North Korea is a remarkably closed country, making it extremely difficult to acquire accurate information about it. The difficulty of measuring the influence of the military in North Korean communist politics is further compounded by the difficulty of distinguishing between military and nonmilitary political actors, as many leading political actors have served or serve in the military or in military-related positions. These research difficulties reflect the characteristics of North Korean politics: closed, secretive, authoritarian, and militaristic.
Most observers share the view that the Korean People's Army (KPA) has played a primary role in North Korean politics since its inception. However, the contingent role of the North Korean military has changed over the years, reflecting the shifting concerns of the North Korean political leadership. A historic overview in relation to the political needs of the times could yield contextual insights into understanding the political role of the North Korean military. In the initial stages of regime building, the KPA served Kim Il-sung as a physical safeguard against his fellow communist opponents. Once the regime was stabilized politically, the primary task of the military was shifted toward socializing the people under the direction of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP). Military intervention in policy decisions weakened as the Pyongyang regime became consolidated. Yet, the military leaders have kept their hands in the distribution of political power among government institutions. One should note that the Pyongyang regime's determination to use force as the only means to achieve its ultimate goal--that is, the communization of the entire Korean peninsula--has never weakened. Today, internally and externally, North Korea is at a crossroads. The country's economic deterioration seems to be too deep to be reversed without opening to the West. Internally, top-positioned revolutionaries are in their natural demise. Kim Il-sung, the country's ultimate leader since 1945, died in July 1994. O Chin-u, the leading military person, followed him in February 1995; and the other politically active revolutionaries are in their 70s and 80s.