How North Korea Works

How the Cold War Shaped North Korea
North Korean prisoners, taken by U.S. Marines in a foothills battle, march single file across a rice paddy in 1950. CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In June 1950, Kim Il Sung's forces invaded South Korea, catching that nation and its ally the U.S. by surprise. At first, it looked as if he might prevail, but a small contingent of defenders held out in an enclave around Pusan, along the southern edge of Korea. That gave U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur time to organize a rescue force that landed at Inchon, near Seoul, in September 1950. MacArthur chased the North Korean forces northward into North Korea, and might have put an end to the North Korean regime and reunified Korea for good. The North Korean dictator begged for Stalin's help, but none came. Then, to the overconfident MacArthur's surprise, the Chinese army jumped into the fray and drove his forces back to the 38th parallel [sources: Brown, Boissoneault].

After two more years of bloody fighting, the two sides finally signed an armistice in 1953 — but not a peace agreement. The Chinese intervention had saved Kim Il Sung, but Chinese leader Mao Zedong had left him hanging for two long days before stepping in. Some experts believe that the fear and uncertainty that the North Korean dictator must have felt forever changed him and his regime. From that point, he viewed the world as a hostile place, where he had no allies that he could really trust [source: Boissoneault].

With his ambitions of ruling all of Korea quashed, Kim Il Sung concentrated on consolidating his power. He purged anyone who might pose a threat, and set up a system in which citizens were grouped into various categories according to political reliability. He wasted some of the economic aid that the Chinese and Soviets provided to build 50,000 statues of himself throughout the country, and erected a museum with 95 halls in Pyongyang to extoll his achievements [source: Independent].

At the same time, Kim Il Sung's animosity toward his perceived external enemies continued. In January 1968, he sent commandos to infiltrate South Korea and stage terror attacks, including a failed attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung Hee. Soon after, the North Korean navy seized a U.S. surveillance ship, the Pueblo, off the North Korean coast, killing one U.S. crew member and seizing another 82 Americans, who were tortured and held captive for 11 months before being released [source: Locker].