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North Korea Country Brief

Published February 1, 2013

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North Korea Profile

North Korea is the most closed, repressive, unpredictable, and isolated country on the planet—and one that is nuclear-armed and continues to threaten regional stability.

History

Since 1948, North Korea has been ruled by a totalitarian dictatorship. In 1950, Kim Il Sung, the leader of North Korea, invaded South Korea in an attempt to unify the Korean Peninsula under Communist rule. The U.S. came to South Korea’s aid, counterattacking and pushing deeply into North Korea. China then sent hundreds of thousands of “volunteers” into the conflict. The war killed nearly 2.5 million people.

In 1953, North and South Korea signed an armistice—though not a peace treaty—putting an end to active fighting. The countries remain hostile to this day.

Since the armistice, the U.S. has maintained a large presence in South Korea—currently 28,500 American military personnel are stationed in the country, which has the most heavily militarized border in the world.1 Tension with the North has only increased since it tested a nuclear weapon in 2006.2

Leadership

North Korea is built around the cult of personality of the members of the Kim family, treating them as divinities imbued with supernatural powers.3 Kim Jong Il, the son of the regime’s founder, Kim Il Sung, died in December 2011 after a 17-year rule. He designated his son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor.4 Little is known about Kim Jong Un, but he has continued his father’s repressive and unpredictable regime.5

Repression

North Korea is the world’s most repressive nation. The regime subjects citizens to a constant barrage of propaganda through radios—which cannot be turned off—installed in almost every home and workplace. It imprisons dissidents, their families, and scores of others (including children) in barbaric prison camps, where they are subject to starvation, torture, and execution.6 There is no freedom of the press, and populations are often uprooted to be forcibly resettled elsewhere.7 Virtually all resources flow to the ruling class and the military, leaving the population to face constant deprivation and regular waves of mass starvation.8

North Korea is also considered the most corrupt country in the world.9 A centralized economy and lack of a food distribution system have created a reliance on the black market for goods and services.10 Corruption among the senior leadership and the military is the norm.11

The international community has imposed and maintained harsh sanctions on North Korea for decades. Internally, the country has adopted a philosophy of Juche, or “self-reliance,” to convince the population to cope with the shortages.

Nuclear Weapons Program

The U.S. first suspected North Korea had a clandestine nuclear weapons program during the 1980s.12 U.N. nuclear inspectors found evidence of a program in 1992.

Since 1994, North Korea has engaged in cycles of (1) demonstrating progress on its nuclear weapons program with either nuclear tests or missile launches, (2) negotiations with other countries to suspend its nuclear program, (3) agreements to freeze its program or allow U.N. inspection in exchange for aid, (4) suspending talks and ejecting U.N. inspectors, and (5) withdrawing until the next round of threats.13

In April 2012, North Korea began the cycle again when it launched a missile that exploded shortly after liftoff. Pyongyang also threatened a nuclear test later in the year.14 In December 2012, North Korea successfully launched a rocket which introduced a satellite into orbit—in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1874.15 In early February 2013, North Korea performed an underground nuclear test.

  • Experts suggest significant hurdles remain in North Korea’s path to develop a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile capable of threatening the U.S.16
  • Nonetheless, some believe North Korea is capable of developing a small nuclear arsenal of a dozen weapons.17

Threats to Regional Stability

North Korea continuously harasses its neighbors, seizing Chinese fishing boats for ransom, abducting Japanese citizens, and threatening South Korea.18 As a result of its erratic behavior, North Korea has poor relations with most of the world. Even China, which assisted North Korea during the Korean War, has limited influence over the country.19 Short of war, however, there is little pressure the U.S. can bring to bear on Pyongyang that is not already in place.

  1. United States, Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, “Background Note: South Korea,” Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, April 12, 2012. Accessed June 7, 2012. Available at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2800.htm.

  2. “North Korea: How we got to this point,” CNN, February 29, 2012. Accessed June 15, 2012. Available at: http://articles.cnn.com/2012-02-29/asia/world_asia_north-korea-timeline_1_nuclear-activity-provocation-north-korea-nuclear-weapons/2?_s=PM:ASIA.

  3. Brian Greene, “5 Strange Things You Didn’t Know about Kim Jong-Il,” U.S. News & World Report, December 19, 2011. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2011/12/19/5-strange-things-you-didnt-know-about-kim-jong-il.

  4. Choe Sang-Hun, “At Huge Rally, North Koreans Declare Kim Their Leader,” The New York Times, December 29, 2011. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/30/world/asia/north-korea-declares-kim-jong-un-as-supreme-leader.html?_r=1&hp.

