North Korea

views updated May 14 2018

North Korea

Culture Name

North Korean

Alternative Name

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea


Identification. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, usually known as North Korea, is a state that occupies the northern half of the Korean peninsula. North Korea is a new state, founded in 1948 as a result of the postcolonial settlement handed down by the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR). The United States and the USSR replaced the Japanese in 1945 and divided the peninsula into the American south and the Soviet north. For much of its short history, North Korea was regarded as a Soviet satellite state. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, North Korea's unique socialism has stood out in the post-Cold War world.

Little is known about North Korea in the United States, or in the world for that matter; except for the rare but striking news story about its international terrorism, the nuclear arms threat, and the devastating famine of recent years, nothing substantial is known about North Korea. This is due to the nation's strict closed-country policy: not many outsiders have visited there and not many North Koreans have traveled to the outside world.

Widely regarded as one of the few Stalinist regimes persisting into the post-Cold War era, North Koreaalong with its culture, history, and society, and the daily lives of its residentsis hidden behind iron curtains. So little is known about North Korea that the country is often demonized in the Western media. This is in a stark contrast to South Korea, from which millions have emigrated to the United States, forming a substantial Korean American population. South Korea and North Korea share a half-century history of confrontation and antagonism, often involving bloodshed, as manifested in the Korean War of 1950-1953. Nevertheless, South and North Korea stem from one nation.

Location and Geography. North Korea shares borders with China and Russia to the north and the military demarcation line with South Korea in the south. The total area measures 46,540 square miles (120,540 square kilometers), with land boundaries of 1,037 miles (1,673 kilometers), and a coastline of 1,547 miles (2,495 kilometers). It is divided into 14 percent arable land, 2 percent permanent cropland, and 61 percent forest- and woodland. The country's terrain is mostly covered with hills and mountains. The highest point is Mount Paektu, which rises to 9,003 feet (2,744 meters).

North Korea's capital is P'yongyang. At the founding of North Korea in 1948, it was the only city located in the northern half of the peninsula that had a notable historical heritage going back to the premodern era. Kaesong, which once was an ancient capital of the Koryo kingdom (9351392), located in the middle of the peninsula, became incorporated into North Korean territory only after the 1953 truce agreement that ended the Korean War. Kaesong, P'yongyang, and Namp'o, a new industrial city, are special cities with independent juridical authorities. The rest of the country is divided into nine provinces.

Demography. As of July 1998, North Korea's population was 21,234,387, with a sex ratio from birth to the age 15 of 1.05 males per female; 1564 years, 0.96 males per female; and 65 years and over, 0.44 males per female. The infant mortality rate stood at 87.83 deaths per thousand live births. The life expectancy was 48.88 years for males and 53.88 years for females. The total fertility rate measured 1.6 children born per woman, although the population growth rate was -0.03 percent, likely because of the high infant mortality rate. The population is more or less homogeneously Korean, with a small Chinese community in the north and a few hundred Japanese who are mainly wives of the Korean and repatriated with their husbands after the war.

Linguistic Affiliation. Technically, North Korea uses the same Korean language as the one spoken in South Korea. The cultural and sociopolitical division of more than half a century, however, pushed the languages in the peninsula far apart, if not in syntax, at least in semantics. When North Korea faced the task of building a new national culture, it faced a serious problem of illiteracy. For example, over 90 percent of women in northern Korea in 1945 were illiterate; they in turn made up 65 percent of the total illiterate population. In order to overcome illiteracy, North Korea adopted the all-Korean script, eliminating the use of Chinese characters.

Traditionally, the Korean language operated on a dual system: in premodern Korea, oral language was indigenous Korean, but the script was classical Chinese. The syntax of the Chinese and Korean languages are distinct and for those who did not have access to formal education, the world of writing was remote and unknowable. In 1444, under the initiative of King Sejong of Yi dynasty Korea, court scholars invented a Korean script named hunminjongum ("the correct sound to be taught the commoners"). The original set consisted of seventeen consonants and eleven vowels. The script represented the phonetic sounds of Korean; using the script, therefore, one could write the language that people actually spoke. The advantage of using this script instead of the classical Chinese was obvious: the former corresponded to the oral utterance of Korean, helping those in lower strata and women express themselves in writing; the latter, consisting of thousands of ideographs which expressed meaning, was monopolized by the highlyranked in the social strata. For example, the bureaucrats' qualification examinations and court documentation were all in classical Chinese, while popular stories were written in Korean script.

With more reforms over many centuries, the Korean of the late nineteenth century had developed more vowels and consonants. North Korea inherited this modern form of Korean vernacular script consisting of nineteen consonants and twenty-one vowels. The abolition of the use of Chinese characters from all public printing and writing helped achieved nationwide literacy at a remarkable speed. By 1979, the United States government estimated that North Korea had a 90 percent literacy rate. At the end of the twentieth century, it was estimated that 99 percent of North Korea's population could read and write Korean sufficiently.

Symbolism. The national symbols, such as the national emblem and flag, were all created in 1948 or thereafter. The North Korean flag consists of three colors: red, blue, and white. The top and bottom edges of the flag are thin blue stripes, paralleled by thinner white stripes, leaving the large middle field red. Toward the left, there is a white disk with a red five-pointed star. There is a national anthem, the Aegukka ("the song of patriotism"), but due to the worship of the longtime national leader, songs that praise Kim Il Sung have more or less replaced the anthem. With the rise of Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il, to public office, two songs, each praising Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, began to be sung in public meetings.

North Koreans are strongly loyal to Kim Il Sung's family, and often refer to North Korea as "one big revolutionary family" with Kim Il Sung as household head. With Kim Il Sung's death in July 1994, his son Kim Jong Il is widely seen as the successor, although he has not yet assumed the presidency. On public occasions, every individual in North Korea wears a Kim Il Sung badge on the upper left side of the chest as a proof of loyalty; this practice continues even after Kim Il Sung's death. The type of badge one wears reflects one's status. It is almost impossible to see a North Korean not wearing a Kim Il Sung badge. The badge has become an important national symbol.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Korea's unified history dates at least from the kingdom of Silla (c.670935), which unified the peninsula in the seventh century c.e. The Buddhist-influenced kingdom of Koryo (9351392) followed. (The English name "Korea" comes from "Koryo.") The Yi dynasty (13921910) adopted Neo-Confucianism as the state ideology and established a vassal-tributary relationship with China. For centuries, China never directly interfered with the internal affairs of the dynasty. It was Japan that came to rule the Koreans directly, when that country subordinated the Yi royal family in the colonial annexation of 1910.

The end of Japanese rule following World War II (19391945) marked the beginning of a peculiar era for Korean history that continues today. In 1945, upon the surrender of the Japanese armed forces, Korea was partitioned into northern and southern halves along the 38th parallel, governed respectively by the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviets endorsed a group of former guerrilla fighters as national leaders. This included a thirty-two-year-old legendary anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter, Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung's advantage over other patriots was that he was never apprehended by the Japanese colonial authorities; the consistency of his track record authenticated his quality as a national leader.

The North Korean state was founded on September 9, 1948, three years after the nation was divided into north and south, and approximately three weeks after the South Korean state was established with the sponsorship of the United Nations and the United States. But the preparation for North Korean state-building had already begun in 1945. With Soviet support, the northern leaders had carried out socioeconomic reforms including free distribution of land to the farmers, a gender equality law, and public ownership of key industries.

National Identity. A national identity as such was not born automatically with the emergence of the North Korean state. The northern leaders held the official view that the establishment of the North Korean state was an interim measure, with the ultimate goal being the unification of the entire peninsula in a single Korean national state. Kim Il Sung was not considered the national leader from the outset, either. He and his faction of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (originally named the Communist Party of Korea) systematically eliminated rival factions and individuals over several decades. Kim Il Sung's ascendancy to absolute leadership started during the Korean War with the elimination of Pak Hon-yong, who headed the South Korean Workers' Party. After the war, Kim took leadership in close connection to North Korea in its sociopolitical form from traditional Korean culture, enabling it to start anew. North Korean national identity is indissolubly connected with loyalty to Kim and North Korean-style socialism.

Despite the heavy Soviet influence, Northern Korea was driven by patriotic and nationalist zeal and anti-Japanese sentiment, rather than by an ideological commitment to socialism and communism.

In contrast to the south, where Korea's high society had been traditionally located, the north had no notable political and cultural center except for P'yongyang, which was an obvious choice for the capital. With this lack of centralized political power and cultural tradition, North Korea was able to start largely from scratch. This proved useful for constructing a brand-new North Korean cultural identity, stemming from the Soviet cultural current but distinctly North Korean at the same time.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Except for a total of perhaps ten cities, vast areas of North Korea are ruralor even untouched. These are areas that are not just underdeveloped, but undeveloped. For example, in 1985 a mining town in the northeastern part of North Korea had houses with no running water, no electric or fuel heating system, no lavatories or bath, no washbasin, no kitchen, and almost no furnishings. The residents used communal facilities and lived in tiny two-room houses heated by coal. Houses were equipped with electricity for lights, but its use was strictly controlled.

Located throughout North Koreain towns such as the above, in the remotest of the villages, and in the capital P'yongyang, are the ubiquitous slogans praising Kim Il Sung's leadership and mobilizing the citizens to the revolutionary struggle and the socialist cause. The capital's landscape is also marked by austere buildings, vast streets with almost no cars, children and pedestrians in orderly lines, no trace of trashalmost clinically beautiful, but somewhat lifeless. Behind the formal facades, though, the back streets are very different. There are muddy streets and alleyways, chaotic residential quarters, and the normal confusion and noise of everyday life.

P'yongyang is marked by a planned cityscape, clustered around Kim Il Sung-related monuments such as the 20-foot-high gold statue of Kim that looks down on the city. The capital is located on the Taedong, an extremely beautiful river with small islands and a riverbank covered with swinging willows and nicely kept flowerbeds. Everything in the center of the capital is carefully designed and built, including the People's Study Hall, Children's Palace, Mansudae Art Hall, P'yongyang Grand Theatre, the Parisien style arch, and recently built international hotels and restaurants. During the 1960s and 1970s, the peak of P'yongyang's reconstruction after the Korean War, the basic austere style and layout of the city was established. Some buildings, such as the Korean Revolutionary Museum and Kim Il Sung University, bear the features of European modernist architecture. These are mixed with the more tradition-inspired architecture of the 1980s, including the People's Study Hall and the city gate.

A majority of P'yongyang's residents live in apartments. Individual houses with their own electricity and heating systems are reserved for high-ranking party members and army officers. In the late 1990s, individual dwellings became popular among postwar repatriates from Japan, who, through financial support from their families remaining in Japan, are able to purchase houses. The majority of North Korean citizens do not own a car.

Apart from the capital and a very few cities that are comparable to it, the national landscape is divided into semi-urban, undeveloped, and agricultural areas. As visitors are not allowed, not much is known about the agricultural areas.

North Korean nature reserves can be extremely beautiful. National resorts such as Mount Myohyang and Mount Kumgang are magical in their charm and grandiose beauty. Here too one finds the revolutionary slogans, such as "Long Live the Great Leader Kim Il Sung!" One can see these slogans not only on panels that can be removed if necessary, but also carved on the rocky walls of mountains, filled with permanent red paint.

North Korea has constructed a revolutionary pilgrimage route, marking important locations connected to Kim Il Sung's anti-Japanese resistance. These include the Mount Paektu and the forest surrounding it, Hyesan city in the central north and its vicinity, and other areas mainly concentrated on the Chinese border. Another pilgrimage site is Kim Il Sung's birthplace in Man'gyongdae, near P'yongyang, where the cottage where he grew up is preserved.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. White rice and meat soup was once a symbol of good food in the North Korean rhetoric. It is not certain whether the population still eats white (steamed) rice due to the severe food shortage that became clear only in recent years. The visitors from overseas are normally given abundant food to eat, including meat, vegetables, dairy products, and fruits. However, ordinary citizens do not eat such a variety of food. Also, the North Korean diet does not include spicy food using chili and garlic, traditional in the Korean diet: There is no kimchee as found elsewhere. Another point to stress is that they do not seem to have candies or sweets for children: sugar is in short supply and regarded as a highly luxurious ingredient. Only when one visits the ranking officers' stores where one can use foreign currency is there a poor variety of sugary sweets. Basic food is rationed, while one can buy canned meat or a small amount of vegetables either from a store or farmers' market.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. All the food is state regulated, and this precludes obtaining any special food. For state-sponsored banquets, food is supplied abundantly, accompanied with nearly endless supply of wines and liqueurs. However, for ordinary people's ceremonies, such as the sixtieth birthday that is traditionally celebrated as a commemoration of longevity, it would not be the case.

