With the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, all industry was nationalized and agriculture was collectivized. North Korea has operated a centrally planned command economy ever since. Successive economic plans have given emphasis to the development of heavy industry and to mechanization of agriculture. The gross national product (GNP) in 1995 was US$20,000 million (US$1,000 per capita). Few reliable statistics are available from North Korea, and estimates are based on South Korean sources. It is estimated that the North Korean economy has recently been contracting, by up to 5 per cent in 1992 and at greater speed since, as an agrarian crisis has taken hold. The estimated national budget for 1992 was US$19,300 million in revenue and expenditure, 40 per cent of which is customarily allocated to military expenditure.
A Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing
Agriculture in North Korea is collectively organized, though some smallholdings exist. Large-scale mechanization, irrigation, and land reclamation have increased crop yields. The principal crops (with their yields for 2006) include rice (2.48 million tonnes), maize (1.96 million), and potatoes (2 million). Other important crops are millet, barley, wheat, vegetables, apples, sweet potatoes, and soya beans. Livestock number about 3.20 million pigs, 570,000 cattle, 172,000 sheep, and 26.5 million chickens. Actual agricultural production is now acknowledged as being in catastrophic decline, owing to severe floods and structural deficiencies, with the country facing frequent widespread famines.
Annual production of Roundwood stands at about 7.33 million cu m (259 million cu ft). North Korea has a modern fishing fleet; the total annual catch in 2005 estimate was 712,995 tonnes, largely anchovy, tuna, and mackerel.
Mining is an important sector of the North Korean economy, and efforts are being made to develop new deposits. The focus has been on iron ore and coal mines, which had, in 2004, outputs of 1.30 million and 30 million tonnes respectively. Other important minerals include tungsten, magnesite, zinc, copper, lead, silver, and gold.
Metallurgical industries and the manufacture of heavy machinery represent a major share of North Korea’s national income. Output of pig iron amounted to 6.6 million tonnes per year in the early 1990s; crude steel totalled 8.1 million tonnes. Other manufactures include trucks, diesel locomotives, heavy construction equipment, cement, synthetic fibres, fertilizers, and refined copper, lead, zinc, and aluminium.
North Korea is well endowed with hydroelectric resources, which account for nearly 56 per cent of the annual electrical output. In 1993 electricity consumption was about 17 billion kWh. However, a fall-off in energy supplies after 1992—caused by the end of cheap fuel deliveries from China and the former Soviet Union—led to a reported halving of industrial productivity. Exploration for petroleum has been undertaken, but no production has begun as yet. A nuclear power plant under construction is to be supplanted by two light-water reactors provided by the United States and South Korea.
E Currency and Banking
The monetary unit of North Korea is the won, of 100 chon (2.20 won equalled US$1; early 2008). The official exchange rate bears little relation to the currency’s true worth, which is widely regarded as much less. North Korea has three banks, all state-controlled; the Choson Central Bank is the bank of issue.
F Commerce and Trade
The bulk of North Korea’s foreign trade throughout the post-war period was with the USSR, China, and other Communist countries. Since the end of the Cold War, however, trade has been diversified to include non-Communist countries, notably Japan, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, and Australia. The ending of barter trading with the Soviet Union in 1991 was a severe blow to North Korea’s economy. Minerals, metals, rice, and fish constitute the principal exports (worth about US$805 million in 1995). Petroleum, coal, chemicals, and machinery are major imports (US$1,200 million).
In 2006 the estimated total workforce of North Korea was around 11 million, with about 38 per cent of the workforce engaged in agriculture. The major industrial and technical trade unions are affiliated with the General Federation of Trade Unions; also important is the Korean Agricultural Working People’s Union. Professional workers, including artists, writers, lawyers, and scientists, have their own trade organizations.
