North Korea

North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is a country in East Asia constituting the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang is the nation’s capital and largest city. To the north and northwest the country is bordered by China and by Russia along the Amnok (known as the Yalu in China) and Tumen rivers; it is bordered to the south by South Korea, with the heavily fortified Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two.

The Korean state originated with Korean pottery in around 8000 BC. Korea was annexed by the Empire of Japan in 1910. After the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II in 1945, Korea was divided into two zones along the 38th parallel by the United States and the Soviet Union, with the north occupied by the Soviets and the south by the Americans.
Negotiations on reunification failed, and in 1948, separate governments were formed: the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the capitalist Republic of Korea in the south. An invasion initiated by North Korea led to the Korean War (1950–1953). The Korean Armistice Agreement brought about a ceasefire, but no peace treaty was signed.

North Korea officially describes itself as a self-reliant socialist state and formally holds elections. Critics regard it as a totalitarian dictatorship. Various media outlets have called it Stalinist, particularly noting the elaborate cult of personality around Kim Il-sung and his family. International organisations have assessed that human rights violations in North Korea have no parallel in the contemporary world. The Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), led by a member of the ruling family, holds power in the state and leads the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland of which all political officers are required to be members.

Juche, an ideology of national self-reliance, was introduced into the constitution as a “creative application of Marxism–Leninism” in 1972. The means of production are owned by the state through state-run enterprises and collectivised farms. Most services such as healthcare, education, housing and food production are subsidised or state-funded.
From 1994 to 1998, North Korea suffered a famine that resulted in the deaths of between 0.24 and 3.5 million people, and the country continues to struggle with food production.
North Korea follows Songun, or “military-first” policy. It is the country with the highest number of military and paramilitary personnel, with a total of 9,495,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel. Its active duty army of 1.21 million is the fourth largest in the world, after China, the United States and India. It possesses nuclear weapons. North Korea is an atheist state with no official religion and where public religion is discouraged.


Flag of North Korea

Flag of North Korea

The flag of North Korea, also known as the Ramhongsaek Gonghwagukgi is the ensign and national flag of North Korea. It was adopted on 8 September 1948 and is defined in Article 170 of Chapter VII of the North Korean constitution.

According to article 170 of Chapter VII of the Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea):

The national flag of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea consists of a central red panel, bordered both above and below by a narrow white stripe and a broad blue stripe. The central red panel bears a five-pointed red star within a white circle near the hoist.

The ratio of the width to the length is 1:2.


The North Korean flag’s prominent red star is a universal symbol of communism and socialism, although since the flag’s adoption, the application of the Marxist-Leninist-natured philosophy of Juche has replaced communist authority as the state’s guiding ideology, and references to communism have been systematically removed from the country’s constitution and legal documents.

The red stripe expresses revolutionary traditions. The two blue stripes stand for sovereignty, peace and friendship. The white stripes symbolise purity.

The website of the Korean Friendship Association indicates, on the contrary, the red star represents revolutionary traditions, the red panel is indicative of the patriotism and determination of the Korean people. The white stripes symbolises ethnic purity of the unified nation and its culture. The blue stripes represent unity.

According to a typical North Korean official text published in Rodong Sinmun, Kim Il-sung gave the following significance to the elements of the flag:

The red colour of the flag symbolises the anti-Japanese fervour, the red blood shed by the Korean patriots and the invincible might of our people firmly united to support the Republic.
The white colour symbolises the one bloodline, one land, one language, one culture of our monoethnic country, which lived in purity. And blue stands for the gallant visage of our people, symbolising the spirit of the Korean people fighting for world peace and progress.

The colours of the North Korean flag – red, white and blue – are considered national colours and symbolise respectively: revolutionary traditions; purity, strength, and dignity; and sovereignty, peace, and friendship.


When the northern portion of Korea became a socialist republic supported by the Soviet Union following the restoration of independence of Korea in 1945, the Taegukgi was once again in use.

Vice Chairman of the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea Kim Tu-bong was in favour of keeping the Taegukgi, but in 1947 the Soviets communicated via Major General Nikolai Georgiyevich Lebedev (ru) their wish to have the flag changed. The old flag with its traditional Korean elements, he noted, “sounds like a legend to me”. Kim yielded and a few months later the design for the new flag was dictated from Moscow, although it is not known who the Soviet official was that designed the flag. Before its formal adoption, the Taegukgi remained in official use.

The design of the flag was disclosed, along with a draft constitution, on 1 May 1948. In July 1948 the new flag was approved by the provisional North Korean People’s Assembly. The following month Kim, who formerly supported the traditional design, wrote a reasoned text On the Establishing of the New National Flag and the Abolition of Taegukgi.
Thereby he explained the decision to adopt a new flag against the wishes of those who favoured the old one In terms of North Korean official texts, Kim’s account is unequivocally frank in acknowledging dissenting public opinion.
In 1967, Kim Tu-bong was purged by Kim Il-sung who by that time had erected a cult of personality. Any mention of the use of Taegukgi was removed from texts and it was doctored out of photographs on the orders of Kim Il-sung who sought to monopolise North Korean history to serve him. Contemporary official North Korean accounts present the new flag of North Korea as personally designed by Kim Il-sung.

A 270-kilogram (600 lb) North Korean national flag flies from the world’s fourth tallest flagpole, which is located at Kijŏng-dong, on the North Korean side of the Military Demarcation Line within the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The flag-pole is 160 meters (520 feet) tall.