Basic Economy. The Korean War (19501953) and the almost total destruction of the northern infrastructure by the allied bombing that flattened P'yongyang and napalmed the civilians paved the way for North Korea to emerge as a new, fresh, and truly heroic nation of Koreans. This was, according to North Korean officials, in contrast to South Korea, which was labeled a U.S. puppet regime. The destruction of economy was thorough, while the war casualties reached a phenomenal number and millions fled to the south as refugees. With Soviet and Chinese aid, reconstruction began immediately after the war. In the process of reconstructing the economy, the North Korean government collectivized agriculture, reinforced state and public ownership of heavy and light industries, and nationally unified education and the arts and sciences. By 1960, North Korea had a typical Soviet-style socialist economy and the party's hegemony had been consolidated.

In this process, a new form of leader-subject relations emerged, referred to in Korean as hyonjichido on-the-spot teaching or guiding. Film footage and photographs from the post-Korean War economic reconstruction period show numerous scenes of Kim Il Sung visiting steel mills and factories. In the 1950s and 1960s, Kim visited the workplaces nationwide, encouraging people to participate more vigorously in production. Kim's presence carried weight and the people were impressed that the country's top man had visited their home-town; the visits boosted morale and enhanced national pride. As a result, the North Korean economy recovered at a remarkable speed.

Following the three-year post-Korean War reconstruction, the North Korean government launched a five-year economic plan in 1956. Two years later, the socialist reform of production was declared complete and agriculture and industry became publicly owned and managed. Some key industries were placed under state ownership. In 1961, another economic plan was initiated; in November 1970, the party's Fifth Congress declared North Korea to be a socialist industrial state. These were the high times for the North Korean economy, and in April 1974, North Korea abolished all taxes. Until about 1976, North Korea's per capita gross national product (GNP) was higher than the equivalent figure in South Korea.

In December 1972, the North Korean Supreme People's Congress established the North Korean socialist constitution. The same session elected Kim Il Sung president of North Korea for the first time; he was reelected in 1977 and 1982, and remained president until his death in 1994.

The famine of the late 1990s, caused by floods and other natural calamities, revealed the shortcomings of the North Korean economy. The world had known for some time that North Korea's economy lagged far behind South Korea's, but the news of the famine was alarming to the West. Following massive floods in 1995 and 1996, a dry summer accompanied by typhoon damage in 1997 devastated North Korean agriculture. In 1997, the per capita daily grain ration fell from 24.5 ounces (700 grams) to 3.5 ounces (100 grams). The ration distribution also became intermittent. Because of the increasing deaths by starvation and undernourishment, funerals were allowed only in small scale and in the evening, and were attended only by the immediate family. As poverty increased and the lack of food intensified, there were reports that crimes related to the situation were on the increasefrom petty theft to organized gang robbery, often involving murder. North Korea began relying heavily on foreign aid from South Korea, Japan, the United States, and other Western nations. Since the beginning of 1999, North Korean publication has placed more emphasis on economy than on military affairs. It was scheduled to receive 100,000 tons of rice from Japan as of March 1999 as a result of the newly activated contact between the North Korean and Japanese governments. This and other aids from foreign governments is contributing to North Korea's slow recovery from a serious food shortage.

Land Tenure and Property. All land is state-owned or owned collectively, in the case of agricultural farms. Individuals do own movable goods such as furniture. All the houses are de jure state-provided; although it is said to be possible to buy off good housing, that would be through a personal connection rather than buying the property itself. Material goods are scarce in North Korea and generally people do not have opportunities to be exposed to expensive commodities. This works to suppress any desire to own something.

Commercial Activities. There are stores and even department stores in the big cities if one wishes to buy anything. However, basic goods are provided by the state either through ration or as a "gift" from the government (e.g. children's school textbooks or uniforms). In this sense, commercial activities among the ordinary citizens are minimal. In recent years, collaboration between Korean merchants in Japan took off with restaurant and hotel operation, but such ventures ran into serious difficulty since North Korea's food shortage became clear. There is an ongoing project of building a free trade zone in the northeastern region of North Korea, with collaboration of South Korean and Chinese capitals. This again is a tardy project and contrary to initial hopes, little success is expected.

Major Industries. North Korea's major industries are geared toward its domestic resources, and so include iron and steel production, mining, machinery, and other heavy industries. Its light industry also revolves around the domestic supply and lacks variety in products.

Trade. In the past, North Korea confined its trade counterparts to socialist states third world countries, particularly Africa. However, since the end of the Cold War, it has been trying to establish more stable relationships with Japan and the United States, while its former trade partners are shifting the emphasis from friendship-based trade to a more business-minded attitude. One of its major imports is weapons imported from Russia and China.

Division of Labor. Heavy industry is assigned to men, light industry to women. Jobs are assigned by the state in accordance to its judgment of family rank, ability, and qualifications. It is highly unlikely for the family of high-ranking party officers to work as a manual laborer or miner, for example. It is not acceptable for one to freely change occupation: Everything must be decided by higher authorities.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Although the government officially claims that North Korea is a classless society that has done away with the remnants of feudalism and capitalism, it is clearly a class society starkly divided between the politically powerful and politically powerless, with an unequal distribution of monetary and nonmonetary privileges. The highest ranking people in North Korea are Kim Il Sung's family and relatives, followed by his old comrades and their families, who used to be referred to as revolutionary fighters, denoting their participation in the anti-Japanese armed resistance. The next stratum is made up of the families of Korean War veterans and anti-South Korea sabotage officers. The children of this class typically are educated in schools for the bereaved children of the revolutionaries and face better career opportunities. Women generally lag behind men in high-status positions in society, but a daughter of an established revolutionary can rank very high in both the party and the government.

The vast majority of North Koreans are ordinary citizens who are divided and subdivided into ranks according to their family history and revolutionary or unrevolutionary origin. Status is regularly reviewed, and if any member of the family commits an antirevolutionary crime, other members of the family are also demoted in status.

Political Life

Government. North Korea's government is made of a presidency, a central government that is divided into various departments, and local governments. The equivalent to the United States Congress, for example, is the people's congress. The Supreme People's Congress passes the laws, which are carried through by local people's committees that are organized in a top-down fashion following the administrative units such as province, county, city, and agricultural collectives and co-ops. Offices for the People's Congress and committees are based on the election that takes place every five years.

There is normally only one candidate per office and the turn-out rate for voting marks near 100 percent every time, according to the official media report.

Leadership and Political Officials. The ruling Worker's Party of Korea has the largest decision-making power. The party is not just a political organization, but a moral and ethical icon for the people. The party is also divided top-down from the central committee to the local party offices. Since Kim Il Sung's death, it is Kim Jong Il, his son, who holds the supreme authority inside the party. Kim Jong Il is also the supreme commander of the army. He is so deemed in not only North Korea but by the South Korean government. When in June 2000 the South Korean president Kim Dae Jung visited North Korea to meet with the northern leader for the first time in the fifty years of Korea's division, Kim Jong Il appeared in person to greet Kim Dae Jung and the meetings between the two leaders took place in a highly cordial and mutually respectful atmosphere. It has been decided that Kim Jong Il will pay the return visit to the south, which will confirm his authority in the eyes of the South Korean citizens. The north-south meetings put forth some measures for reuniting the families that were separated during the Korean War and cultural collaboration between the two Koreas, ultimately aiming at reunification. The North Korean leadership enhanced its legitimacy through this recent move.

Social Problems and Control. The participation in political organizations occupies an important place in the everyday lives of North Koreans. By definition, every citizen in North Korea belongs to at least one political organization and this replaces a system of social control: the Korean Democratic Women's Union, the Korean Congress of Trade Unions, the Korean Socialist Labor Youth League, the Korean Farmers' Union, the Korean Press Association, the Korean Association of Writers and Artists, or the Korean Young Pioneers.

Technically, all those who live on North Korean soil are North Korean citizens except for those who already have foreign citizenship, such as diplomats and visitors. North Koreans have citizens' certificates identifying their class origin and current address. No one in North Korea is allowed to change their residence at will: they have to apply to move to another province or town and have a legitimate reason, such as marriage. Not even weekend journeys or holidays are left to individual discretion; one has to apply for such a trip through the appropriate authorities. Family holidays must be approved by the authorities, and normally families have to wait for their vacation quota. Sometimes individuals who distinguish themselves in devotion to the party and the state are rewarded with a family vacation.

Contrary to the traditional registration system of Korea, which was based on family registration, North Korean registration is based on individual identification. Each individual is subject to regular investigation by the authorities for the purpose of classification and reclassification according to class origin. For example, a person who commits a crime might be reclassified in terms of "soundness" of origin.

Military Activity. Although it has been said that in North Korea, the military has the ultimate say in decision making, it is hard to determine the degree of exercise of power by the military. North Korea's military leader, Kim Jong Il, is also the supreme commander of the Korean People's Army. In 1998, it became known that North Korea's military launched a missile across the Japanese archipelago into the Pacific. The incident is still being debated, but it is evident that North Korea's expenditure on military affairs is severely constraining its economy. The conscription is not mandatory, but many gifted young men and women join the army in order to obtain a ticket to the higher education through the army's recommendation after several years' service. The duration of the service is not clearly defined. Some stay five to six years, others less; women tend to stay shorter than men do. To go to the army even for a couple of years is an honor in North Korea, since it is a demonstration of one's readiness to devote one's life to the motherland.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

All citizens in North Korea join one or more of the following political organizations in the course of their lives: the Korean Democratic Women's Union, the Korean Congress of Trade Unions, the Korean Socialist Labor Youth League, the Korean Farmers' Union, the Korean Press Association, the Korean Association of Writers and Artists, the Korean Young Pioneers, and so on. In addition, there are three political parties: the Workers' Party of Korea, the Korean Democratic Party, and the Ch'ondo Religious Friends Party. The latter two, however, have disappeared from North Korea's public politics since the 1980s. The local headquarters and branches of these organizations form the basis of political life of individuals. Rather than home or family, the political organizations one belongs to are, in principle, the primary basis for social identification and the most important vehicle for socialization for North Koreans. Also, if one comes from an ordinary background, to do well in these organizations would create better opportunities.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. In North Korea it is widely accepted that men run the heavy industry and women work in light industry. Beyond this, the division is highly diverse. For example, agriculture is not necessarily regarded specifically as a man's or woman's job. When it comes to the domestic division of labor, although the state and the party try to minimize the work by introducing canned food and electrical appliances, it remains that women do most of the housework and child rearing even while working as many hours as men outside of the home. This effectively doubles women's burdens in society.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Women's status is not equal to that of men. Men have a far better chance in advancing in politics, while women, particularly after marriage, are seen as "done" with a political career. This is different for women from the high-ranking families, whose background and connections would outmaneuver handicaps that ordinary woman would have to bear. In North Korea, women are supposed to have certain mannerisms that are regarded as feminine. They are not supposed to wear trousers unless they are factory workers or agricultural laborers.

In professional settings, however, women are often as assertive as their male counterparts. The only occupation where behavior is sometimes flirtatious or subservient is as a waitress, but for women it is an honor to hold this position as they are selected for their beauty, good family background, and educational qualifications.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Individual registration has had a significant effect on the North Korean marriage system. In Korean tradition, marriage between a man and a woman who share the same family origin is not allowed. Since all Koreans were required to keep family records since the time of the Yi dynasty, everyone can trace their family origin. If two people share the same ancestral name, they were regarded as brother and sister, and hence subject to the incest taboo. Since North Korea abolished the family registry, marriages between individuals from the same ancestral clanas long as they are not direct relativesare lawful.

A primary consideration in marriage is the compatibility of class origins. If a man comes from the family of a high-ranking party member, and a woman from a family that does not have a comparable sociopolitical status, a marriage between the two would not be approved of by the society. If a man comes from a family that was originally repatriated from Japan in the postwar period and a woman comes from a family that is "native" North Korean, a marriage between the two is considered difficult since, generally speaking, repatriates are regarded with suspicion and distrust due to their ongoing connection with families in Japan. Hence, classes tend to marry within themselves just as in capitalist societies.