The railway system of North Korea is electrified along 38 per cent of its 8,530 km (5,300 mi) of track. There are about 2006 km (19,387 mi) of roads, of which only 6 per cent are paved. The River Taedong is important to internal trade; the total length of inland waterways is about 2,250 km (1,400 mi). Major ports include Namp’o and Haeju, on the western coast, and Ch’ojin and Wǒnsan, on the eastern coast. There is an international airport at P’yǒngyang.
In 1992 North Korea had some 1.1 million telephones. The government-run Korean Central News Agency is the principal distributing source of news in North Korea; several daily newspapers are published. Radio broadcasting is under the auspices of the Korean Central Broadcasting Committee; television broadcasting was instituted in 1969: some 3 million radios and 1 million televisions were in use in 1997. All media are subject to close government control.
North Korea has a strongly centralized Communist government and is the last extant example of totalitarian Stalinism. The government’s structure is set forth in the constitution promulgated in 1972 and amended in 1992 and 1998, which replaced that of 1948.
A Executive and Legislature
Executive power in North Korea is vested in the chair of the National Defence Committee, who is head of state and head of government. The chair is elected by the Supreme People’s Assembly and in turn appoints the members of the National Defence Committee, which is the government’s highest policy-making body. Formerly the head of state was the president, but the constitutional revisions of 1998 left this post as a memorial to Kim Il Sung, who was named “Eternal President”. In practice, the real position of authority is that of secretary-general of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party (KWP).
The legislature, which in theory is the supreme government organ, is the unicameral Supreme People’s Assembly. Its 687 members are elected by direct vote for five-year terms. The legislature generally meets only several times a year; its day-to-day duties are performed by the standing committee of the assembly. The last parliamentary elections were in 2003.
B Political Parties
The dominant political party, and the actual source of political power, is the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP). Two smaller parties join with the KWP in the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland.
The judicial system of North Korea consists of the central court and the provincial and people’s courts. The central court is the state’s highest judiciary authority; its judges are appointed to four-year terms by the standing committee.
D Local Government
North Korea is divided into nine provinces, three special cities, and one special district. Provinces are further subdivided into counties and districts. Each local administrative unit has its elected people’s assembly.
E Health and Welfare
All North Korean citizens are entitled to disability benefits and retirement allowances. Medical care is free and available at people’s clinics throughout the country. In 1993 there were about 62,100 doctors (around 1 per 370 people). The official infant mortality rate in 2008 was 22 deaths per 1,000 live births.
The president of North Korea is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The KWP maintains political control of the military. Military service of three to ten years is compulsory for all males. In 2004 the total military personnel was about 1,106,000, distributed as follows: army, 950,000; navy, 46,000; and air force, 110,000. Reserve forces total 4.7 million. North Korea has one of the largest armies in East Asia, though its quality is regarded as poor.
G International Organizations
North Korea has been a member of the United Nations (UN) since 1991. Otherwise, its membership of international organizations is limited.
For the history of the Korean Peninsula before it was partitioned into North and South Korea, see Korea. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was proclaimed in P’yǒngyang on September 9, 1948, but a more significant date of inception would perhaps be August 29, 1946, when North Korea’s Communist Party, properly known as the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), was inaugurated under the leadership of Kim Tubong and Kim Il Sung.
A Kim Il Sung’s Rise to Power
After the establishment of the KWP, Kim Il Sung enjoyed the support of the occupying Soviet forces (until they withdrew in late 1948), and began playing a leading role in Korean affairs north of the 38th parallel. Under the Communist Party and before the establishment of the DPRK, key political and economic reforms had already been made: elimination of moderate and right-wing elements, subordination of the formal government apparatus to Communist Party control, suppression of religious and most other sectarian groups, confiscation of land and wealth formerly belonging to the Japanese or to enemies of the regime, and the initiation of party-directed economic planning and development. Although Kim Il Sung emerged early as the principal leader, others contended for the top position. One of these, Pak Honyong, a Communist from the south, was executed after the Korean War; some believe that Pak was blamed for the loss of the war, the people of South Korea having failed to support the north as Pak had supposedly promised. Kim Tubong and other possible rivals were eliminated by the end of the 1950s, leaving Kim Il Sung in undisputed control. His personal power was buttressed by an extensive personality cult.
