America has seen the coming and going of thirteen Presidents in the past 70 years. Truman. Eisenhower. Kennedy. Johnson. Nixon. Ford. Carter. Reagan. H.W. Bush. Clinton. Bush. Obama. Trump. On the contrary, in North Korea, there has been one family for over seven decades.
The Kim Family’s rule over North Korea - a dictatorship that crossed its 70th anniversary in September 2018, is the longest standing communist government in the world besides the government of Vietnam, which was fully unified in 1976, 28 years after the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK). The DPRK, established in September 1948 under the premiership of Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung was the longest dictator to keep his rule in world history besides Fidel Castro.
The founding of North Korea’s dictatorship followed one of the most painful eras of Korean history. From 1905 through 1945, the Japanese Empire extended its authority over the Korean Peninsula as a legal protectorate. The imperial military and police rule was a foreign occupation seared into the national memory of the Koreas. The forty years of Japanese colonialism were filled with calculated policies of violent oppression and painful cultural indoctrination.
It is unsurprising that following World War II, Premier Kim Il Sung’s campaign to rebuild the glory of Korea under the banner of nationalism was incredibly successful. Today he still holds as North Korea’s “Eternal President.” His cunning use of propaganda and misinformation to re-educate his people was founded on a national philosophy of “juche,” or “self-reliance.” It is still the predominant worldview of the North Korean people.
But after flooding and famine, harsh food shortages and economic collapse ravaged North Korea following the 1960s, the nation, unable to hold its infrastructure in place, played to the favor of the Soviet Union and Chinese Communist Party to remain in power. To this day, the North Korean government has little to no ability to sustain its people and is propped up by the thread of support it receives from China as 80% of its exports go across its northern border and 90% of its imports are from the same nation.
History books in North Korea teach that Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il was born on Mount Paekdu, the highest peak of the Korean peninsula, his birth coincided with the blessing of a swallow, a double rainbow, and a new star in the night sky. Heralded with such messianic imagery of the “Great Successor,” Kim Jong Il took the position of General Secretary in 1994 following the death of this father.
However, it was also under the rule of Kim Jong Il that North Korea experienced the worst famine in modern history as an unknown number of individuals, ranging up to 3.5 million people, starved to death. The North Korean government’s oversight of the famine was a nightmare. While a nation of people wasted away, the policies of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il did not turn to the needs of his people. Instead, it is said that the nation’s Supreme Leader spent up to 20% of the nation’s budget on personal luxury goods during his time in office while increasing his aggressive campaign to increase North Korea’s military might.
Under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, the North Korean government has overseen a total of 30 missile launches in less than a decade and four nuclear tests as the nation’s leader is rumored to spend up to $600 million for personal luxury goods per year. However, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, is also a groundbreaker of the Kim family. Coupled with his threatening display on the world stage throughout 2017 came new steps of diplomacy and peacemaking with western nations and on the Korean Peninsula in 2018.
But as Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un prepares to meet US President Trump at the end of February in Vietnam, it is important to remember that his dictatorial rule is only the latest in the line of North Korean leaders. About half of the nation’s population is still hungry or starving. Over 70 percent of North Koreans who fled to China are women and 80 percent of those women are victims of human trafficking.
This year, Crossing Borders reaches its 17th year of our work. As we look to the bleak past, we strive - not only to hope for more but to work for a better future for the North Korean people. The power of the North Korean government, national and international rulers do not fall under our authority. But we know we can change the lives of those who fall victim to the crushing abuse of the world. It is Crossing Borders’ mission to hold fast to faith and to care for North Korean refugees in our network. We will continue to reach out to North Koreans with compassion and strength - no matter the principalities or powers that rule over North Korea in the years to come.