  5. Choe Sang-Hun, “To Sell a New Leader, North Korea Finds a Mirror Is Handy,” The New York Times, February 1, 2012. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/02/world/asia/packaging-of-Kim-Jong-un-in-north-korea.html?ref=kimjongun&pagewanted=all.

  6. “The Gulag Behind the Goose Steps,” The Economist, April 21, 2012. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.economist.com/node/21553090.

  7. “The Gulag Behind the Goose Steps,” The Economist, April 21, 2012. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.economist.com/node/21553090.

  8. “Freedom in the World 2012: North Korea,” Freedom House. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2012/north-korea.

  9. “Corruption Perceptions Index 2011,” Transparency International. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2011/results/.

  10. Chico Harlan, “In North Korea, Role of Foreign Currency Grows,” The Washington Post, February 15, 2012. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-north-korea-role-of-foreign-currency-grows/2012/02/05/gIQAcRLdFR_story.html.

  11. “North Korean System Corrupt: Leader’s Brother,” Agence France-Presse, February 11, 2012. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1625705/north-korean-system-corrupt-leaders-brother.

  12. United States, Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, “North Korea: Potential for Nuclear Weapon Development,” Declassified Report, September 1986, Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB87/nk07.pdf.

  13. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Agreed Framework of 21 October 1994 Between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Information Circular, Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/Others/infcirc457.pdf; See also “KCNA Detailed Report Explains NPT Withdrawal,” Korean Central News Agency, Report, January 22, 2003. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/dprk/nuke/dprk012203.html; See also United States, Congressional Research Service, Larry Niksch, “North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” Issue Brief 91141, January 27, 2005, Print; David E. Sanger, “North Koreans Say They Tested a Nuclear Device,” The New York Times, October 9, 2006. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/09/world/asia/09korea.html?pagewanted=all; See also International Atomic Energy Agency, “Application of Safeguards in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” Report by the Director General, Board of Governors General Conference, August 17, 2007, Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.iaea.org/About/Policy/GC/GC51/GC51Documents/English/gc51-19_en.pdf.

  14. Ken Dilanian, “North Korea’s Failed Missile May Foreshadow Nuclear Test,” The Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2012. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/13/world/la-fg-us-norkor-20120414; See also Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Urged to Back Down on Nuclear Test,” The New York Times, May 21, 2012. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/22/world/asia/north-korea-urged-to-back-down-on-nuclear-test.html.

  15. “UN Security Council condemns NKorea successful rocket launch; SKorea says ‘blatant violation’,” Associated Press, December 12, 2012. Accessed December 20, 2012. Available at: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-12-12/world/35789793_1_security-council-nkorea-successful-rocket; See also Julie Ryall and Foreign Staff, “North Korea satellite launch: international reaction,” The Telegraph, December 12, 2012. Accessed December 15, 2012. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/9738937/North-Korea-satellite-launch-international-reaction.html.

  16. David Sanger and William Broad, “After Rocket Launching, a Call for New Sanctions,” The New York Times, December 12, 2012. Accessed December 20, 2012. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/13/world/asia/north-korea-rocket-launching.html.

  17. “North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Programme,” The International Institute for Strategic Studies, IISS Strategic Dossier. Accessed December 20, 2012. Available at: http://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-dossiers/north-korean-dossier/north-koreas-weapons-programmes-a-net-asses/north-koreas-nuclear-weapons-programme/; See also Suzanne Kelly and Pam Benson, “North Korea’s nuclear program,” CNN, December 20, 2011. Accessed December 20, 2012. Available at: http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/20/north-koreas-nuclear-program/; See also United States, Congressional Research Service, Mary Beth Nikitin, “North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons: Technical Issues” February 29, 2012, Accessed December 20, 2012. Available at: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/RL34256.pdf.

  18. Chico Harlan, “North Korea accused of Seizing Chinese Fishing Boats for Ransom,” The Washington Post, May 17, 2012. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/north-koreans-accused-of-seizing-chinese-fishing-boats-for-ransom/2012/05/17/gIQAsumPWU_story.html; See also Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Abductions of Japanese Citizens by North Korea,” Report, 2011. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/n_korea/abduction/pdfs/abductions_en.pdf; See also “NKorea threatens specific attacks on SKorean media,” Associated Press, June 4, 2012. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/nkorea-threatens-specific-attacks-skorean-133627020.html; See also “NKorea warns in latest threat that it will attack specific coordinates of SKorea media groups,” Associated Press, June 4, 2012, available at: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/nkorea-threatens-specific-attacks-skorean-133627020.html.

  19. Jayshree Bajoria, “The China-North Korea Relationship,” Council on Foreign Relations, Backgrounder, October 7, 2010. Accessed June 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.cfr.org/china/china-north-korea-relationship/p11097.

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