B The Post-Korean War Period
The war caused enormous damage, but KWP discipline and forced-labour policies resulted in considerable recovery and development by 1960. At the same time, the North Korean leadership began to turn away from Soviet tutelage, emphasizing the national character of the Korean revolution under Kim Il Sung’s ideology of juche (self-reliance). As the quarrel between China and the USSR intensified, North Korea manoeuvred for even more independence of action. During the 1960s heavy industrial growth was emphasized, but the production of consumer goods and the general standard of living lagged, though in 1970 the estimated GNP per head was still higher than South Korea. Late in the 1960s, North Korea developed an especially aggressive stance towards the south: an assassination team nearly succeeded in killing South Korea’s president, Park Chung Hee. In 1968 the Pueblo, a United States intelligence-gathering vessel, was seized by North Korean gunboats and its crew held for a year. Guerrilla raids were launched on the south, but without much effect. A US reconnaissance plane was shot down in April 1969. These events, rather than weakening the south, stimulated renewed defence measures and were probably counter-productive. They also influenced the formation of a harder political order in the south. A new constitution, promulgated in December 1972, created the post of president for Kim Il Sung.
In the 1970s secret talks with southern officials led to a joint declaration (July 4, 1972) that both sides would seek to develop a dialogue aimed at unification, but by spring 1973 this effort had dissolved in acrimony. Sporadic discussions on unification were held throughout the 1980s.
At the KWP Congress in 1980, Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il, was given high ranking in the Politburo and on the Central Committee of the party, placing him in a commanding position to succeed his father. Relations with the South swung between conciliation and aggression; in 1983 North Korean agents killed several South Korean Cabinet members in a bomb attack in Rangoon, but in 1986 the border with South Korea was opened for family visits. In November 1987 North Korean agents planted a bomb on a South Korean airliner which exploded over South East Asia, killing 115 passengers. These apparent shifts in policy may have stemmed from the initiatives of Kim Jong Il, reportedly an advocate of a hard line towards the South. Kim Il Sung was re-elected President in May 1990 for a four-year term. However, his regime’s position was undercut by the collapse of European communism after 1989 and a rush by former Communist nations to establish diplomatic ties with South Korea. The USSR announced the end of barter trade with North Korea in 1990, plunging the economy into crisis.
In 1991 both North and South Korea joined the UN, and the two nations signed accords regarding nuclear weapons and reconciliation. China’s decision in 1992 to establish full relations with South Korea left the North effectively isolated. In 1992 North Korea signed a pact with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to allow their nuclear facilities to be inspected. Widespread domestic unrest was reported following the cessation of aid from other Communist economies. In 1993 the North Korean government refused to let inspectors examine sites suspected of nuclear-weapons production, and threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which the government had signed in 1985. In December 1993 the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) said that North Korea had most likely built at least one atomic weapon. Tension rose on the Korean Peninsula, with some advocating a pre-emptive US air strike on suspect sites.
C After Kim Il Sung
Throughout the first half of 1994, the North Korean government continued to resist international pressure and did not allow a full IAEA inspection of alleged nuclear-weapon production sites, announcing its withdrawal from the NPT in June. Kim Il Sung died on July 8, 1994. After widespread national mourning, Kim Jong Il emerged as Head of State, though he delayed formal assumption of titles. The nuclear issue was formally resolved in August 1994 by an agreement between North Korea and the United States under which the latter would establish diplomatic relations and supply the North with new nuclear reactors to replace those with weapons potential. The new North Korean regime appeared somewhat more broadly based than Kim II Sung’s firm dictatorship and made tentative moves to open its economy to foreign investment and trade. North Korea only finally agreed on implementation of the nuclear agreement in mid-1995.
