Country in East Asia, bounded northeast by Russia, north and northwest by China, east by the Sea of Japan, south by South Korea, and west by the Yellow Sea.
Government North Korea has a centralized authoritarian political regime, dominated by the elite within the ruling communist Korean Workers' Party (KWP), and with a personality cult of the ‘supreme leader’, Kim Jong-un. Under the 2009 constitution the leading political figure is Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader, First Secretary of the KWP, and Chairman of the National Defence Commission, who commands and directs the armed forces and heads the government. There is a single-chamber legislature, the 687-member supreme people's assembly, which is directly elected by universal suffrage, usually every five years. The assembly holds two meetings a year, each lasting a few days, and its regular legislative business is carried out by a smaller permanent standing committee (presidium). The post of state president was abolished on the death in 1994 of Kim Il Sung, who was designated the country's ‘Eternal President’ in 1998. Though viewed as one of the world's last remaining communist states, North Korea describes itself as a state based on the principles of Juche (self-reliance) rather than Marxism–Leninism. It is dominated by the KWP, which, with two smaller parties (the North Korea Social Democratic Party and the Chondoist Chongu Party) participates in the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, which nominates all candidates for elections. The military also plays a key role, along with tight state control over the media and the repression of dissenting opinions, including religious practices.
History For the history of Korea as a whole up to the end of the Korean War in 1953, see Korea: history to 1637 and Korea: history 1637–1953.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was formed from the zone north of the 38th parallel of latitude, occupied by Soviet troops after Japan's surrender in 1945. The USSR installed in power an ‘Executive Committee of the Korean People’, staffed by Soviet-trained Korean communists, before North Korea was declared a People's Republic in September 1948 under the leadership of the Korean Workers Party of Korea (KWP), with Kim Il Sung as president. The remaining Soviet forces withdrew in 1949.
The Korean War After two years of skirmishes around the 38th parallel that divided it from the non-communist Republic of Korea in the south, the North Koreans launched a large-scale attack on south in June 1950, in an attempt to reunify the country. This began the three-year Korean War (see also Korea: history 1637–1953), which, after intervention by US-led United Nations forces (on the side of the South) and by China (on the side of the North), ended in stalemate. The 38th parallel was re-established as the border between North and South by the armistice agreement of July 1953, and a UN-patrolled demilitarized buffer zone was created. North Korea was devastated by the war, and lost 294,000 troops, but remains committed to reunification.
Continuing tensions with the South In August 1971 North Korea proposed political discussions with the South, and the Red Cross Societies of the two halves of the country began talks on humanitarian problems arising from the division of Korea and involving the division of millions of families. Despite the establishment in 1972 of a North–South coordinating committee to promote peaceful unification, relations with the South remained tense and hostile. Border incidents were frequent, and in October 1983 four South Korean cabinet ministers were assassinated in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar), in a bombing incident organized by two North Korean army officers.
Political developments to the late 1980s North Korea remains one of the most secluded countries of the world. It presented a monolithic façade of unity, under the guidance of Kim Il Sung (the ‘ Great Leader’) until his death in 1994. Behind the façade, Kim and his ‘kapsan’ faction eliminated the South Korean communists, whose misreading of the situation in the South was said to have lost North Korea the war, and the ‘Yan'an’ communists, who were accused of being behind a plot to overthrow Kim in 1958.
In December 1972 the Supreme People's Assembly adopted a new constitution for North Korea, which stressed that Marxism–Leninism must be adapted to the realities of the Korean situation. This adaptation of the theoretical terminology of Marxism–Leninism, orientated to an extreme nationalism and committed to the pursuit of economic and cultural self-sufficiency, became known as the juche ideology identified with Kim Il Sung's cult. Juche provided a rationale for xenophobia, the command economy, and mass surveillance.
In foreign affairs, North Korea adopted a neutral stance in the Sino-Soviet dispute, signing a friendship and mutual assistance treaty with China in 1961 while at the same time receiving economic and military aid from the USSR. North Korea remained largely immune from the pluralist or market-socialist wave of reform that swept other communist nations from 1987.
In the late 1970s and the 1980s North Korean politics became dominated by the succession question. Kim Il Sung had sought to establish his son, Kim Jong Il (the ‘Dear Leader’), as sole heir designate. His designation as successor was announced in 1977, and his portrait was placed on public display across the country. In January 1992 Kim Jong Il replaced his father as supreme commander of the armed forces. Elements within the Workers' Party and armed forces were believed, however, to oppose Kim's succession aims.
Economic development The years after 1948 saw economic development in a planned socialist manner. The Japanese colonial legacy had favoured the northern part of the Korean peninsula which, at the time of its division from the south, had more industrial infrastructure and a richer mineral resource endowment. Factories were nationalized and agriculture collectivized in the 1950s, and priority in investment programmes was given to heavy industry and rural mechanization. North Korea claimed to have recovered from the worst effects of the Korean War by the early 1960s, having received industrial aid from the USSR and other Soviet-bloc countries in eastern Europe.
