Suspicious of the South, they built up their military might to deter invasion. They ran up massive debts to the USSR, China and Japan. By 1980 they defaulted on loans and the economy has been contracting ever since. The collapse of Soviet Communism left Russia unimpressed with its poverty-stricken debtor. DPRK increasingly relied on China as its only open border. Il-sung refused to consider Gorbachev’s perestroika because he knew it led to glasnost. He died in 1994 and first son and heir apparent Kim Jong-il took over.
Born in 1942, Jong-il spent his first years in Siberia with his parents. His father commanded the 1st battalion of the 88th Brigade, a Red Army unit of Chinese and Korean exiles. Jong-il was born in Vyatskoye, a fishing village near Khabarovsk where the railway turns south to Vladivostok. As a schoolboy, Jong-il was interested in politics and Marxist literature. He learned English in Malta and in 1980, was effectively head of the politburo with only his father above him. He inherited his father’s personality cult and was named head of the armed forces in 1991. With Jong-il making all the decisions since they defaulted on their debts, North Korea’s economy collapsed.
When Il-Sung finally collapsed in 1994 aged 82, Jong-il was undisputed leader. The US were worried by his nuclear ambitions and threats to leave the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. The countries signed an Agreed Framework as one of Jong-il’s first achievements in office. It allowed the DPRK to continue developing nuclear technology at foreign expense but with light water reactors rather than the nuclear proliferating graphite reactors they already had.
The US overplayed its hand. President Clinton rashly assumed North Korea was on the verge of collapse. Congress would not pass a bill to end the trade embargo in place since the Korean War and the US dragged its feet in calling for tenders to build the new reactors. By October 2002, the US believed North Korea had an enrichment program and confronted them with their evidence. Three months later North Korea left the NNPT. The subsequent Six Party talks were fruitless. North Korea had gone rogue.
While nuclear testing proceeded with Iranian and Pakistani know-how, the fate of the North Korean people worsened. Jong-il oversaw a collapse in industry and technology while floods and storms in 1995 wrecked electricity and health infrastructure and destroyed harvests. Hungry peasants ate what undeveloped crops survived and the country could no longer feed itself. Women and children bore the brunt of the death toll of a million or more in three years.
Food from China, South Korea and the US eased the situation until Jong-il refused overseas aid in 2002. Inclusion in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union “Axis of Evil” heightened North Korea’s isolation. Famine conditions worsened again. Escapees told the BBC starvation was common with homeless people dying in railway stations, and others too weak to beg. Complaining about this would lead to instant imprisonment.