North Korea - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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North Korea

North Korea, officially Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, country in northeastern Asia that occupies the northern portion of the Korea Peninsula. North Korea is bounded on the north by China, on the northeast by Russia, on the east by the East Sea (Sea of Japan), on the south by South Korea, and on the west by the Yellow Sea. It has an area of 120,538 sq km (46,540 sq mi). The state of North Korea was established in 1948 as a result of the Soviet military occupation of the northern portion of the peninsula after World War II. The capital and largest city of North Korea is P’yŏngyang.


North Korea is extremely mountainous and marked by deep, narrow valleys. A complex system of ranges and spurs extends across the country in a generally northeastern to southwestern direction. The most prominent mountain range is the Nangnim-sanmaek, in the north central region. Mount Paektu (2,744 m/9,003 ft), on the Chinese border, is the highest peak. Lowland plains comprise only about one-fifth of the total area and are largely confined to the country’s western coast and to the several broad river valleys of the west. Fertile alluvial soils are found in these river valleys. Most of the soils in the mountainous regions lack organic material and are relatively infertile. Only 18 percent of North Korea’s land is arable. Nearly all the major rivers rise in the mountains and flow west to the Yellow Sea. The longest river, the Yalu (Amnok), forms part of the border with China. Other streams include the Taedong, Ch’ŏngch’ŏn, and Chaeryŏng rivers. Of the major rivers only the Tumen flows to the eastern coast to empty into the East Sea.

Climate in North Korea

North Korea has a continental climate, with hot summers and cold winters. The average July temperature at P’yŏngyang is 24°C (75°F). Winter temperatures at Wŏnsan in the south average -4°C (25°F) but are considerably lower in the north. Annual precipitation in most parts of the country is about 1,000 mm (about 40 in) and is concentrated in the summer months.

Vegetation and Animal Life in North Korea

Extensive coniferous forests are found in the country’s mountainous interior. Predominant species include spruce, pine, larch, fir, and cedar. The lowland areas of the west have been deforested and are under cultivation. Because of deforestation, large indigenous mammals of North Korea, which include leopards, tigers, deer, bears, and wolves, are becoming increasingly rare, and are confined to remote forested regions. Birdlife includes crane, heron, eagle, and snipe.

Mineral Resources in North Korea

North Korea is one of the richer nations in Asia in mineral resources, possessing major reserves of anthracite coal, iron ore, tungsten, magnesite, and graphite. Among the other minerals present are copper, gold, lead, molybdenum, silver, uranium, and zinc. Most estimates suggest that North Korea’s vast anthracite coal reserves exceed 10 billion tons. Iron ore reserves, centered in Musan-ŭp, are estimated to be 3 billion tons; lead and zinc, concentrated in the Komdŏok area of the northeast, roughly 12 million tons each; tungsten, a strategic mineral needed in jet engines and missiles, 232,000 tons; and magnesite, found in Tanch’ ŏn-ŭp, Ryongyang, and Taehŭung-ni, 6 billion tons. Together with adjacent deposits in China, North Korea’s magnesite reserves are among the world’s largest. Steel manufacturers must have this fire-resistant mineral to line blast furnaces. Gold mines are located at Unsan-dong, Sangnong, and Hŏ-ch’on, but the extent of North Korea’s unexploited gold potential is unknown. American and Japanese companies operated these mines prior to the creation of North Korea.

Mineral production has declined or stopped altogether at many North Korean mines since 1990, reflecting the economic dislocations resulting from the decline of aid from China and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Problems in maintaining the infrastructure, especially the breakdown of transportation links with the mountainous mining areas, also contributed to declining mineral production. In 2003 China became the main importer of the minerals still produced by North Korean mines that have remained operational.

Preliminary geological studies suggest the possibility of significant oil and gas reserves in the seabed along the west coast on the North Korean side of the Yellow Sea. Two foreign consulting companies engaged by North Korea—Cantek of Canada and an affiliate of Nissho-Iwai of Japan—estimated potential reserves of 12 billion barrels of oil in the seabed near Anju-ŭp, according to the North Korea Petroleum Ministry.


North Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, with no racial or linguistic minorities other than a small resident foreign (mainly Chinese) population. Koreans are believed to have descended from people who began to migrate to the Korea Peninsula from the northeastern part of the Asian mainland as early as 5000 BC.

Population Characteristics of North Korea

The population (2009 estimate) of North Korea is 22,665,345. The average population density is 188 persons per sq km (487 per sq mi). The population, however, is very unevenly distributed and is largely concentrated in the lowland plains of the west. Urbanization of the North Korean population has progressed rapidly since the 1950s; 62 percent of the total population of North Korea is now classified as urban.

Principal Cities of North Korea

P’yŏngyang, the capital, is North Korea’s largest city. Other major cities include Ch’ŏngjin, Namp’o, Sinŭiju, Wŏnsan, and Kaesŏng.

Language and Religion in North Korea

North Korea’s national language is Korean, which is written in a phonetic script known as Chosŏn’gŭl (called Hangeul in South Korea).

Religious freedom is guaranteed by the North Korean constitution, but in practice religious activity is discouraged, and about two-thirds of the people are nonreligious. Perhaps the most prominent religious tradition belongs to the indigenous Ch’ŏndogyo (“Religion of the Heavenly Way”), which combines elements of Confucianism and Daoism (Taoism).


Education and culture in North Korea are under state control and are utilized by the governing Korean Workers’ Party regime to indoctrinate and foster its ideology.

Education in North Korea

Education is free and compulsory in North Korea for the first ten years of schooling. In the late 1980s, some 1.5 million pupils were enrolled annually in elementary schools, and another 2.8 million students attended vocational and secondary schools. Statistics for subsequent years are unavailable. The principal institution of higher education is Kim Il Sung University (founded in 1946) in P’yŏngyang. Total enrollment in some 280 institutions of higher education exceeds 300,000. The literacy rate is estimated at about 99 percent.

Cultural Life and Institutions in North Korea

Cultural activity is aided, encouraged, and shaped by the government in consonance with its political goals. Historical museums and libraries are located in many of the larger counties. The government has also formed national symphony, theater, and dance companies.

Communications in North Korea

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, with programming limited to the evening.


Following World War II (1939-1945), the Korea Peninsula was divided into two military occupation zones. The northern zone was occupied by military forces from the Soviet Union, and the southern zone was occupied by United States military forces. In 1946 the Soviet Union recognized a government led by Kim Il Sung, the leader of the Korean Communist Party, in the northern zone. The Korean Communist Party merged that year with another group to form the Korean Workers’ Party. In 1948 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was formally established as a centralized Communist state under the control of the Workers’ Party, which espoused a Marxist-Leninist ideology. Following the departure of Soviet advisers and forces in 1958, however, North Korea began to lessen the importance of Marxism-Leninism compared to a nationalistic ideology known as juche (self-reliance). Juche was linked to “Kim Il Sungism,” which extolled Kim Il Sung as the personification of national pride. This ideology continued even after Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and was replaced by his son, Kim Jong Il.

North Korea’s first constitution was approved in 1948. It was revised in 1972, 1992, and 1998. Before Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, executive power in North Korea was vested in a president, who was head of state, and a premier, who was technically head of government. The president was elected by the Supreme People’s Assembly, the unicameral legislature, for a four-year term. The president in turn appointed the premier and members of the Central People’s Committee, the government’s highest policymaking body. The post of president was vacant following the death of Kim Il Sung and was later abolished by the 1998 constitution. Kim designated his son, Kim Jong Il, as his successor; however, Kim Jong Il did not assume the presidency. Under a 1998 constitutional amendment, the chair of the National Defense Commission, a post held by Kim Jong Il, was recognized as North Korea’s “highest office.”

The 1998 constitution created the National Defense Commission and gave the armed forces increased governmental power. The commission was described as “the supreme military guidance organ of state sovereignty.” Kim Jong Il became chairman of the commission as well as general secretary of the Workers’ Party. The office of president was abolished.

