The Reality of North Korea and the Role of South Korean University Students

A lecture at Sookmyung Women’s University


1. The characteristics of the current Kim Jong-un regime

1.1. Lack of legitimacy and justification

1.1.1. Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il’s succession system was a ‘bottom-up succession.’

North Korea announced Kim Jong-il as Kim Il-sung’s official successor in the early to late 1970’s. With this, the Suryeong Military Dictatorship needed for the Kim Family Succession was completed. However, for the first time in the history of communism, the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) adopted a policy of hereditary leadership that was exhibited as the opposing ideology of feudalism simultaneously with the communist ideology. In defence of this two reasons were given- 1. The uniqueness of the divided Korean Peninsula and 2. the importance of a Suryeong of the Communist Party to take the lead in order to survive (using examples of Khrushchev’s denouncing of Stalin and Deng Xiaoping’s reevluation of Mao Zedong’s achievements). These reasonings were then used to defend the continuation of the Suryeong’s bloodline- which was known as the ‘Blood Theory’. Then the next question was who was going to be continuing the Suryeong’s bloodline through the ‘Blood Theory?’


In the past, the authority and power lied in Kim Yong-ju, the younger brother of Kim Il-sung and Head of the WPK Organization and Guidance Department (the mastermind behind The July 4 South-North Joint Communiqué) and the siblings of Kim Song-ae, Kim Il-sung’s wife; while power in the military was given to Kim Il-sung’s fellow partisans.

While Kim Jong-il was Kim Il-sung’s eldest son, the North Korean Leadership began to look at his half-brother, Kim Pyong-il, who from intelligence to his physical appearance was more similar to Kim Il-sung.

In order to get a hold of this situation, Kim Jong-il created the ‘Side-branch Theory’, in which he got disposed of Kim Yong-ju, Kim Song-ae’s siblings and his half-brother Kim Pyong-il in order to be named the official successor.

(The theoretical foundation of the ‘Side-branch Theory’ is based on the Confucianist theory of prioritising the first-born.

The people should obey their king, children should serve their parents and younger siblings should respect their elders)

From the mid-1960’s, it eventually took over 10 years for Kim Jong-il to be officially named as the successor and as Kim Jong-il used his own power to get into that position, it was a ‘bottom-up succession’ that was created.

When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, it had already been Kim Jong-il’s North Korea for 10 years and Kim Il-sung was merely a symbolic figure with no real authority.

The fact that many came up with the theories on North Korea’s collapse when Kim Il-sung died is because they did not understand the domestic political situation and misunderstood Kim Il-sung’s positioning as the leader of North Korea.


1.1.2. Kim Jong-un’s succession was an appointed ‘top-down’ succession

Until Kim Jong-un was appointed as Kim Jong-il’s successor in early 2009, nobody in North Korea knew of his existence. Everybody thought that Kim Jong-il only had a daughter.

It was only after falling unconscious for a month after a stroke in late 2008 that Kim Jong-il publically revealed Kim Jong-un, who had been hidden until then, as the official successor through the Third Party Delegates’ Conference in September 2010 .

However, only one year later on December 17, 2011– Kim Jong-il died.

Eventually Kim Jong-un hastily took the course of being named the successor.

Kim Jong-il was known as Kim Il-sung’s eldest son from a young age. From elementary school, middle school, Kim Il-sung University to being placed as a Section Chief in the Propaganda and Agitation Department in 1964 Kim Jong-il had an impeccable history. Furthermore, until he was officially named as the successor, he became well known throughout North Korea for leading the Cultural and Art Guidance Section.

In the early 1970s, as party secretary of the Central Committee, Kim Jong-il held a firm grip over North Korea’s personnel affairs and filled leadership positions with his own people for a decade.

Although it was possible for Kim Il-sung to make a decision by himself as a dictator, Kim Jong-il still had to go through the due process to be appointed as the leader of the North Korea.

However, Kim Jong-un was suddenly announced as the successor after being hidden from North Korean state officials for so long. As Kim Jong-il decided that Kim Jong-un should be the successor of North Korean society, it was an absolute ‘top-down succession.’

1.1.3. Kim Jong-un’s unclear identity

In North Korea, the Suryeong has been created to be god-like. Moreover, the sustainability of North Korean society lies entirely on the deification of the Suryeong. With this in mind, who is Kim Jong-un?

While it is said that North Koreans are indoctrinated, in North Korea there is an importance of Kim Jong-un having a revolutionary history.

However, five years into his rule Kim Jong-un still has not revealed his age, his mother’s identity, his relationship with his grandfather, his relationship with his half-brother Kim Jong-nam or his brother Kim Jong-chol.

