The Korean War
Kim Il Sung (1912-94) was the dictatorial leader of North Korea from shortly after World War II until his death in 1994. As a young man, Kim led guerrilla forces against the Japanese imperial army until he was forced to flee Korea in the late 1930s. There is some debate about what he did next; the North Koreans claim that he organized the Anti-Japanese Guerilla Army in Manchuria, but other accounts suggest that he fought in the Russian Red Army. By the end of World War II, Kim had returned to the Korean peninsula along with Russian forces. Having become an ardent Communist, Kim went on to lead the first government in the North—the People's Democratic Republic of North Korea.
In the early years of the Cold War, Kim sought to reunify all of Korea under his own Communist leadership. In 1949 and early 1950, it seemed that he might have more support among the Korean populace than the equally autocratic leader of South Korea, Syngman Rhee. But Rhee shored up his support by mid-1950, meaning that when Kim invaded the South in July of that year, his forces were not—as he hoped and expected—greeted as liberators. Kim led North Korea throughout the Korean War, at different times nearly achieving victory and nearly falling to defeat. He agreed to the armistice of 1953, and ruled his country with an iron fist for another 40 years. In the later years of his regime, North Korea slid farther and farther into poverty and authoritarianism.