Nominally, the Supreme People’s Assembly was to hold ultimate authority in the land under the 1998 constitution. But the chairman of its presidium, or executive committee, became a de facto ceremonial head of state, whose major function has been to represent North Korea in dealings with other national leaders. In June 1999 two official organs of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, in a joint article, indicated how powerful the North Korean army had become. The article equated the North Korean army with the people of North Korea. It declared that “giving priority to the Army is the perfect mode of politics in the present times … a mode of leadership which solves all problems arising in the Revolution. Our revolutionary philosophy is that the Army is precisely the Party, people, and state.”

Executive of North Korea

The highest executive office in North Korea is chair of the National Defense Commission. The 1998 constitution created the National Defense Commission and abolished the office of president. The state apparatus is subordinate to the paramount authority of the National Defense Commission.

Legislature of North Korea

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 four-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.

Judiciary in North Korea

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 judicial authority; its judges are appointed to four-year terms by the standing committee.

Local Government of North Korea

North Korea is divided into nine provinces, three special cities, and one special district. Provinces are further subdivided into 210 counties and districts. Each local administrative unit has an elected people’s assembly.

Political Parties of North Korea

The dominant political party is the Korean Workers’ Party. Two smaller parties join with the Korean Workers’ Party in the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland.

Social Services in North Korea

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.

Defense of North Korea

In 2006 the U.S. government estimated that the total personnel of the North Korean regular armed forces was about 1,106,000, distributed as follows: army, 950,000; navy, 46,000; and air force, 110,000. This total excludes reserve forces.

Recent estimates of weaponry were: tanks, 3,800; field artillery, 12,000; surface ships, 430; submarines, 90; and jet fighter aircraft, 760. The North Korean forces are equipped primarily with weapons, such as T-62 tanks, received from the former Soviet Union and China during the Cold War.

In 2004 North Korea’s 760 fighter jets included only 60 advanced Soviet models (MiG-23s, MiG-29s, and SU-25s). Most of its mainstay fighters are MiG-19s, MiG-21s, Il-28s, and SU-7s. Some 320 are outmoded MiG-15s and MiG-17s. By contrast, South Korea had 520 advanced fighters in 2004, including 162 U.S.-supplied advanced fighters. The United States, which has a military alliance with South Korea, based more than 100 military airplanes in South Korea in 2004, including 70 F-16s, most armed with smart bombs.

In addition to its conventional forces, North Korea announced in February 2005 that it had become a “nuclear weapons state” in order to defend itself against what it perceived as the threat of a U.S. preemptive attack. In July 2006 North Korea launched seven test missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2 believed to have the range to reach North America. The UN Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea, banning other nations from supplying it with materials necessary for building missiles. In early October 2006 North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in an underground explosion.


The government of North Korea maintains a predominantly centralized, or state-controlled, economy. After the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic in 1948, all industry was nationalized and agriculture was collectivized. Government economic policy emphasized a doctrine of self-reliance and downgraded the role of foreign trade. Economic plans gave emphasis to the development of heavy industry and the mechanization of agriculture.

North Korea became dependent on its Cold War benefactors, the Soviet Union and China, for crude oil, refined petroleum products, and feedstock for its fertilizer factories. Thus, when Soviet and Chinese aid declined after 1990, the country was unable to operate its fertilizer factories, its tractors, and its irrigation pumps. Flood damage in 1995 and 1996, in addition to the petroleum shortage, crippled agricultural production and led to famine conditions in some parts of the country. With only 18 percent of its largely mountainous terrain arable and agricultural production still inadequate to meet its needs, North Korea became dependent on foreign food aid, largely from China, South Korea, and the United States. Serious malnutrition persists. The loss of Cold War aid subsidies has also led to a deterioration of its economic infrastructure.

