Breaking isolation, North Korea accepts WHO COVID-19 supplies


By Jonny Lupsha, News Editor

After World War II, Korea split in two, with North Korea becoming radically isolated. It cut communications with the rest of the world to the point that residents no longer have access to websites outside the country. COVID-19 medical supplies are a rare exception.

Photo by SevenMaps / Shutterstock

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that North Korea recently accepted shipments of medical supplies such as medicines and emergency health kits from outside the country. As one of the most isolated and remote nations on the planet, North Korea’s move is a rare break with tradition. How did he get to where he is today?

Not surprisingly, Joseph Stalin and the Cold War played key roles. In his video series Communism in power: from Stalin to Mao, Dr Vejas Gabriel LiuleviciusLindsay Young, professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, explained how North Korea became the last Stalinist state and the only dynastic communist country in the world.

Cold war creates two Koreas

After surviving an annexation by Japan that began in 1910, Korea was poised to unify and become independent again after World War II. Unfortunately, the Cold War brought division within the country, and the Soviet Union and the United States decided, mostly without Korean input, to divide the nation into two occupation zones. Korea was divided into two states, much like East Germany and West Germany, along the 38th parallel.

“In 1948, South Korea emerged under American patronage,” said Dr. Liulevicius. “North Korea was established under Soviet rule, with the official title of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and with its capital in Pyongyang.”

After that, North Korea got Stalin’s approval to invade South Korea in order to forcibly unify the country. United States and United Nations troops pushed the invasion north, to deal with troops from the People’s Republic of China who had intervened on behalf of North Korea. At the end of the Korean War, some three million lives were lost and the border remained at the 38th parallel.

There is no formal peace treaty between the two nations, which have taken opposing paths since World War II.

“After World War II all of Korea was devastated, but it was only in South Korea that prosperity took off dramatically,” said Dr Liulevicius. “In fact, estimates from 2019-2020 suggest that North Korea holds only 5% or less of the South’s GDP, which in contrast, according to the IMF, was the tenth richest economy in the world.

“South Korea started with an authoritarian system and moved towards democracy, while North Korea settled into brutal repression and isolation, becoming the ‘hermit kingdom’.”

The Kim family and Perched

Born in 1912, Kim Il-Sung became an anti-Japanese guerrilla in his youth and served in the Soviet Army during World War II. Stalin appointed him to rule North Korea in alliance with the Soviet Union and China. Kim eliminated rival Communist factions in his country and consolidated his power, balancing his position with his two allied nations and asserting Communist strength over Albania and Romania.

“To underline this assertion of independence and a Korean form of communism, Kim Il-Sung designed the ideology he called juche, or “autonomy”, pursue self-sufficiency and radical isolation, ”said Dr Liulevicius. “The four central principles of juche were defined as “autonomy in ideology, independence in politics, self-sufficiency in economy and self-sufficiency in defense”.

What does this mean for the daily life of North Korean citizens? Mandatory compliance in most aspects of life, no access to foreign media of any kind, and a radio receiver in every household that broadcasts marches, songs, and proclamations and cannot be turned off. Loudspeakers in the streets are sending out the same messages. An extreme personality cult presides over, where citizens learn that the Kim family is equal to the gods.

The non-compliance leads to concentration camps for the rebels and their families, where they undergo re-education based on forced labor and abuse.

Kim Il-Sung died in 1994 and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Il, who continued his father’s isolationism and propaganda-fueled regime. In 2011, Kim Jong-Il passed away and was succeeded by his third son, Kim Jong-Un, who rules North Korea to this day.

Accepting COVID-19 medical supplies from foreign countries seems directly contrary to juche, which may or may not be a sign of a changing nation.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

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