Upon marriage, a couple is given a house or, if they live in an urban area, an apartment. Ordinary couples, however, often have to wait until their application for a residence is approved by the authorities. The case of a couple from high-ranking families will be different: they will receive preferential treatment when seeking housing. Normally, newlyweds conduct a small ceremony, inviting close friends, neighbors, and family members, take a photo if they can afford it, and register their marriage. There is no feast or party and no honeymoon. Even wedding dresses are made from state-rationed fabrics, and therefore brides of a certain period all look more or less alike.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is a nuclear family with some degree of stem family practice, i.e. the family of one of the children (most likely a son) living with aged parents. Houses are small throughout the country and this restricts having large families as a norm. Adoption takes place through orphanages.


Child Rearing and Education. The process of economic recovery following the Korean War was also the process by which the population was successfully turned into members of the newly emerging nation. Compulsory education and the general literacy program played a decisive role in forming individuals into new subjects of state socialism, subjects capable of reproducing the state-coined, politically correct vocabulary and revolutionary rhetoric. Starting on 1 November 1958, all education up to middle school became compulsory and free of charge. By 1975, North Korea had extended this to eleven years of free compulsory education, including one year in a collective preschool. In addition, factories and collective farms have nursery schools where children are introduced to socialization and taken care of collectively away from home, since mothers are usually full-time workers.

In North Korea's linguistic practice, Kim Il Sung's words are frequently quoted as a gospel-like reference point. People learn the vocabulary by reading publications of the state and the party. Since the print industry and the entire publishing establishment are strictly state-owned and state-controlled, and no private importation of foreign-printed materials or audiovisual resources is permitted, words that do not conform with the interest of the party and the state are not introduced into the society in the first place, resulting in efficient censorship.

The vocabulary that the state favors includes words relating to such concepts as revolution, socialism, communism, class struggle, patriotism, anti-imperialism, anticapitalism, the national reunification, and dedication and loyalty to the leader. By way of contrast, the vocabulary that the state finds difficult or inappropriate, such as that referring to sexual or love relations, does not appear in print. Even so-called romantic novels depict lovers who are more like comrades on a journey to fulfill the duties they owe to the leader and the state.

Limiting the vocabulary in this way has made everyone, including the relatively uneducated, into competent practitioners of the state-engineered linguistic norm. On the societal level, this had an effect of homogenizing the linguistic practice of the general public. A visitor to North Korea would be struck by how similar people sound. In other words, rather than broadening the vision of citizens, literacy and education in North Korea confine the citizenry into a cocoon of the North Korean-style socialism and the state ideology.

Higher Education. Higher education is regarded as an honor and a privilege, and as such, it is not open to the general public at will. Men and women who have served in the military would be recommended to subsequent higher education. There are also "gifted" entries to the universities and colleges, where the candidate's intellectual merit is appreciated. Normally, however, it depends on one's family background in determining whether or not one obtains the opportunity of learning at a college for years at the state's expense. (Hence, for ordinary men and women, the military is a secure detour.) Sometimes, candidates are recommended from factories and agricultural collectives, with the endorsement of the due authorities.


Religious Beliefs. What most characterizes North Korean socialism is its leadership, built on the basis of the cult of personality of Kim Il Sung. Through the state-engineered education system, Kim and his family are introduced as role models for men and women, young and old. By the time they are in kindergarten, children can recite stories from Kim's childhood. Moral ideological education in North Korea is allegorically organized, with Kim Il Sung and his pedigree as protagonists.

Kim Il Sung's name is ubiquitous in North Korea. For example, if one is asked how one is, the model answer would be "thanks to the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, I am well," and the North Korean economy is remarkably strong "thanks to the wise guidance of Marshal Kim Il Sung." The ideology that represents the leader cult is called the Juche idea. Juche literally means "subject" and is often translated as self-reliance. In North Korea, slogans such as "Let us model the whole society on the Juche idea!" are heard daily. North Korea's official history claims that Kim Il Sung first established the Juche ideology in 1927 when he founded the Anti-imperialism Youth League in Jilin in northeastern China. The Juche idea is quite unlike Marxist historical materialism. Rather, it is a sort of idealism, placing emphasis on human belief; in this sense, it resembles a religion rather than a political ideology. Under the ideology of Juche, North Korea achieved many remarkable goals, including the economic recovery from the ashes of the Korean War. In the name of loyal dedication to Kim Il Sung, national unity was accomplished and national pride instilled North Korean citizens.

Religion is theoretically permitted in North Korea, and a visitor may meet a Buddhist monk or nun. But North Koreans hardly have freedom of religion. The monks and nuns that tourists meet may not have any public followers; indeed, they themselves may be loyal followers of the leader. Traditionally, northern Korea had strong centers of Christianity, and Christianity played an important role in organizing anti-Japanese resistance during the colonial period. Similarly, the Ch'ondo religion that emerged in the nineteenth century as an indigenous Korean religion was strengthened in the process of anti-Japanese resistance. In fact, many Ch'ondo leaders were included in the initial state-building of North Korea. Decades of Kim Il Sung worship transformed the religious plurality, though; with the leader's ascendancy, non-Juche ideas came to be regarded as heterodox and dangerous, or as bourgeois and capitalist.

Korean culture has an age-old Confucian tradition, although this heritage does not exist in today's North Korea as it did in the past. Rather, its form and direction changed due to the intervention of leader-focused socialism. Kim Il Sung often is depicted in a paternalistic manner, personified as a benevolent father (and at times, father-mother, asexually or bisexually) who looks after the whole population as children and disciples. Kim Il Sung created the notion of a family state with himself as the head of the nation. Indeed, a popular North Korean children's song includes this refrain: "Our Father is Marshal Kim Il Sung/ Our home is the bosom of the party/ We are one big family/ We have nothing to envy in the whole wide world."

Secular Celebrations

National celebrations include the Foundation of the People's Army (8 February), Kim Jong Il's birthday (16 February), Kim Il Sung's birthday (15 April), May Day (1 May), Young Pioneers Day (6 June), National Foundation Day (9 September), and the Workers' Party Day (10 October). Some of these celebrations are carried out with a Soviet-style military parade, while others are commemorated with art festivals and official congregations in local and central government units.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. The production of arts and literature in North Korea is controlled entirely by the state. Their ideological line, form of presentation, dissemination to the public, and availability are all under the administration of state authorities. This does not mean that North Koreans suffer from a poverty of art. On the contrary, there is quite a rich variety of art genres and distinct fashions that come and go over time. Film is more fully developed than literature, perhaps because of Kim Jong Il's involvement in the medium.

Literature. Literature is produced by state-salaried official writers whose novels and poems tend to be pedantic, predictable, and outright boring. For example, a long-selling popular novel Ode to Youth (first published in 1987 and continuously reprinted until 1994) is a story of a technician in a steel mill, whose relationship with his girlfriend is interwoven with other human relations among his colleagues. The story in the end reconfirms that in North Korea all relations, including romantic ones, exist to encourage loyalty to the leader. This has been the pattern in literature since the 1960s. Typically, human relationships are depicted in simplistic ways, with romantically-involved couples never hesitating to help each other become heroes for the revolution. There is no complex web of psychology, diversity of personality, or unexpected events that are quite often part of the ordinary lives of individuals. North Korean literature is full of barren, lifeless language, which is to be expected given the limited vocabulary the North Korean state makes available to the public.

Graphic Arts. North Korea has distinct graphic arts related to a mixture of Korean traditional drawing and the techniques of western watercolor. Large mural art is commonly seen inside the public buildings in North Korea, and the theme is usually leader worshiptypically Kim Il Sung in the middle, larger than other people surrounding him. People of al ages, occupation, and dress circle him with adoration and admiration in their eyes. The commission of such art is done by the state, and in this sense, there is no private artist. Also commonly seen are large sculptures depicting history patriotically, such as Korean War heroes and anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters; there are usually portrayed in the Soviet style. No individual artist is endorsed in this type of public art display. One cannot miss in North Korea ubiquitous statues and sculptures, paintings and even embroidery art that portray in beautified form Kim Il Sung and his family. These are displayed in public spaces; in terms of art to purchase privately, there are paintings and other products that use traditional Korean (or East Asian) ink paint or oil paint. These are most readily found in the international hotel shops and are not readily available for ordinary citizens to purchase.

Performance Arts. Under the direct intervention of Kim Jong Il, a new form of films has emerged in North Korea, especially since the 1980s. Sin Sang-ok and Ch'oi Un-huimarried former South Korean citizens, a director husband and an actress wifeplayed an important role in introducing this new version of North Korean film. The Sin-Ch'oi team, which enjoyed the endorsement of Kim Jong Il, produced many realist films. Their work is based on Korean literature of the 1930s, which was very strongly influenced by Russian realism as well as the Japanese proletarian literary movement. Classics such as The Blanket by Ch'oi So-hae were made into films that represented family life and the misery of poverty in an unprecedented vivid style. Also popular was the long-running series Heroes without Name, which depicted romantic relations among North Korean spies who worked undercover in South Korea after the Korean War.

Films in North Korea are inexpensive entertainment for the general public, while other more specialized genres such as circuses or song and dance ensembles are reserved for foreign guests and national festivals. Only selected individualseither by their revolutionary heritage or by being recognized as meritorious contributors to the revolutionare invited to enjoy such entertainment.


Buzo, Adrian. The Guerrilla Dynasty: Politics and Leadership in North Korea, 1999.

Cumings, Bruce. Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History, 1997.

. The Origins of the Korean War, Volume 1, 1981.

. The Origins of the Korean War, Volume 2, 1990.

Henriksen, Thomas, and Jongryn Mo. North Korea after Kim Il Sung, 1997.

Hunter, Helen-Louise. Kim Il-Song's North Korea, 1999.

Kim, C. I. Eugene, and B. C. Koh, eds. Journey to North Korea: Personal Perceptions, 1983.

Kim, Yun, and Eui Hang Shin, eds. Toward a Unified Korea: Social, Economic, Political, and Cultural Impacts of the Reunification of North and South Korea, 1995.

Park, Han S., ed. North Korea: Ideology, Politics, Economy, 1996.

Suh, Dae-Sook. Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader, 1995.

Suh, Dae-Sook, ed. North Korea after Kim Il Sung, 1998.

Sonia Ryang

Korea, North

views updated May 14 2018


Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Major Cities:
Pyongyang, Hamhung, Chongjin, Wonsan

Other Cities:
Haeju, Hyesan, Kanggye, Kimch'aek, Najin, Namp'o, Sinuiju


The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or NORTH KOREA , is one of the world's last hard-line Communist nations. Since its creation in 1948, North Korea has been extremely hostile toward Western nations, especially the United States, and has isolated itself from most of the world. The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has deprived North Korea of many important allies and trading markets.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, North Korea has pursued, both through violence and peaceful negotiations, reunification with neighboring South Korea. On September 17, 1991, North Korea was granted a seat in the United Nations along with South Korea and five other nations. The North Koreans had previously been barred from membership because of their opposition to a separate seat for South Korea. The two countries signed an historic nonaggression pact on December 13, 1991. The pact called for a relaxation of trade and travel restrictions and allowed the construction of telephone and postal services between North and South Korea. The accord has allowed the reunification of families separated since the end of the Korean War. On December 31, 1991, North Korea and South Korea signed an agreement that banned the production of nuclear weapons by either country. The new openness between the two Koreas has renewed the hope that a political reunification of the Korean peninsula will eventually occur.



The capital city of North Korea, Pyongyang, is located on the Taedong River and is roughly 30 miles (48 km) from the Yellow Sea. Although North Korea is very mountainous, Pyongyang is situated on a flat, open plain. Because it receives no protection from mountains or hills, Pyongyang is buffeted by bitterly cold winds during the winter. Temperatures during the winter are generally very cold, averaging 17°F (-8°C) in January. The temperature in Pyongyang is rather pleasant during the summer with highs around 70°F (21°C).