History of North Korea

Japanese occupation (1910–1945)

After the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, Korea was occupied by Japan (1910–1945).

Japan tried to suppress Korean traditions and culture and ran the economy primarily for its own benefit. Korean resistance groups known as Dongnipgun (Liberation Army) operated along the Sino-Korean border, fighting guerrilla warfare against Japanese forces. Some of them took part in allied action in China and parts of South East Asia. One of the guerrilla leaders was the communist Kim Il-sung, who later became the first leader of North Korea.

Soviet occupation & division of Korea (1945–1950)

The 38th Parallel

At the end of World War II in 1945, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two zones along the 38th parallel, with the northern half of the peninsula occupied by the Soviet Union and the southern half by the United States. The drawing of the division was assigned to two American officers, Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, who chose it because it divided the country approximately in half but would place the capital Seoul under American control. No experts on Korea were consulted.
Nevertheless, the division was immediately accepted by the Soviet Union. The agreement was incorporated into the US’s General Order No. 1 for the surrender of Japan.
Initial hopes for a unified, independent Korea had evaporated as the politics of the Cold War resulted in the establishment of two separate states with diametrically opposed political, economic, and social systems.

Soviet general Terentii Shtykov recommended the establishment of the Soviet Civil Authority in October 1945, and supported Kim Il-sung as chairman of the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea, established in February 1946. During the provisional government, Shtykov’s chief accomplishment was a sweeping land reform program that broke North Korea’s stratified class system. Landlords and Japanese collaborators fled to the South, where there was no land reform and sporadic unrest. Shtykov nationalized key industries and led the Soviet delegation to talks on the future of Korea in Moscow and Seoul.
In September 1946, South Korean citizens had risen up against the Allied Military Government. In April 1948, an uprising of the Jeju islanders was violently crushed. The South declared its statehood in May 1948 and two months later the ardent anti-communist Syngman Rhee became its ruler. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in the North on 9 September 1948. Shtykov served as the first Soviet ambassador, while Kim Il-sung became premier.

Soviet forces withdrew from the North in 1948 and most American forces withdrew from the South in 1949. Ambassador Shtykov suspected Rhee was planning to invade the North, and was sympathetic to Kim’s goal of Korean unification under socialism. The two successfully lobbied Joseph Stalin to support a short blitzkrieg of the South, which culminated in the outbreak of the Korean War.

Korean War (1950–1953)

The military of North Korea invaded the South on 25 June 1950, and swiftly overran most of the country. A United Nations force, led by the United States, intervened to defend the South, and rapidly advanced into North Korea. As they neared the border with China, Chinese forces intervened on behalf of North Korea, shifting the balance of the war again.
Fighting ended on 27 July 1953, with an armistice that approximately restored the original boundaries between North and South Korea. More than one million civilians and soldiers were killed in the war. As a result of the war, almost every substantial building in North Korea was destroyed.

Some have referred to the conflict as a civil war, with other factors involved. The Korean War was the first armed confrontation of the Cold War and set the standard for many later conflicts.
It is often viewed as an example of the proxy war, where the two superpowers would fight in another country, forcing the people in that country to suffer most of the destruction and death involved in a war between such large nations. The superpowers avoided descending into an all-out war against one another, as well as the mutual use of nuclear weapons. It expanded the Cold War, which to that point had mostly been concerned with Europe.

A heavily guarded demilitarised zone (DMZ) still divides the peninsula, and an anti-communist and anti-North Korea sentiment remains in South Korea. Since the war, the United States has maintained a strong military presence in the South which is depicted by the North Korean government as an imperialist occupation force.

Post-war developments

The relative peace between the South and the North following the armistice was interrupted by border skirmishes, celebrity abductions, and assassination attempts. The North failed in several assassination attempts on South Korean leaders, such as in 1968, 1974 and the Rangoon bombing in 1983; tunnels were found under the DMZ and war nearly broke out over the axe murder incident at Panmunjom in 1976.
For almost two decades after the war, the two states did not seek to negotiate with one another. In 1971, secret, high-level contacts began to be conducted culminating in the 1972 July 4th North-South Joint Statement that established principles of working toward peaceful reunification. The talks ultimately failed because in 1973, South Korea declared its preference that the two Koreas should seek separate memberships in international organisations.

During the 1956 August Faction Incident, Kim Il-sung successfully resisted efforts by the Soviet Union and China to depose him in favor of Soviet Koreans or the pro-Chinese Yan’an faction.
The last Chinese troops withdrew from the country in October 1958, which is the consensus as the latest date when North Korea became effectively independent. Some scholars believe that the 1956 August incident demonstrated independence.
North Korea remained closely aligned to China and the Soviet Union, and the Sino-Soviet split allowed Kim to play the powers off each other. North Korea sought to become a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, and emphasised the ideology of Juche to distinguish it from both the Soviet Union and China.

Recovery from the war was quick — by 1957 industrial production reached 1949 levels. In 1959, relations with Japan had improved somewhat, and North Korea began allowing the repatriation of Japanese citizens in the country. The same year, North Korea revalued the North Korean won, which held greater value than its South Korean counterpart. Until the 1960s, economic growth was higher than in South Korea, and North Korean GDP per capita was equal to that of its southern neighbour as late as 1976.

