Japanese colonial rule in Korea ended on 15 August 1945 when Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. Korea was thus liberated but was divided at the 38th Parallel. The United States and the Soviet Union divided the Korean Peninsula into two temporary occupation zones to accept the surrender of the Japanese forces, but this arrangement soon became permanent. The United States and the Soviet Union administered their respective occupation zones in southern and northern Korea through radically different instrumentalities. In the north, the Soviet authorities made use of the indigenous people's committees, and a policy of communization was enforced.
On 8 February 1946, the North Korean Interim People's Committee was organized as the new governing body, taking the place of local people's committees. With the help of the Soviets, veteran communist and Red Army officer Kim Il Sung was named chairman. In February 1947, a convention of the local representatives elected in November 1946 was held, which in turn elected the Supreme People's Assembly. The assembly approved the creation of the North Korean People's Committee, which became the highest executive governing organization under Kim.
On 16 February 1948, the North Korean People's Committee proclaimed its intention to form a government representing all Korea within the next few months. On 25 August 1948, ten days after the ROK was officially proclaimed, North Korea held an election for the Supreme People's Assembly throughout Korea. Some rightists and many leftists in South Korea participated in the election. The representatives to the Supreme People's Assembly met in Pyongyang on 3 September to ratify a constitution that had been drafted earlier in the year. The DPRK government was officially established on 9 September, with Kim as premier. On 12 October, the Soviet Union officially recognized this new government.
The formation of the ROK and of the DPRK formalized the de facto division of the Korean Peninsula at the 38th Parallel. Each state claimed to represent the entire nation and remained adamantly antagonistic toward the other. Each also worked to unite Korea on its own terms and with the assistance of its principal foreign patron.
Kim remained determined to unify the Korean Peninsula by military means. North Korea's armed forces significantly surpassed the South Korean Army in manpower and equipment. Calculating that the United States would not protect South Korea, Kim persistently pressed Soviet leader Josef Stalin and PRC leader Mao Zedong for permission to reunify the Korean Peninsula by military means. Indeed, Kim began lobbying for an invasion of South Korea as early as March 1949. He proposed it to Stalin and, with Stalin's and Mao's approval and with a Soviet battle plan to guide him, executed it.
On 25 June 1950, North Korea launched a full-scale attack on South Korea and within three days captured the capital city of Seoul. At that point, it looked as if Kim's ambitions to unify Korea by force under communist rule would be fulfilled. Only then did the United States decide to take military action to save South Korea. The military intervention of United Nations Command (UNC) forces, comprised largely of U.S. troops, completely frustrated the ambitions of North Korean leadership.
The Korean War was quite costly for North Korea. It suffered 523,400 casualties, comprised of 294,151 dead and 229,249 wounded. UNC bombing inflicted heavy damage, turning the North Korean capital of Pyongyang into ruins. On 28 July 1953, a day after the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, Kim claimed a great victory over the "U.S. imperialists, their South Korean lackeys, and the entire imperialist camp" and vowed to continue his struggle for the "liberation of the southern half of the Republic."
During the 1950s and 1960s, North Korea exhibited an extremely hostile attitude toward the United States via harsh verbal attacks, occasionally accompanied by military actions, always demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. During 1966–1969, North Korea waged another Korean conflict, with a large number of border clashes along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 38th Parallel. In 1967 and 1968 alone, a total of 1,769 border incidents, more than 260 of which were classified as "significant," occurred within the South Korean sector of the DMZ. These produced some 900 casualties among South Korean and American troops. Then on 23 January 1968, North Korean naval ships illegally seized the USS Pueblo in international waters off its coast, killing 1 crewman and taking 82 others hostage. On 15 April 1969, North Korean MiG fighters attacked and shot down a U.S. EC-121 surveillance plane, killing all 43 crew members. Then, on 18 August 1976, North Korean guards at the joint security area in the village of Panmunjom attacked a party of U.S. and South Korean soldiers engaged in a tree-trimming operation on the UN side of the area, murdering 2 American officers.
Since the early 1960s, North Korea has pursued its two primary objectives in foreign policy dealing with the United States: the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and the establishment of direct contacts with Washington. Thus, Pyongyang practiced a seemingly contradictory foreign policy of antagonism and hostility toward the United States while making seemingly conciliatory gestures with the singular aim of establishing direct contacts with America. The refusal of the United States to respond to Pyongyang's overtures eventually led the North Koreans to play the nuclear card, which succeeded in bringing a reluctant United States to a bilateral conference table in the 1990s. After March 1993, Pyongyang used its plutonium-based nuclear weapons program as a bargaining chip for security assurances and economic aid from the United States, which proved successful. In early October 2002, North Korea admitted that it had continued to pursue its nuclear weapons program, this time using highly enriched uranium in violation of the 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework freezing North Korea's nuclear program. That admission damaged the already-strained relations between the two nations. On 29 January 2002, in his State of the Union address, U.S. President George W. Bush defined North Korea as part of the "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran. North Korea has settled on a twofold strategy of keeping its nuclear weapons program even as it seeks to improve ties with Washington.
In the domestic sphere, after the Korean War Kim systematically and brutally consolidated his power, making North Korea his own kingdom. Referred to by his people as "Great Leader," he established a formidable cult of personality, outdoing even Stalin and Mao. From the 1950s, Kim developed his own political philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance, possibly motivated by unsatisfactory support from the Soviet Union and unwelcome domination by the PRC during the Korean War. The Juche philosophy was meant to appeal to deep-rooted Korean resistance to foreign invasion and domination. It quickly became synonymous with North Korea's notorious economic autarchy. Juche also developed another peculiar North Korean endeavor: our-style socialism. North Korea shut itself off from the world, maintaining diplomatic relations only with communist bloc countries. Juche and our-style socialism helped contribute to the total collapse of the North Korean economy in the 1990s, which led to widespread starvation that the North Korean government vehemently denied.
Kim died on 8 July 1994, and his son, Kim Jong Il, succeeded him as his political heir. The younger Kim had no intention of changing his father's hallmark policies, and the increasingly quixotic quest to "live in our own way" has continued in the world's last unreconstructed Stalinist state. North Korea has also become the center of a major and continuing international crisis through its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile development programs.
Cumings, Bruce. Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History. New York: Norton, 1997.; Hart-Landsberg, Martin. Korea: Division, Reunification, and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998.; Nahm, Andrew C. "The United States and North Korea since 1945." Pp. 99–142 in Korean-American Relations, 1866–1997. Edited by Yur-bok Lee and Wayne Patterson. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.