Pyongyang is an ancient city, its origin dating back to 1122 B.C. In that year, a Chinese-born scholar named Kija established a kingdom with Pyongyang as its capital. The city quickly became a center for agriculture and textile manufacturing. Pyongyang was controlled by Kija and his successors for nearly one thousand years. In 108 B.C., Pyongyang was attacked and captured by Chinese armies. Under the Chinese, the city became an important trading center. By 427 A.D., Pyongyang became the capital of the Koguryo, a culturally advanced and warlike people. The Koguryo kingdom controlled Pyongyang until 668, when they were attacked and conquered by the Silla kingdom. The Sillas ruled in Pyongyang until 918, when the city was captured by the Koryo dynasty. The Koryos established Kaesong as their capital and made Pyongyang a secondary capital. The Mongols attacked the Koryos and seized control of Pyongyang in 1392. The city again changed hands in 1592 following an invasion by Japan. In 1627, Pyongyang was destroyed when the Manchus overran Korea and defeated the Japanese. Following the Manchu invasions, Korea was closed to all foreigners. When foreigners were allowed to return nearly 200 years later, Pyongyang became a major religious center for Christian missionaries. In 1895, the city was a battleground for the warring armies of China and Japan. Pyongyang was decimated. When Korea became a colony of Japan in 1910, the Japanese rebuilt Pyongyang and established several industries in the city. During the Korean War (1950-1953), Pyongyang was totally destroyed for the third time in its history. Following the war, the city was rebuilt with the help of Chinese and Soviet financial aid.

Pyongyang is North Korea's largest city, with an estimated population of 2,484,000 in 2000. The North Korean government has touted Pyongyang as a workers' paradise and a model for socialist progress. The city has block after block of modern apartment buildings, tree-lined streets, handsome boulevards, theaters, parks, and a zoo. Most of North Korea's libraries and museums, two modern sports stadiums, and several opera houses and cultural centers are located in Pyongyang. The city has several lavish statues and monuments honoring North Korea's leader, Kim Il-sung. Among them are a 60-foot tall bronze statue that, when floodlighted at night, is visible for miles. From 1986-1988, the North Korean government spent between $4 and $7 billion on the construction of luxury hotels, sporting facilities, and athlete villages in Pyongyang in an unsuccessful bid to jointly host the 1988 Summer Olympics with Seoul, South Korea. This construction boom nearly bankrupted the country and many of the building projects were never completed.

Although Pyongyang has many of the trappings of a modern, vibrant city, it is often described by visitors as drab and lifeless. The streets of Pyongyang are often devoid of cars, bicycles, pets, and people. Those who are on the streets go about their business without smiling or making eye contact. Apartments are often very cramped, some with only one toilet for every two floors. The lives of Pyongyang residents are tightly regimented. Individual expression and creativity are discouraged.

Western entertainment, such as movies or dancing, is nonexistent in Pyongyang. Hotels, inns, restaurants, barbershops, beauty parlors, public baths, tailor shops, and laun-dries are owned and controlled by the State. Restaurants open at noon and generally do not remain open late in the evening. Only a simple meal is offered by restaurants. Diners may choose between a rice meal, rice mixed with another grain, or a noodle dish. Very few restaurants offer meat or eggs, as these are scarce and very expensive. In the few existing barbershops, each barber is expected to give about 20 haircuts each day. Beauty parlors and laundries are reserved for the wives of high government officials.

Pyongyang is one of North Korea's major industrial centers, its factories powered by coal from the nearby deposits along the Taedong River. The city's industrial base is comprised of iron and steel mills, sugar refineries, rubber factories, textile mills, and ceramics factories. Chemicals, processed food, and electrical equipment are also produced in Pyongyang.

Pyongyang serves as the major hub for North Korea's railway system. The city has a very modern, clean, and efficient subway system. Subway stations are adorned with beautiful chandeliers, marbled walls, and mosaic murals of Kim Il-sung. North Korea's international airport, Sunan Airport, is located approximately 10 miles (6 km) north of Pyongyang. Sunan Airport handles international flights to Moscow andBeijing as well as domestic flights from Pyongyang to North Korea's other major cities.

Most of North Korea's major educational institutions are located in Pyongyang. The city's largest university, Kim Il-sung University, was founded in 1946 and is located on the outskirts of Pyongyang overlooking the Taedong River. Admission to Kim Il-sung University is widely regarded as one of the highest honors to be attained by a North Korean youth. The university's departments include mathematics and dynamics, physics, chemistry, biology, history, economics, philosophy, law, Korean language and literature, and foreign language and literature. Pyongyang is also the home of the Pyongyang Pedagogical University. This university is responsible for training teachers for technical schools and universities. Pyongyang Pedagogical University offers postgraduate courses, research facilities, and a library. The university library is North Korea's central repository for educational publications and materials. Copies of all publications and materials relating to the study of education and textbooks are kept here for educational research purposes. North Korea's principal medical school, Pyongyang Medical College, is also located in the capital.


The city of Hamhung is located northeast of Pyongyang in east-central North Korea. In 1960, Ham-hung was merged with the port of Hungnam, a small village on the Sea of Japan coast. Together, Hamhung and Hungnam comprise North Korea's second largest urban area. The combined population of Ham-hung and Hungnam was estimated at 670,000 in 2000.

Hamhung was established as an important government center during the Yi dynasty (1392-1910). Hungnam developed as a very small fishing village. In 1928, a major hydroelectric plant was built near Hamhung. This power plant sparked new industrial development with the construction of a large fertilizer plant. Other industries soon followed, among them oil refineries, food processing plants, chemical industries, a textile plant, and machine plants. Hamhung became an important industrial center. The city was nearly leveled completely during the Korean War. However, most of the industries were rebuilt in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Today, Hamhung and Hungnam form the backbone of North Korea's chemical industry. The city is home to the Hamhung State Historical Museum. Ham-hung has three major colleges, a medical college, the Chemical Industry College, and the Chemical Research Institute.


Chongjin, located on the northeastern coast, is North Korea's third largest city. In 1986, Chongjin had a population of approximately 530,000. The city is the major port and distribution center for eastern North Korea.

Chongjin originated as a small fishing village. However, during the years of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), the Japanese established oil, steel, and iron ore manufacturing industries in Chongjin. Railroads were built connecting Chongjin with iron mines along the Tumen River near the North Korean border with the People's Republic of China. The Japanese also constructed modern port facilities at Chongjin. The city soon became a major conduit for manufactured goods from Korea to the Japanese home islands. Following the end of Japanese rule in 1945, the North Koreans modernized and expanded Chongjin's steel industry, railroads, and port facilities. Currently, Chongjin is North Korea's primary steel producing center. The North Koreans have also established other industries in the city. These industries are involved in the production of chemicals, textiles, and machinery. Because of Chongjin's location as a port city, shipbuilding has also evolved as a major industry.


Located 80 miles (130 km) east of Pyongyang, Wonsan is one of North Korea's principal ports and the site of a major naval base. The city developed during the Yi dynasty as a trading center and port known as Wonsanjin. In 1914, the railroad connecting Wonsan with Seoul (now in South Korea) was constructed. On the east coast, the Wolla rail line, running from Wonsan to the extreme northeastern port of Najin, was constructed in 1928. In 1941, North Korea's major east-west railroad connecting Wonsan and Pyongyang was completed. These railroads, which have all been modernized, make Wonsan a major railway hub.

Fishing is one of Wonsan's major economic activities. The presence of a warm and cold current in the waters off Wonsan attracts a great number of species. Fish caught include pollace, octopus, anchovy, sardines, flatfish, sandfish, herring, and mackerel. The abundance of fish near Wonsan has led to the development of a thriving fish processing industry. The city is also the home of other major industries, including shipbuilding, brickyards, locomotive works, chemical plants, textile mills, and a large oil refinery. Many of these industries were destroyed during the Korean War, but have been rebuilt and modernized. Wonsan haa over an estimated 350,000 residents.


HAEJU is situated in southwestern North Korea on the coast of the Yellow Sea. The city is one of North Korea's most valuable ports, particularly because it is the only port that remains unobstructed by ice during the winter months. Because of Haeju's location on the Yellow Sea, fishing is an important economic pursuit. The city serves as an export center for agricultural products grown nearby. A copper refinery, cement manufacturing plant, and several chemical plants are located in and around Haeju. The city's population in 1993 was approximately 229,172.

The city of HYESAN is located in extreme northern North Korea along the border with the People's Republic of China. It's population in 1993 was approximately 178,000. By virtue of its location near the Paektu Mountains, which offer abundant forests of larch, spruce, and pine, Hyesan manufactures lumber and paper products. The city's location on the Yalu River makes it an important transportation center. Winters are extremely cold in Hyesan, with temperatures plummeting as low as-44°F.

KANGGYE , a city on North Korea's northern frontier, is an important transportation center. The city is connected via railroad and roadway with Pyongyang. Kanggye is located in a region where graphite, zinc, copper, and coal are abundantly available. Consequently, mining and mining-related industries are an important part of Kanggye's industrial base. Other industries in Kanggye manufacture ceramics and process timber. According to latest estimates, Kanggye had approximately 223,000 residents.

The city of KIMCH'AEK is located in eastern North Korea on the shores of the Sea of Japan. Originally known as Songjin, the city's name was changed in 1952 in honor of a fallen North Korean war hero. Kimch'aek is an important seaport which exports lumber and agricultural products. Also, rich deposits of graphite, magnesite, zinc, and iron are located near Kimch'aek. Mining and mining-related industries are important components of the city's economy. Kimch'aek's location on the Sea of Japan has encouraged the development of fisheries and fish processing industries. Kimch'aek has a population over 281,000.

Located in extreme northeastern North Korea is the city of NAJIN. Najin is an important transportation center and port city. An important rail line links Najin with Wonsan, Hamhung, and Chongjin. The city's coastal location has led to the development of a large shipbuilding industry. The waters off Najin offer an abundance of fish, particularly herring, codfish, and pollack. The latest population estimate for Najin is 34,000.

NAMP'O , located approximately 30 miles (50 km) southwest of Pyongyang, is one of North Korea's primary western ports. Situated at the mouth of the Taedong River, Namp'o is a center for both international and domestic trade. Imported goods arrive at Namp'o and are shipped down the Taedong River or by railway to markets in Pyongyang or other major cities. The city has a well-developed industrial base centered on gold and copper refining, shipbuilding, and glassmaking. In 1980, Namp'o had roughly 241,000 residents. Current population figures are unavailable.

The city of SINUIJU is located in northwestern North Korea near the mouth of the Yalu River. The city is highly industrialized and is an important producer of chemicals, electrical equipment, textiles, and consumer goods. Hydroelectric power for these industries is supplied by the Sup'ung Dam. By virtue of its location across the border with the People's Republic of China, Sinuiju is a major trading center. Railways, roads, and air routes link Sinuiju with Pyongyang. In 1981, Sinuiju had roughly 200,000 people. Current population figures are unavailable.


Geography and Climate

North Korea occupies the northern half of a mountainous peninsula. The country's geographic area is approximately 46,540 square miles, slightly smaller than Mississippi. North Korea is bordered by the People's Republic of China and Russia on the north, on the east by the Sea of Japan, on the west by the Yellow Sea, and on the south by South Korea. Hills and mountains cover almost the entire country, with narrow valleys and small plains in between. The major mountain ranges are located in the north-central and northeastern sections of North Korea and along the eastern coast. On the eastern coast, the hills drop sharply down to a narrow coastal plain, whereas on the west coast the slope is more gradual, forming broad, level plains. North Korea has no active volcanoes and does not experience severe earthquakes.

North Korea has several major rivers, most of which flow westward into the Yellow Sea. These rivers include the Yalu, Taedong, Chongch'on, Imjin, and the Yesong. The east coast has several swift-flowing rivers. Only two, the Tumen and the Songchon Rivers, are large. North Korea's rivers flow strongly during the summer, fed by seasonal rainfall and melting snow in the mountains, but the volume drops considerably during the dry winter months.


Koreans are a racially and linguistically homogenous people. In 2000, North Korea's population was estimated at approximately 21,690,000. Although there are no indigenous minorities, a small community of approximately 50,000 Chinese reside in North Korea. Traditional Korean religions are Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism, and Chondokyo, a religion peculiar to Korea combining elements of Buddhism and Christianity. However, religious activity in North Korea is practically nonexistent. Several government-sponsored religious groups exist to provide the illusion of religious freedom. North Koreans are encouraged to embrace juche, a state ideology which espouses self-reliance and national identity, as a substitute for organized religion.

Life expectancy in North Korea is approximately 68 years for males and 74 years for females (2001 est.).