In the summer of 1995 disastrous flooding severely damaged North Korea’s agricultural sector and raised the possibility of mass starvation. Shipments of food aid from South Korea, Japan, the United States, and the UN were periodically obstructed. Arguments which had delayed implementation of the 1995 nuclear accord were finally settled in December 1995. In April 1996 North Korea sent units into the Demilitarized Zone separating it from South Korea, in defiance of the 1953 armistice which ended the Korean War. Amid reports from a string of defectors of the crisis situation in North Korea, in May 1996 South Korea, Japan, and the United States elected to discontinue food aid following North Korea’s refusal to participate in talks on a permanent settlement to replace the armistice; South Korea resumed shipments in June. The food aid issue was complicated by provocative incidents such as the beaching of a North Korean submarine in South Korea in September 1996 and the pursuit of its infiltration team crew, all but one of whom were captured or killed. North Korea issued an unprecedented apology to the South over the incident in December 1996.
North Korea’s food crisis worsened in 1997, with reports of peasants eating grass and cannibalism. Aid agencies complained that the government was denying them the freedom to work, and other states were reluctant to extend help: the United States over reports that the North Korean military was hoarding food, Japan over the fate of Japanese nationals allegedly kidnapped by North Korean intelligence. A prominent North Korean ideologue, Hwang Jang Yop, who defected to South Korea in February 1997, warned that the desperate North Korean regime was prepared for a total nuclear war as a last act of defiance.
The food crisis continued throughout 1997, with the EU joining relief efforts from May. In July 1997 the official mourning period for Kim Il Sung ended, and in October Kim Jong Il was elected to the vacant post of Secretary-General of the ruling KWP. In December 1997 four-party talks between the two Koreas, the United States, and Russia to reach a permanent peace settlement for the Korean peninsula formally opened in Geneva. With no respite in the North Korean food crisis, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) launched the biggest aid operation in its history in January 1998 to tackle the situation. In a surprise reversal of previous policy, North Korea announced in February 1998 that it was prepared to talk directly to the South. Talks began in Beijing in April after an unexpected invitation from North Korea; after some success on the reuniting of families separated after the Korean War, they broke down on the question of food-aid terms.
In August 1998 North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile over the Sea of Japan, raising fears of escalating tension in the region. In September 1998 Kim Jong Il became official head of state under the newly revised constitution as chair of the National Defence Commission. A report by international aid agencies in November 1998 concluded that almost two-thirds of North Korean children were malnourished. In September 1999 the United States announced the easing of long-standing economic and trade sanctions against North Korea, although sanctions did remain on military equipment and on goods that can be used in weapons manufacturing.
On June 14, 2000, South Korea’s Kim Dae Jung met the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the North Korean capital of P’yóngyang to sign a landmark agreement to improve cooperation between the two countries and to work towards reunification. It was the first time that leaders of the two countries had met since the Korean Peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel in 1945. The five-point declaration called for both sides to work independently towards reunification, initiate governmental contacts to ease border tensions, increase economic cooperation, and begin a range of exchanges. Although the agreement did not address pressing security issues facing both countries, Kim Dae Jung pledged to resolve quickly the fate of dozens of North Korean political prisoners held in South Korea, and North Korea agreed to permit reunions of families divided between the two countries since the 1950-1953 Korean War, the first of which took place in August 2000. Kim Jong Il also accepted an invitation to visit the South Korean capital of Seoul.
Improvements in relations between the two nations looked set to continue in early 2001 when the first official exchange of mail took place between people in North and South Korea—the first written communications allowed between people divided by the Korean War 50 years earlier. The reopening of the Kyongui railway line and roads connecting the two countries were also discussed. However, further advances towards reconciliation remained in question, when talks scheduled for March 2001 were cancelled by North Korea. The cancellation of the talks followed renewed criticism by US President George W. Bush’s government over North Korean security issues.
A European Union delegation, headed by Swedish prime minister Göran Persson, visited the country to help the reconciliation process with South Korea. This was followed by an announcement by President George Bush on June 7 that the United States was set to resume negotiations with North Korea, specifically over Korea’s ballistic missile programme and nuclear technology capabilities. Kim Jong-Il made his first official overseas tour in August 2001, when he visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow. In discussions, Kim agreed to a missile testing moratorium until 2003.