From 1961 there was clearly some disagreement with these allies, and the 1961–67 economic plan was not fulfilled until 1970. North Korea put this failure down to the need for increased military preparedness, and 1968–69 saw a new peak in commando attacks on the South. From 1971 North Korea began to seek financial and technical assistance from Japan and Western countries. North Korean economic growth, however, lagged behind that of its richer and more populous southern neighbour despite its stronger position in the early 1950s.
Efforts to end isolation Mounting economic shortages led to North Korea gradually seeking external alliances in the 1990s and reducing its international isolation. In September 1990 Prime Minister Yon Hyong Muk made an unprecedented three-day official visit to South Korea, the highest level official contact since 1948. In November–December 1990, after four decades of bitter hostility, North Korea had its first formal contact (in Beijing, China) with the Japanese government.
The collapse of communism in the USSR deprived North Korea of considerable military and economic aid. This breach was not filled by China, which, becoming increasingly market-oriented, strengthened its commercial links with South Korea. North Korea therefore reviewed its isolationist strategy and began to seek foreign inward investment, especially from Japan. It joined the United Nations, simultaneously with South Korea, in September 1991, and in December 1991 signed a non-aggression pact with South Korea. This provided for the restoration of cross-border communication links, the reunion of divided families, and the free movement of people, commerce, and ideas, but was to remain very much a dead document.
In January 1992, following a further agreement with South Korea signed in December 1991 banning the production and deployment of nuclear weapons, North Korea also signed the Nuclear Safeguards Agreement, allowing for international inspection of its nuclear facilities. In December 1992 Yon Hyong Muk was replaced as prime minister by Kang Song San, who had served as premier 1984–86.
Tensions with the outside world In March 1993 North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which led to fears that it was secretly developing nuclear weapons. It later retracted this threat in 1995 after South Korea agreed to build and (along with Japan and the USA) pay for North Korea to have two ‘safe’ reactors which could generate power but not have the potential to develop weapons.
Tensions increased further in 1993 when the North Korean army massed near its southern border. In November 1993 US President Bill Clinton reacted by announcing that an attack on South Korea would be considered a direct attack on the USA itself and declared that North Korea should be prohibited from building a nuclear weapon.
Succession of Kim Jong Il In July 1994 Kim Il Sung died and was succeeded as national leader by his son, Kim Jong Il. There followed a three-year period of mourning, before Kim Jong Il officially took up the post of general secretary of the ruling KWP, in October 1997. A new constitution was adopted in 1998, under which the post of state president was abolished and the late Kim Il Sung was declared ‘Eternal President’ and a new calendar was adopted, with 1912, the year of Kim Il Sung's birth, as its baseline.
Kim Jong Il ruled as chair of the National Defence Commission, heading the armed forces, and continued with his father's self-reliance programme. In February 1997 Kang Song San, a supporter of ‘open-door’ Chinese-style economic reforms, was replaced as prime minister by his more cautious deputy, Hong Song Nam. In April 1997 Kim Jong Il appointed 122 new generals to shore up his power. In August 1997, after criticism of its human-rights record, North Korea withdrew from the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it had signed in 1981, to become the first state to renege formally on its commitment. In July 1998 legislature elections were held for the first time since 1990.
Economic decline and famine The country faced a worsening economic environment as, spending a quarter of its GDP on its armed forces and without the means to buy capital equipment needed by its factories, production contracted and living standards fell. Its GDP contracted by 4% a year during the 1990s, with a succession of floods and droughts leading to famine in 1996–99 which claimed between 600,000 and 900,000 lives. The 1998 constitution allowed farmers greater freedom in the sale of produce and the retention of income. But Kim refused to sanction more extensive market-oriented reforms, including the breaking up of collective farms. Increasingly, the country needed to turn to the international community, particularly the USA, the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN), South Korea, and Japan, for food aid. In January 1998 the UN World Food Programme launched its largest-ever food aid operation, to provide 650,000 tonnes of food to 7 million people, or a third of the population of North Korea, while the USA pledged 200,000 tonnes of food aid. In 2001 it received $300 million in food aid. However, it resisted demands for international monitoring of food aid distribution and attempts by South Korea to link food donations to effective implementation of its 1991 agreement on cross-border cooperation.
In July 2002 North Korea devalued its currency and allowed food prices to rise, in an effort to encourage production. It also trialled a new ‘family-unit farming system’ in some areas and set up a special administrative zone in Sinuiju, near China, where there was freer trade to generate some foreign currency. But North Korea's steps towards a market economy were very limited and not comparable with those seen in China. After floods brought poor harvests in 2006 and 2007, the country was again facing the prospect of famine in 2008, leading the World Food Programme to call for urgent help from the international community.