Beginning in 2002, the government initiated economic reforms designed to reverse the economic decline. These reforms included decentralizing control over many state enterprises, which no longer receive subsidies if they are unprofitable; a revised price and wage structure that has given farmers higher wages for their production; new work rules in agricultural cooperatives that reward the more productive farm workers; and private markets in which individual vendors sell agricultural and consumer goods. These goods, which are subject to government price controls, are either locally produced or imported from China, Japan, and South Korea.

Labor in North Korea

In 2007 the estimated total workforce of North Korea was 12.4 million, with 38 percent 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.

Agriculture of North Korea

Large-scale mechanization, irrigation, and land reclamation have increased crop yields. The principal crops (with their yields in 2007) include rice (2.2 million metric tons), corn (1.6 million), and potatoes (1.9 million). Other important crops are millet, barley, wheat, vegetables, apples, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. Livestock number about 3.3 million pigs, 576,000 cattle, 173,000 sheep, and 28 million poultry.

Forestry and Fishing in North Korea

Production of round wood stood at 7.4 million cubic meters (260 million cubic feet) in 2007. North Korea has a modern fishing fleet; in 2007 the catch was 713,000 metric tons, largely anchovy, tuna, mackerel, and seaweeds.

Mining in North Korea

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, which had, in 2006, outputs of 1.4 million and 30.1 million metric tons, respectively. Other important minerals include tungsten, magnesite, zinc, copper, lead, silver, gold, graphite, and uranium.

Manufacturing in North Korea

Metallurgical industries and the manufacture of heavy machinery represent a major share of North Korea’s national income. Other manufactures include trucks, diesel locomotives, heavy construction equipment, cement, synthetic fibers, fertilizers, and refined copper, lead, zinc, and aluminum.

Energy in North Korea

North Korea is well endowed with coal and hydroelectricity resources. Hydroelectric power accounts for 58 percent of the electrical output. In 2006 electricity production was 21.7 billion kilowatt-hours.

In the past, given its lack of proven petroleum reserves, North Korea also relied on imports of petroleum to meet its energy needs. Initially, it sought to reduce its dependence on these imports by maximizing the production of coal and hydroelectric power. But North Korea proved unable to keep up with its energy needs and turned to nuclear energy as the key to energy self-sufficiency. The extent of its natural resource endowments made it feasible for North Korea to pursue a peaceful nuclear program and a military one at the same time. North Korea possesses extensive reserves of the graphite and uranium needed for the gas-graphite type of nuclear reactor. While this type of reactor can be used to generate electricity, it is also uniquely suited to the diversion of nuclear fuel for military purposes.

In 1989 U.S. spy satellites discovered that a reactor at Yǒngbyǒn, nominally intended for civilian nuclear power generation, had been shut down, offering an opportunity for the diversion of plutonium to military use. This provoked a diplomatic crisis that resulted in a U.S.-South Korean-Japanese commitment in 1994 to construct two reactors in North Korea of a type not suited for military use. These reactors are known as light-water reactors (LWRs). Although the agreement broke down and the reactors were never built, North Korea continues to seek LWRs, which Japan, South Korea, and other countries use to generate electricity.

Another possible new energy source for North Korea, in addition to LWRs and petroleum, is natural gas. Russia’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, has conducted preliminary discussions with North Korea on a possible gas pipeline from a gas field in western Siberia or from Sakhalin Island that would cross through North Korea en route to South Korea and would supply North Korean power stations and fertilizer plants. In addition, natural gas reserves are believed to exist in the Yellow Sea off North Korea’s west coast.

Transportation in North Korea

The railroad system of North Korea is electrified along most of its 8,530 km (5,300 mi) of track. It has direct links to South Korea, China, and Russia. In May 2007 two passenger trains traveled between North and South Korea for the first time since the Korean War began in 1950. The one-time event was regarded as largely symbolic of improved relations between the two countries. There are 31,200 km (19,387 mi) of roads, of which only 6 percent are paved. The Taedong River 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’ŏngjin and Wŏnsan on the eastern coast.

