The Cold War era still plays a central role in the current politics and prevalent ideologies found in the DPRK, and the most prominent example of Cold War politics in East Asia came in the form of the Korean War. In fact, the war never officially ended with a formal peace treaty, and instead only ended with the signing of an armistice agreement cease-fire in 1953. (Although, in the current DPRK, the history books will tell you that the North clearly won.) The battle was one of the most obvious examples of a “proxy war,” with a fierce battle raging between the U.S./U.N.-supported Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South and the People’s Republic of China (PRC)/USSR-supported DPRK in the North. The degree of violent sentiments was only increased with the shadows of these powerful nations’ interests ever present, as the Western and Eastern super-powers hoped to out-do their rivals in order to decisively demonstrate to the all the world whose political process reigned supreme.
The leaders of each nation were integral in worsening the tensions in the late 1940s. Both regimes and leaders, Kim Il-sung in the North and Syngman Rhee in the South, wanted nothing more than to unify the entire Korean peninsula under their own regime. Kim, displaying his typical confidence and aggressiveness, sought to unify the divided territories through a direct military invasion. The North had the means to consider such a move, because right from the very beginning Kim had prioritized military development, with the help of weapons from Russia.
Also, the North was able to prioritize military spending due, in no small part, to the fact that the North initially inherited the majority of fully functional, newly developed industries from its previous Japanese occupiers. In 1945, when Korea was divided, the northern half contained 76 percent of the peninsula’s mining production, 80 percent of its heavy industrial capacity, over 90 percent of its electricity-generation capabilities (stats from North Korea: Through the Looking Glass), as well as the largest collection of hydroelectric power plants in Asia (from The Impossible State). Due to structural advantages like these, along with military and monetary aid from both China and Russia, the DPRK was able to focus on quickly expanding its military might in preparation for the 1950 invasion.
While Kim was able to gain large amounts of national support through nationalizing and redistributing land to grateful Koreans (who had not owned land in the past three decades during Japanese rule), the South had no industries to nationalize. Instead, the South faced numerous difficulties in even officially selecting a common leader and political ideology. Throughout the years leading up to the election in 1948 of the authoritarian Rhee, numerous southern candidates were often blatant dissenters from the communist party seeking to unify the peninsula. Factors such as these may have led to Kim’s overblown sense of confidence that the DPRK, and communism in general, would quickly sweep the entire peninsula and claim a swift victory over the shaky and fragmented South. (In one example of his confidence, one month before the North Korean invasion Kim declared via radio that the DPRK’s land reform was significantly better than what Koreans in the south had, and offered to share the program with the people of South Korea if they sought unification.)
Envisioning a swift victory, and after convincing then-Russian leader Joesph Stalin to endorse his plan, Kim’s army invaded the ROK, crossing the 38th parallel in June of 1950. The U.S. quickly became involved in the defense of the ROK, as President Truman worried of more communist territorial expansions similar to those of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It seems that Kim was unprepared for U.S. involvement, as U.S. air raids dealt significant damage to the DPRK campaign and North Korean industries. Once the U.S. was involved, the Chinese lent massive support, and were soon followed by Russian forces as well, in a massive proxy war in the East. Although Kim had predicted a victory within three months of the invasion, he soon found himself steeped in a grueling three-year war in which territories and victories continually fluctuated between the DPRK and the ROK.
More significantly, the absence of a formal peace treaty at the “end” is indicative of the 60 year relationship between North and South Korea since the armistice in 1953. Through the years, the North would continually show more and more signs of aggression, toward both the ROK and the U.S., which is not surprising given its origins. This overtly violent and self-confident mindset can all be traced back to the ideologies of a Cold War era instilled by the DPRK’s first leader, Kim Il-sung.