According to legend, the god-king Tangun founded the Korean nation in 2333 B.C., after which his descendants reigned over a peaceful kingdom for more than a millennium. By the first century A.D., the Korean Peninsula, know as Chosun ("morning calm"), was divided into the kingdoms of Silla, Koguryo, and Paekche. In A.D. 668, the Silla kingdom unified the peninsula. The Koryo dynasty succeeded the Silla kingdom in 918. The Yi dynasty, which supplanted Koryo in 1392, lasted until the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910.

Throughout most of its history, Korea has been invaded, influenced, and fought over by its larger neighbors. Korea was under Mongolian occupation from 1231 until the early 14th century and was devastated by a large number of Chinese rebel armies in 1359 and 1361; Hideyoshi launched major Japanese invasions in 1592 and 1597. To protect themselves from such frequent buffeting, the Yi kings finally adopted a closed-door policy, earning Korea the title of "Hermit Kingdom." Although the Yi dynasty paid nominal fealty to the Chinese throne, Korea was, in fact, independent until the late 19th century. At that time, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian competition in Northeast Asia led to armed conflict. Having defeated its two competitors, Japan established dominance in Korea. The Japanese colonial era was characterized by tight control by Tokyo and by ruthless efforts to replace the Korean language and culture with those of the colonial power. Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910.

Japan occupied the entire Korean peninsula until the end of World War II. After the surrender and withdrawal of Japanese forces in 1945, the Allies divided Korea into two occupation zones. Soviet troops occupied areas north of the 38th parallel. Territory south of this line was controlled by American forces. The Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a series of conferences in an attempt to agree on a new government for the entire Korean peninsula. These efforts were fruitless. In September 1947, the United States submitted the question of Korea's future to the United Nations General Assembly. The General Assembly ruled that U.N.-supervised elections should be held in both occupation zones. Elections were carried out under U.N. observation in the south, and on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was established. The Soviets refused to hold elections and decided to create a Communist state in the northern zone. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) was declared on September 9, 1948. The governing body for this new state was the Korean Workers' Party, under the leadership of Kim Il-sung.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. The United States and sixteen U.N. member nations sent troops to defend South Korea. North Korean forces were initially successful, driving the U.N. forces back and nearly conquering all of South Korea. However, after a surprise landing at Inchon, South Korea, U.N. forces gained the upper hand and drove North Korean troops back to the North Korea-China border. The Chinese sent thousands of troops across the border, forcing U.N. troops back down the Korean peninsula. A bloody conflict was waged for control of Korea. On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed at Panmunjom by China, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. No formal peace agreement officially ending the war has ever been signed between the two warring factions. Therefore, the border between North Korea and South Korea remains one of the most volatile regions in the world.


North Korea is a Communist state dominated by the Korean Workers' Party. Kim Il-sung, ruled North Korea at its creation in 1948, wielding unrivaled power. Often referred to as the "Great Leader," Kim was president of North Korea and general secretary of the Korean Workers' Party. Following his death, his son, Kim Jong Il, inherited supreme power. Kim Jong Il was named General Secretary of the Korean Workers' Party in October 1997, and in September 1998, he was recon-firmed Kim Jong Il as Chairman of the National Defense Commission, a position which was then declared "highest office of state."

The North Korean constitution provides for the establishment of a Supreme People's Assembly. The Supreme People's Assembly is authorized to approve or amend laws and to formulate domestic and foreign policy. The Assembly is also charged with approving state economic programs and state budgets, establishing or changing administrative subdivisions, granting amnesties, and electing judges to the Supreme Court. Delegates are elected to a four-year term. Citizens seventeen years or older can vote and be elected to the Assembly. The Assembly elects a president and the Central People's Committee. The Central People's Committee directs the Administrative Council, which implements policies created by the Committee.

Despite this elaborate constitutional process, the Korean Workers' Party is the sole political authority in North Korea. It elects a Central Committee, who in turn elects a Politburo. The senior members of the Administrative Council are all members of the Central Committee and the majority are also members of the Politburo.

A three-tiered court system is composed of the Supreme Court at the top, provincial courts in the middle, and people's courts at the bottom. Judges are usually members of the Korean Workers' Party or are controlled by the Party. They are trained in judicial procedures for three months before assuming office. Trials are usually open to the public. The accused is guaranteed the right to defend himself and to have counsel, but there are only Government defenders.

The courts of first instance are those established at city, county, and district levels. Presided over by judges elected for two-year terms, they can try civil as well as criminal cases. Assessors, who are vested with authority equal to that of judges, participate in the proceedings. Decisions are by majority vote of the one judge and two assessors. Provincial courts also hear appeals or complaints resulting from the decisions of the lower courts. In practice, however, appeals reaching the provincial courts are said to be infrequent.

The Supreme Court is empowered to supervise the operation of the lower courts in the enforcement of civil and criminal law. Its judges are elected by the Supreme People's Assembly for a term of three years. The court is expected to render judgments in accordance with the basic policies of the Government and the Party.

The flag of North Korea consists of horizontal stripes of blue, red and blue separated by narrow white bands. The red stripe contains a white circle within which is a red five-pointed star.

Arts, Science, Education

Education is a monopoly of the State, which uses it for well-defined political, economic, and nationalist purposes dictated by the Korean Workers ' Party. Education is designed to indoctrinate the entire population in Communist ideology. Also, the educational system intends to imbue the population with pride in its own history and culture and to create a supply of skilled workers, technicians, and scientists to meet the regime's economic goals. A strong emphasis on working while learning, or the integration of theory and practice, permeates the educational system, and all students are required to engage in productive labor along with their studies, both in their specialties and in other areas, for nominal pay. This is a means whereby the regime is reimbursed for educational costs.

The North Korean government stresses the elimination of Confucian methods of learning by rote and emphasizes instead full use of practical experiments in the laboratory, in the field, and in work experience. Excursion trips to military installations and old battlefields, industries, and other points of interest are among the techniques used. Speech and composition contests, debate meetings on scientific subjects, exhibitions of the arts, contests on new inventions and new designs, story-telling and poem recital meetings, music auditions, art contests, athletic meets, and motion picture appreciation gatherings are among the devices used by the schools to keep students interested and occupied in practical ways. Students are also assigned to such group projects as rabbit raising, fire prevention, and assisting the public health services.

The curriculum of North Korea's educational system includes a heavy emphasis on Communist ideology and combines Korean studies with Marxist-Leninist principles. Principal subjects include scientific subjects, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology; and social science subjects.

North Korea has an adult education system that is designed to provide ideological and technical training and to reduce illiteracy. Adult education classes are conducted at factories or through correspondence schools located at some colleges and senior technical schools.

Eleven years of education are required for North Korean children and are provided at government expense. Students receive one year of preschool, four years of primary school beginning at age six, and six years of secondary school. In 1986, there were approximately 9,530 primary and senior middle schools. North Korea has an estimated 280 institutions of higher education and three universities.

All students are required to study English as a second language beginning at age fourteen. The literacy rate in North Korea is approximately 99%.

Commerce and Industry

The economic system of North Korea was inspired by the model used in the former Soviet Union. The means of production are socialized, and the allocation of natural resources are centrally determined by the State. The State owns and operates industry, banking, agriculture, mining operations, and domestic and foreign trade. State control of economic affairs is unusually tight even for a Communist country because of the small size and homogeneity of society and the strict rule of Kim Il-sung.

Agricultural productivity is centered around State-controlled (collectivized) farms. Despite the use of improved seed varieties, expansion of irrigation, and the heavy use of fertilizers, North Korea has not yet become self-sufficient in food production. Four consecutive years of poor harvests, coupled with distribution problems, have led to chronic food shortages.

The economy of North Korea is heavily industrialized. Industrial workers account for nearly 64% of the work force. Textiles, food processing, machine building, military products, mining, metallurgy, and petrochemicals are major industries. North Korea has abundant hydroelectric resources and is rich in minerals, especially uranium, zinc, coal, lead, iron ore, graphite, manganese, copper, and gold. Minerals and mineral ores are North Korea's primary exports. Since 1995, Japan and China have been major trading partners, followed by South Korea and Germany.

North Korea has about $520 million in exports, but relies on $960 million in imported goods (1999 est.). In comparison, South Korea exports $172.6 billion and imports, $160.50 billion (2000 est.). The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has deprived North Korea of its main trading partners and increased the country's isolation in the world community. In 1991, dozens of factories were forced to close due to fuel shortages. This is seen as a further sign of North Korea's worsening economy.

On August 24, 1992, North Korea's last principle ally and trading partner, the People's Republic of China, established diplomatic and trade relations with South Korea. Both countries pledged to eliminate all economic and political barriers. North Korea has been forced to seek financial aid, trade links, and foreign investment from the West. On October 20, 1992, North Korea approved legislation that promotes foreign investment in the country. Foreign investors will be allowed to open joint business ventures with North Koreans and establish privately owned companies within government-created enterprise zones. The legislation is viewed as North Korea's first positive step toward a new openness with the rest of the world.


Damage to the transportation facilities during the Korean War was particularly severe in North Korea. The country lost 70 percent of its locomotives, 90 percent of its locomotive sheds, 65 percent of its freight cars, and 90 percent of its passenger cars. The restoration of rail transportation received high government priority, since the greater part of imported goods enter the north by rail. The postwar rehabilitation program, in addition to restoring destroyed railroad tracks, called for the restoration of railroad bridges and the reconstruction of tunnels. Normal traffic was restored to the country by the early 1970s. Today, North Korea has a well-developed railway system. Travel and the shipment of manufactured goods and raw materials is mostly done by rail. In 1989, North Korea had approximately 3,050 miles (4,915 km) of railroad track. International passenger rail service is available from Pyongyang to Beijing and Moscow.

Motor transportation plays a secondary role in the movement of freight and passengers. Very few North Koreans own cars. Also, seasonal factors make motor transportation impractical. Since most roads are unpaved, early snows in the winter and rainfall during the summer make roads impassable. Modern highways link Pyongyang to the cities of Namp'o, Wonsan, and Kae-song. As of 1989, North Korea had approximately 18,630 miles (30,000 km) of roadway.

International airline service to Beijing, Hong Kong, and Moscow are available. There are domestic flights from Pyongyang to the cities of Chongjin, Wonsan, and Hamhung.


Telephone communication with North Korea is virtually impossible. Direct or operator assistance calls cannot be made to North Korea from the United States.

The Korean Central Broadcasting Committee supervises radio programming. Radio Pyongyang broadcasts are transmitted over loudspeakers into factories and municipal centers. Programs include news, weather, music, drama, literary recitations, some light entertainment, analyses of international affairs, and glorification of Kim Il-sung and the Korean Workers' Party. Shortwave frequencies carry foreign broadcasts in Russian, Chinese, French, English, Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, and German.

North Korea had an estimated 291,000 televisions and 4.2 million radios in use in 1990. The main television station is located in Pyongyang, with stations at Munsudae and Kaesong. Foreign films, news, music, and dance and cultural programming is shown daily. Television service is available throughout most of North Korea.

Foreign language publications are available in Pyongyang. Those published in English include: The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Foreign Trade of the D.P.R.K., Korea, Korea Today, Korean Women, Korean Youth and Students, and The Pyongyang Times. The types of books published in North Korea include essays, short stories, plays, literary criticism, textbooks, children's books, poetry, and novels. A large proportion of all titles are devoted to a glorification of Kim Jong-il.

Health and Medicine

Persons with medical problems should be aware that, because of continuing economic hardship, the level of medical care falls far below U.S. standards, and medical care for Americans who become ill or injured in North Korea, including emergency medical evacuation, is generally not available. Hospitals in Pyongyang and other cities often lack heat, medicine, and even basic supplies, and suffer from frequent power outages. Hospitals do not have food for patients. Functioning telephones are not widely available, making it difficult to summon assistance in a medical emergency. Americans should not bring personal medications to North Korea without written authorization from the North Korean Embassy in a third country or the North Korean Mission to the United Nations in New York. Absent such permission, persons requiring regular medication should not travel to North Korea. Hospitals will expect immediate U.S. dollar cash payment for medical treatment.


