[Feature] Chosun: North Korea’s Love-Hate Relationship with History

Friday 31st May, 2013
King Sejong of the Chosun Dynasty.

King Sejong of the Chosun Dynasty.

North Korea calls itself “Chosun”, but does not recognize the historical Chosun

In Korean, North Korea does not call itself Korea or North Korea. The official title of the DPRK in Korean is “Democratic People’s Republic of Chosun.” In addition, North Koreans don’t refer to themselves as Koreans or North Koreans. Instead, they refer to their country colloquially as Chosun, while South Korea is “southern Chosun” and inhabited by “southern Chosun people”.

“Chosun” refers to the Chosun Dynasty (AD 1392-1897) which ruled over Korea for five centuries. In this way, the DPRK asserts its historical legitimacy. But with North Korea’s rulers being appointed through hereditary succession, and as it continues to operate on a basis of dynastic absolutism evocative of past Korean rule, South Koreans who criticize North Korea sarcastically refer to the country as being “exactly like the Chosun Dynasty.”

Strangely enough, despite naming itself after the Chosun Dynasty, the DPRK actually scorns it. In North Korea, the phrase “Chosun Dynasty” or Chosun Era is never used; when talking about that period of Korean history, the era is simply called the “feudal era.”

North Korean refugee Lee Young-ju explained, “I first heard the term ‘Chosun Era’ from a South Korean friend, while we were watching a historical drama. That’s because in North Korea we call it the “feudal era.” We only discuss the negative elements of the era, and only see the flaws.”

According to Lee, North Korea teaches that the founder of the Chosun Dynasty, Lee Sung-gye, was a traitor of the Korean people. Furthermore, they explain that future generations of Koreans suffered due to the corruption of the Chosun Dynasty.

This is similar to how North Korea pours scorn on Japan for its occupation of Korea, accusing them of presiding over the exploitation poor Korean peasants – despite itself presiding over similar atrocities and suffering.

North Korean refugee Go Ji-ae expanded by saying, “When agents patrolling the jangmadang (public markets) arbitrarily confiscate stallholders’ goods, some older people refuse to contain their anger. They shout: “왜놈 순사보다 더 한 놈아!” (“You are worse than the Japanese Imperials!”) In the past, they would have been sent to a re-education center for saying such a thing, but as officials can see that it’s not just one person, they haven’t been able to arrest them.”

A Fear of Histories Not Written by Oneself

Although North Korea officially criticizes the Chosun dynasty’s policy of seclusion, a look at North Korea’s current policies makes such a statement seem absurd. Lately, the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a major facility for exchange between North and South Korea, was shut down at its instigation. The DPRK frequently blocks itself from other opportunities of exchange with foreign countries – especially, it appears, if it threatens their monopoly over information flow among its people.

Outsiders may naturally interpret North Korea’s isolationist policies as a reaction to external factors, compounded by the state’s insecurity and fear of foreign imperialism. Indeed, this is what DPRK propaganda leads one to believe. Yet it is just as reasonable to consider its isolation a deliberate policy sustained by domestic priorities: the need for total informational control.

Despite their differences, the dozen or so high-level defectors who we have spoken to over the last few weeks – each privy to a part of the workings of the DPRK – adhere to the view that North Korea is isolationist primarily out of domestic concerns related to regime stability, rather than due to factors related to its relations with foreign countries.

According to one of them, “North Korea is different from China in that the state is more vulnerable to the negative consequences of opening up than China ever was. The legitimacy of the Kims and the entire foundation of the state lies on many historical fabrications, the maintenance of which depends on a closed society.”

The fabrications include the story that Kim Il-sung both freed the Korean people from Japan and defended it from American invasion. If ordinary North Koreans realized that there were alternative narratives, and above all, that many world leaders did not support Kim as being the defender of the Korean (Chosun) people (the state places enormous emphasis on this international legitimacy in the domestic sphere), the Kims would likely lose their basis of authority among those whose support of the status quo primarily rests on ideological beliefs.

North Korea’s use of “Chosun” in its official name, while at the same time deriding the Chosun Dynasty, and its fear of historical pluralism: these betray its love-hate relationship with history.

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