North Korea

What is North Korea?

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), commonly referred to as North Korea, occupies the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, bordering China and Russia to the north, and South Korea to the south. Its capital is Pyongyang.

Often described as a totalitarian isolationist state, it is led by the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) and its government adheres to the Juche philosophy of self-reliance introduced by the country’s first President, Kim Il-sung.

From its inception in 1948, North Korea has had three leaders all from successive generations of the Kim dynasty.  After Kim Il-sung died in 1994 he was declared, and continues to retain the title of, Eternal President of the DPRK.

Kim Il-sung was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il who died in 2011 and he in turn was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un, the present leader.

North Korea is a heavily militarised country maintaining one of the largest armies in the world. It is also a nuclear state and a member of the United Nations.

However, many of its citizens are reported to live in absolute poverty and the government has been highly dependent on international aid to help cope with severe food shortages.

North Korea’s human rights record has also attracted widespread concern for some time, but its leaders insist that reports from the UN and others of continuing serious human rights abuses within the country are without foundation.


The country of Korea has a proud and ancient history.  People are believed to have inhabited the Korean Peninsula some 500,000 to 700,000 years ago. According to Korean history, the first Korean kingdom, Gojoseon, was established in 2333 BC by the legendary Dangun, founder of the Korean people.

Korea was often referred to as a ‘Hermit Kingdom’ remaining fiercely independent over many years, opposing any integration with the West and looking to China for protection. 

However, following China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War 1895 and Japan’s triumph in the Russo-Japanese War 1905, Japan increased its influence over Korea, and in 1910, formally annexed the whole Korean Peninsula and colonised the country.

Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, Japanese occupation of Korea ended in 1945 and the country was partitioned; the US occupied Korea south of the thirty-eighth parallel and Russia occupied Korea north of the thirty-eighth parallel.

Kim Il-Sung, then a major in the Soviet Army, was put in charge of forming a Stalinist government in North Korea.

In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea - beginning the Korean War, which lasted until 1953 and was one of the 'hottest' episodes of the Cold War. From 1953, Kim Il-Sung created an austere, militarised and highly regimented North Korean society which worshipped him as a deified leader.

Despite the Armistice Agreement signed in 1953 under which North Korea and South Korea agreed to a cease-fire, enmity still exists between the two and today, huge numbers of troops continue to face one another across the Korean Demilitarised Zone.


The DPRK is one of the most secretive and insular countries in the world. It has a long history of refusing to deal with the outside world.

The unpredictability ascribed to the North Korean leadership, its possession of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction, its belligerent intentions towards South Korea and the desperation of its population, lead the DPRK to be perceived in many quarters as one of the most serious sources of international threat in the world.

In 2002, United States president George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, famously labelled North Korea part of an "axis of evil" which also included Iran and Iraq.

"States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world," Mr. Bush said. "By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.”

The DPRK began a civil nuclear programme, with Soviet assistance, in the 1960s - and is believed to have begun to militarise its nuclear research in the 1980s. In 2002, the DPRK backed out of a 1994 agreement to shut down its nuclear plants - and in 2003, informed the US and China that it had nuclear weapons.

In July 2006, North Korea tested one long-range and five medium-range missiles. However, the long-range Taepodong-2 missile crashed after less than a minute.

Two months later, the government claimed to have detonated a nuclear bomb at an underground test site. The secretive nature of the state meant no definitive figures were available on the strength of the explosion, but it was condemned by all members of the UN Security Council, including China. However, South Korea, China and Russia ruled out the possibility of military retaliation and the Security Council instead agreed resolution 1718, imposing economic and military sanctions on North Korea.

In February 2007 an agreement was finally reached in the Six Party Talks, begun in 2003 between North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US. Under the agreement the US would remove North Korea from its list of terrorist states (which also included Syria, Sudan, Cuba and Iran) in return for nuclear disablement.

But the deal was beset with difficulties and in October 2008 North Korea stated that it had halted the dismantling of its nuclear programme because it had still not been removed from the terrorist blacklist. President Bush, in order to salvage the deal, then announced that North Korea had been delisted in return for verification of the country's nuclear declaration.

However, many members of Mr Bush's own party, including the presidential candidate Senator John McCain, remained unconvinced that North Korea would follow through and co-operate fully with the nuclear verification programme. The Democrats too, whilst welcoming the move, were equally sceptical about North Korea's commitment to the deal.

Rightly so as it turned out, because in May 2009 North Korea carried out a second underground nuclear test. The UN Security Council condemned the test "in the strongest terms" and unanimously adopted resolution 1874 to tighten sanctions against the DPRK, widening the ban on arms imports-exports, and calling on Member States to search North Korean ships and "seize and destroy" any banned cargo. North Korea responded by stating that it was continuing with its uranium enrichment programme.

Tensions between North and South Korea were raised again in November 2010 when the North fired an artillery barrage on the Southern island of Yeonpyeong killing two marines and two civilians. The island is reported to be used as a military base by South Korean troops and North Korea claimed it was provoked into the attack when South Korea carried out artillery drills within Northern territorial waters.

The confirmation of Kim Jong-un as the new leader in 2011 raised hopes for more amicable relations between the DPRK and the West.  In March 2012, North Korea agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment programme and long-range missile tests in return for substantial food aid from the US.

However, in April of that year, North Korea carried out a long-range rocket launch with the aim of putting a satellite into orbit to mark the centenary of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung. The launch failed, but the move was seen by many in the West as a breach of the agreement to suspend missile tests.

Reports suggest that the new young leader appears to have a more modern outlook than his predecessors, presenting a more relaxed image in public, accompanied by his stylish young wife wearing Western dress. Nevertheless, scepticism remains that North Korea’s relationships with the West or South Korea will change greatly under Kim Jong-un.


North Korea - country profile

Area: 121,555 sq km (75,364 square miles) (55% of the peninsula)
Population: 24,052,231 (UN-assisted DPRK census 2008)
Capital City: Pyongyang
People: Korean, with small Chinese minorities.
Language(s): Korean, although more formal and with less borrowed Western vocabulary than in the South.
Religion(s): Buddhism, Christianity and Chondo (a Korean syncretic religion) are officially recognised but not freely practiced.

Currency: North Korean Won (officially around 140 to the euro although market rates are much higher). Foreigners are required to use foreign currency, Euros, US dollars and Renminbi are most commonly accepted. 

Major political parties: Workers' Party of Korea (WPK)
Government: Centralist one-party state led by Workers' Party of Korea with elected Supreme People's Assembly

Membership of international groupings/organisations: Food and Agriculture Organisation, Group of 77, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Maritime Organisation, International Telecommunications Union, Non-Aligned Movement, United Nations, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, Universal Postal Union, World Health Organisation, World Intellectual Property Organisation, World Meteorological Organisation

Source: FCO – November 2011


“Here in Rangoon I want to send a message across Asia.  We don’t need to be defined by the prisons of the past; we need to look forward to the future.

“To the leadership of North Korea I have offered a choice: Let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do you will find an extended hand from the United States of America.

“In 2012 we don’t need to cling to the divisions of East and West and North and South.”

President Barack Obama's speech at Burma's Rangoon University – November 2012

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