Passage, Customs & Duties

The United States does not maintain diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea. The U.S. Government therefore cannot provide normal consular protective services to U.S. citizens in North Korea. On September 20, 1995, a consular protecting power arrangement was implemented, allowing for consular protection by the Swedish Embassy of U.S. citizens traveling in North Korea. In this capacity, the Swedish Embassy in the capital city Pyongyang endeavors to provide basic consular protective services to U.S. citizens traveling or residing in North Korea who are ill, injured, arrested or who may die. Since 1998, four U.S. citizens have been detained by North Korean authorities. Consular access has not always been granted readily, and there have been allegations of mistreatment while in custody, as well as the requirement to pay large fines to obtain release. U.S. citizens should therefore evaluate carefully the implications for their security and safety when deciding whether to travel to North Korea.

U.S. passports are valid for travel to North Korea. North Korean visas are required for entry. The U.S. Government does not issue letters to private Americans seeking North Korean visas, even though in the past such letters have sometimes been requested by DPRK embassies. Prospective travelers to North Korea must obtain in advance a Chinese visa valid for at least two entries prior to their arrival in the region. A valid Chinese visa is essential for both entry into China en route to North Korea, as well as departure from North Korea by air or land to China at the conclusion of a visit or in an emergency. Travel across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea is not permitted. U.S. citizens who arrive in North Korea without a valid U.S. passport and North Korean visa may be detained, arrested, fined or denied entry. Payment for travel costs by Americans in North Korea must be made in U.S. dollars at inflated prices. Payment may be required as well for the costs of security personnel assigned to escort foreign visitors.

U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea should carry only valid U.S. passports bearing the proper North Korean visa. Under no condition should U.S. citizens bring with them to North Korea any document that identifies them as citizens or residents of either the Republic of Korea (South Korea) or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). There is currently no way to replace a lost or stolen U.S. passport in North Korea.

There is no North Korean embassy or consulate in the United States. U.S. citizens and residents planning travel to North Korea must obtain North Korean visas in third countries. For information about entry requirements and restricted areas, contact the North Korean Mission to the United Nations in New York. Address inquiries to the Permanent Representative of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to the United Nations, 820 Second Avenue, New York, New York 10017, tel: (1-212) 972-3105; fax: (1-212) 972-3154, or contact the North Korean embassy in a country that maintains relations with North Korea.

U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea usually obtain their visas at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, China, which will only issue visas after authorization has been received from the North Korean Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang, the capital city. Prior to traveling to the region, travelers may wish to confirm with the North Korean Embassy by telephone at (86-10) 65321186, 65321189, 65325018,65324308, or 65321154 (fax: 65326056), that authorization to issue visas has been received from Pyongyang.

U.S. citizens are encouraged to carry photo-copies of their passport data and photo pages with them at all times so that, if questioned by DPRK officials, proof of U.S. citizenship is readily available to DPRK authorities and Swedish protecting power officials.

All needed vaccines should be administered prior to traveling to North Korea. Vaccine recommendations and disease prevention information for traveling abroad are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's International Travelers' Hotline, which may be reached from the United States at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747), via its toll-free autofax number at 1-888-CDC-FAXX (1-888-232-3299), or via the CDC Internet site at: In addition, travelers should bring food with them to North Korea as the few restaurants available to foreigners are often closed for lack of supplies and in any case have limited menus that lack variety and nutritional adequacy.

DPRK authorities may seize documents, literature, audio and video tapes, compact discs, and letters that they deem to be pornographic, political, or intended for religious proselytizing. Persons seeking to enter North Korea with religious materials in a quantity deemed to be greater than that needed for personal use can be detained, fined and expelled. Information concerning laws governing items that may be brought into North Korea may be available from the North Korean Mission to the United Nations or from a North Korean embassy or consulate in a third country.

The Embassy of Sweden, which acts as U.S. Protecting Power, is located at: Munsu-Dong District, Pyongyang. The telephone and fax numbers, which are frequently out of order due to poor telecommunications in the DPRK, are: Tel: (850-2) 381-7908; Fax: (850-2) 381-7258. U.S. citizens contemplating living in or visiting North Korea are encouraged to register in person, by telephone or fax with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, and to obtain updated information on travel and security within North Korea. The Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing is located at 2 Xiushui Dongjie, Beijing 100600; telephone: (86-10) 6532-3431; after hours: (86-10) 6532-1910; fax: (86-10) 6532-4153; e-mail [email protected]. It is also possible to register from the United States via the Internet through the U.S. Embassy's home page at


The activities and conversations of foreigners in North Korea are closely monitored by government security personnel. Hotel rooms, telephones and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. Photographing roads, bridges, airports, rail stations, or anything other than designated public tourist sites can be perceived as espionage and may result in confiscation of cameras and film or even detention. Foreign visitors to North Korea may be arrested, detained or expelled for activities that would not be considered crimes in the U.S., including involvement in unsanctioned religious and political activities or engaging in unauthorized travel or interaction with the local population. Since 1998, four U.S. citizens have been detained by North Korean authorities. Consular access has not always been granted readily, and there have been allegations of mistreatment while in custody, as well as the requirement to pay large fines to obtain release.


Jan. 1 & 2 New Year's Day

Feb. Sollal (Chinese New Year)*

Feb/Mar. Taeborum (Lantern Festival)*

Feb. 16 Kim Jong-il's Birthday

Mar. 1 Anti-Japanese Uprising Day

Mar. 8 International Women's Day

Apr/May Buddha's Birthday*

Apr. 15 Kim Il-sung's Birthday

May 1 May Day

June 1 Children's Day

June 6 Young Pioneers of Korea Day

June 25 Fatherland Liberation War Day

July 27 Victory Day

Aug. 15 Liberation Day

Sept/Oct. Ch'ilsok (Harvest Moon Festival)*

Sept. 9 Independence Day

Oct. 10 Korean Workers's Party Day

Nov. 3 Kwangju Student Uprising Day

Nov. 7 October Revolution Day

Dec. 27 Constitution Day



The following titles are provided as a general indication of the material published on this country:

Byoung-Lo, Philo Kim. Two Koreas in Development: A Comparative Study of Principles & Strategies of Capitalist & Communist Third World Development. New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions Publications, 1991.

Cumings, Bruce. The Two Koreas: On the Road to Reunification. New York: Foreign Policy Association, 1991.

Hayes, Peter. Pacific Powderkeg: American Nuclear Dilemmas in Korea. New York: Free Press, 1990.

Merrill, John. D.P.R. Korea: Politics, Economics, & Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Mosher, Stephen W., ed. Korea in the 1990s: Prospects for Unification. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publications, 1991.

Nahm, Andrew C. Introduction to Korean History and Culture. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym International, 1992.

Nash, Amy. North Korea. New York:Chelsea House, 1990.

Suh, Dae-Sook. Kim Il-Sung: The North Korean Leader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Taylor, William J., Jr., et al., eds. The Korean Peninsula: Prospects for Arms Reduction under Global Detente. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990.

North Korea

views updated May 23 2018

North Korea

Basic Data
Official Country Name:Democratic People's Republic of Korea
Region:East & South Asia
Language(s):Korean, English
Literacy Rate:99%
Academic Year:March-February
Number of Primary Schools:4,813
Compulsory Schooling:11 years
Public Expenditure on Education:NA
Foreign Students in National Universities:NA
Educational Enrollment:Primary: 1,884,000
 Secondary: 2,915,000
 Higher: 310,000
Educational Enrollment Rate:Primary: NA
 Secondary: NA
 Higher: NA
Teachers:Primary: 47,000
 Secondary: 98,000
 Higher: 23,000
Student-Teacher Ratio:Primary: 40:1
 Secondary: 30:1
Female Enrollment Rate:Primary: NA
 Secondary: NA
 Higher: NA

History & Background

Education in North Korea is regarded as a vital area of national concern, shaping the country's future. This notion is more evident in North Korea because it has been transformed into a highly mobilized, state controlled society. To accomplish this transformation, North Korea has developed a very unique educational system.

In North Korea, education plays the vital function of developing people's minds as well as controlling them. The political dimension of the educational system is well-recognized. The universal nursery school education is connected to 11 years of compulsory education that is free of charge. The applied principles of education are officially formulated according to the state's so-called theory of education. Teaching and learning patterns follow these guidelines as stated in the "Thesis of Socialist Education" issued by the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung in 1977. An examination of the school curriculum easily reveals its continuity with the goals of political education.

North Korea is a society that is basically closed to outsiders. Reliable and accurate information is often not available or difficult to acquire, and observation as to actual practices in the schools is almost impossible. Therefore, the characterization and estimation of the educational outcomes can be interpreted as an exercise in speculation or conjecture.

Political, Social, & Cultural Bases: The educational ideology formulated by the Party has been the foundation of the educational policy framework. This framework specifies the official educational objectives and basic policy directions.

Marxist Leninism was the guiding ideology of North Korean education for the first period of the North Korean government's rule. But since the late 1960s, North Korea has begun to take a more independent course of action away from the influence of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. In 1997, the central committee of North Korea's Labor Party, the Chosun Nodong Dang (Chosun Labor Party), adopted "The Thesis on Socialist Education." Since then, this thesis has become the only ideological foundation for North Korean education and the basis of the state's educational principles. The thesis clearly specifies the basic objectives on which an educational system has to focus its efforts: "To transform the next generation to be 'revolutionaries' who fight for the benefits of the Communist Society and its people and to be Communists intellectually and morally and with physical strength" (The Constitution, Article 43).

The Party's ideological doctrine and "Juche Doctrine" are the unique guiding principles that the North Korean educational system has to follow in its operation. The initial idea of Juche stated by Kim Il-Sung is that the human being is the prime actor as the only determinant of creating history (Kim Il-Sung's collection of writings, 6: 277). The Juche idea emphasizes the independence of people as a collected identity of human beings with the capacity of creating its own history.

This Juche idea implies that North Korea must pursue an independent course of action from the influence of other countries in politics, economy, and national defense. It also implies that people must realize the revolutionary ideals with consciousness and revolutionary action. However, in the practice of the Juche idea, "Juche Doctrine" emphasizes that people have to be guided by the great leader. Critics of "Juche Doctrine" indicate that there is a logical gap between the original Juche idea and justification of the guidelines by the great leader. "Based on these guiding principles, the state has to develop a general school system that provides basic and common education and a recurring educational system for lifelong learning for workers in various occupations. A general school system has to contribute to the development of basic science, social science, and technologies" (Constitution, Article 46).

The state has continuously developed an educational policy framework directed to give priority to (1) politicalideological education for all students, (2) science and technical education, and (3) highly selective education for the elite political-governing sector, science technology areas, and a recurring education system in higher education.

The 11-year system of compulsory education is the most effective way to meet the requirements of politicalideological education (general school system). This equity-oriented school system is parallel with the very selective "center schools" and key leading universities. These educational institutions serve special purposes for the school system and are the second category in the system. The third category is the recurring and lifelong education system for all workers.

North Korea's educational system is considered to be the initial indoctrination into the Party's ideology, and in turn, it is highly integrated with the political system to meet the Party's political needs and control. The system is closely coupled with the political, administrative, economic, and social systems.

In the first place, the political system directly controls the economic and administrative systems through the Party's guidelines and executive orders. The political system extends its control of people's daily lives through the administrative, economic, and educational systems. The social system also influences education by providing hidden curriculum to make people adapt themselves to the social structure. The educational system is served with financial support from the economic system.

The educational system's unique contribution to the other systems in North Korean society takes several forms. Politically, the educational system contributes to maintaining the state system by providing the ideological justification for the state system. In this context, the political indoctrination into the "Juche Doctrine" plays a very important role. Socially, the educational system does much for social control by instructing people in the hidden curriculum. The educational system also contributes to the functioning of the economic and administrative systems by supplying administrators from the elite class and technical-managerial manpower.

However, the deteriorating economy can hardly provide adequate financial support for operating the state's educational system. Since 1990, the growth rate of the Gross National Product (GNP) has been at a negative 3.7 percent average for the last eight years. Per capita GNP decreased from US$1,064 in 1990 to US$910 in 1996.

North Korea has adopted an efficient school system to provide 11 years of free compulsory education, kindergarten through secondary, for the entire school-age population by shortening the schooling period by two years compared to most countries. The educational system claims to provide equal education through the secondary level. The 11 years of K-10 free schooling is a case in point. After 10 years, since North Korea adopted 11 years of compulsory education, the government began to drive the movement by making it possible for all citizens to become intelligentsia by offering almost universal opportunities for higher education. The recurring higher education at the various kinds of attached universities was institutionalized for this purpose.

