North Korean History Offers Insight into the Current System

Spotlight on Scholar Kihl-jae Ryoo, Centerpoint, September 2007

Sep 04, 2007

Long interested in his country's northern neighbor, Kihl-jae Ryoo teaches at the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea. Currently a visiting scholar at the Wilson Center, Ryoo has studied the evolution of the North Korean state and now is studying North Korea's domestic and foreign relations from 1965–1974, a critical time in the formation of the current North Korean political system.

At that time, Kim Il Sung and the Korean Workers Party (KWP) wielded power. "In 1967, Kim led political purges on high-ranking political elites who had fought with him in the 1930s in Korea and Manchuria against Japan," said Ryoo. After the purge came a major turning point. "The North Korean political system changed from totalitarianism to ‘sultanism,'" he said. Prior to this time, the KWP had played a central role in all government policies. Ryoo questions why the system changed and how the country grew, in the early 1970s into an autocracy, with Kim firmly and solely at the helm.

"North Korea has been governed by only two people since 1948, father and son," said Ryoo. "Many scholars think the North Korean system is continuous and has not changed." But since Kim Jong Il assumed leadership after his father's death in 1994, Ryoo said, "the North Korea we face now is different, has a different logic in policy, and requires a different response."

"Kim Jong Il is a man, not a god," said Ryoo. "This North Korean political regime can have a pragmatic stance toward the West and the rest of the world." For that to happen, though, he added, other countries in their negotiations must respect Kim Jong Il as the pivotal political figure.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, North Korea's government and society had a strong commitment to official communist ideology, a mix of the Chinese and Soviet experience," Ryoo said. "North Koreans wanted to make a national community and [build a strong country]. But from the early 1970s to the present, ideology shifted [solely to the leader's] words, thinking, and instruction."

From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, anti-North Korean sentiment was strong in South Korea, making it difficult for scholars and historians to study North Korean issues. "North Korean documents were buried under the Cold War mood and scholarly work on North Korea was limited."

But in the mid-1980s, Ryoo said, "under détente following the Cold War, young scholars began learning what happened between the north and the south." Political scientists tried to get primary materials and soon North Korean research, from history to politics, grew more accessible.

In 1992, Ryoo first visited the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in Suitland, Maryland to view some of the captured declassified documents that became available. Such primary documents help scholars understand North Korean society at its early stage.

"North Korea is weak but important in the context of Northeast Asia," said Ryoo. "We cannot expect peace and prosperity [in the region without addressing the North Korean issue] and history is key."