In the early 1970s, China began normalising its relations with the West, particularly the U.S., and reevaluating its relations with North Korea. The diplomatic problems culminated in 1976 with the death of Mao Zedong. In response, Kim Il-sung began severing ties with China and reemphasising national and economic self-reliance enshrined in his Juche Idea, which promoted producing everything within the country.
By the 1980s the economy had begun to stagnate, started its long decline in 1987, and almost completely collapsed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 when all Russian aid was suddenly halted. The North began reestablishing trade relations with China shortly thereafter, but the Chinese could not afford to provide enough food aid to meet demand.

The Arduous March

Poster made during the Arduous March

In 1992, as Kim Il-sung’s health began deteriorating, Kim Jong-il slowly began taking over various state tasks. Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack in 1994, in the midst of a standoff with the United States over North Korean nuclear weapon development. Kim declared a three-year period of national mourning before officially announcing his position as the new leader.

North Korean efforts to build nuclear weapons were halted under the Agreed Framework, negotiated with U.S. president Bill Clinton and signed in 1994. Building on Nordpolitik, South Korea began to engage with the North as part of its Sunshine Policy.

Kim Jong-il instituted a policy called Songun, or “military first”. There is much speculation about this policy being used as a strategy to strengthen the military while discouraging coup attempts. Restrictions on travel were tightened and the state security apparatus was strengthened.

Flooding in the mid-1990s exacerbated the economic crisis, severely damaging crops and infrastructure and led to widespread famine which the government proved incapable of curtailing.
In 1996, the government accepted UN food aid. Since the outbreak of the famine, the government has reluctantly tolerated illegal black markets while officially maintaining a state socialist economy. Corruption flourished and disillusionment with the regime spread.

21st century

The international environment changed with the election of U.S. president George W. Bush in 2001. His administration rejected South Korea’s Sunshine Policy and the Agreed Framework.
The U.S. government treated North Korea as a rogue state, while North Korea redoubled its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons to avoid the fate of Iraq. On 9 October 2006, North Korea announced it had conducted its first nuclear weapons test.

In August 2009, former U.S. President Bill Clinton met with Kim Jong-il to secure the release of two American journalists who had been sentenced for entering the country illegally.
U.S. president Barack Obama’s position towards North Korea was to resist making deals with North Korea for the sake of defusing tension, a policy known as “strategic patience.”
Tensions with South Korea and the United States increased in 2010 with the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

On 17 December 2011, the supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il died from a heart attack. His youngest son Kim Jong-un was announced as his successor. Over the following years, North Korea continued to develop its nuclear arsenal despite international condemnation. Notable tests were performed in 2013 and 2016.



Map of North Korea – Click to enlarge

North Korea occupies the northern portion of the Korean Peninsula, lying between latitudes 37° and 43°N, and longitudes 124° and 131°E. It covers an area of 120,540 square kilometres (46,541 sq mi). North Korea shares land borders with China and Russia to the north, and borders South Korea along the Korean Demilitarized Zone. To its west are the Yellow Sea and Korea Bay, and to its east lies Japan across the Sea of Japan (East Sea of Korea).

Early European visitors to Korea remarked that the country resembled “a sea in a heavy gale” because of the many successive mountain ranges that crisscross the peninsula.
Some 80 percent of North Korea is composed of mountains and uplands, separated by deep and narrow valleys. All of the Korean Peninsula’s mountains with elevations of 2,000 meters (6,600 ft) or more are located in North Korea.
The highest point in North Korea is Paektu Mountain, a volcanic mountain with an elevation of 2,744 meters (9,003 ft) above sea level.
Paektu is very significant in Korean culture, in which it is considered a sacred place by the Korean people and is thus incorporated in the elaborate folklore around the Kim dynasty.
Other prominent ranges are the Hamgyong Range in the extreme northeast and the Rangrim Mountains, which are located in the north-central part of North Korea. Mount Kumgang in the Taebaek Range, which extends into South Korea, is famous for its scenic beauty.

The coastal plains are wide in the west and discontinuous in the east. A great majority of the population lives in the plains and lowlands. According to a United Nations Environmental Programme report in 2003, forest covers over 70 percent of the country, mostly on steep slopes. The longest river is the Amnok (Yalu) River which flows for 790 kilometres (491 mi).

North Korea experiences a combination of continental climate and an oceanic climate, though most of the country experiences a humid continental climate within the Köppen climate classification scheme.
Winters bring clear weather interspersed with snow storms as a result of northern and northwestern winds that blow from Siberia.
Summer tends to be by far the hottest, most humid, and rainiest time of year because of the southern and southeastern monsoon winds that carry moist air from the Pacific Ocean.
Approximately 60 percent of all precipitation occurs from June to September. Spring and autumn are transitional seasons between summer and winter.
The daily average high and low temperatures for Pyongyang are −3 and −13 °C (27 and 9 °F) in January and 29 and 20 °C (84 and 68 °F) in August.


Government & Politics

Central Committee Bureau

North Korea functions as a highly centralised, one-party republic. According to its 2009 constitution, it is a self-described revolutionary and socialist state “guided in its activities by the Juche idea and the Songun idea”. The Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) has an estimated 3,000,000 members and dominates every aspect of North Korean politics.
It has two satellite organisations, the Korean Social Democratic Party and the Chondoist Chongu Party which participate in the WPK-led Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland.
Another highly influential structure is the independent State Affairs Commission (SAC). Kim Jong-un of the Kim family heads all major governing structures: he is First Secretary of the WPK, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of North Korea, and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, is the country’s “Eternal President”, while Kim Jong-il was announced “Eternal General Secretary” after his death in 2011.