Currency and Banking of North Korea

The unit of currency is the won (2.20 won equals U.S.$1; May, 1998). North Korea has three banks, all state-controlled; the Korean Central Bank is the bank of issue.

Foreign Trade in North Korea

The bulk of North Korea’s foreign trade through the 1970s was with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), China, and other Communist countries. Since then, however, trade has been diversified to include non-Communist countries. Bilateral trade in 2003 totaled $3.3 billion, according to estimates by the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA estimated that North Korea’s exports in 2003 totaled $1.2 billion, primarily minerals, metallurgical products, manufactures (including armaments), and textiles. The principal trade partners for exports were China (29.9 percent), South Korea (24.1 percent), and Japan (13.2 percent). Imports totaled $2.1 billion, primarily petroleum, coking coal, machinery and equipment, textiles, and grain. The principal sources of these imports were China (32.9 percent), Thailand (10.7 percent), and Japan (4.8 percent).

In 2002 the government of North Korea announced the establishment of a special economic zone in the northwestern city of Sinŭiju, near the border with China and linked by rail to Beijing. The zone will operate autonomously with its own legal and economic systems, allowing free market principles that promote foreign investment and trade. Its creation marked the most significant reversal of economic policy in North Korea since 1948.


For the history of the Korea Peninsula before it was partitioned in 1945 into North and South Korea, see Korea. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was proclaimed in P’yŏngyang, the capital, on September 9, 1948, but a more significant date of inception would perhaps be August 29, 1946, when the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) was inaugurated under the leadership of Kim Tubong and Kim Il Sung.

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 most of them withdrew in late 1948), and began playing a leading role in Korean affairs north of the 38th parallel. Under the Workers’ Party leadership and before the establishment of the DPRK, key political and economic changes had already been made. These included egalitarian land reforms that won the support of landless labor and tenant farmers, elimination of moderate and right-wing elements, suppression of religious 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.

Kim Il Sung emerged early as the principal leader, supported by former officers of his guerrilla forces who had fought against Japanese colonial rule from bases in Manchuria. In 1949 border fighting broke out between the North and the South. On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces crossed the dividing line and invaded the South. Soon, in defense of the South, the United States joined the fighting under the banner of the United Nations (UN), along with small contingents of British, Canadian, Australian, and Turkish troops. In October 1950 China joined the war on the North’s side. By the time a cease-fire agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, some 800,000 Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel had lost their lives, together with 115,000 Chinese and about 36,400 U.S. military personnel. See also Korean War.

The Post-Korean War Period

The war caused enormous damage to North Korea. North Korea endured three years of heavy U.S. bombing in addition to a ground offensive by UN forces along the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China. Virtually the entire population of North Korea lived and worked in manmade underground caves for three years to escape the relentless attack of U.S. planes. Schools, hospitals, factories, and troop barracks were located in the caves. P’yŏngyang was bombed until almost no buildings were left standing, and an entirely new capital had to be rebuilt after the war.

KWP discipline and forced-labor 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. As the quarrel between China and the USSR intensified, North Korea maneuvered 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. Late in the 1960s, North Korea developed an especially aggressive stance toward the South: An assassination team tried and 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 in extremely severe circumstances for a year. Guerrilla raids were launched on the South, but without much effect. A U.S. reconnaissance plane was shot down in April 1969. These events, rather than weakening the South, stimulated renewed defense measures and were probably counterproductive. They also influenced the formation of a harder political order in South Korea.

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 exchanges on unification took place 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. Kim Il Sung was reelected president in May 1990 for a four-year term. In 1991 both North and South Korea joined the United Nations (UN), and the two nations signed accords regarding nuclear and conventional arms control and reconciliation.

In 1992 North Korea signed a pact with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to allow the country’s nuclear facilities to be inspected. However, in 1993 the North Korean government refused to let inspectors examine nuclear waste sites believed to contain undeclared nuclear material that could be used for nuclear weapons. North Korea also suspended its formal acceptance of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which it had signed in 1985. In December 1993 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) announced that North Korea had most likely built at least one atomic weapon from plutonium extracted from fuel rods at a nuclear power plant. See also Arms Control; Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.

