North Korea, officially Democratic People's Republic of Korea (2005 est. pop. 22,912,000), 46,540 sq mi (120,538 sq km), founded on May 1, 1948, has its capital at Pyongyang, the largest city. North Korea is divided into nine provinces and three special cities.
North Korea, although nominally a republic governed by a representative assembly, is actually ruled by the Communist party (known in Korea as the Korea Workers' party). Until his death in 1994, all governmental institutions were controlled by Kim Il Sung (widely known as "The Great Leader"), who had been premier and then president since the country's inception in 1948. A personality cult had glorified Kim, but by the mid-1990s the rapid economic growth of North Korea's early years had given way first to stagnation and then to hardship, and there was widespread dissatisfaction with the repressive totalitarian regime. Increasingly, Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, had assumed the day-to-day management of the government and, at Kim Il Sung's death in 1994, the son took over leadership of the country and, like his father, became the object of a personality cult. He was named secretary of the Communist party in 1997 and consolidated his power with the title of National Defense Commission chairman in 1998. Under Kim Jong Il, diplomatic relations were established with a number of Western nations.
After the Korean War, the Communist government of North Korea used the region's rich mineral and power resources as the basis for an ambitious program of industrialization and rehabilitation. With Chinese and Soviet aid, railroads, industrial plants, and power facilities were rebuilt. Farms were collectivized, and industries were nationalized. In a series of multiyear economic development plans, the coal, iron, and steel industries were greatly expanded, new industries were introduced, and the mechanization of agriculture was pushed. By the mid-1990s more than 90% of the economy was socialized and 95% of the country's manufactured products were made by state-owned enterprises. A serious postwar population loss, resulting from the exodus of several million people to the South, was somewhat offset by the immigration of Chinese colonists and Koreans from Manchuria and Japan.
North Korea maintained close relations with the Soviet Union and China (military aid treaties were signed with both countries in 1961) but preserved a degree of independence; the Sino-Soviet rift facilitated this. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, China became North Korea's most important ally. The country's large expenditures on its military and centralized control have been drags on the economy, as has been the nation's inability (since the 1990s) to produce or import enough food to feed its people, which has resulted in chronic malnutrition and, at times, famine. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps as many as two million, are believed to have died from starvation in the mid-1990s.
Relations with the United States remained tense throughout the late 20th cent. because of the U.S. military presence in Korea and its economic assistance to South Korea. In 1968, North Korea seized the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo and imprisoned its crew for 11 months, and in 1969 it shot down an American reconnaissance plane. More recently, the United States imposed (1988) sanctions on North Korea for alleged terrorist activity and expressed concern over reports that North Korea was building a nuclear weapons plant. In 1991 both Koreas joined the United Nations after the North dropped its opposition to such a move.
New tensions mounted on the peninsula in 1994 after confirmation that the country had developed a nuclear program. After direct talks with the United States, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program in return for shipments of oil and the construction of two new light-water reactors for power (the latter were not built, however). North Korea launched a medium-range missile over Japan in 1998; in 1999, the United States agreed to ease trade sanctions against the country in exchange for North Korea's agreement to suspend its missile testing. In a further easing of tensions, high-level visits by U.S. and North Korean officials were exchanged during 2000, and the South's president, Kim Dae Jung, paid a visit to the North. Relations were slow to improve, however, as the North increased its demands for economic aid while failing to fulfill its own pledges.
Continuing economic deterioration in the North led in 2002 to a number of reforms and plans for the establishment of special economic zones in Sinuiju and Kaesong. The North also was accused of attempting to earn hard currency through the illegal drug trade, the counterfeiting of U.S. currency and cigarettes, and (later) insurance fraud. In 2003 a North Korean cargo ship was seized by Australia after the crew was observed unloading heroin. Moribund negotiations with South Korea and the United States were also revived, while talks with Japan led to an agreement to began normalizing diplomatic relations. Late in 2002, however, oil shipments under the 1994 agreement were halted after revelations that North Korea had a nuclear weapons program; food aid was also reduced. An economically desperate North ended UN supervision of its nuclear facilities, withdrew from the nonproliferation treaty, and made other moves toward the development of nuclear weapons.
Tensions and concerns over the North's pursuit of nuclear weapons continued into 2005. Meanwhile, the United States indicated that it believed that the North had sold enriched uranium to Libya when the latter had been attempting to develop nuclear weapons, while Korea publicly acknowledged that it had nuclear weapons and later stated that it would increase its nuclear arsenal. In Sept., 2005, talks involving the Koreas, the United States, Japan, China, and Russia produced an agreement in which the North said it would abandon its nuclear programs and weapons in return for aid and security commitments. Ambiguities in the agreement, however, led the parties to contest its terms almost immediately when North Korea demanded that it be given a light-water reactor, but U.S. officials said that they had agreed only to discuss doing so (and only after the North had done what it had committed to do).
Also in 2005, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on a Macao bank accused of laundering North Korean earnings from illegal activities, including counterfeiting U.S. money. The move, which came after a four-year investigation and appeared to have been undertaken in part in attempt to force North Korea to make nuclear concessions, led other international banks to limit their transactions with North Korea. In 2006 North Korea called for the sanctions to be lifted before it would engage in further six-party negotiations.
