How North Korea Works

How North Korea Came Into Existence
Cheonji Lake, aka Heaven Lake, lies between China and North Korea. Topic Images/Getty Images

To understand why North Korea has become such a dangerous international pariah, it's necessary to look back to the country's origins. The Korean peninsula was ruled by local kings for centuries. But from 1910 to 1945, it was part of the Japanese empire, which tried to make Korea into a colony. That came to an end with the Japanese defeat in World War II. The victorious U.S. forces occupied the southern part of the peninsula up to the 38th parallel, while Soviet forces occupied the northern half. As they had in Eastern Europe, the Soviets installed a communist regime, and in 1948, Korea became two countries [source: U.S. Department of State].

To head the North Korean regime, the Soviets selected an obscure figure. Kim Il Sung was born Kim Song Ju in Korea in 1912 but spent most of his childhood in China. The official version of events is that he fought in the resistance there against the Japanese, though at least one North Korea analyst believes he actually assumed the identity, as well as the name, of an older guerrilla leader who had died [sources: Quince, Sanger].

In 1940, Kim Il Sung joined the Soviet Red Army, and in 1946, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin appointed him head of the North Korean Temporary People's Committee. In 1948, the Soviets made him North Korea's prime minister [source: Boissonealt]. In order to build public support for him, they staged a propaganda campaign to convince Koreans that the new leader had led the resistance against the Japanese.

But Kim Il Sung was an uneasy ruler. After the regime's founding, the Soviets withdrew their troops, and repeated border skirmishes with South Korean forces along the border led the North Korean leader to give a speech warning that the South Koreans would be "crushed completely" if they tried to overthrow him. He got the idea of preempting the attack that he feared by invading South Korea first, and tried to talk the reluctant Soviets into supporting him [source: Hanuki]. But when he finally got permission in early 1950, it proved to nearly be his undoing.