Throughout the first half of 1994, the North Korean government continued to resist a full IAEA inspection of suspected nuclear sites. The crisis was defused in June, however, when former U.S. president Jimmy Carter met with Kim Il Sung in North Korea. The following month Kim died unexpectedly. Nevertheless, the United States and North Korea reached an agreement in 1994 known as the Agreed Framework, in which North Korea agreed to suspend the operation of designated nuclear facilities capable of producing and reprocessing weapons-grade plutonium. North Korea also agreed to allow IAEA inspections to verify the suspension.

In return, the United States, Japan, and South Korea agreed to construct two new reactors of a type not suitable for nuclear weapons production. The agreement called for annual deliveries of heavy fuel oil to North Korea as well as U.S. steps to end economic sanctions against North Korea that had been in place since the Korean War. The agreement also envisaged steps leading to the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea. North Korea agreed to dismantle the nuclear facilities suspended under the agreement, coincident with the completion of the two new reactors and with U.S. fulfillment of other provisions of the agreement.

Construction of the two reactors began in 1995 but stopped when the United States abrogated the 1994 agreement in December 2002, charging that North Korea had violated the accord by initiating a secret weapons-grade uranium-enrichment program. An American official who visited P’yŏngyang said that North Korea had admitted its guilt; North Korea denied that it did so and denied that it had such a program.

Meanwhile, a nationwide food crisis that surfaced in 1995 became a widespread famine by 1996. Factors contributing to the crisis included the withdrawal of food subsidies from Russia and China in the early 1990s, the cumulative effect of government agricultural policies, and a series of severe floods and droughts that damaged agricultural crops. International humanitarian relief agencies responded to the crisis with ongoing food aid and other relief efforts. Nevertheless, it was estimated that up to 1 million people had died of starvation and famine-related illnesses by 1998. North Korea’s official estimate was 200,000. Although the famine peaked in 1997, the food crisis continued into the early 2000s.

In September 1998 North Korea revised its constitution to recognize the chair of the National Defense Commission, a position held by Kim Jong Il, as the country’s top government post. Kim had been the de facto leader of North Korea since the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994.

North Korea in the 21st Century

In June 2000 Kim Jong Il and South Korean president Kim Dae Jung held talks in P’yŏngyang and agreed to promote reconciliation and economic cooperation between the two countries. The landmark event was the first face-to-face meeting between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea since the division of Korea in 1945. The thaw in relations led to the first officially sanctioned temporary reunions of families separated by the Korean War. It also increased trade and investment, relaxed military tensions, and partially reopened road and rail links that had been severed by the creation of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the buffer zone created between the two Koreas after the Korean War. In May 2007, for the first time since the Korean War started in 1950, two passenger trains traveled between North and South Korea. But the one-time event was regarded as largely symbolic of improved relations, rather than a serious effort to renew passenger rail links.

In contrast to the growing détente between North Korea and South Korea, relations between the United States and North Korea reached an impasse as the 21st century began, due to tensions over the nuclear issue. China attempted to defuse the crisis by acting as a mediator between North Korea and the United States, which had placed North Korea on a list of countries supporting terrorism and had characterized North Korea as being part of an “axis of evil” in a 2002 State of the Union speech by President George W. Bush. North Korea sought direct talks with the United States, but the United States refused to meet in one-on-one negotiations. China fashioned a compromise in which negotiations would take place among six concerned nations—China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. In August 2003, February and June 2004, and July and August 2005, the six-nation talks were held in Beijing, China’s capital.

In a formal proposal presented to North Korea in June 2004 in Beijing and reaffirmed in the 2005 talks, the United States outlined a six-stage denuclearization process. North Korea would be required at the outset to acknowledge that a weapons-grade uranium-enrichment program existed and to make specific commitments providing for its elimination in a denuclearization agreement. The U.S. proposal called for North Korea to make a commitment to dismantle all of its nuclear programs at the outset of the denuclearization process and offered to discuss economic aid after such a commitment had been made and the actual dismantling process was under way.