This is because Kim Jong-un is not Kim Jong-il’s oldest son but rather his third, and his mother was not Kim Jong-il’s official wife but rather a consort and his existence was not known to his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

It is not officially known where he went to school, who his colleagues were, it is as if he is from out of this world.

Kim Jong-un still has to lead the country for 40~50 years, so I don’t know how long he is going to hide his own identity. I’m sure he is frustrated himself.

Furthermore, there is a problem in the side-branch theory that is the succession policy of the WPK created by Kim Jong-il and the explanation of himself as the successor.

The only solution to this dilemma was to kill Kim Jong-il’s eldest son- Kim Jong-nam.

The psychological anxiety that is building up as Kim Jong-un seemingly dropped out from the sky and has to work with people who he has met for the first time is the fundamental cause of the continued executions of the surrounding state officials.


2. Behind the Scenes of Kim Jong-un’s Nuclear and Missile Race

2.1. The nature of North Korea’s system has led to the development of nuclear and missile weapons.

Some people think that nuclear development first began during Kim Jong-il’s regime and that an expansion of full-scale development started during Kim Jong-un’s regime. However, this is not correct.

In reality, North Korea began to develop its nuclear weapons in the late 1950’s and from the 1960’s began to send many nuclear scientists to nuclear research institutions in the former Soviet Union to learn the basics of developing nuclear weapons. Even from the early 1960’s North Korea created nuclear reactors for testing.

So, why did the North Korea regime have to move forward with nuclear and missile weapons?

As the communist system was established after the liberation on August 15 1945, the objective has always been to liberate and communize South Korea.

Ideologically, communism does not permit democracy and as the North Korean communist regime has the objective of revolutionizing communism across the Korean Peninsula, it can only exist if it continuously creates ways of obtaining that victory.

At the end of the day, the development process itself is a consolidation of the North Korean regime.

And so, it will not stop with any means or methods to unify the Korean Peninsula under communism.

Whether it is federal unification or the June 15 Joint Declaration based on the ‘Uriminzzokiri’ mentality, both are disguised peace offensives and shows that North Korea’s strategy of unification under communism has never changed.


2.2. The political, economic, military and cultural aspect of North Korea’s nuclear development

The question that can then be asked is if unification under communism is the goal, why must it develop nuclear weapons?

When we look at the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons there is a political aspect and also a physical military one, both of which can not be discussed without looking at the domestic reality of both North and South Korea.


2.2.1. When looking at it from a military perspective, the only way for North Korea to realize the four major military strategies is through nuclear weapons

When the WPK was established on October 10, 1945 it enacted 4 Major Military Strategies Against South Korea

  1. Pre-emptive Strike 2. Surprise Offensive 3. Mixture of regular and guerrilla warfare 4. Blockage of US intervention
  • However, with North Korea’s economic situation today, these military strategies are not possible.
  • North Korea miscalculated the fact that the US would not intervene because of the Acheson Line. Right now, the only way to stop the US from intervening is through nuclear and missiles.


2.2.3. As South Korea developed economically after democratization, North Korea tried to overcome the gaps between the two Koreas through nuclear militarization

North Korea had seen the South Korean people as the driving force of making their strategy a reality, but instead the strategy turned into democratization and economic development in South Korea.

After the division of the country and before the collapse of the Eastern Soviet socialist system, such as the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s, North Korea’s strategy of integrating the two Koreas has been based on inciting a violent revolution.

In other words, South Korean workers, peasants, and college students were seen to be the power of revolution. North Korea thought that with some cultivation and nurturing, their South Korean counterparts could break down the capitalist system in South Korea through violent and oppressive methods such as military upheavals and popular uprisings.

With this mind-set, North Korea dispatched operatives to South Korea to build an under-ground network and focused on building a revolution to overthrow the South Korean government using violence. And so, thinking that the removal of South Korea’s highest authority would be the success of a revolution- North Korea attempted an assassination of the President.

As North Korea watched the May 18 Democratic Uprising in 1980, it saw the uprising as a part of the North Korean communist struggle and with the removal of President Chun Doo-hwan, a communist government would be established in South Korea. With this major strategic misjudgement North Korea carried out the Ragoon Bombing.

North Korea mistook South Korea’s anti-dictatorial democratization movement to be an opening for a communist revolution.

However, North Korea only came to the realisation recently that this strategy in reality, is impossible.

  • More importantly, North Korea, which is the driving agent behind the revolutionizing strategy in South Korea, is suffering from a declining military force due to the difficult economic and food situations. On the other hand, South Korea’s unprecedented economic development and democratization has led to a strengthening of the military force.
  • With the collapse of the East Socialist states, China’s economic reform and the US rising as the world’s super power, international relations have changed to favour South Korea.

