The origins of North Korea, as we know it today, began around the end of World War II in the mid-1940s. The Korean peninsula had been harshly occupied by Japan for over three decades, and the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule would, eventually, materialize only as a result of yet more foreign involvement. With the Allied victory over Japan in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to temporarily establish their own military governments until Korea achieved independence. The Japanese forces surrendered the territory above the 38th parallel to the Soviets, and the area below to the U.S. (In retrospect, this geographic selection would foreshadow South Korea’s eventual economic dominance over its northern neighbor, as Seoul–the economic hub of current day South Korea–lies just south of the border.)
What eventually followed was one of the most prominent cases of a “proxy war,” with Cold War superpowers Russia and the U.S. establishing competing governments in the neighboring territories. In the North, the Soviets quickly set up domestic regimes, placing communists in key positions. By 1946 Kim Il-sung, the eventual founding “president” of the North, had already initiated a sweeping land reform, seizing control of Korean land and nationalizing industries, and had established the Provisional People’s Committee under his control. And by 1948 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was declared, without elections, with Kim as its prime minister. From its conception under Kim, North Korea had the benefit of massive aid from Russia, including weapons, and focused heavily on strengthened the North’s military power. (Which continues to this day, as current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un emphasized the need for military might in his first public speech as leader just a few months ago.)
In the South, the U.S. supported a leader of its own against the communist candidates in democratic sympathizer, and Princeton graduate, Syngman Rhee. In May 1948 the U.S. supervised elections in the South, in compliance with the U.N., and by August of that year Rhee had been elected as the president of the Republic of Korea. During these beginnings, however, the Cold War interests of Russia and the U.S. created an atmosphere in Korea thick with tension and violence. Russia refused to acknowledge Rhee’s legitimacy, and boycotted the U.N. General Assembly meetings prior to the election. As a result, Korea had the DPRK and the Republic of Korea both claiming sole jurisdiction over the entire country, with fierce skirmishes occurring in the formative years of Korean independence between supporters of communism in the North and supporters of democracy in the South.
In this tumultuous environment, North Korea was born; and with Kim Il-sung at the helm of the DPRK, the seeds had been planted for a familial dynasty the likes of which the world had never seen before.