North Korea: The Foundations for Military Strength -- Update 1995
A Post-Kim-Il-song North Korea
President Kim Il-song's sudden death in July 1994
placed responsibility for continued political stability
of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the
hands of his son, Kim Chong-il. As successor, Kim
Chong-il's immediate challenge has been to resolve
critical national policy issues, including balancing the
need for economic improvements against the demand
of maintaining political stability and national security.
North Korea's immediate policy relies on protecting its
"own form of socialism" from foreign influence or
eventual political collapse. Current leaders seem unwilling
to undertake the extent of reform required to effectively
address the mounting political, economic, and social
problems or to open North Korea to the outside world.
The Korean Workers' Party (KWP) has launched an
extensive campaign of political indoctrination in the
past several years. At the center of this campaign is
the attempt to tighten political and social controls over
Kim Chong-il was formally designated his father's
successor at the Sixth Party Congress of the KWP in
October 1980. Since then, he has participated in all
aspects of the government based on the mentoring and
direct support of President Kim Il-song until the
latter's death. Kim Chong-il was appointed Supreme
Commander of the North Korean People's Army
(KPA) in 1991 and Chairman of the National Defense
Commission in 1993. Kim Chong-il probably will
avoid controversial decisions that might contradict
Kim Il-song's traditional policies until he has secured
his political power base.
North Korea's economy has been hobbled by the
country's heavy defense burden, low productivity,
lack of managerial expertise, and inability to pay its
international debts. Economic performance turned
downward in 1989 and continues in recession because
of the dramatic reduction in support from China, the
former Soviet Union, and socialist-bloc countries in
Eastern Europe. Severe shortages of crude oil, food,
raw materials, and electric power continue to impair
industrial productivity as well as the quality of life of
The government system has not changed - being
composed of the Supreme People's Assembly and an
elected President. Kim Chong-il, in his capacity as the
Supreme Commander of the KPA and Chairman of the
National Defense Commission, acts as "supreme leader"
of the country, controlling the party, government, and
armed forces. Kim Chong-il has not yet assumed the
two most important positions - President of North
Korea and Secretary General of the KWP.
North Korean Government -- Creation of the Korean Workers' Party. The government exists to administer and monitor Communist Party directives.
The highly centralized KWP continues to make
policy, and the government executes and administers
those policies. As implied in the Constitution, the
KWP and the state are inseparable, but the party is
superior to the state. Party officials hold all important
positions in the government, the economy, and the
military. The Party Congress nominally is the highest
deliberative organization. It is slated to convene about
every 5 years. However, only six Party Congresses
have been held in the past 50 years, and none in the
past 15 years.
Korean Workers' Party -- The Most Important Institution in North Korea. The party regulates and directs all aspects of activity in the country.
At the core of the North Korean military structure is
the Ministry of People's Armed Forces headquarters,
which is responsible for overseeing the military. Since
1991, the KPA leadership has undergone significant
organizational and personnel changes. A number of
key figures have died from old age, and hundreds of
general officers were promoted after Kim Chong-il's
appointment as Supreme Commander.
Military Forces Designed to Fulfill Both Defensive and Offensive Missions. The organization resulted from blending concepts learned from experiences in anti-Japanese guerrilla warfare, Soviet and Chinese influences during the Korean war, and the unique self-reliance policy of chuche.
Kim Chong-il's appointment as Supreme Commander
in December 1991 may have been the catalyst for
change in the KPA, but the pace has increased since
the death of President Kim Il-song. There are
indications that a generational shift within the military
leadership is under way. From December 1991
through the end of May 1995, promotions and
assignments of nearly 800 general officers (many only
in their 50s) were noted in a general officer corps of
approximately 1,200. On 20 April 1992, Kim became
a marshal, and 3 days later, eight generals were
promoted to the rank of vice marshal. A year later,
Kim Chong-il became Chairman of the National
The deaths of President Kim Il-song (Chairman, KWP
Military Affairs Committee) in 1994 and O Chin-u
(Ministry of the People's Armed Forces; Vice-Chairman,
National Defense Commission) in 1995 created vacancies
at the senior levels that were not immediately filled. In late
1995, Choe Kwang was promoted to marshal, with Yi
Ul-sol, and named as O Chin-u's replacement.
The armed forces maintain a single command system. The
Chief of the General Staff directly commands and controls
ground force, navy, and air commands. As Supreme
Commander of the People's Armed Forces and Chairman
of the National Defense Commission, Kim Chong-il
retains overall command of the military system.
North Korea's self-imposed isolation has been
deepened by South Korea's successful Nordpolitik,
which achieved normalized relations with the former
Soviet Union (30 September 1990) and China (24
August 1992), two of the North's closest allies.
Pyongyang sees improving relations with Washington
and moving the United States to a more equidistant
position between the two Koreas as a key to broader
diplomatic and economic openings to Japan and
elsewhere. The North's handling of its nuclear
program had been the most serious stumbling block to
its efforts. The immediate effect of the Agreed
Framework was to markedly ease tensions between
the international community and Pyongyang.
Relations between China and North Korea have
eroded since 1991. Shared revolutionary wartime
experiences and geopolitical desires form the basis of
North Korea's relationship with Beijing. Pyongyang
still receives a limited amount of military equipment
and support from China, but most Chinese military
support is symbolic.
Despite the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991,
North Korea has maintained official ties with
Russia, but at a much reduced level. North Korea
still buys a limited amount of weaponry from
Moscow. The Mutual Defense Treaty between the
two countries exists in name only; Russia has
indicated a desire to change it. Moscow has offered
a draft of a new treaty, but Pyongyang apparently
has not officially responded. North Korea's
relationship with Russia was already strained when
Russia reaffirmed diplomatic relations and economic ties with South Korea in 1992.
President Kim Il-song's 10-Point Program for Korean Reunification