The unicameral Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) is the highest organ of state authority and holds the legislative power. Its 687 members are elected every five years by universal suffrage. Supreme People’s Assembly sessions are convened by the SPA Presidium, whose president (Kim Yong-nam since 1998) represents the state in relations with foreign countries. Deputies formally elect the President, the vice-presidents and members of the Presidium and take part in the constitutionally appointed activities of the legislature: pass laws, establish domestic and foreign policies, appoint members of the cabinet, review and approve the state economic plan, among others.
The SPA itself cannot initiate any legislation independently of party or state organs. It is unknown whether it has ever criticised or amended bills placed before it, and the elections are based around a single list of WPK-approved candidates who stand without opposition.

Executive power is vested in the Cabinet of North Korea, which is headed by Premier Pak Pong-ju. The Premier represents the government and functions independently. His authority extends over two vice-premiers, 30 ministers, two cabinet commission chairmen, the cabinet chief secretary, the president of the Central Bank, the director of the Central Bureau of Statistics and the president of the Academy of Sciences. A 31st ministry, the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, is under the jurisdiction of the State Affairs Commission.

Political Ideology

Kim Jong Un

The Juche ideology is the cornerstone of party works and government operations. It is viewed by the official North Korean line as an embodiment of Kim Il-sung’s wisdom, an expression of his leadership, and an idea which provides “a complete answer to any question that arises in the struggle for national liberation”.
Juche was pronounced in December 1955 in order to emphasize a Korea-centered revolution. Its core tenets are economic self-sufficiency, military self-reliance and an independent foreign policy. The roots of Juche were made up of a complex mixture of factors, including the cult of personality centered on Kim Il-sung, the conflict with pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese dissenters, and Korea’s centuries-long struggle for independence.

It was initially promoted as a “creative application” of Marxism–Leninism, but in the mid-1970s, it was described by state propaganda as “the only scientific thought… and most effective revolutionary theoretical structure that leads to the future of communist society”. Juche eventually replaced Marxism–Leninism entirely by the 1980s, and in 1992 references to the latter were omitted from the constitution. The 2009 constitution dropped references to communism, but retained references to socialism. Juche’s concepts of self-reliance have evolved with time and circumstances, but still provide the groundwork for the spartan austerity, sacrifice and discipline demanded by the party.

Some foreign observers have described North Korea’s political system as an absolute monarchy or a “hereditary dictatorship”. Others view its ideology as a racialist-focused nationalism similar to that of Shōwa Japan, bearing a resemblance to European fascism, or sui generis.

Personality Cult

Statues of Kim-Il-Sung & Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang

The North Korean government exercises control over many aspects of the nation’s culture, and this control is used to perpetuate a cult of personality surrounding Kim Il-sung, and Kim Jong-il. While visiting North Korea in 1979, journalist Bradley Martin wrote that nearly all music, art, and sculpture that he observed glorified “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, whose personality cult was then being extended to his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il. Martin reported that there is even widespread belief that Kim Il-sung “created the world”, and Kim Jong-il could “control the weather”.

Such reports are contested by North Korea researcher B. R. Myers: “Divine powers have never been attributed to either of the two Kims. In fact, the propaganda apparatus in Pyongyang has generally been careful not to make claims that run directly counter to citizens’ experience or common sense.” He further explains that the state propaganda painted Kim Jong-il as someone whose expertise lay in military matters and that the famine of the 1990s was partially caused by natural disasters out of Kim Jong-il’s control.

The song “No Motherland Without You”, sung by the North Korean army choir, was created especially for Kim Jong-il and is one of the most popular tunes in the country. Kim Il-sung is still officially revered as the nation’s “Eternal President”. Several landmarks in North Korea are named for Kim Il-sung, including Kim Il-sung University, Kim Il-sung Stadium, and Kim Il-sung Square. Defectors have been quoted as saying that North Korean schools deify both father and son.
Kim Il-sung rejected the notion that he had created a cult around himself, and accused those who suggested this of “factionalism”. Following the death of Kim Il-sung, North Koreans were prostrating and weeping to a bronze statue of him in an organized event; similar scenes were broadcast by state television following the death of Kim Jong-il.

Critics maintain this Kim Jong-il personality cult was inherited from his father. Kim Jong-il was often the center of attention throughout ordinary life. His birthday is one of the most important public holidays in the country. On his 60th birthday (based on his official date of birth), mass celebrations occurred throughout the country.
Kim Jong-il’s personality cult, although significant, was not as extensive as his father’s. One point of view is that Kim Jong-il’s cult of personality was solely out of respect for Kim Il-sung or out of fear of punishment for failure to pay homage. Media and government sources from outside of North Korea generally support this view, while North Korean government sources say that it is genuine hero worship.

The extent of the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung was illustrated on 11 June 2012 when a 14-year-old North Korean schoolgirl drowned while attempting to rescue portraits of the two from a flood.

Law enforcement & Internal Security

North Korea has a civil law system based on the Prussian model and influenced by Japanese traditions and communist legal theory. Judiciary procedures are handled by the Supreme Court (the highest court of appeal), provincial or special city-level courts, people’s courts and special courts. People’s courts are at the lowest level of the system and operate in cities, counties and urban districts, while different kinds of special courts handle cases related to military, railroad or maritime matters.

