THE KOREAN PENINSULA, located at the juncture of the northeast Asian continent and the Japanese archipelago, has been home to a culturally and linguistically distinct people for more than two millennia. The ancestors of modern Koreans are believed to have come from northeast and Inner Asia. Like their Japanese neighbors, they have been deeply influenced by Chinese civilization. The elite culture and social structure of traditional Korea, especially during the Chosn Dynasty (1392-1910) founded by General Yi Sng-gye, reflected neoConfucian norms. Despite centuries of Chinese cultural influence, an episode of Japanese colonialism (1910-45), division into United States and Soviet spheres after World War II (1939-45), and the Korean War (1950-53, known in North Korea as the Fatherland Liberation War), the Korean people have retained their ethnic and cultural distinctiveness. Indeed, cultural distinctiveness, autonomy, and creativity have become central themes in the North Korean regime's chuch'e ideology.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) is a socialist society with a Soviet style authoritarian political system in which the leadership emphasizes the formulation of a distinctively Korean style of socialism termed chuch'e. Its antithesis is "flunkeyism", or sadejuui, which traditionally referred to subordination to Chinese culture but has come to mean subservience to a foreign power. North Korean leaders label as "flunkeyism" anything that they wish to criticize as excessively dependent on foreign influence.
The North Korean regime has attempted to break with its China-dependent Confucian past, but the more authoritarian strains in Confucian thought are reinforced by the authoritarianism of Marxism-Leninism and Stalinism and by contemporary social values. Like the ideal Confucian ruler, North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are depicted as morally perfect leaders whose boundless benevolence earns them the gratitude and loyalty of the masses.
Kim Il Sung's domination of the political system after 1948 and his formulation of chuch'e ideology has made him the focus of an intense personality cult comparable to, and perhaps even more extreme, than that of Joseph Stalin. Through means of the state-controlled media and the education system, which includes an elaborate network of "social education" institutions aimed at creating a proper environment for the rearing of North Korean youth, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are the focus of nationwide veneration.
North Korea's rigidly hierarchical social structure resembles that of pre-modern Korea: an unequal society, both in terms of status and economic rewards. The rulers are at the apex, next come a small elite of Korean Workers' Party (KWP) officers, then a larger group of KWP cadres, and, finally, the majority of the population. At the bottom of the social-political pyramid are the politically suspect, including those whose relatives fled to the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) after 1945. The treatment of people is largely determined by political criteria. For example, talented people with "tainted" political backgrounds usually find it impossible to attend a college or university.
Insight into this cloistered society has benefited since the late 1980s from North Korea's release of statistics about its population, health conditions, educational enrollment, and other data previously kept secret. This information suggests that as of July 1991, the approximately 21.8 million North Koreans have life expectancies, health conditions, and mortality rates roughly equivalent to those of South Korea, which at that time had about twice the population. In the early 1990s, however, relatively limited information is available on living standards, especially for those living outside the capital city of P'yongyang.
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