In what seemed a policy turnabout in January 2002, President Bush, in his first State of the Union address, spoke in inflammatory terms of a number of countries (North Korea, Iran, and Iraq) as being involved in long-range missiles proliferation—he dubbed them an “axis of evil”. In late June, tensions between North and South Korea were heightened when naval boats from each country exchanged fire in an incident that killed four South Korean sailors and caused an unknown number of North Korean casualties, after a confrontation between the vessels in the Yellow Sea. South Korean authorities alleged that North Korean patrol boats accompanying a fleet of fishing boats entered South Korean waters after crossing the disputed sea border between the two countries. The United States declared its support for South Korea after the incident and cancelled a proposed visit by a US delegation to North Korea to promote bilateral talks with the South. The US State Department announced that the incident had “created an unacceptable atmosphere in which to conduct the talks.”
However, on July 4, the 30th anniversary of the historic 1972 declaration, North Korea released a conciliatory statement, reaffirming its commitment to promoting dialogue and cooperation between North and South Korea.
In the autumn of 2002, it was revealed by the North Korean authorities that five Japanese nationals had been kidnapped in the 1970s. Kim Jong Il apologized to Japanese president Koizumi for the incident when he paid a visit to the country. The Japanese nationals were given permission to visit Japan and later decided to return there on a permanent basis.
In April 2004 more than 160 people were killed and 1,300 injured in a train explosion at Ryongchon near the Chinese border. The train was believed to be carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer and exploded causing widespread devastation. Many children were among the fatalities and the injured. In a rare instance of openness and cooperation, North Korea invited UN emergency teams to the scene of the disaster and appealed for further aid.
D Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons Issues
North Korea admitted to US State officials in October 2002 that it was continuing with a nuclear programme, contrary to agreements whereby the country disbanded its nuclear industry in return for shipments of oil from the United States and help with developing alternative energy supplies. That month, North Korea acquiesced in allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Authority into the country to see that the facilities were being phased out, but in a change of policy by the government they were expelled in December. Despite pressure from the UN, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Further deterioration of US/North Korean relations occurred when a shipment of Scud missiles en route from North Korea to Yemen was temporarily seized by the US Navy. The standoff between the United States and North Korea continued while the War on Iraq progressed, with veiled threats being issued by both sides. Despite numerous meetings throughout 2003 little progress was made. North Korea confirmed that it was reprocessing spent plutonium and in January 2004 a US team of experts confirmed the claim.
In a formal proposal presented to North Korea in June 2004 in Beijing and reaffirmed in talks held in 2005, the United States outlined a six-stage denuclearization process. North Korea would be required to acknowledge that a weapons-grade uranium-enrichment programme existed and to make specific commitments providing for its elimination in a denuclearization agreement. The proposal also called for North Korea to make a commitment to dismantle all of its nuclear programmes at the outset of the denuclearization process and offered to discuss economic aid in return once the actual dismantling process was underway.
North Korea rejected the US proposal, though offered to negotiate a new agreement with the United States to freeze the production of plutonium. In February 2005, North Korea had announced that it had become a nuclear weapons state, declaring that nuclear weapons were necessary to deter what it perceived as a US policy of “regime change” in North Korea.
The six-party talks stalled in early August 2005 without an agreement. During this fourth round of talks, the United States and North Korea held private meetings almost daily during a 13-day negotiation. The talks resumed in September 2005. North Korea pledged to abandon all nuclear weapons and programmes in exchange for economic aid and security guarantees. Tensions in the region soared in early July 2006 when North Korea launched seven test missiles, one of them a long-range Taepodong-2 missile, which fell into the Sea of Japan (East Sea). International military observers judged the test-launches as unsuccessful but the concerned international community, via the UN Security Council, led the call for economic sanctions against North Korea.