In spite of this proclamation and tailoring the school system toward equal education, the educational system maintains a dual structure to support the reproduction of the elite ruling class. It is assumed that this ruling class can enjoy the privilege of putting their children into elite schools and universities.

North Korea has developed a school system of equal education for all children, and the country praises its 11-year, free, compulsory education system. However, by developing special purpose schools for talented children and children of the elite class, the educational system has an efficient means of talent development and class reproduction within the socialistic, equity-oriented educational system.

In the 1950s and 1960s, special purpose schools were originally developed to take care of the children of revolutionaries who died during the Korean War. Special purpose schools to develop special talents were added to this category. There are many kinds of quality schools in the areas of sports, arts, foreign languages, and science.

Educational SystemOverview

The educational system of North Korea consists of three types of schools. The main track is the general school system, and the other two types are schools for continuing education and schools for special purposes. The school system has maintained its basic structure since the system's major reforms in 1975 following the Party's major policy changes in 1975.

One facet of the formal education system is the general school system. The general school system is the same as school systems in other countries. It is called the general school system to differentiate it from the schools with special purposes and institutes for continuing higher education. The general school system (GSS) has kindergarten through tenth grade (K-10) elementary-secondary schools and higher education. Kindergarten has two levels for two years. The lower class begins at age four and the upper class begins at age five when free compulsory education begins. The elementary school, called people's school, begins at age six and takes four years to complete. The secondary school in North Korea is higher middle school, and it provides six years of schooling. Higher middle school has two levels. The lower-level middle school takes 4 years from age 10 to 13, and the higher-level high school takes 2 years from age 14 to 15.

Higher education has two systems for academic purposes and continuing education. Academic higher education of GSS is composed of universities (four to six years), College of Education for secondary school teachers (four years), Teachers' College for primary school teachers (three years), and junior colleges (three years). After university studies, graduate school for master and doctoral study is continued at post-Doctoral schools.

Another educational system is the continuing education system. The university or continuing higher education is attached tofactories, farms, and fishery cooperatives. The Air and Correspondence University operates a five-year curriculum.

Another type of school system is the special purpose school. This is for talented children and children from the elite class. It consists of the revolutionary school (also called elite school, beginning at age 5 and lasting for 10 years), schools for arts and sports (ages 6 to 18), schools for foreign language (ages 10 to 18), and schools for science (ages 10 to 21).

Preprimary & Primary Education

Kindergarten has two levels with each level consisting of a one-year period and the lower level beginning at age four. The elementary school consists of four years from ages six to nine and is called the "people's school."

All children of school age (from 5 to 16) are included in the 11-year compulsory education that is intended to efficiently realize the ideals of socialistic human beings. The system is efficient because it reduces the universally required 12 years to 10: 4 years for primary schooling and 6 years for secondary education.

This system is also organized to ensure the continuity and integration of basic education with political education from preschool to the second cycle of secondary education. Basic education is focused on language, math, science, and physical education subjects.

Primary school children usually receive 4 hours of instruction each day during 2 semesters of 39 weeks per year. In addition to regular classroom instruction, they participate in various kinds of group activities. In primary education, time allocation for subjects is: political education, 13.6 percent; language, 31.7 percent; and math, 23.1 percent (together accounting for 68.4 percent of general classroom instruction time in primary education). Other subjects are science, 6.7 percent; physical education, 8.4 percent; and music and arts, 16.8 percent (Han Man-Kil 1997).

Following the guidelines of the thesis of socialist education, primary education has the unique quality of emphasizing political education and collectivistic pedagogical methods. North Korean's Socialist theory of education even controls extracurricular group activities that are designed to integrate theory with practice even in primary education. Upon graduation, pupils are assigned to secondary schools in their residential areas.

In 1965, the number of primary schools reached 4,024. That number has increased gradually to 4,700 in 1975; 4,760 in 1985; and 4,813 in 1996. On the other hand, student enrollments reached 1,152,000 in 1965; 1,715,000 in 1975; and 1,908,000 in 1985. But in 1996 the numbers decreased slightly to 1,884,000 students. The number of teachers reached 26,000 in 1965; 39,000 in 1975; and 47,000 in 1985. (Numbers for 1996 are unknown.)

Secondary Education

The secondary school is named "The Higher Middle School of Six Years." As its name suggests, the "Higher Middle School" provides six years of schooling. The Higher Middle School has two levels: four years on the lower level and two years on the higher level. The lower level is called the middle school class for students from the ages of 10 to 13. The higher level is named the high school class for those from the ages of 14 to 15. Official documents indicate that there is a selection process at the end of the first four years of schooling. However, it is assumed that automatic promotion to the second fall term is practiced in most schools.

Secondary education is also focused on political education, basic science and technology, physical education, and music and arts. Major topics for political education include the revolutionary activities of the Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il, the Party's major policies, and communist morals. The pedagogical practices recommended by the thesis of socialist education are applied systematically. Time allocation of subjects is: political education, 12.5 percent; language, 15.8 percent; math, 18.6 percent; and science, 18.5 percent. These four subjects take 65.4 percent of all instruction time. Foreign language instruction starts at secondary level and takes 9.3 percent of regular instruction time. Other subjects are physical education, 4.6 percent; music and arts, 4.1 percent; and social science, 9.7 percent (Han Man-Kil 1997).

In secondary education, there were 3,276 schools in 1965; 3,861 in 1975; and 4,842 in 1996. The number of enrolled students in 1965 reached 717,000, and it increased rapidly to 2,322,000 in 1975; 2,655,000 in 1985; and 2,915,000 in 1996. The number of teachers was 27,000 in 1965; 80,000 in 1975; and 98,000 in 1985 (Han Man-Kil 1997).

In North Korea, basic foundational courses for vocational and technical education are taken during secondary education. In addition to this, secondary school students are expected to develop vocational techniques by participating in the production process as part of their after-school program. There is no vocational secondary school in North Korea. However, there are many kinds of specialized short-cycle institutes for technical education. Large-scale vocational and technical education is conducted on the job for all workers.

Higher Education

Higher education has two kinds of systems: academic higher education and higher education for continuing education. The academic higher education system includes three kinds of institutions: universities, professional schools, and technical schools. Graduate schools for master and doctoral level studies are attached to universities.

In North Korea, only a few universities and colleges are well known. There are a few leading universities and professionally specialized universities. The following universities are playing leading roles in their specialized areas: Kim Il-Sung University in Humanities and Social Science, Kim Chaeck Engineering University in heavy industry, Koryo Sung Kyun Kwan University in engineering, Pyongyang Medical College, and Kim Hyung Jik College of Education.

Higher education plays the very important role of supplying the revolutionary ruling elite for the party and government. The major and leading universities are major sources of elite production. In addition, various kinds of specialized institutes develop professional and managerial manpower. For this reason, emphasis is given to intensive political education. The management of the universities is under the direct supervision of the Party's Education Committee.

In 1965, there were 98 higher education schools with 156,000 students and 7,601 teachers. In 1975, school numbers increased to 150 but the number of students (92,000) and teachers (4,490) decreased. After that the numbers increased again; there were 234 schools, a total of 280,000 students, and 23,000 teachers in 1985. In 1996 school numbers reached 286 with 310,000 students. The identity of the large number of universities is not confirmed. It is just assumed that most of them are the type of attached university for continuing education.

Nonformal Education

The continuing education system has three types of institutions. First, there are various kinds of institutions for training political elites to be assigned to the Party and government at the central and local level. "The Kim Il-Sung High Level Party School," The People's Economic Institute, Institute for International Relations, The Kumsung Political Institute, and The Kim Hung-Il Military School are the most prestigious institutes at the central level. Local Party branches also operate Communist Party Schools in each province for training middle-level political elite. The provincial Party schools, the railroad schools, and the district-level Party schools are examples of this type of school.

Second, major production units or governmentoperated companies have their own technical training institutes for developing technical manpower. These are on the job training institutes that provide five- to six-year training programs. Employees must take the courses after working hours. These institutes are named "attached universities" because they're attached to factories, cooperative farms, and fishery cooperatives. Production units or companies operate the attached universities.

Third, air and correspondence universities were established to give an opportunity for higher education based on the ideals of lifelong education, and for the promotion of the intellectual level of the nation. The Kim Il-Sung Air and Correspondence University is the most famous institute for these purposes. Also, there is a university of television broadcasting for higher education. Their course consists of a five-year curriculum and is considered to offer better educational contents than night courses in the attached university.


The North Korean educational system has maintained its own unique structures as well as the typical socialist structures of an educational system. The "Juche Doctrine" has been institutionalized in the ideology and aims of the North Korean educational system. This doctrine requires an educational system involving human resource development along with a political consciousness that follows the Party's course of action.

The educational system has been changed to develop a socialistic, efficiency-oriented school system. The current school system is evaluated on the basis of how well it reflects the principles of a socialistic school system and concerns for efficiency. Some key features include:

  1. Beginning schooling at an earlier agenursery and kindergarten;
  2. Providing 11 years of free, compulsory education for every child from the ages of 5 to 15;
  3. Maintaining a dual-structured school system or a general type of schooling for the masses and selective elite schools and special purpose schools for the privileged class;
  4. No recognition of private schools; and
  5. Tight administrative control of schools by the state administrative system.

The educational system has also adopted socialistic pedagogical principles. The thesis of socialist education emphasizes the following principles: 1) Political education in the "Juche Doctrine." This political education focuses on the indoctrinating of the Kim Il-Sung ideology and strategies for the revolution; 2) Collectivistic activities as a major form of the teaching-learning process. The thesis of socialist education puts higher priority on various kinds of collective activities to facilitate the internalization of socialistic collective norms and culture; and 3) Integration of theory into practice. The thesis emphasizes that theory has to be validated in the process of practice, so the teaching-learning process aims to develop "Praxis."

General Assessment: Judging from the information garnered from the very limited number of officially released documents and from interviews with the deserters and refugees from North Korea, we can make some conjectures as to the operating strategies of its educational system and some limitations as to its outcomes.

The educational system seems to be so highly coupled with the political system that it becomes very much subordinated to the political system. The educational system is designed to meet the political requirements. It provides an effective mechanism for social integration and for internalizing the information in the "Juche Doctrine." The political function of the educational system seems to be of top priority.

Uniformity in formal education seems to be the most common characteristic in the operation of the educational system. The political-administrative control of education appears to prefer the uniformity of formal education to diversity in education. This top-down control seems to cause rigidity in managing educational institutes. Uniformity and rigidity also seem to inevitably reduce the autonomy and accountability of schools. Thus, in respect to educational outcomes the supporting mentality for cultivating creativity can hardly be expected.

The general operational pattern of the educational system seems to be inefficient in human resource development. Too much emphasis on political education takes a large amount of time from developing the educational qualities of knowing and morality. Furthermore, the stifling of individuality in the educational program and rigidity in its management further limit the educational function of the educational system.


Chosun Labor Party. The Thesis of Socialist Education. Chosun Labor Press, 1977.

Educational Books Press Editors. Socialist Education. Dong Press, 1975.

Han Man-Kil. A Study of the Education in North Korea in the Unified Age. Seoul: Educational Science Press, 1997.

Kang Kun-Jo. The History of Chosun Education. Vol. 4. Pyongyang: Educational Science Press, 1991.

Kim Hyong-Chan. History of Education Development in North Korea. Seoul: Han Baek Co., 1988.

. The Juche Eeducation Ideology of North Korea. Seoul: Han Baek Co., 1990.

Kim Il-Sung. About Socialist Education. Chosun Labor Party Press, 1973.

. "Towards the Development of Preschool Education." 1976. In Kim Il-Sung's Writings 31. Chosun Labor Press, 1986.

Kim Jung-Il. Some Problems Viewed from Juche Ideology Culture. Chosun Labor Party Press, 1987.

. About Juche Ideology. Chosun Labor Party Press, 1991.

The Law of National Congress's Council. "About the Whole Enforcement of Compulsory Technical Education." Technical Education. Pyongyang, 1966.

Li Yong-Bok. The Explanation of the Party's Policy for Education. Chosun Labor Party Press, 1985.

. Education in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1992.

Ministry of Education. "Facts of North Korea." In Reference Materials for Supervision No. 104. 1994.

Ministry of Unification. Understanding North Korea. 1998.

. Easy References to Know about North Korea, 1998.

Son Kye-Rim. "The Developing Process of North Korean Education and Contemporary Reform. Vol. 1." In Education Development 97. KEDI, 1995.