Judges are theoretically elected by their respective local people’s assemblies, but in practice they are appointed by the Workers’ Party of Korea. The penal code is based on the principle of nullum crimen sine lege (no crime without a law), but remains a tool for political control despite several amendments reducing ideological influence. Courts carry out legal procedures related to not only criminal and civil matters, but also political cases as well. Political prisoners are sent to labour camps, while criminal offenders are incarcerated in a separate system.

The Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) maintains most law enforcement activities. It is one of the most powerful state institutions in North Korea and oversees the national police force, investigates criminal cases and manages non-political correctional facilities. It handles other aspects of domestic security like civil registration, traffic control, fire departments and railway security.
The State Security Department was separated from the MPS in 1973 to conduct domestic and foreign intelligence, counterintelligence and manage the political prison system. Political camps can be short-term reeducation zones or “kwalliso” (total control zones) for lifetime detention. Camp 14 in Kaechon, Camp 15 in Yodok and Camp 18 in Bukchang are described in detailed testimonies.

The security apparatus is very extensive, exerting strict control over residence, travel, employment, clothing, food and family life. Security establishments employ mass surveillance, tightly monitoring cellular and digital communications. The MPS, State Security and the police allegedly conduct real-time monitoring of text messages, online data transfer, monitor phone calls and automatically transcribe recorded conversations. They reportedly have the capacity to triangulate a subscriber’s exact location, while military intelligence monitors phone and radio traffic as far as 140 kilometers (87 miles) south of the Demilitarized zone.

Foreign Relations

Initially, North Korea had diplomatic ties with only other communist countries. In the 1960s and 1970s, it pursued an independent foreign policy, established relations with many developing countries, and joined the Non-Aligned Movement. In the late 1980s and the 1990s its foreign policy was thrown into turmoil with the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
Suffering an economic crisis, it closed a number of its embassies. At the same time, North Korea sought to build relations with developed free market countries. As a result of its isolation, it is sometimes known as the “hermit kingdom”, a term that was originally referred to the isolationism in the latter part of the Joseon Dynasty.

As of 2015, North Korea had diplomatic relations with 166 countries and embassies in 47 countries. North Korea continues to have strong ties with its socialist southeast Asian allies in Vietnam and Laos, as well as with Cambodia. Most of the foreign embassies accredited to North Korea are located in Beijing rather than in Pyongyang. The Korean Demilitarized Zone with South Korea is the most heavily fortified border in the world.

As a result of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, the six-party talks were established to find a peaceful solution to the growing tension between the two Korean governments, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States. North Korea was previously designated a state sponsor of terrorism because of its alleged involvement in the 1983 Rangoon bombing and the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner.
On 11 October 2008, the United States removed North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism after Pyongyang agreed to cooperate on issues related to its nuclear program.
The kidnapping of at least 13 Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and the 1980s was another issue in the country’s foreign policy.

Korean Reunification

The Arch of Reunification

North Korea’s policy is to seek reunification without what it sees as outside interference, through a federal structure retaining each side’s leadership and systems. In 2000, both North and South Korea signed the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration in which both sides made promises to seek out a peaceful reunification. The Democratic Federal Republic of Korea is a proposed state first mentioned by then North Korean president Kim Il-sung on 10 October 1980, proposing a federation between North and South Korea in which the respective political systems would initially remain.

Inter-Korean relations are at the core of North Korean diplomacy and have seen numerous shifts in the last few decades. In 1972, the two Koreas agreed in principle to achieve reunification through peaceful means and without foreign interference.
Relations remained cool well until the early 1990s, with a brief period in the early 1980s when North Korea offered to provide flood relief to its southern neighbour. Although the offer was initially welcomed, talks over how to deliver the relief goods broke down and none of the promised aid ever crossed the border. The two countries also organised a reunion of 92 separated families.

The Sunshine Policy instituted by South Korean president Kim Dae-jung in 1998 was a watershed in inter-Korean relations. It encouraged other countries to engage with the North, which allowed Pyongyang to normalise relations with a number of European Union states and contributed to the establishment of joint North-South economic projects.
The culmination of the Sunshine Policy was the 2000 Inter-Korean Summit, when Kim Dae-jung visited Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. On 4 October 2007, South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il signed an eight-point peace agreement.

Relations worsened in the late 2000s and early 2010s when South Korean president Lee Myung-bak adopted a more hard-line approach and suspended aid deliveries pending the de-nuclearisation of the North. North Korea responded by ending all of its previous agreements with the South. It deployed additional ballistic missiles and placed its military on full combat alert after South Korea, Japan and the United States threatened to intercept a Unha-2 space launch vehicle.
The next few years witnessed a string of hostilities, including the alleged North Korean involvement in the sinking of South Korean warship Cheonan, mutual ending of diplomatic ties, a North Korean artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, and an international crisis over North Korea’s nuclear programme.


Military Parade 2017 in Pyongyang

The Korean People’s Army (KPA) is North Korea’s military organization. The KPA has 1,106,000 active and 8,389,000 reserve and paramilitary troops, making it the largest military institution in the world. About 20 percent of men aged 17–54 serve in the regular armed forces, and approximately one in every 25 citizens is an enlisted soldier.
The KPA has five branches: Ground Force, Navy, Air Force, Special Operations Force, and Rocket Force. Command of the Korean People’s Army lies in both the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the independent State Affairs Commission. The Ministry of People’s Armed Forces is subordinated to the latter.