Even after the dismantlement of these nuclear programs, however, a “wholly transformed relationship with the United States” would follow only if North Korea changed “its behavior on human rights,” addressed the “issues underlying” its inclusion on the terrorist list, eliminated chemical and biological weapons programs, put an end to the proliferation of missiles and missile-related technology, and adopted a “less provocative conventional force disposition.”

North Korea rejected the U.S. proposal, calling for a U.S. commitment to normalize economic and diplomatic relations in exchange for a North Korean dismantlement pledge and a step-by-step denuclearization process. In this process U.S. steps toward normalized relations and economic aid for North Korea would be linked with parallel North Korean steps toward dismantlement. North Korea also offered to negotiate a new agreement with the United States to freeze the production of plutonium. In February 2005 North Korea announced that it had become a nuclear weapons state, declaring that nuclear weapons were necessary to deter what it perceived as a U.S. policy of “regime change” in North Korea. North Korea had not tested a nuclear weapon.

The fourth round of the six-party talks recessed in early August 2005 without an agreement. However, in September 2005 the United States and North Korea held bilateral meetings in Beijing, China’s capital, for 13 days, leading to the resumption of the six-party negotiations. The fourth round culminated in the adoption of a major declaration on September 19, 2005, in which North Korea pledged to “abandon” all nuclear weapons and nuclear programs in a step-by-step process linked to economic aid, security guarantees, and the normalization of relations with the United States.

Soon after, the United States initiated financial sanctions against North Korea. Invoking the Patriot Act, the U.S. Treasury Department obtained the cooperation of China in freezing North Korean accounts in a Macao bank, accusing North Korea of counterfeiting U.S. currency. At the same time, the Treasury Department initiated broader efforts to persuade banks throughout the world to shun all North Korea-related accounts or transactions as possible conduits for trade relating to weapons of mass destruction. North Korea charged that the sanctions were a violation of Article Two of the September 19 agreement, in which the United States pledged to normalize relations. North Korea refused to return to the six-party negotiations and called for the United States to engage in preliminary bilateral talks on the financial sanctions issue prior to reconvening the six-party talks.

Then 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.

North Korea Becomes a Nuclear Weapons Nation

Then in early October 2006 North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in an underground explosion. United States intelligence agencies, after testing air samples for radiation and measuring seismic readings, concluded that North Korea had tested a plutonium bomb with an explosive force of less than 1 kiloton of TNT. By contrast, the plutonium bomb that the United States dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, had an explosive force of 20 kilotons of TNT. Some nuclear weapons experts suggested that the small size of the explosion indicated that North Korean scientists and engineers may have encountered problems in imploding the device. Nevertheless, North Korea became the eighth country in the world known to have tested a nuclear weapon. United States intelligence experts estimated that North Korea had an arsenal of six to nine nuclear weapons. See also Nuclear Weapon; Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.

In response to the test the UN Security Council unanimously voted to impose financial and weapons sanctions on North Korea for a “clear threat to international peace and security.” The resolution called upon “all nations to take cooperative action, including through the inspection of cargo, in accordance with their respective national laws,” to prohibit the delivery of any materials related to weapons of mass destruction. It also banned trade with North Korea in heavy conventional weapons and luxury goods, and it called on nations to freeze funds connected with North Korea’s nonconventional arms programs. However, the resolution left member states free to decide how to implement its provisions, and it was not expected to lead to the interdiction of North Korean ships at sea or to the imposition of a quarantine or embargo on North Korea.

North Korea reacted angrily to the UN Security Council resolution, calling it a “declaration of war.” While calling for stiff sanctions against North Korea, U.S. president Bush said the United States had “no intention of attacking” North Korea. Bush added, however, that the United States reserved the right to consider “all options to defend our friends in the region,” a reference to Japan and South Korea, U.S. allies that are nonnuclear weapons states. UN secretary general Kofi Annan called on the United States to conduct bilateral talks with North Korea, but the official U.S. position remained that it would only engage in multilateral negotiations.

