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North Korea

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The Politics of North Korea take place within a nominally democratic multi-party system within the framework of the official state philosophy, Juche, a concept created by the founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il-sung, and his son and successor as leader, Kim Jong-il. In practice, North Korea functions as a single-party state. It is widely considered to be a de facto totalitarian Communist dictatorship[1] and the Economist Intelligence Unit, while admitting that "there is no consensus on how to measure democracy" and that "definitions of democracy are contested", lists North Korea in last place as the most authoritarian regime in its index of democracy assessing 167 countries.[2]

North Korea's political system is built upon the principle of centralization. While the constitution guarantees the protection of human rights and democratic government, in practice Kim Jong-il exercises absolute control over the governmeent and the country. The government severely limits freedom of expression and supervises the lives of the people very closely (see Human rights in North Korea).

The ruling party is the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), which is thought to allow some slight inner-party democracy (see Democratic centralism). The WPK has ruled since North Korea's independence in 1948. Two minor political parties exist but are legally bound to accept the ruling role of the WPK.[3] Elections occur only in single-candidate races where the candidate has been selected by the WPK beforehand. Kim Il-sung served as General Secretary of the WPK from 1948 until his death in July 1994, simultaneously holding the office of Prime Minister from 1948 to 1972 and the office of President from 1972 to 1994. After his son won full power in 1998, the presidential post was written out of the constitution, and Kim Il-sung was designated the country's "Eternal President." Most analysts believe the title to be a product of the cult of personality he cultivated during his life.

The Western world generally reckons North Korea as the last old-style Communist dictatorship, but the government has formally replaced references to Marxism-Leninism in its constitution with the locally developed concept of Juche, or self-reliance. In recent years, there has been great emphasis on the Songun or "military-first" philosophy. The constitution of North Korea declares that "the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea shall, by carrying out a thorough cultural revolution, train all the people to be builders of socialism and communism".[3] It has since then removed all references to Communism in its revised 2009 constitution.[4]

The status of the military has been enhanced and it appears to occupy the centre of the North Korean political system; all the social sectors are forced to follow the military spirit and adopt military methods. Kim Jong-il’s public activity focuses heavily on on-the-spot guidance of places and events related to the military. The enhanced status of the military and military-centred political system was confirmed at the first session of the 10th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) by the promotion of National Defense Commission (NDC) members in the official power hierarchy. All ten NDC members were ranked within the top twenty on September 5, and all but one occupied the top twenty at the fiftieth anniversary of National Foundation Day on September 9.


National Defence Commission

According to the Constitution of North Korea (꽃제비 대국), "the National Defence Commission is the highest military leadership body of State power...the Chairman of the National Defence Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea commands and directs all the armed forces and guides national defence as a whole."[3] The position of Chairman of the National Defence Commission has been declared the "highest office of state" and has the "highest administrative authority" according to decrees issued by the Supreme People's Assembly. Few people correctly anticipated that Kim Jong Il would officially terminate the transitional period by resuming the chairmanship of the National Defense Commission (NDC) and abolishing the post of president. Under the 1998 constitution, the NDC’s role and status was strengthened. The 1998 constitution defines the NDC as “the highest guiding organ of the military and the managing organ of military matters.” The chairman of the NDC controls the armed forces. In a speech endorsing Kim Jong Il as NDC chairman, Kim Young Nam made it clear that chairman of the NDC is the highest position in the country, in charge of all matters regarding the country’s politics, economy, and military. Thus Kim Jong Il is in substance head of the state, but theoretically the chairman of the SPA Presidium represents the state and is responsible for foreign affairs, such as reception.


The Cabinet of North Korea consists of the Premiers, Vice Premiers, and Ministers of the government. Their terms of office are concurrent with the Supreme People's Assembly. The Premier is the head of the cabinet. The cabinet exercises theoretical control over the executive ministries and has the authority to issue decrees concerning administration of the government, although in reality the government also takes its directions from Kim Jong-il. The current cabinet consists of:


According to the constitution, the legislative Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) is the highest organ of state power. It consists of 687 members, who are elected every five years. The Assembly usually holds only two meetings annually, each lasting a few days; this is the shortest meeting time of any parliament. A standing committee known as the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly and elected by the Assembly performs legislative functions when the Assembly is not in session. The Assembly officially chooses between, compromises upon, and ratifies the political positions on subjects put forward by the three represented parties. The president of the Supreme People's Assembly is Kim Yong Nam. Nearly all outside sources regard the SPA as a rubberstamp body, due to the short period of its sessions, uncontested elections to office, and the fact that it passes all proposals submitted by the government over a period of a few days.[1]

In theory, North Korea's judiciary is accountable to the SPA and the Presidium.[3] The SPA's standing committee also appoints judges to the highest court for 5-year terms that are concurrent with those of the Assembly.

