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McCune–ReischauerSŏn'gun chŏngch'i
Revised RomanizationSeon(-)gun jeongchi
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McCune–ReischauerSŏn'gun chŏngch'i
Revised RomanizationSeon(-)gun jeongchi
North Korea

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Politics and government of
North Korea

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Sŏn'gun, often spelled Songun, is North Korea's "Military First" policy, which prioritizes the Korean People's Army in the affairs of state and allocates national resources to the army first. "Military First" as a principle guides political and economic life in North Korea, with "Military First Politics" dominating the political system, "a line of Military First Economic Construction" acting as an economic system, and "Military First Ideology" serving as the guiding ideology.

Songun elevates the Korean People's Army within North Korea as an organization and as a state function, granting it the primary position in the North Korean government and society. It guides domestic policy and international interactions.[1] It is the framework for the government, designating the military as the "supreme repository of power." The North Korean government grants the Korean People's Army the highest economic and resource-allocation priority, and positions it as the model for society to emulate.[2] Songun is also the ideological concept behind a shift in policies since 1994 which emphasize the people's military over all other aspects of state and society.



The songun era began in 1960 when a young Kim Jong-il together with his father Kim Il-sung went on a visit to the Seoul 105th Guards Armored Division HQ in Pyongyang, the first of many visits to various Korean People's Army installations all across the DPRK.

Songun did not appear as an official government policy until after Kim Il-sung's death in 1994, however. In 1995, "military first" policies were introduced as "a revolutionary idea of attaching great importance to the army" and as "a politics emphasizing the perfect unity and the single-hearted unity of the party, army and the people, and the role of the army as the vanguards"[3][dubious ] in the wake of Kim Jong-il's first military unit visit for that year. This was a slight shift from the government's previous guiding policy, Kim Il-sung's juche, or self-reliance policy.[4]

In 1997, an editorial published in Rodong Sinmun, the North Korean Workers' Party official newspaper, stated: "Never before have the status and role of the People's Army been so extraordinarily elevated as today when it is being led energetically by the Respected and Beloved Comrade Supreme Commander." By this point, the People's Army had also become "synonymous with the people, the state, and the party."[5] Together, all of this indicates not only the centrality of Kim Jong-il to the songun ideology, but also its increasing rhetorical centrality to the state and society.

In 1998, songun began appearing in conjunction with other terms, including "military first revolutionary idea", "military first revolutionary leadership", and "military first politics", expanding the concept of songun into even more aspects of North Korean governance.[6]

Songun became an even more prominent concept in January 1999, making its first appearance in the important New Year's Day editorial published jointly by all the major news organs of North Korea. The editorial tied songun with Kim Jong-il by declaring that he practiced military-first leadership, which is "one in which the People's Army serves as the main force of revolution and in which the unity of the army and the people helps to safeguard as well as build socialism."[5]

In January 2003, the New Year's editorial added military first ideology (songun sasang) to the pantheon of military first concepts. In December 2003, the "Essential Attributes of Military-First Politics" was published as a new vision of the driving force of the revolution in the quasi-Communist North Korea. It assigned the main force of the revolution to the Korean People's Army.[5] This is a role traditionally, in Communist societies, assigned to the proletariat or, in China, to the peasantry. For North Korea, "only the army meets the criteria of loyalty, revolutionary spirit, cohesiveness, and esprit de corps."[5] January 2004 saw another increase in the omnipresence of songun, as it was mentioned more frequently than any other word in the New Year's Editorial, and was used to describe everything from politics to Korea itself.[5]

Songun has continued to expand in importance, and is even included in the ideological discussion of reunification with South Korea. The North Korean press stated, "songun politics is the guarantee that will secure the re-unification of the Fatherland."[7] North Korea also credits songun with safeguarding the peace on the peninsula, and states that it is the only thing preventing the US from attacking the North.[8] Songun has become intrinsic to North Korea's domestic politics, foreign policy, and decision-making, and has certainly taken its place alongside juche as a guiding principle of the regime.

Why Songun?

Two reasons have been offered as to why, after Kim Il-sung's death, North Korea shifted to songun as their primary ideology. One strand of the debate points to North Korea's desire to increase its military strength due to its precarious international position.[9] In this sense, songun is perceived as an aggressive, threatening move to increase the strength of the North Korean military at the expense of other parts of society.[1]

This argument also often points to the series of crises that befell North Korea in the early 1990s, beginning with the fall of Communism and its long-time ally the Soviet Union in 1991, followed by the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, which was then trailed by several natural disasters and the North Korean famine and its concurrent economic crisis, all before 1999. These also could have served as motivation for a new method of consolidation of power.[10]

The second strand focuses on internal North Korean politics as the cause for the move to military first politics. When Kim Il-sung died, he left leadership of North Korea to his son, Kim Jong-il. At the time of his father's death, the most important position held by Kim Jong-il in the North Korean government was military, specifically second in command of the military. This left him with no choice but to use the Korean People's Army to consolidate his own power.[5]