In a series of trilateral (U.S.-China-North Korea) and bilateral (U.S.-North Korea) meetings on October 31, 2006, in Beijing, North Korea agreed to return to the six-party talks in exchange for a U.S. agreement to seek a solution of the Macao bank dispute and the issue of global banking sanctions. The solution was to be negotiated through a working group linked to the six-party talks.

A first round of talks in December ended in a stalemate. Negotiations resumed in February 2007, resulting in a breakthrough outlining the first concrete steps for putting into practice the September 2005 agreement in which North Korea pledged to dismantle its nuclear program if certain conditions were met.

The agreement reached in February set deadlines for the first phase of North Korea’s abandonment of all nuclear weapons and research programs. North Korea agreed to close and seal its main nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant at Yǒngbyǒn under the monitoring of international inspectors. In return, North Korea would receive 100,000 tons of fuel oil. South Korea also agreed to provide 400,000 tons of food aid to its impoverished northern neighbor as part of the deal. In addition, the United States and Japan agreed to begin bilateral talks with North Korea on normalizing relations. For the United States, that would involve the lifting of financial sanctions. The United States also agreed to resolve the Macao banking dispute within 30 days.

The February agreement also provided that North Korea would receive another 900,000 tons of fuel oil, or equivalent aid, in stages after taking steps to permanently disclose and dismantle all of its nuclear facilities and programs. The details of the second phase of the deal were to be worked out in a new round of six-nation talks scheduled for mid-2007.

In July 2007 inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified that North Korea had shut down its main nuclear reactor and all other nuclear facilities at the Yǒngbyǒn complex. In return, North Korea received its first shipments of fuel and food aid. A new round of six-nation talks ended later in July without an agreement on a timetable for North Korea to fully disable and disclose all of its nuclear facilities and programs. But in further talks held in late September, North Korea committed to a deadline of December 31.

Recent Developments

In October 2007 Kim Jong Il hosted South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun in P’yŏngyang in the first face-to-face meeting of Korean leaders since the historic summit of 2000. Their talks resulted in a joint declaration that stated a bilateral commitment to work toward signing a formal peace treaty for the Korean War and that outlined a number of specific projects to build closer economic ties between the two countries. Among other projects, South Korea agreed to build a special economic zone in the North Korean port of Haeju, as well as a new railway and highway linking the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex to other cities. Under the 2000 summit agreement, South Korea had built the Kaesŏng complex as a special economic zone, and factories opened there in 2004. In November 2007 the prime ministers from both countries met for the first time in 15 years and held additional talks on improving bilateral ties.

In August 2008 Kim reportedly suffered a stroke and made no public appearances for months. He seemed to be recovered but frail when he was reelected chair of the National Defense Commission for a third term in April 2009. The same month North Korea launched a rocket that it said was intended to carry a communications satellite into space. The United Nations Security Council unanimously denounced the launch, saying it violated UN resolutions barring North Korea from testing ballistic missile technology. The Council also called for tightening economic sanctions against North Korea. The launch failed to place a satellite into orbit, and United States officials said it was intended to test a ballistic missile. North Korea responded to the UN Security Council action by expelling IAEA nuclear inspectors. North Korean officials vowed to boycott international disarmament talks and to restart the country’s nuclear program.

In March 2009, two American journalists working on a documentary near the North Korean-Chinese border were arrested by North Korea. They were convicted of “committing hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry” in June 2009 and sentenced to 12 years hard labor. A series of negotiations between North Korea and the United States to secure the release of the journalists culminated with former U.S. president Bill Clinton traveling to North Korea in August 2009 for a meeting with Kim Jong Il, who then pardoned the two journalists and allowed them to leave with Clinton. Many experts hope that this visit could spark a new series of talks between North Korea and the United States.

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