Party-Government relations

The relationship between the party organ and the administrative organ is often compared to the relationship between the man who steers the boat and the man who rows the boat. Party workers in the back should steer so that administrative and economic workers can stay on the party track. Article 11 of the new constitution repeats that “the DPRK shall conduct all activities under the leadership of the KWP.” Although relations between the party and the government have experienced both continuity and change, the party has maintained a guiding role over the government. In the near future, continuity rather than change in party-government relations is more likely to be the case. First, North Korean leaders attribute the demise of the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe to the failure of ideology. Thus, they emphasize the importance of ideology, which is led by the party. They also focus on the significance of popular support of the party. Second, Kim Jong il started his career as a party cadre and his succession to power took place within the structure of the party. Moreover, most of his strong supporters are in the party and the party at large is his most loyal supporter. Third, North Korea’s hesitation to implement a policy aimed at integration into the international community makes one expect that the status of the party vis-à-vis that of the government will be strengthened. Although North Korea is very concerned with the opening policy, its economic policy is dictated by political considerations. North Korea’s opening policy is implemented in a very limited way because of the fear of the side effects opening may bring. Thus the role of government technocrats is clearly limited, and it is not feasible to see the government outside the control of the party. Although the government gained in status under the new constitution, this does not seem to affect the guiding role of the party over the government. Particularly in the area of organization and ideology, party guidance may be firmer.

Party-Military relations

The party has traditionally controlled the military in North Korea since the Korean War, when North Korea began to dispatch political officials to the military. In October 1950, party committees began to be organized within the military. The party organs within the military were strengthened after two incidents in 1956 and 1969 that resulted in a wide-scale purge of factions opposed to Kim Il Sung. According to the Party Act (article 46) adopted in 1980, “KPA is the revolutionary armed forces of the KWP.” Some believe, however, that the military-centred political system of recent years may be damaging the party’s control over the military. Kim Jong Il has treated the military better than ever by frequently visiting events and places associated with it and by promoting military officials in the official power hierarchy.

Political parties and elections

According to the constitution, North Korea is a Democratic Rebublic and the Supreme Court Assembly and provincial People's Assemblies are elected by direct universal suffrage and secret ballot. Suffrage is guaranteed to all citizens aged 17 and over.[3] In reality, elections in North Korea are non-competitive and have only single candidate races. Those who want to vote against the sole candidate on the ballot must go to a special booth to cross out the candidate's name before dropping it into the ballot box—an act which, according to many North Korean defectors, is far too risky to even contemplate.[6]

All elected candidates are members of the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, a popular front dominated by the WPK. The two minor parties in the coalition are the Chondoist Chongu Party and the Korean Social Democratic Party; they also have a few elected officials. The WPK exercises direct control over the candidates selected for election by members of the other two parties.[1]

e • d Summary of the 8 March 2009 North Korea Supreme People's Assembly election results
List Seats
Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland 687
Total (turnout 99.98%) 687

Legal system

North Korea's judiciary is headed by the Central Court, which consists of a Chief Justice and two People's Assessors; three judges may be present in some cases. Their terms of office coincide with those of the members of the Supreme People's Assembly. Every court in North Korea has the same composition as the Central Court. The judicial system is theoretically held accountable to the SPA and the Presidium of the SPA when the legislature is not in session. The judiciary does not practice judicial review. The security forces so often interfere with the actions of the judiciary that the conclusion of most cases is foregone; experts outside North Korea and numerous defectors confirm this to be a widespread problem.[8] Freedom House states that, "North Korea does not have an independent judiciary and does not acknowledge individual rights...reports of arbitrary detentions, "disappearances," and extrajudicial killings are common; torture is widespread and severe"[1]

North Korea's fifth and current constitution was approved and adopted in September 1998, replacing the one previously adopted in 1972. The former constitution had last been amended in 1992. Under the constitution, North Korea has an unusual legal system based upon German civil law and influenced by Japanese legal theory.[citation needed] Criminal penalties can be stiff; one of the basic functions of the system is to uphold the power of the regime. Because so little information is available concerning what actually occurs inside of the country, the extent to which there is any rule of law is uncertain. In any case, North Korea is renowned for its poor human rights situation and regularly detains thousands of dissidents without trial or benefit of legal advice. According to a US Department of State report on human rights practices, the government of North Korea often punishes the family of a criminal along with the perpetrator.[8]

Political developments

For much of its history, North Korean politics have been dominated by its adversarial relationship with South Korea. During the Cold War, North Korea aligned with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. The North Korean government invested heavily in its military, hoping to develop the capability to reunify Korea by force if possible and also preparing to repel any attack by traditional enemies South Korea, Japan, or the United States. As relations with the PRC and the Soviet Union loosened towards the end of the Cold War, North Korea developed an ideology, Juche, based upon a high degree of economic independence and the mobilization of all the resources of the nation to defend against foreign powers seen as a threat to the country's sovereignty.

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet-supplied economic aid, North Korea has faced a long period of economic crisis, including severe agricultural and industrial shortages. North Korea's main political issue has been to find a way to sustain its economy without compromising the internal stability of its government or its ability to respond to perceived external threats. To date, North Korean efforts to improve relations with South Korea in order to increase trade and to receive development assistance have been mildly successful, but North Korea's determination to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles has prevented relations with Japan or the United States from improving. North Korea has also experimented with market economics in some sectors of its economy, but these have had limited impact. Some outside observers have suggested that Kim Jong-il himself favors such reforms but that some parts of the party and the military resist any changes that might threaten stability.[citation needed]

Although there exist sporadic reports of opposition to the government, these appear to be relatively isolated, and there is no evidence of significant internal threats to the current regime. Some foreign analysts have pointed to widespread starvation, increased emigration through China, and new sources of information about the outside world for ordinary North Koreans as factors pointing to an imminent collapse of the regime, but North Korea has remained stable in spite of more than a decade of such predictions. The Workers' Party of Korea maintains a monopoly on political power and Kim Jong-il has remained the leader of the country ever since he first gained power following the death of his father.


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