Additionally, in order to keep control of the government, Kim Jong-il would need to secure his support base within the Korean People's Army.[1] This line of argument points out that Kim Jong-il deliberately chose to sideline other aspects of the government in order to assert the primacy of the Korean People's Army. This included abolishing the Central People's Committee, the state presidency, and sidelining the North Korean Administration Council.[5]

Political implications

One implication of songun policies is that they not only worked with juche, the self-reliance ideal promoted by Kim Il-sung, but also replaced it as the central state ideology as Kim Jong-il consolidated his power.[11]

The ascendency of the Korean People's Army concerns South Korea, and ties into the debate over the Sunshine Policy, its most recent vision of Korean reunification.[12] Given North Korea's insistence that songun will facilitate reunification, it is difficult to tell what they expect in the future from South Korea, whose government is not at all supportive of songun policies, going so far as to outlaw websites within South Korea that promote North Korea's military-first ideas.[13]

Songun politics have also thrived on the ongoing nuclear crisis.[14] For the United States, given that its primary concern is the denuclearization of the peninsula, the concept of military-first politics and ideology is a troubling one.[15] Songun also seems to fit very well with the possession of nuclear weapons, and can be seen as a way of making such weapons central to the government's guiding ideology of self-governance.[16] This leads to the concern that, the longer military-first ideology guides the North Korean government, the less likely it will be that the United States will be able to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. A similar concern is that North Korea could perceive attempts at denuclearization and normalization of affairs with the United States as a threat to the primacy of the military within North Korea and, thus, a threat to songun ideology, a fear which puts into doubt the idea that North Korea is actually willing to give up its nuclear weapons program at all.[17]

Economic implications

"Military First" politics originated with an attempt at recovery from economic troubles during the famine that swept North Korea in the 1990s, known as the Arduous March. In order to overcome the economic crisis, the army was expected to work at the forefront. The Kim Jong-il regime set a strategic goal of becoming a "A Powerful and Prosperous Nation" (kangseong taeguk) through "Military First" policy. [18] Sergey Kurbanov, head of Institute of Korean Studies of University of Saint Petersburg, described in his Daily NK interview how the members of the nouveau riche in North Korea have the will to keep the Military First politics in order to secure their wealth.[19]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Alexander V. Vorontsov, "North Korea's Military-First Policy: A Curse or a Blessing?" Brookings Institution, 26 May 2006, <> 26 March 2007.
  2. ^ Jae Kyu Park, "North Korea since 2000 and prospects for Inter Korean Relations", 19 Jan 2006, <> 12 May 2007.
  3. ^ Global Security "Songun Chongch'I [Army First]. Global 27 April 2005. 20 March 2007.
  4. ^ Korean Overseas Information Service, "Is N.K. Trying an Experiment for Survival?", 6 Aug 2002 <> 12 May 2007.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Byung Chul Koh, "Military-First Politics and Building a ‘Powerful and Prosperous Nation' In North Korea" Nautilus Institute Policy Forum Online, 14 April 2005, <> 20 March 2007.
  6. ^ Global Security
  7. ^ "N. Korea's Songun ideology the Next Juche?" Chosun Ilbo, 3 May 2005, <> 11 May 2007.
  8. ^ "N.Korean Propaganda Machine Judders Into Action" Chosun Ilbo, 3 August 2006, <> 11 May 2007.
  9. ^ Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country (New York: The New Press, 2004): 102.
  10. ^ Soyoung Kwon "State Building in North Korea: From a ‘Self-Reliant' to a ‘Military-First' State" Asian Affairs 34:3, Nov 2003, 286-296: 293.
  11. ^ Kwon: 294.
  12. ^ Park
  13. ^ Korea Overseas Information Service, "S. Korea bans 32 pro-N. Korea Internet sites", 26 March 2007, <> 11 May 2007.
  14. ^ Gavan McCormack, "A Denuclearization Deal in Beijing: The Prospect of Ending the 20th Century in East Asia" Japan Focus, 14 Feb 2007, <> 2 April 2007.
  15. ^ Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs "Background Note: North Korea" US State Department Website, April 2007, <> 12 May 2007.
  16. ^ Wada Haruki, "The North Korean Nuclear problem, Japan, and the Peace of Northeast Asia" Trans. Gavan McCormack, Japan Focus, 10 March 2006, <> 2 April 2007.
  17. ^ McCormack
  18. ^ Nicholas Eberstadt (2006 October/November), Persistence of North Korea, The Policy Review,, retrieved 2007-05-11 
  19. ^ Kim (김), Song-a (송아) (2007-07-04). "“北 신흥부자들은 체제변화 원치 않는다”" (in Korean). Daily NK. Retrieved 2011-08-26.