In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of North Korea

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Data Sources
  • North Korean Leaders and the Juche Ideology
  • Political Institutions
  • Domestic Political Process
  • Humanitarian Issues
  • Leadership Succession, Contingency, and Unification
  • Society and Culture

Political Science Politics of North Korea
Victor Cha, Ji-Young Lee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0109


Today North Korea is perhaps the world’s most closed country whose totalitarian political system is built on a family dynastic succession. Founded in 1948, the politics of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea has been shaped by a constant interplay between the external security environment on the one hand, and political dynamics internal to its own history, culture, and society on the other hand. The Korean independence movement against Japanese colonialism (1910–1945), the division following the occupation by the American and Soviet forces, and the Korean War (1950–1953) are important historical experiences behind North Korean nation building. Despite predictions of the regime collapse, North Korea is one of the few remaining communist regimes after the end of the Cold War. With the cessation of Soviet aid in 1990, however, North Korea has suffered from a near-bankrupt national economy and despite the need for economic reform, has refused to contemplate significant opening. This self-imposed isolation still has not shielded the regime from a steady inflow of information from the outside world. Four major themes characterize post–Cold War North Korean politics. First, under the banner of the Military First (Songun) policy, Pyongyang’s nuclear program has become tied to the regime survival in the last twenty years. North Korea declared itself to be a nuclear power in 2005 and the international negotiations aimed at denuclearizing North Korea have yielded modest mixed results. Second, the ideology of Juche (self-reliance) has been a central theme in the domestic political process of building and consolidating the North Korean regime of a one-man rule since the Kim Il-Sung era. A third theme is the dilemma of North Korean economic reforms toward marketization. Pyongyang has tried a few measures of market economy to attract foreign investments, but remains extremely wary of the social and political ramifications of such steps. Fourth, in 2012 the future of North Korea is at a crossroads after the death of Kim Jong-Il in December 2011 and the generational succession to his young son Kim Jong-Un.

General Overviews

The literature that informs North Korean politics generally tends to cover both Koreas in a single publication given their intertwined modern history. More recent works have looked specifically at North Korea’s post–Cold War predicament. Oberdorfer 2001, Cumings 2005, and Robinson 2007 offer an excellent historical overview of Korean politics. They all rightly highlight the importance of collective historical experiences such as the Japanese colonialism, the occupation, the division and the Korean War in shaping their national politics. Kihl 1984, Kim 1998, and Yang 1999 offer a comprehensive overview of the political systems of the two Koreas to readers who wish to grasp some basic understanding of North Korea in comparison with South Korea. Most recently, there have been works that could serve as texts on the specific topic of North Korean politics aside from the aforementioned books on modern history. McEachern 2010 offers a comprehensive assessment of the North Korean regime from an institutional perspective. Cha 2012 is the first scholarly and public policy book on North Korea published after the death of Kim Jong-il.

  • Cha, Victor D. The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. New York: HarperCollins Ecco, 2012.

    The first published work on North Korea after the death of Kim Jong-il. Argues controversially the regime is under dual stresses that it ultimately cannot manage: A post–Kim Jong-il leadership that adheres to conservative Juche (self-reliance) ideals, and a society that has grown more independent with an emerging market mentality.

  • Cumings, Bruce. Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History. Updated ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

    A historical overview of Korean politics. Using original English and Korean archives, the chapters are dense with details but are very informative.

  • Kihl, Young Hwan. Politics and Policies in Divided Korea: Regimes in Contest. Boulder, CO, and London: Westview, 1984.

    Offers a general overview of North Korean political system until the early 1980s juxtaposed with South Korean system in a comparative manner. Useful for a basic understanding of how the two countries have developed distinctively different political systems.

  • Kim, Ilpyong J., ed. Two Koreas in Transition: Implications for U.S. Policy. Rockville, MD: In Depth, 1998.

    Views North Korean politics through the lens of US foreign policy. The chapters were written by prominent Korea scholars from various political and ideological angles and can be of use to provide an overview of the various themes of Korean politics.

  • McEachern, Patrick. Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-Totalitarian Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    Challenges the conventional view that the North Korean political system is entirely under control of one man and argues instead that it has transitioned into a posttotalitarian stage where policies are drawn based upon pluralism among institutions.

  • Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. Rev. and updated ed. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

    One of the most authoritative journalistic accounts on Korean politics. Insights gained by Oberdorfer’s own reporting in the region and numerous interviews with high-level officials who were directly involved in important critical junctures. Succinct and interesting for both students and researchers.

  • Robinson, Michael. Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A Short History. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007.

    An exceptionally comprehensive and succinct overview of Korea’s modern political history. Can be used as a college textbook for its balanced historical interpretations. Builds upon prior historical research on the two Koreas while providing a dense and yet illuminating reconstruct of important events.

  • Yang, Sung-Chul. The North and South Korean Political Systems: A Comparative Analysis. Rev. ed. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym, 1999.

    Written by a professor and former South Korean ambassador to the United States, this voluminous work provides a full political history of the two systems. Encyclopedic in scope.

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