Korea, North

Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Head of State: Kim Jong-un (2011)

Prime Minister: Choe Yong-rim (2010)

Land area: 46,490 sq mi (120,409 sq km); total area: 46,540 sq mi (120,540 sq km)

Population (2012 est.): 24,589,122 (growth rate: 0.535%); birth rate: 14.51/1000; infant mortality rate: 26.21/1000; life expectancy: 69.2

Capital and largest city (2003): Pyongyang, 3,222,000 (metro. area), 2,767,900

Monetary unit: won

National name: Choson Minjujuui Inmin Konghwaguk

Current government officials

Language: Korean

Ethnicity/race: racially homogeneous; small Chinese community, a few ethnic Japanese

Religions: traditionally Buddhist and Confucianist, some Christian and syncretic Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way)

National Holiday: Founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, September 9

Literacy rate: 99% (1991 est.)

Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2011 est.): $40 billion note: North Korea does not publish any reliable National Income Accounts data; the datum shown here is derived from purchasing power parity (PPP) GDP estimates for North Korea that were made by Angus MADDISON in a study conducted for the OECD; his figure for 1999 was extrapolated to 2007 using estimated real growth rates for North Korea's GDP and an inflation factor based on the US GDP deflator; the result was rounded to the nearest $10 billion; per capita $1,800. Real growth rate: 4%. Inflation: n.a. Unemployment: n.a. Arable land: 22.4% (2005). Agriculture: rice, corn, potatoes, soybeans, pulses; cattle, pigs, pork, eggs. Labor force: 12.2 million; agricultural 36%, nonagricultural 64%. Industries: military products; machine building, electric power, chemicals; mining (coal, iron ore, magnesite, graphite, copper, zinc, lead, and precious metals), metallurgy; textiles, food processing; tourism. Natural resources: coal, lead, tungsten, zinc, graphite, magnesite, iron ore, copper, gold, pyrites, salt, fluorspar, hydropower. Exports: $2.557 billion (2010 est.): minerals, metallurgical products, manufactures (including armaments), textiles, fishery products. Imports: $3.529 billion (2010 est.): petroleum, coking coal, machinery and equipment; textiles, grain. Major trading partners: China, South Korea, Bangladesh, Russia (2010).

Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 1.18 million (2008); mobile cellular: n.a. Broadcast media: no independent media; radios and TVs are pre-tuned to government stations; 4 government-owned TV stations; the Korean Workers' Party owns and operates the Korean Central Broadcasting Station, and the state-run Voice of Korea operates an external broadcast service; the government prohibits listening to and jams foreign broadcasts (2008). Internet hosts: 7 (2010). Internet users: n.a.

Transportation: Railways: total: 5,242 km (2009). Roadways: total: 25,554 km; paved: 724 km; unpaved: 24,830 km (2006). Waterways: 2,250 km; mostly navigable by small craft only. Ports and harbors: Ch'ongjin, Haeju, Hungnam (Hamhung), Kimch'aek, Kosong, Najin, Namp'o, Sinuiju, Songnim, Sonbong (formerly Unggi), Ungsang, Wonsan. Airports: 81 (2012).

International disputes: risking arrest, imprisonment, and deportation, tens of thousands of North Koreans cross into China to escape famine, economic privation, and political oppression; North Korea and China dispute the sovereignty of certain islands in Yalu and Tumen rivers; Military Demarcation Line within the 4-km-wide Demilitarized Zone has separated North from South Korea since 1953; periodic incidents in the Yellow Sea with South Korea which claims the Northern Limiting Line as a maritime boundary; North Korea supports South Korea in rejecting Japan's claim to Liancourt Rocks (Tok-do/Take-shima).

Major sources and definitions

Flag of North Korea


Korea is a 600-mile (966km) peninsula jutting out from Manchuria and China (and a small portion of the USSR). North Korea occupies an area—slightly smaller than Pennsylvania—north of the 38th parallel.

The country is almost completely covered by a series of north-south mountain ranges separated by narrow valleys. The Yalu River forms part of the northern border with Manchuria.


Authoritarian socialist; one-man dictatorship.


The ancient history of the Korean peninsula can be traced to the Neolithic Age, when Turkic-Manchurian-Mongol peoples migrated into the region from China. The first agriculturally based settlements appeared around 6000 B.C. Some of the larger communities of this era were established along the Han-gang River near modern-day Seoul, others near Pyongyang and Pusan. According to ancient lore, Korea's earliest civilization, known as Choson, was founded in 2333 B.C. by Tan-gun.