In July, 2006, the North again launched several tests missiles, provoking international condemnation and drawing strong reactions from both the United States and Japan; the UN Security Council adopted some limited military sanctions in response. Then, in October, the North conducted a small underground nuclear test. Widely and strongly condemned internationally, including by China, the North's closest ally, the test resulted in additional, largely military sanctions. Japan and a number of other nations adopted more extensive sanctions, but China and South Korea, the North's largest trade partners, both largely avoided placing restrictions on trade, out of concern over a possible military confrontation or economic and political collapse in North Korea.
In Feb., 2007, resumed six-party negotiations led to an agreement that called for the North to shut down its reactor in 60 days in exchange for aid; implementation of the agreement was held up, however, by the North's insistence on regaining access to its funds in Macao, which did not occur until June. The agreement also called for additional aid when further denuclearization steps were achieved. Japan was not a party to the aid agreement because of issues relating to the North's kidnapping of its citizens in the past. In July, the shutdown of the North's main nuclear facilities was confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Flooding in the North in Aug., 2007, left some 300,000 homeless and ruined a tenth of the nation's farmland. Kim and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun held a summit in Pyongyang in Oct., 2007. In addition to the facility shutdown, North Korea agreed to supply a declaration of its nuclear facilties and activities by the end of the 2007; it asserted it had done so, but the United States said that the declaration was not complete. Relations with the South became strained in 2008 when newly elected President Lee Myung Bak insisted that the North show progress on human rights and nuclear disarmament as a condition for aid and improvements in relations.
In May, North Korea released documents relating to its nuclear programs; also that month the United States announced that it would resume food aid to North Korea. The following month North Korea finally submitted a declaration of its nuclear weapons activities to the participants in the six-party talks, and the talks resumed in July. The next month, however, North Korea said it was stopping its disabling of its nuclear facilities because the United States had not removed it from a list of state sponsors of terrorism. After an agreement relating to verification in Oct., 2008, however, the North was removed from the list and resumed the disabling process. By the end of the year, however, there were again contentions over the verification process.
North Korea continued its provocative actions against the South in 2009. It declared its agreements with South Korea to be scrapped, and it temporarily closed access to South Korean–run factories in Kaesong. In April it launched a rocket that it claimed put a satellite into orbit, but the United States said nothing had been placed in orbit. South Korea, the United States, and Japan denounced the launch, seeing it as a thinly disguised missile test that was a violation of UN resolutions, and the UN Security Council condemned the launch. The North responded by saying it would end talks on its nuclear program and restart its disabled reactor, and it ordered international nuclear inspectors to leave the country. In subsequent months it conducted several short-range missile tests, a second nuclear test (May), and called for renegotiating the Kaesong industrial park agreement. The nuclear test was condemned by the Security Council, which imposed additional sanction on North Korea.
Relations with South Korea and the United States thawed some in Aug., 2009, after former U.S. president Clinton visited to obtain the release of two U.S. journalists who had been seized for crossing the North's border with China; a North Korean delegation also attended the funeral of former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung. In September severe limitations on South Korean travel to Kaesong were eased and other moves were taken, but during the same month an unannounced dam release by the North caused a flood that killed several people in the South, provoking an angry response.
In Dec., 2009, the North revalued its currency and limited the amount of old currency that could be converted, leading to panic buying and inflation as the North Koreans sought to use up as much of their unconvertable savings as possible; there were also reports of unrest in areas as a result of the change. Tensions subsequntly increased between North and South, as the two failed to reach an agreement on Kaesong. The North later (Apr., 2010) said it would take control of the South Korean–built resort at Mt. Kumgang, but it did not seize it until Aug., 2011.
North Korea shelled near a disputed maritime border in Jan., 2010, and in March a South Korean warship was sunk near the same border; an investigation determined a North Korean torpedo was the cause. As a result of the sinking, the South severely reduced its links with the North, though it continued minimal humanitarian aid. In June a number of changes were made in the North's government that appeared to be intended to assure the Kim family's control over the government and secure the leadership succession for Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il's youngest son. The younger Kim was subsequently (September) made a general and vice chairman of the Communist party's central military commission. Relations with the South worsened further in November when the North shelled a South Korean island off its SW coast (and near the disputed border).
Kim Jong Il died in Dec., 2011, and his son was named as his successor. Kim Jong Un assumed the party leadership and other ranking posts in 2012. In Apr., 2012, the North attempted a satellite launch that other nations condemned as a cover for a banned test of a ballistic missile; the rocket failed shortly after launch. The launch led to tightened UN sanctions against the North. In July, the army chief was removed from office and Kim was promoted to marshal in a move that appeared intended to secure Kim's control over the military. North Korea achieved a successful rocket launch in Dec., 2012, although the satellite appeared to be tumbling in orbit. This launch also led to the imposition of additional UN sanctions. In Feb., 2013, the North carried out its largest nuclear test to date, which was widely condemned and led to a new round of sanctions. In response, the North engaged in an escalating series of actions, voiding the armistice, cutting all communications channels with the South, announcing the restart of its nuclear reactor, and closing the Kaesong industrial zone. In June, however, the North reopened its hotline with the South, and moves toward talks began; Kaesong was reopened in September. Kim Jong Un's uncle and most prominent adviser, Jang Song Thaek, was accused of acts of treachery, purged, and executed in Dec., 2013, in what was regarded by many as a consolidation of Kim's power.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.