Of all KPA branches, the Ground Force is the largest. It has approximately one million personnel divided into 80 infantry divisions, 30 artillery brigades, 25 special warfare brigades, 20 mechanized brigades, 10 tank brigades and seven tank regiments. They are equipped with 3,700 tanks, 2,100 armoured personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, 17,900 artillery pieces, 11,000 anti-aircraft guns and some 10,000 MANPADS and anti-tank guided missiles.
Other equipment includes 1,600 aircraft in the Air Force and 1,000 vessels in the Navy. North Korea has the largest special forces and the largest submarine fleet in the world.

North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, but its arsenal remains limited. Various estimates put its stockpile at less than 10 plutonium warheads and 12–27 nuclear weapon equivalents if uranium warheads are considered. Delivery capabilities are provided by the Rocket Force, which has some 1,000 ballistic missiles with a range of up to 3,000 kilometres.

According to a 2004 South Korean assessment, North Korea possesses a stockpile of chemical weapons estimated to amount to 2,500–5,000 tons, including nerve, blister, blood, and vomiting agents, as well as the ability to cultivate and produce biological weapons including anthrax, smallpox, and cholera.
Because of its nuclear and missile tests, North Korea has been sanctioned under United Nations Security Council resolutions 1695 of July 2006, 1718 of October 2006, 1874 of June 2009, and 2087 of January 2013.

The military faces some issues limiting its conventional capabilities, including obsolete equipment, insufficient fuel supplies and a shortage of digital command and control assets.
To compensate for these deficiencies, the KPA has deployed a wide range of asymmetric warfare technologies like anti-personnel blinding lasers, GPS jammers, midget submarines and human torpedoes, stealth paint, electromagnetic pulse bombs, and cyberwarfare units. KPA units have attempted to jam South Korean military satellites.

Much of the equipment is engineered and produced by a domestic defence industry. Weapons are manufactured in roughly 1,800 underground defense industry plants scattered throughout the country, most of them located in Chagang Province.
The defence industry is capable of producing a full range of individual and crew-served weapons, artillery, armoured vehicles, tanks, missiles, helicopters, surface combatants, submarines, landing and infiltration craft, Yak-18 trainers and possibly co-production of jet aircraft. According to official North Korean media, military expenditures for 2010 amount to 15.8 percent of the state budget.



With the exception of a small Chinese community and a few ethnic Japanese, North Korea’s 24,852,000 people are ethnically homogeneous. Demographic experts in the 20th century estimated that the population would grow to 25.5 million by 2000 and 28 million by 2010, but this increase never occurred due to the North Korean famine. It began in 1995, lasted for three years and resulted in the deaths of between 300,000 and 800,000 North Koreans annually. The deaths were most likely caused by malnutrition-related illnesses like pneumonia and tuberculosis rather than starvation.

International donors led by the United States initiated shipments of food through the World Food Program in 1997 to combat the famine. Despite a drastic reduction of aid under the George W. Bush Administration, the situation gradually improved: the number of malnourished children declined from 60% in 1998 to 37% in 2006 and 28% in 2013.
Domestic food production almost recovered to the recommended annual level of 5.37 million tons of cereal equivalent in 2013, but the World Food Program reported a continuing lack of dietary diversity and access to fats and proteins.

The famine had a significant impact on the population growth rate, which declined to 0.9% annually in 2002 and 0.53% in 2014. Late marriages after military service, limited housing space and long hours of work or political studies further exhaust the population and reduce growth. The national birth rate is 14.5 births per year per 1,000 population. Two-thirds of households consist of extended families mostly living in two-room units. Marriage is virtually universal and divorce is extremely rare.


North Korea shares the Korean language with South Korea, although some dialectal differences exist within both Koreas. North Koreans refer to their Pyongyang dialect as munhwa (“cultured language”) as opposed to the dialects of South Korea, especially the Seoul dialect or p’yojun’o (“standard language”), which are viewed as decadent because of its use of Chinese and English loanwords.
Words of Chinese, Manchu or Western origin have been eliminated from munhwa along with the usage of Chinese hanja characters. Written language uses the chosŏn’gul phonetic alphabet, developed under Sejong the Great (1418–1450).


North Korea is an atheist state where public religion is discouraged. There are no known official statistics of religions in North Korea. According to Religious Intelligence, 64.3% of the population are irreligious, 16% practice Korean shamanism, 13.5% practice Chondoism, 4.5% are Buddhist, and 1.7% are Christian. Freedom of religion and the right to religious ceremonies are constitutionally guaranteed, but religions are restricted by the government. Amnesty International has expressed concerns about religious persecution in North Korea.

The influence of Buddhism and Confucianism still has an effect on cultural life. Chondoism (“Heavenly Way”) is an indigenous syncretic belief combining elements of Korean shamanism, Buddhism, Taoism and Catholicism that is officially represented by the WPK-controlled Chongu Party.

The Open Doors mission claims the most severe persecution of Christians in the world occurs in North Korea. Four state-sanctioned churches exist, but critics claim these are showcases for foreigners.



Pyongyang Maternity Hospital

North Korea had a life expectancy of 69.8 years in 2013. While North Korea is classified as a low-income country, the structure of North Korea’s causes of death (2013) is unlike that of other low-income countries. Instead, it is closer to worldwide averages, with non-communicable diseases—such as cardiovascular disease and cancers—accounting for two-thirds of the total deaths.