In the 17th century, Korea became a vassal state of China and was cut off from outside contact until the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Following Japan's victory, Korea was granted independence. By 1910, Korea had been annexed by Japan, which developed the country but never won over the Korean nationalists, who continued to agitate for independence.

Partition of Korea Leads to War

After Japan's surrender at the conclusion of World War II, the Korean peninsula was partitioned into two occupation zones, divided at the 38th parallel. The USSR controlled the north, with the U.S. taking charge of the south. In 1948, the division was made permanent with the establishment of the separate regimes of North and South Korea. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) was established on May 1, 1948, with Kim Il Sung as president.

Hoping to unify the Koreas under a single Communist government, the North launched a surprise invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. In the following days, the UN Security Council condemned the attack and demanded an immediate withdrawal.

President Harry S. Truman ordered U.S. air and naval units into action to enforce the UN order. The British government followed suit, and soon a UN multinational command was set up to aid the South Koreans.

The North Korean invaders swiftly seized Seoul and surrounded the allied forces in the peninsula's southeast corner near Pusan. In a desperate bid to reverse the military situation, UN Commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered an amphibious landing at Inchon on Sept. 15 and routed the North Korean army. MacArthur's forces pushed north across the 38th parallel, approaching the Yalu River.

Prompted by this successful counteroffensive, Communist China entered the war, forcing the UN troops into a headlong retreat. Seoul was lost again, then regained. Ultimately, the war stabilized near the 38th parallel but dragged on for two years while negotiations took place. An armistice was achieved on July 27, 1953.

Famine Overshadows Nuclear Ambitions

Kim Il Sung's death on July 8, 1994, introduced a period of uncertainty, as his son, Kim Jong Il, assumed the mantle of leadership. The country's suspected possession of atomic weapons was a much discussed topic, and in June 1995, the North received a South Korean nuclear reactor.

The nuclear standoffs that characterized the mid-1990s were overshadowed by a famine which struck the nation's 24 million inhabitants in 1998 and 1999. Two years of floods had been followed by severe droughts in 1997 and 1998, causing devastating crop failures. Because of a lack of fuel and machinery parts, and weather conditions that encouraged parasites, only 10% of North Korea's rice fields could be worked. The crippling food crisis necessitated foreign aid. In the fall of 1999, the severe famine, which claimed an estimated 2 million to 3 million lives, had begun to wane. Malnutrition and hunger, however, continued to plague North Korea into 2000. Thousands have attempted to flee to China or South Korea, and only a few have evaded capture. Those who are captured face torture or execution.

Secretive Government Opens Up in Exchange for Aid

North Korea, one of the world's most secretive societies, has been accused of egregious human-rights violations, including summary executions, torture, inhumane conditions in prison camps and denial of freedom of expression and movement. Access to the country is strictly limited and North Korea's domestic media is tightly controlled, making it difficult to substantiate the accusations. Some nongovernmental organizations, however, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have spoken to North Korean refugees who have experienced persecution.

In Sept. 1998, North Korea launched a test missile over Japan, claiming it was simply a scientific satellite, raising suspicions regarding North Korea's nuclear intentions. In 1999, North Korea agreed to allow the United States to conduct ongoing inspections of a suspected nuclear development site, Kumchangri. In exchange, the U.S. would increase food aid and initiate a program for bringing potato production to the country.

Tension with South Korea eased dramatically in June 2000, when South Korea's president, Kim Dae Jung, met with North Korea's President Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. The summit marked the first-ever meeting of the two countries' leaders. But efforts toward reconciliation fizzled thereafter.

Kim Jong Il and U.S. President Bush Engage in Diplomatic Roller Coaster

In Jan. 2002, President Bush described North Korea as part of an “axis of evil.” Such open hostility marked a dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward North Korea from the Clinton administration's policy of engagement.

North Korea stunned the world in late 2002 with two admissions. In September, the government acknowledged that it had kidnapped about a dozen Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s for the purposes of training North Korean spies. In October, confronted with U.S. intelligence, North Korea admitted that it had violated a 1994 agreement freezing its nuclear weapons program and had in fact been developing nuclear bombs. Since 2002, North Korea has vacillated between affirming and denying that it already has nuclear weapons.

In late Dec. 2002, North Korea expelled UN weapons inspectors from the country, and in Jan. 2003 announced that it was officially withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In July, North Korean officials reported that the country had reprocessed enough plutonium to build six nuclear bombs. Kim has regularly used threats and hostile acts to try to wring aid from the international community, but it was difficult to decipher how he expected to accomplish his aims—economic aid and a safeguard against U.S. attack—through such brinkmanship. Refusing to bow to North Korea's demands, the United States informed the nation's diplomats that it would not begin to negotiate until North Korea first dismantled its nuclear program. China took on the role of mediator between North Korea and the U.S., urging less inflexibility on both sides. Meetings between officials from the U.S., North Korea, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan in 2003, 2004, and 2005 ended in deadlock.

