History Files

Please help the History Files

Contributed: 175

Target: 400

Totals slider

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.

Far East Kingdoms

East Asia


Modern North Korea
AD 1948 - Present Day

Modern Korea is a divided nation thanks to a succession of events which began with Japanese Annexation at the start of the twentieth century and ended with the Korean War of 1950-1953. Today, North Korea is separated from China on its north-western border by the River Amrok (or Yalu to the Chinese), whose river basin once formed the core of the kingdom of Goguryeo. The country is also bordered to the south by South Korea, while Japan lies on the eastern side of the Sea of Japan.

Bearing a name which is said to descend from that of Koguryo (Koryŏ), Joseon Korea was annexed to Japan in 1910. It remained a satellite territory until the conclusion of the Second World War. Japan's defeat in 1945 saw Korea occupied by the allied powers for three years until summit meetings which were held after the conclusion of the war decided that Korea would be divided along the thirty-eighth parallel.

The USA would administer the southern half while Soviet Russia would do the same in the north from a capital at Pyongyang. While the south was chaotic, with the American-backed administration under Syngman Rhee openly stating its intent to reunify Korea by force, it was allowed very little in the way of military hardware.

In the north Russia placed a client ruler in charge in the form of Kim Il-sung before withdrawing in 1948. During the war he had fought the Japanese as a guerrilla while also being a communist activist. With the south vocal but toothless, he created the North Korean People's Army, which was equipped with Russian hardware including tanks and artillery.

He soon went onto become the country's autocratic 'Great Leader', and the state became ultra-secretive and highly dangerous. Decades of this rigid state-controlled system produced stagnation and a leadership which was dependent upon the cult of personality. The totalitarian state also stands accused of systematic human rights abuses.

Russia insisted that the north was sovereign over all of Korea. When that proved not to be the case and the south declared its own sovereign status, war was almost inevitable in the febrile post-war political climate. Following just two years of increasingly hostile small-scale actions along the thirty-eighth parallel, North Korea's forces attacked South Korea on 25 June 1950. North Korean troops swept south, capturing most of the country.

Under United Nations authorisation, a multinational force made up primarily of troops from the USA, Britain, and the British Commonwealth nations (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India), pushed back the North Koreans, prompting the Chinese to intervene. More troops poured in and peace was only ensured when a ceasefire was agreed in July 1953. Since then the dividing line between the two Koreas has remained heavily militarised, possibly one of the most militarised borders in the world.

North Korean flag

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from A Concise History of Modern Korea: From the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present, Michael J Seth, from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Post War History (since 1945) (Japan-Guide.com), and BBC Country Profiles, and The Week Magazine, and North Korea: isolated state with a long history of assassinations (The Guardian), and Kim Yo-jong: the sister of Kim Jong-un, fast 'becoming his alter ego' (The Guardian).)

1948 - 1994

Kim Il-sung

'Great Leader' and first ruler of North Korea. Born 1912.

1950 - 1953

After two years of increasingly hostile small scale actions along the thirty-eighth parallel, North Korea's forces attack South Korea on 25 June 1950. North Korean troops sweep south, capturing most of the country.

Korean War and the 38th parallel
The 38th parallel (latitude 38 N) crosses the border between North Korea and South Korea towards the western end of the present demilitarised zone (DMZ), but it is the post-Korean War DMZ which forms the actual border between the two states

Under United Nations authorisation, a multinational force made up primarily of troops from the USA, and Britain and the Commonwealth nations (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India), pushes back the North Koreans to the Manchurian border.

This prompts communist China to intervene, pouring troops across the frontier and taking South Korea as far as Seoul. By 1951 the allies have stabilised a front line around the thirty-eighth parallel and the remainder of the Korean War consists of heavy fighting in this region, until a ceasefire is agreed in July 1953.


The 'Blue House Assault' at the height of the cold war sees North Korea send a team of thirty-one commandos from Pyongyang to assassinate South Korea's President Park Chung-hee.

They are stopped just a hundred metres from the presidential Blue House. Gunfights erupt and more than ninety South Koreans are killed, including many civilians on a bus. Only two of the commandos survives; one flees to the north and one is captured.


North Korea accepts a proposal for exchange between it and South Korea, which leads to high-level talks and cultural and sporting exchanges. A joint communiqué in 1991 covering denuclearisation is agreed, and the two Koreas simultaneously become members of the UN.

UN accession in 1991 by the two Koreas
Prime Minister Chung Won-shik of South Korea (right) with Prime Minister Yon Hyong-muk of North Korea in Seoul, after signing a pact of reconciliation between their countries, in December 1991


The death of Kim Il-sung sees his son replace him as head of state, but not president. That post is assigned 'eternally' to Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il continues the cult of personality which leads a state which is rigidly controlled and stagnant.

1994 - 2011

Kim Jong-il

Son. 'Dear Leader'. Born 1941. Died of heart attack in 2011.


Widespread flooding exacerbates problems in North Korea's already somewhat shaky state farming programme. Crops and infrastructure are severely damaged which leads to famine.

Around three million North Koreans reportedly die from starvation (although some reports produce a much lower figure), which Kim Jong-il's government seems incapable of preventing. The government is forced to accept UN food aid.


In October, North Korea announces that it has successfully tested a nuclear weapon, causing alarm and consternation throughout the region. Several more tests follow, but also some apparent failures as shown by records of sudden earth tremors in the mountain testing range.

North Korean military parade
In annual parades which are strongly redolent of those of communist Russia at its height, North Korea shows off its military hardware and one of the world's largest standing armies


On 28 September, Kim Jong-un is promoted to general, a clear sign that he is being groomed as his father's successor. What muddies the waters is the fact that Kim Jong-il's sister, Kim Kyong-hui, is also promoted to general, suggesting that her husband, the real power behind the throne of the ailing dictator, could be positioning himself for an eventual takeover.


Kim Jong-il dies of a heart attack on 17 December, at the age of sixty-nine (the news is announced to the North Korean people two days later). His death occurs on a train while he is visiting an area outside the capital, and comes three years after he suffers a stroke. His favoured son, Kim Jong-un, is his successor.

2011 - Present

Kim Jong-un

Youngest son. 'Great Comrade'. Born 1983/1984.


Kim Jong-un seals his control over the country by purging some of his father's most loyal allies. His aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, promoted to general in 2010, survives as an important member of Kim Jong-un's inner circle, but her potentially ambitious husband is executed on charges of treason and corruption.


On 14 February 2016, Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of Kim Jong-un, is assassinated in Malaysia. Attacked by two women at Kuala Lumpur airport he dies in hospital, apparently due to poisoning. The women are believed to be North Korean agents and, despite escaping in a taxi, one of them is later arrested.

Kim Jong-nam had been heir apparent until his shaming in 2001 following a misguided attempt to leave the country to visit Japan. Since then he had been a critic of Kim Jong-un's leadership, escaping an assassination attempt in 2011.

Kim Jong-un and Kim Yo-jong
Kim Jong-un is pictured here with his sister, Kim Yo-jong, who emerged as a strong contender for the role of most trusted sibling and possible successor following her act of representing him at the 2018 Winter Olympics

2018 - 2019

In 2018 Kim Jong-un becomes first North Korean leader to enter South Korea when he meets President Moon Jae-in for talks. Weeks later he meets US President Donald Trump. As with many such meetings by Trump, little emerges other than rhetoric and self-congratulation.

In April 2019 Kim Jong-un makes his first visit to Russia to hold a meeting with President Putin in the far-eastern city of Vladivostok. He receives support from Putin over security guarantees ahead of nuclear disarmament.

Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.