A 2013 study reported that communicable diseases and malnutrition are responsible for 29% of the total deaths in North Korea. This figure is higher than those of high-income countries and South Korea, but half of the average 57% of all deaths in other low-income countries. Infectious diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, and hepatitis B are considered to be endemic to the country as a result of the famine.

Cardiovascular disease as a single disease group is the largest cause of death in North Korea (2013). The three major causes of death in DPR Korea are ischaemic heart disease (13%), lower respiratory infections (11%) and cerebrovascular disease (7%). Non-communicable diseases risk factors in North Korea include high rates of urbanisation, an aging society, high rates of smoking and alcohol consumption amongst men.

According to a 2003 report by the United States Department of State, almost 100% of the population has access to water and sanitation. 60% of the population had access to improved sanitation facilities in 2000.

A free universal insurance system is in place. Quality of medical care varies significantly by region and is often low, with severe shortages of equipment, drugs and anaesthetics. According to WHO, expenditure on health per capita is one of the lowest in the world.
Preventive medicine is emphasised through physical exercise and sports, nationwide monthly checkups and routine spraying of public places against disease. Every individual has a lifetime health card which contains a full medical record.



North Korean School

The 2008 census listed the entire population as literate, including those in the age group beyond 80. An 11-year free, compulsory cycle of primary and secondary education is provided in more than 27,000 nursery schools, 14,000 kindergartens, 4,800 four-year primary and 4,700 six-year secondary schools. 77% of males and 79% of females aged 30–34 have finished secondary school. An additional 300 universities and colleges offer higher education.

Most graduates from the compulsory program do not attend university but begin their obligatory military service or proceed to work in farms or factories instead. The main deficiencies of higher education are the heavy presence of ideological subjects, which comprise 50% of courses in social studies and 20% in sciences, and the imbalances in curriculum.

The study of natural sciences is greatly emphasised while social sciences are neglected. Heuristics is actively applied to develop the independence and creativity of students throughout the system. The study of Russian and English was made compulsory in upper middle schools in 1978.


Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the press is tightly controlled by the state. Article 67 of the North Korean Constitution protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In practice, however, the government only allows speech that supports it and the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. As of 2017, North Korea occupies the last place on Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index.

The late Kim Jong-il’s book, The Great Teacher of Journalists, advises that “newspapers carry articles in which they unfailingly hold the president in high esteem, adore him and praise him as the great revolutionary leader”. Media reports in North Korea are often one-sided and exaggerated, playing “little or no role in gathering and disseminating vital information true to facts” and providing propaganda for the regime.

All North Korean journalists are members of the Workers’ Party. Candidates for journalism school must not only prove themselves ideologically clean, but also come from politically reliable families.
Journalists who do not follow the strict laws face punishment in the form of hard labour or imprisonment, even for the smallest typing errors.
Only news that favours the regime is permitted, whilst news that covers the economic and political problems in the country, or criticisms of the regime from abroad is not allowed. Domestic media and the population itself are not allowed to carry or read stories by foreign media and can be punished for doing so.

Restrictions are also placed on the foreign journalists that are allowed into the country under supervision, though many are not permitted to enter. All the information gathered by newspapers and magazines is disseminated by the main news agency, KCNA. No private press exists. The media effectively paints the country in a positive light, describing itself “paradise on earth”.
With this, it encourages the population to adopt the “socialist lifestyle”—on one occasion an intensive media campaign was launched against men with long hair, claiming it reduces intelligence.



The Pyongyang Times

North Korea has 12 principal newspapers and 20 major periodicals, all published in Pyongyang.[40] Foreign newspapers are not sold on the streets of the capital.
Every year, North Korean press jointly publishes a New Year editorial, also broadcast by KCNA, which regularly attracts the attention of the international news media.

Newspapers include:

  • Rodong Sinmun (Labour Daily) – (Central Committee of the WPK)
  • Joson Inmingun (Korean People’s Army Daily)
  • Minju Choson (Democratic Korea) – government organ
  • Rodongja Sinmun (Workers’ Newspaper)
  • The Pyongyang Times (English-language; published in the capital)

Several newspaper journalists from North Korea were secretly trained in China to covertly report on events inside North Korea. November 2007 marked the first publication of the Rimjingang magazine, which is distributed secretly in North Korea and in neighbouring countries. The magazine covers the economic and political situation in the country. The journalists have also provided footage of public executions to South Korean and Japanese media.


Television & Radio

North Korean Testcard

Television broadcasting is managed by the Central Broadcasting Committee of Korea (until 2009 called Radio and Television Committee of the DPRK). Radio and TV sets in North Korea are supplied pre-tuned to North Korean stations and must be checked and registered with the police, though some North Koreans own Chinese radios which can receive foreign stations.
It is prohibited to tune into foreign broadcasts. There are five major television stations: Korean Central TV, Mansudae Television (an educational station only available in Pyongyang), Ryongnamsan TV (former Korean Educational and Cultural Network), Kaesong Television (which targets South Korea) and the Sport Television (since August 15, 2015),
State television is always off air until its 5:00 pm evening news broadcast, except on weekends, which start at 6:00 am, and in emergency events, live events and national holidays.