In July 2006, North Korea launched seven missiles—the long-range Taepodong-2 missile (which failed) and six medium-range weapons—roiling its neighbors and much of the rest of the world. It was North Korea's first major weapons test in eight years. North Korea again sparked international outrage in October, when it tested a nuclear weapon. President Bush called the test a “threat to international peace and security” and called for sanctions against North Korea.

A breakthrough was finally reached in February 2007, when North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear facilities and allow international inspectors to enter the country in exchange for about $400 million in oil and aid. In July, the country followed up on the February agreement, shutting down its weapons-making nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency verified the move. North Korea went a step further in October, announcing it would disable its nuclear facilities and disclose to international monitors an accounting of all of its nuclear programs by the end of 2007. It failed, however, to make the disclosure.

North and South Korea Establish Closer Ties

In April 2007, Parliament fired Prime Minister Hong Song Nam and named former army and navy minister Kim Yong-Il as his successor.

For the first time in 56 years, trains passed between North and South Korea in May 2007. While the event was mostly symbolic, it was considered an important step toward reconciliation. South Korea hopes that eventually a trans-Korean railroad will provide easier access to other parts of Asia. Given North Korea's failing infrastructure, such a railroad, however, is years away from becoming a reality.

In Oct. 2007, Kim Jong Il and South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun met for their second ever inter-Korean summit. The leaders forged a deal to work together on several economic projects and agreed to move toward signing a treaty that would formally end the Korean War.

Uncertainty Surrounding Nuclear Program Continues

Hopes for an eventual denuclearized North Korea were raised again in May 2008, when the country turned over to U.S. officials about 18,000 pages of documents detailing its efforts in 1990, 2003, and 2005 to reprocess plutonium for nuclear weapons. It did not, however, hand over information on its uranium program and its efforts to sell nuclear material. The country went further in June, when it turned over to China a list of its nuclear facilities as well as information on the amount of reprocessed plutonium in its possession and destroyed a cooling tower at its main reactor in Yongbyon. The U.S., in turn, said it would remove North Korea from its list of countries that sponsor terrorism and lifted some sanctions against the country. In July, the U.S., China, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and Japan announced another deal that will have international inspectors visiting North Korea's nuclear facilities to confirm that it has shut down its main processing facility at Yongbyon. In return, North Korea will receive financial and energy assistance.

The progress reached in the summer toward denuclearizing North Korea seemed to have ground to a halt by September as officials said they planned to restart the plutonium reprocessing plant at Yongbyon and banned UN inspectors from the plant. The move followed complaints by North Korean officials that the U.S. had not removed the country from its list of countries that sponsor terrorism and reports that President Kim had suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving many to wonder who is calling the shots in the reticent country. The diplomatic roller coaster continued its unpredictable course in October 2008, when the U.S. State Department removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism after North Korea agreed to give international inspectors access to its nuclear plant at Yongbyon and to continue disabling its plutonium processing facility.

The slow dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program stalled in April 2009. On April 4, North Korea launched what it said was a satellite, but what other governments claimed was a test for a long-range missile. By all reliable accounts, the launch was a failure—the payload of the missile landed in the ocean. But the international community condemned the test. North Korea responded by dropping out of talks to end its nuclear program.

Two more weapons tests followed in quick succession: an underground nuclear test on May, 25, and a short-range missile test on May 29. The nuclear test was North Korea's second. International monitoring organizations said that it was more powerful than the previous blast, three years ago.

North Korea pardoned two imprisoned American journalists after former President Bill Clinton visited the country in August. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested in March and sentenced in June to 12 years in prison for "illegal entry" into the country. Clinton agreed in late July to travel to North Korea on a humanitarian mission to save the two women.

Tension Between North and South Reaches Crisis Point

In March 2010, the South Korean warship Cheonan was sunk in an area of the Yellow Sea that's in dispute with North Korea. Forty-six sailors were killed. South Korea suspected North Korea was responsible and ordered an international investigation so the results of the probe would be perceived as impartial. In May, investigators produced a piece of a torpedo propeller that they believed had a North Korea serial number, evidence, South Korea said, that the North was responsible. South Korea then formally accused North Korea of launching the attack; North Korea denied the accusation and threatened "all out war" if South Korea moved to punish North Korea or retaliate. Tension between the two nations reached a crisis point. South Korea cut trade with North Korea, closed sea lanes, and blasted propaganda at the border through loud speakers. The UN Security Council condemned the attack, but because China balked, it stopped short of blaming North Korea.

