over. While active combat took place from 1950-1953, no peace treaty was ever signed, which many historians and government officials say means the war is ongoing. Over the past few decades, “there have been multiple attempts to conclude, or official discussions about launching negotiations to conclude, a peace treaty or a non-aggression agreement to tamp down hostilities and officially end the Korean War,” says “A Peace Treaty with North Korea?” published by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division.
3) The country is governed by its own brand of Communism called juche (pronounced joochay). “Unlike the formerly Soviet-dominated East European countries, North Korea has its own, home-grown brand of communism,” reads the “North Korea: Country Background Report,” published in September 1990 by the CRS Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division. “The centerpiece of its ideology is the notion of juche, or self-reliance. The origins of juche can be traced to the mid-1950s when North Korea consciously distanced itself from Soviet dominance. It extolled indigenous Korean culture, national pride, and independence from foreign powers and was a key instrument in sustaining Pyongyang (North Korea’s capital city)’s subsequent balancing act between the Soviet Union and China.”
4) North Korea’s constitution claims the country provides "freedom of speech, of the press, demonstration and association." However, “these freedoms are overshadowed and heavily, if not entirely, limited and circumscribed by other constitutional provisions, including that ‘the State shall adhere to the class line, strengthen the dictatorship of people's democracy,’ ‘the State shall oppose the cultural infiltration of imperialism,’ and ‘the State shall eliminate the way of life inherited from the outmoded society and establish a new socialist way of life in every sphere,’” says “Thank You Father Kim Il Sung: Eyewitness Accounts of Severe Violations of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion in North Korea,” published in November 2005 by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
5) North Korea tried – and failed – to assassinate South Korean president Park Chung Hee. In January 1968, “approximately 30 [North Korean] commandos attempted a daring raid on the Blue House in Seoul with the objective of assassinating President Park. They managed to cross the 38th parallel, infiltrate the city, and come within a kilometer of the Presidential palace…although none reached the Blue House,” according to “Investigation of Korean-American Relations”, a committee print issued by the House International Relations Committee Subcommittee on International Organizations. The South Korean president was eventually assassinated in 1979 by his own security chief.
Learn more about North Korea using the ProQuest Congressional Research Digital Collection – named a 2017 Best Database by Library Journal. The Collection includes more than 100 years’ worth of research reports commissioned by members of Congress to help them understand the issues of the day and keep them informed about matters under the jurisdiction of specific committees.
Plus check out related resources to explore international relations, military, and diplomatic history, including:
Alison Roth is the lead business blogger at ProQuest. A former journalist, she enjoys AP style, direct quotes and a good Oxford Comma debate. She was inspired to become a writer many years ago by Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry, and is still influenced by his style to this day. You can follow Alison on Instagram at @five_speed.