North Korean newscasts are known for their showmanship. KCTV’s principal newsreader from 1974 to 2012, Ri Chun-hee, was well known for the wavering, exuberant tone she used when praising the nation’s leaders and the hateful one she used in denouncing countries seen as hostile to the regime. Some North Korean journalists who have defected to the South have noted the contrasts with the more conversational South Korean broadcasting style.

All broadcast media in some way promotes the regime’s ideologies and positions, such as juche, and regularly condemns actions by South Korea, Japan, China, Israel, the United States, and other nations. The media in recent years condemns the United Nations, and its position against the country’s nuclear program. Media is generally without adverts, though some advertisement of local brands occurs on Mansudae Television.

Due to the economic conditions in the country and the short broadcast day, radio is the most widely used medium. In 2006, there were 16 AM, 14 FM and 11 shortwave radio broadcast stations. The main radio stations are Pyongyang Radio and the Korean Central Broadcasting Station. There is also a black propaganda station called Propaganda Radio – which purports to be broadcasting from South Korea. Some foreign broadcast radio stations that target North Korea are often jammed, though this can vary. The authorities designate such foreign media as “enemies of the regime”.

Some particularly politically sensitive material is available only through wired radio connections. The cable radio transmissions are known by North Koreans as the “Third Broadcast”.

Voice of Korea Radio

South Korean television programmes cannot be received in North Korea due to incompatibilities between the television systems (PAL in North Korea and ATSC in South Korea) and the sets being pretuned. South Korean soap operas, movies and Western Hollywood movies according to defectors, are said to be spreading at a “rapid rate” throughout North Korea despite the threat of punishment. USB flash drives are selling well in North Korea, primarily used for watching South Korean dramas and films on personal computers.

North Korean broadcasts can be picked up in South Korea, and are monitored by the Unification Ministry in Seoul, which handles cross-border relations and media exchanges.

Defectors are also streaming North Korean television broadcasts on the Internet.

In August 2016, it was reported that North Korea had launched a state-approved video streaming service which has been likened to Netflix.
The service, known as “Manbang” (meaning everyone) uses a set-top box to stream live TV, on-demand video and newspaper articles (from the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun) over the internet. The service is only available to citizens in Pyongyang, Siniju and Sariwon, perhaps because of the country’s limited internet access. The state TV channel KCTV described the service as a “respite from radio interference”.



Internet access in North Korea is restricted to Internet cafés or hotels designated for foreign tourists in Pyongyang, connected via a satellite link. A few of the government elite with state approval are connected to the internet via a link to China.
The general population of North Korea do not have internet access, however the people do have access to Kwangmyong, an intranet set up by the government. North Korea itself has a limited presence on the internet, with several sites on their national .kp domain. The Mosquito Net filtering model used in North Korea attempts to attract foreign investment, while the filter simultaneously blocks foreign ideas.

There is one ISP providing Internet connection in North Korea: Star Joint Venture Co., a joint venture between the North Korean government’s Post and Telecommunications Corporation and Thailand-based Loxley Pacific. Star JV took control of North Korea’s Internet address allocation on December 21, 2009. Prior to Star JV, Internet access was available only via a satellite link to Germany, or for some government uses through direct connections with China Unicom. Nearly all of North Korea’s Internet traffic is routed through China.

Since February 2013, foreigners have been able to access the internet using the 3G phone network provided by Koryolink.

Permission to access the Internet remains very tightly restricted; however, there has been a growing IT industry and gradually increasing access of the Internet within North Korea.
In October 2010, the website of the Korean Central News Agency went live from a web server hosted in North Korea and accessible globally on a North Korean IP address, marking the country’s first known direct connection to the Internet.

Around the same time, on 9 October, journalists visiting Pyongyang for the Workers’ Party’s 65th anniversary celebrations were given access to a press room with full Internet connectivity.
As of December 2014, there are officially 1,024 internet protocol addresses in North Korea, though The New York Times journalists David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth believe that the actual number may be higher.
The total amount of internet users is estimated at no more than a few thousand. The ones who can access the Internet without limits are claimed to be high-ranking officials, members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and government ambassadors.
Kim Jong-il was said to have loved “surfing the net”. According to Ofer Gayer, a security researcher of Incapsula, the country’s total web traffic footprint has been less than that of the Falkland Islands.
According to Joo Seong-ha, a The Dong-a Ilbo journalist and a North Korean defector, as of 2014, the government’s intranet Kwangmyong has been used to limit the general public’s global Internet usage, especially in hotels. Although available in most campuses, government has “strictly monitored the Internet usage.” Many citizens of North Korea may be oblivious to the existence of the internet.

Since Apple Inc., Sony, and Microsoft are not allowed to distribute their products to North Korea, third-party companies have bought their products and been selling them as their own to customers. Very little is known about the electronics industry in North Korea due to the government’s isolation policies.

From April 2016, North Korea started to block Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and South Korean websites, due to “its concern with the spread of online information”.

On 19 September 2016, North Korea’s nameserver – that contains information about all of the “.kp” websites – was misconfigured, allowing researchers to access and publish the domain names and some of the file data about the site, including zone information for .kp,,,,,,, and, revealing that North Korea has only 28 websites.


Access to foreign media

“A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment”, a study commissioned by the U.S. State Department and conducted by Intermedia and released May 10, 2012, shows that, despite extremely strict regulations and draconian penalties, North Koreans, particularly elite citizens, have increasing access to news and other media outside the state-controlled media authorised by the government. While access to the internet is tightly controlled, radio and DVDs are common media accessed, and in border areas, television.