Conditions further deteriorated in November when North Korea attacked Yeonpyeong, a small island in South Korea located near the maritime border between the North and South, killing two soldiers and two civilians and leveling entire neighborhoods. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the attack "one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean war." South Korea was restrained in its response, but sent a flotilla of warships to the Yellow Sea. The U.S. dispatched a group of aircraft carriers and participated in the naval exercises. Prior to the attack, South Korea had undertaken artillery drills in the same area but said the shots were not fired toward North Korea.

Just days before the incident between North and South Korea, Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford professor and former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said that during a visit to North Korea, officials gave him a tour of a uranium-enrichment facility that contained 2,000 centrifuges that can be converted to produce nuclear weapons. Hecker described the facility as sophisticated and "ultra modern." Many speculated that North Korea's provocative actions were intended to boost the credibility and prominence of Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong-il's likely successor.

At the Korean Workers Party conference in September 2010—the first in nearly 30 years, President Kim promoted his third son, Kim Jong-un, to the rank of four-star general, gave him a seat on the party's Central Committee, and appointed him as vice chairman the party's military commission, paving the way for him to take over as president. Little is known about Un, who is in his late 20s, other than he attended a private boarding school in Switzerland.

Kim Jong-il Dies

Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack on December 17, 2011. "Dear Leader," as Kim was known to North Koreans, had been in power since 1994 and presided over his isolated country through a devastating flood that claimed between 2 million and 3 million citizens in the 1990s and left the economy in shambles. He taunted the U.S. and the international community with his dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-un succeeded his father and was given the title "Great Successor." Kim's death and Kim Jong-un's ascendance put the world on high alert as a power struggle or an attempt by Kim Jong-un to prove his mettle could create a dangerous situation in an already unstable country that has long harbored nuclear ambitions.

Kim Jong-un Launches Satellite and Tests Nuclear Device, Testing International Patience

Kim Jong-un
Kim Jong-un
Source: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File

There was a sense of relief—as well as caution—in late February 2012 when North Korea announced it was suspending uranium enrichment at its processing facility in Yongbyon and halting tests of weapons and long-range missiles. In exchange, the U.S. said it would resume food aid to the impoverished nation. Observers speculated that Kim Jong-un might be attempting to win the favor of North Koreans with the infusion of food or beginning to chart a new path in foreign relations. Nevertheless, North Korea has made such promises in the past only to later renege. And renege it did. On April 12, the country attempted to launch a rocket carrying a satellite into orbit, but the rocket blew up seconds after the launch. The failure was an embarrassment to Kim Jong-un, who had just been honored with two new titles: leader of the national defense commission, the nation's most powerful government agency; and first secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea. The launch coincided with the celebration of the 100th birthday of North Korea's founder and Kim Jong-un's grandfather, Kim Il-sung. In response to the attempt, the U.S. suspended 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea.

North Korea's next attempt to put a satellite into orbit was not a failure. The successful launch of the rocket on December 12 indicated that the country was inching closer toward developing the expertise to build an intercontinental ballistic missile. It also boosted Kim Jong-un's credibility both domestically and internationally, illustrating his seriousness in advancing the country's military capabilities. The launch took the world by surprise and was followed by another round of UN sanctions that were supported by China, which normally opposes such measures. Less than a week later, astronomers reported that the satellite was spinning in orbit, a sign that it had failed post-launch.

North Korea Threatens U.S., South Korea with War

In Feb. 2013, North Korea said it had detonated a third nuclear bomb. The explosion was larger than North Korea's previous tests. In response to the test, the UN Security Council unanimously passed another round of strict sanctions against North Korea. In a first, China was involved in drafting the sanctions. The sanctions came shortly after the U.S. and South Korea began annual military drills near the north-south border. Reacting to the sanctions and the exercises, President Kim promised to launch "a pre-emptive nuclear strike" against the U.S. and South Korea. He also said he had voided the 1953 armistice that ended the war between North and South Korea, essentially declaring war with the South. Kim's threats were mostly dismissed as bluster but were nevertheless the most menacing in years. He continued his bellicose tone in March and shut down not only Red Cross hotlines between North and South Korea but also military hotlines. At a rare plenary meeting of the Central Committee in March, Kim said North Korea would continue to develop its nuclear weapons program despite sanctions and restart the mothballed nuclear facility in Yongbyon. In early April Kim prohibited South Korean workers from entering the Kaesong industrial park, which is run jointly by the two countries and located in North Korea.