Eventually, North Korea is in a serious dilemma regarding its evaluation of South Korea and recruiting people for the revolution.

After the student riots at Yonsei University in 1996, students who once led South Korea’s political movements have taken a step back. South Korean university students have turned from previous political issues to culture and student life, sports and their individual lives and turned from violence to non-violence.

So the question is, would South Korean labourers, farmers and students really stand up today to be the main agents of a communist revolution?

  • North Korea has finally realised that South Korea’s democratization movement will not lead to a communist revolution.

Today, South Korea’s university students, labourers and farmers are no longer seen as the driving forces of the revolution but rather those who need to be controlled by the dictatorship of the revolution.

In the end, North Korea ‘s strategy towards South Korea, which had been to create a communist revolution in South Korea based on the guarantee of political and economic superiority to that of South Korea, eventually turned into a “defence of socialism” that defended North Korea’ s system of revolution.


2.2.3. With the changing reality of North Korea, Kim Jong-un views nuclear and missile weapons as the only way to prevent the collapse of the North Korean regime and continue long-term hereditary succession.

  • As a result many North Korean elites are stuck in an ideological dilemma.

Until now Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s communist revolution theories have all been impressive and plausible to put into action. With the support of the elites, in solidarity these beliefs have become the Kim Family’s fate of destiny.

But now that Kim Jong-un has been in a long bloody struggle and has now been involved in the merciless murder of his uncle and half-brother, many have begun to question whether their long struggles until now have been worth it.

  • Additionally, there is a growing inequality among the consuming class.

Of course the ruling class have a significant more privileges compared to other classes. However, from the viewpoint of the ruling class, all the material wealth of the country is simply subject to preserving the honour of the Kim Family.

  • The North Korean reality that is getting swept away by the capitalist economy is making Kim Jong-un anxious.
  • Expansion and marketization of South Korean cultural products
  • A change in international law allowing humanitarian interference

3. What is the role of South Korean university students?

3.1. Firstly unification should not just be seen in terms of loss and gains but rather seen as a matter of life or death.

Nowadays when I give lectures to university students there is a higher percentage who are against unification than those in favour.

Many students envision that if unification was to occur the government would have to spend a considerable amount of money to develop North Korea and provide welfare to the North Korean people in order to bridge the gap between North and South Korea, thus leading to more more unemployment in South Korea.

However, right now, Kim Jong-un is trying to get rid of South Korea in its entirety.

Thus, pushing for unification and lasting peace is an issue that can be delayed no longer.

At the end of the day, getting rid of the Kim dynasty and moving forward with unification is a matter of life and death.

3.2. Unification will be incredibly economically advantageous to South Korea.

The thought that unification with North Korea will be an economic burden to South Korea and that the costs of unification will cause the collapse of South Korea’s economy is far from the truth.

Have you ever wondered why motorways in South Korea must be built through tunnelling mountains?

It’s because land is so expensive, there are limitations in building roads on land.

However, there is no private ownership of land in North Korea.

Having the state own all the land can be an incredible economic benefit.

Also, in North Korea there is a labour force that can be educated and moulded.

Right now there are more than one million foreign workers who have come to South Korea who are doing the difficult and laborious tasks that are avoided by South Koreans.

Additionally, many South Korean companies are moving overseas due to the high-costs of land and workers in South Korea.

However, upon unification there will be a workforce of more than 20 million people, and with the land connection to China and Russia a larger market will be created leading to more opportunities for South Korean companies, and for foreign companies to come into North Korea.

When the Korea’s are unified, the employment rates will definitely go up. If you walk around Myeongdong in Seoul right now, it is full of Chinese tourists. While Chinese tourists currently come to South Korea on boats or planes now, if they are able to come through land then thousands more Chinese tourists will come over and will have a great economic effect.

Also with North Korea’s inexhaustible natural resources, South Korea’s economy will once again be rejuvenated.

The most important thing is that when we are unified the problem of our security will be solved forever.

3.3. South Korean university students should of course take an interest in the issue of unification, but more than that they should lead the flow of unification in South Korea.

Despite the fact that the issue of unification is a task for our people, for our land, discussions on unification are usually only handled by the government and a few students.

South Korean students have led South Korea’s democratization movement in the past, and thus have the power to change South Korea.

The time has come for South Korean students to become the main agents of the unification movement.

The 1960’s campaigns of students shouting “Let’s go to the north. Come to the south. Let’s meet at Panmunjom!” must ring once more.