Deteriorating foreign relations In January 1995 the USA eased its 44-year-old trade embargo and provided financial aid after North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear development programme. But Kim continued to pursue an isolationist and anti-Western foreign policy and relations with the USA deteriorated, apart from a brief thaw in 1999–2000.
In August 1998 satellite spy pictures raised concerns that, at a secret underground site of Kumchangri, North Korea was infringing the freeze on its nuclear weapons programme and it refused to allow international inspectors to visit the site. Also in August 1998, North Korea test fired, unannounced, a ballistic missile over Japanese territory. In protest, Japan stopped food aid and commercial flights to North Korea until December 1999.
In September 1999 the USA's Clinton administration lifted bans on non-military trade, banking, and transport links between the two countries, after North Korea agreed not to test long-range missiles capable of reaching US territory in Alaska and Hawaii. Diplomatic relations were also established with Italy, Japan, and the UK in 2000, and North Korea attended the annual meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In June 2000 North Korea and South Korea held their first ever heads of state summit meeting. South Korea agreed to accelerate economic investment in North Korea and announced that it planned to open rail links between the two countries. In August 2000 100 elderly people from either side of the border were reunited with their families from whom they had been separated for 50 years. And in September 2000 the defence chiefs of North and South Korea met for the first time in over 50 years.
Relations with the USA and South Korea deteriorated between 2001 and 2007. The USA's new right-wing Republican president, George W Bush, described North Korea as a renegade state which was part of an ‘axis of evil’, along with Iraq and Iran, and suspended talks.
In February 2005 North Korea publicly admitted it had nuclear weapons and In October 2006 successfully detonated a nuclear device underground.
In 2007 economic difficulties forced North Korea to make concessions to the West. In February, it signed an agreement with South Korea, the USA, Russian, China, and Japan to close its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon in exchange for economic and fuel aid. In October, it issued a joint declaration with South Korea calling for a permanent peace in the peninsula and it also agreed to close three more nuclear plants.
However, Kim failed to follow through on these commitments, and the election in February 2008 of the conservative Lee Myung Bak as president of South Korea led to tense relations. In January 2009 North Korea declared that it was scrapping a non-aggression agreement with the South and was ‘on the brink of war’. In April–May 2009 it carried out test launches of short- and long-range missiles and a further underground test of a nuclear weapon, which led to condemnation by the UN and the imposition of further international sanctions. Despite this, in November 2009 North Korea claimed that it was carrying out uranium enrichment to produce plutonium for nuclear warheads.
Succession of Kim Jong-un Kim Jong Il's health deteriorated and, in September 2010, the 27-year-old Kim Jong-un, his third and youngest son, was appointed vice-chairman of the powerful central military commission and heir-apparent. In December 2011 Kim Jong Il died from a heart attack and was declared Eternal General Secretary of the KWP.
Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as leader of the communist party, army, and supreme leader. In his first public speech, made in April 2012 on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, he vowed to maintain the country's self-sufficiency and military might, despite mounting economic problems. To increase his authority, he purged potential rivals including, in July 2012, the army chief Ri Yong-ho, with Kim becoming marshal (the army's highest title); in December 2013, Chang Song-thaek, his uncle and mentor, was executed for allegedly seeking to overthrow the state.
Km Jong-un strengthened his grip on power in 2016 by holding the first KWP congress in four decades. This was followed in February 2016 by the murder of his estranged elder half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, through nerve agent poisoning at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia, with North Korean involvement suspected.
North Korea defies international community with missile tests In December 2012, in defiance of the international community, North Korea launched into orbit a satellite using rocket technology that was banned under UN ballistic missile sanctions. This was followed in February 2013 with a further nuclear test (the country's third). And in March 2014 it test-fired medium-range Rodong ballistic missiles and restarted of operations at its Yongbyon nuclear facility. These actions violated UN resolutions and led to increased Western sanctions 2015–16.
Tensions with the West intensified from January 2017 after Kim Jong-un announced that North Korea was close to developing long-range guided missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. In April 2017 the USA increased its military presence in the region and the new US president, Donald Trump, warned Kim not to carry out further nuclear and ballistic missile tests. However, Kim defied this warning and in May 2017 North Korea successfully launched an intermediate range ballistic missile 790 km/490 mi towards the Sea of Japan.
Further missile launches followed, including a test of an intercontinental missile (ICBM) on 4 July 2017, which travelled 2,500 km/1,560 mi into space and landed 37 minutes later in Japan's exclusive economic zone, 930 km/580 mi from the launch site. These tests indicated that North Korea might be close to having the capability of reaching parts of the USA with its ICBMs, and caused considerable concern in Japan. US president Trump responded by declaring North Korea a state sponsor of terror, and the USA imposed further sanctions. Nevertheless, on 28 November 2017 North Korea launched a further ICBM into the Sea of Japan, which reached a height of 4,500 km/2,800 mi.
Korea Central News Agency
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