In response to the growing threat from North Korea—and to support the South—the U.S. sent F-22 stealth fighter jets and B-2 and B-52 bombers to the region. The U.S. also increased the number of ground-based ballistic missile interceptors in California and Alaska and deployed an advanced missile defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad), to Guam two years earlier than planned.

The Kaesong complex re-opened in September after several rounds of talks. In addition, North Korea said it would resume a program that allows family members separated by the war to visit each other. South Korean president Park Geun-hye said the breakthroughs were evidence that her policy of "trustpolitik" had made progress. However, the encouraging news was tempered by reports of steam rising from the weapons-making nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, suggesting that North Korea may have reopened the facility.

Reported Leadership Shuffle Sparks Concern

In December 2013, Kim Jong-un sacked his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, and other government and military leaders held over from his father's rule. When Kim took power, Jang was assigned to supervise and advise Kim and was considered the second most powerful figure in the country. The Korean Central News Agency said Jang was ousted for heavy drinking, womanizing, challenging the leadership of Kim, and selling resources below market value. Days later, on Dec. 13, North Korea announced that Jang had been executed for attempting a coup. Jang "persistently plotted to spread his evil design into the military, believing that he could overthrow the leadership if he could mobilize the military," the news agency reported. It was an extraordinary show of transparency from the world's most secretive societies. The upheaval could signal Kim's attempt to put his own handprint on the government—or a power struggle. Observers feared the repercussions if a power struggle led to further instability.

About 360 South Koreans, mostly elderly, traveled to North Korea in February 2014 to meet with relatives from whom they were separated when the Korean Peninsula split after World War II. The reunions, the first since 2010, were part of an effort to improve ties between the North and the South, which have further deteriorated over the status of North Korea's nuclear program.

The UN’s Human Rights Council released a report in February 2014 accusing North Korea of crimes against humanity and compared the regime to that of Nazi Germany. The report was stunning in its graphic description of the horrors endured by political prisoners—who number between 80,000 and 120,000. The council recommended that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court. China was cited for "aiding and abetting crimes against humanity" for supporting North Korea and detaining and repatriating refugees from North Korea.

North Korea held legislative elections in March 2014. Considered a sham election for the rubber-stamp Parliament, only one candidate appeared on the ballot for each district. Not one vote was cast against the government's candidates, and voter turnout was 100%. The elections are held every five years. In April, Parliament re-elected Kim as first chairman of the National Defense Commission, the body that controls the country's military. He then filled several posts left vacant from the leadership purge he carried out in December 2013.

North Korea Fires Ballistic Missiles; Exchanges Fire with South Korea

In March 2014, North Korea test fired two medium-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan, South Korea, and China. The missiles landed in the sea between North Korea and Japan. It was the first such test since 2009. Days later, the country threatened to conduct "a new form of nuclear test for bolstering up its nuclear deterrence." The moves prompted an angry response from South Korea. "North Korea should bear in mind that if it ignores the stern demand from the neighboring countries and the international community and carries out a nuclear test, it will have to pay a price for it," the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement. On March 31, North and South Korea exchanged artillery shells across their disputed western maritime border.

North Korea Accused of Launching a Cyberattack on Sony; Drought Threatens Crops

Kim Jong-un disappeared from the public eye in early September 2014, missing several notable events. His absence prompted a number of theories, from him being seriously ill or a victim of a coup. He re-emerged in mid-October, walking with a cane.

The computer networks of Sony Pictures were hacked in November 2014, with personal medical information about employees, financial information, emails, and thousands of other documents lifted and made public. The U.S. suspected North Korea was behind the breech in retaliation for the upcoming release by Sony of an outlandish comedy, called The Interview, about a CIA plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un. In December, employees of Sony received threatening messages on their computers warning that "the world will be full of fear" if the film is released. "Remember the 11th of September 2001," a message said. Sony decided to cancel the release of the film, but later distributed it in limited release. On Dec. 19, the FBI formally accused North Korea of launching the attack, saying it had significant evidence linking the government to the breech. The FBI said there were extensive similarities in this attack and others attributed to North Korea, including "specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks."

President Barack Obama said the U.S. "will respond proportionally," and he took a jab at the Kim Jong-un. "I think it says something about North Korea that it decided to mount an all-out attack about a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen," he said. Rogen co-starred in the film and was a co-director. North Korea's internet went down briefly in late December, and the U.S. denied any involvement.

In June 2015, North Korean officials announced that the country was experiencing its worst drought in 100 years and that about 30% of its rice paddies were about to dry up. About 70% of North Koreans are considered food insecure, and losing rice crops would exacerbate the problem.

See also Encyclopedia: Korea.
U.S. State Dept. Country Notes: North Korea

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