. "The Developing Process of North Korean Education and Contemporary Reform. Vol. 2." In Education Development 98. KEDI, 1995.

Chong Jae Lee

Korea, North

views updated May 23 2018


Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Choson Minjujuui Inmin Konghwa-guk



North Korea is in eastern Asia and occupies the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. It borders China to the north, Russia to the far northeast, the Sea of Japan to the east, South Korea to the south, and the Korean Bay and Yellow Sea to the west. The country covers an area of 120,549 square kilometers (46,543 square miles), making it slightly smaller than the state of Mississippi. It has 1,673 kilometers (1,039 miles) of land borders and 2,495 kilometers (1,550 miles) of coastline. The capital city, P'yongyang, is situated in the western part of the country, while the other major cities of Hungnam, Ch'ongjin, and Namp'o are in the east, northeast, and west, respectively.


Data on North Korea's population is scarce and unreliable. Because of serious famine in the late 1990s, it is thought that between a half million and 3 million North Koreans may have died of hunger and about 100,000 might have fled to China in search of food. In July 2000 the population was estimated at 21,687,550, with a growth rate of about 1.35 percent. The birth rate in 2000 was 20.43 births per 1,000 population and the death rate 6.88 deaths per 1,000 population.

The population is ethnically homogenous, consisting primarily of ethnic Koreans plus small communities of Chinese and Japanese. About 68 percent of the people are aged between 15 and 64 years and 6 percent over 65 years. The literacy rate, estimated at 99 percent in 1990, is high. The majority of North Koreans (about 70 percent in 1993) live in urban areas. Based on 1987 statistics, P'yongyang is the largest city with a population of 2,355,000, followed by Hungnam (701,000), Ch'ongjin (520,000), and Namp'o (370,000).

Most of the population follows the Buddhist faith. There are a handful of Christians, but freedom of religion is illusory, religious practicelike all else in North Koreabeing manipulated and controlled by the state.


The crippled economy of North Korea is the direct product of its political system, a communist dictatorship. Severe economic problems are the legacy of years of Soviet-style development and controls that have ceased to function efficiently in a free market oriented world. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910. In 1945, at the end of World War II when the Japanese surrendered to the Western allies, Korea was divided into North and South under the control of the Soviet Union and United States, respectively. The division, marked at the 38th parallel, was made permanent in 1948. North Korea, under the dictatorship of President Kim Il Sung, emerged as an autocratic, state-controlled nation. Despite the establishment of an extensive infrastructure and the introduction of mechanized agriculture, the government's emphasis on heavy industry at the expense of light manufacturing, service, and agriculture, and the isolationist nature of the regime, have cost the country dearly. North Korea has accumulated many economic problems, experiencing years of negative growth in its gross domestic product (GDP), which sank to-6.3 percent in 1997. The economy improved in 1999 and 2000 thanks to extensive foreign aid and better agricultural performance, but the reported growth rate of 6.2 percent for 1999 seems unrealistic. The estimated growth rate in 2000 was a more realistic-3.0 percent. Production in 1999 was 75 percent of the 1989 level.

The North Korean economy remains in decline, and the country is unable to meet its basic needs in food and consumer goods . It produces little for export, and its international isolation has limited its opportunities for trade or financial assistance, resulting in a trade deficit of US$440 million in 2000 and a growing dependency on foreign aid. High expenditures on defense (estimated at between 25 and 33 percent of GDP in 1998) has worsened the situation, while floods and drought between 1995 and 1997 devastated the country's agriculture and led to famine.

North Korea established its economy with assistance from the major communist powers, the Soviet Union and China. Until 1991, both regimes provided assistance in funds, equipment, training, and technology, enabling North Korea to advance more rapidly than South Korea during the 1970s. The government has also received loans from Japan, France, West Germany, Sweden, and Austria. By 1997, the country's foreign debt amounted to US$11.9 billion, of which US$7.4 billion was owed to China and Russia. Although hampered by financial problems in paying its debts, the government has refused to pay back loans even when it has been able to do so. It has acquired poor status in the international community, depriving the country of foreign loans. This is a serious situation for a country that requires substantial investment to modernize and expand its crumbling infrastructure, heavy industry, agriculture, light industry, and services.

The deteriorating economy has inclined the North Korean leadership to consider shifting to the Chinese model of socialism , which leaves room for a degree of free enterprise (though not a corresponding political and social openness). In 2000 President Kim Jong Il (who replaced his father upon his death in 1994) indicated a shift, reflecting constitutional revisions made in 1998. These revisions allow increased scope for private property ownership and the establishment of farmers' markets. By tolerating the expansion of these markets and increasing trade with China, North Korea's government has sanctioned the creation of a private sector . With its politically conciliatory hosting of official visits from South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright to P'yongyang in 2000, North Korea hoped to create ties that would help in restructuring its economy. South Korea has offered to rebuild infrastructure in the North and to invest in its economy.


The Korean Workers' Party (KWP) has dominated the North Korean political system since 1948. As a communist party opposed to free enterprise, it controls the economy with little room for private initiative. The state is the country's only economic actor, its only economic planner, and its sole employer. The suppression of any form of political dissent has not allowed opposition parties to advance an alternative economic model.

The constitution, created in 1948 and revised in 1972, 1992, and 1998, calls for a single legislative body called the Supreme People's Assembly, with 687 seats. Though Assembly members are "elected," in fact the KWP supplies a single list of candidates who are elected without opposition. The Assembly members similarly elect the premier, but true executive power lies with the president, Kim Jong Il. There is also a judicial branch whose members are selected by the Supreme People's Assembly.

The state's ideology and autocracy are responsible for North Korea's economic problems. The North Korean economy proved unstable because it relied on outside financing and socialist ideology, rather than private enterprise. In the absence of a viable private sector, the economy was forced to survive on foreign assistance and trade with the Soviet Union. The Soviet collapse in 1991 brought an end to its aid to North Korea. China's ideological "betrayal" of North Korea in establishing ties with South Korea in 1992 also deprived the North of much financial support. The North Korean government has since then found itself unable to solve its economic problems on its own. Despite the massive national deficit, the country spends vast sums of money (estimated at between US$3.7 and US$4.9 billion in 1998) on the armed services, maintaining one of the world's largest armies while requiring international food aid for the survival of its starving population.

Taxes and exports are the main sources of government revenues. In 1996 taxes accounted for 83 percent of revenue and exports for about 9 percent (US$9.4 billion). Additional funds come from the association of pro-P'yongyang Koreans residing in Japan, known as Chongryun, but the exact amount of their contribution is unknown. Income from rights leased to Japanese fishing boats operating in North Korean waters is another source of money. Allegations have been levied against the North Korean government about earning income from counterfeit money, heroin trafficking, and smuggling used cars.


Although North Korea's infrastructure is extensive, it is crumbling and in need of expansion and modernization. The country's road system, estimated at 20,000 to 31,200 kilometers (between 12,400 and 19,344 miles), is limited and unpaved. Private cars are scarce and the number of trucks is limited. The 5,000-kilometer (3,100-mile) railway network, originally built by the Japanese, provides 70 percent of passenger transport and carries about 90 percent of the annual freight traffic.

Most of the country's ports and airports need modernization. Of North Korea's 12 ports, only a few can handle large ships, while only 22 of its 49 airports have paved runways. P'yongyang's Sunan airport operates 20 weekly flights, servicing only 6 destinations.

North Korea suffers from a shortage of oil and gas. The oil shortage came after the country was deprived of its access to low-priced Soviet oil and saw a significant decrease in oil shipments from China. The country produces electricity from fossil fuel (34.4 percent) and hydroelectric power generators (65.6 percent). Over the next several years, North Korea will approve funds to construct over 100 new power generating plants. The state-owned oil and gas facilities are being privatized and provide excellent opportunities for investment. In 1999 it was estimated that the country produced 28.6 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity.

The telecommunication system is undeveloped. In 1995 there were 1.1 million telephone lines in use. Based on 1998 statistics, North Korea has 12 radio stations (AM, FM and short wave) and 38 television stations. There are 3.36 million radios and 1.2 million television sets in use. The country has 1 Internet service provider and no cellular telephone system.


North Korea's economy is in ruins. The disintegration of the Soviet Union, government mismanagement, and natural disasters have been partly responsible for the poor performance of the country's economic sectors. Industry is the dominant sector but is unable to generate revenue, jobs, and consumer goods to meet the country's demands. While agriculture is mechanized, the equipment is outmoded and fertilizers are in short supply. The service sector is both limited and underdeveloped. The overhaul and development of these sectors is essential for

CountryNewspapersRadiosTV Sets aCable subscribers aMobile Phones aFax Machines aPersonal Computers aInternet Hosts bInternet Users b
North Korea19914753N/A0N/AN/AN/AN/A
United States2152,146847244.325678.4458.61,508.7774,100
South Korea3931,033346138.3302N/A156.855.5310,860
aData are from International Telecommunication Union, World Telecommunication Development Report 1999 and are per 1,000 people.
bData are from the Internet Software Consortium ( and are per 10,000 people.
SOURCE: World Bank. World Development Indicators 2000.

recovery and growth, as is the adoption of a new economic model.


Despite the occurrence of drought in late spring, often followed by floods, the North Korean climate is temperate. Only 14 percent of the land is arable, however. North Korea has never been agriculturally self-sufficient. Agriculture is nevertheless a major contributor to the economy. In 1999, the sector accounted for 30 percent of GDP and employed 36 percent of the workforce (3.5 million workers). Rice, corn, potatoes, soybeans, pulses, eggs, and pork make up the bulk of agricultural production.

North Korea's agriculture was collectivized in the 1950s and was fairly successful until the early 1990s. Modern techniques more than doubled the total harvest from 3.85 million tons in 1966 to 8.47 million tons in 1984. However, the sector's annual growth rate fell from 2.8 percent in 1991 to 1.5 percent in 1995. A misguided emphasis on rice and maize production led to over-cultivation and exhausted the soil. Ill-conceived terracing, a shortage of fertilizers, floods, and a drought contributed to a steep decline in yield during the 1990s, leading to widespread famine and deaths. Massive foreign aid halted the death rate and helped increase the land under cultivation in 1998 and 1999. Crop production rose to 4.62 million tons in 1999, but remained 1.1 million tons short of the minimum needed. The country survived on foreign assistance, which included 550,000 tons of rice from Japan in 2000.

North Korea needs large investments for the revival of its agriculture. Recent initiatives include aid from the United Nations Development Program for Agricultural Recovery and Environmental Protection, and the expansion of farmers' markets, which might stimulate growth by creating financial incentives for farmers. However, these measures still fall short of what is required.

There is little data on 2 important contributors to the North Korean economy: forestry and fishing. Such data as there is suggests that these activities are sufficient to satisfy domestic demand for lumber and fish and to supply exports. Fish products are exported to Japan and lumber to Russia. However, North Korea's annual catch declined in 2000 when fuel shortages grounded much of its fishing fleet.


Accounting for 42 percent of GDP in 1999, industry is the largest sector of the North Korean economy. Along with services, it employs 64 percent of the North Korean workforce.


North Korea has significant mineral resources, including the world's largest deposits of magnesite. However, the rest of its resources (brown and lignite coal, iron ore, cement, copper, lead, zinc, gold, tungsten, graphite, salt, and silver) are not sizeable enough to make the country a major world producer, though it may be able to engage in some production should these sectors receive some investment. Precious and non-ferrous metals are the country's most important exports. Aging equipment and flood damage in the mid-1990s led to a fall in North Korea's mineral output. Mining recorded negative growth between 1991 (-6.8 percent) and 1995 (-2.3 percent), when its share of GDP was 8 percent. As with other in- dustries, only significant investment will allow the mining industry to become a vital source of economic growth.


Manufacturing is the largest contributor to North Korea's GDP, accounting for the bulk of industry's share of GDP. Manufacturing produces metallurgical products, armaments, and textiles for export to China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and Russia. North Korea's heavy industrial base was developed originally by the Japanese and later expanded by the Soviets. However, while the country expanded heavy industry and the production of military hardware, little was invested in light industry or the manufacture of consumer goods. The heavy dependency on the Soviet Union for financing, technology, equipment, spare parts, and energy caused a major decline in manufacturing once the Soviet Union ceased to be a source of assistance. Many industrial units work at a fraction of their original output following the cut in Soviet aid in 1991.

The country's manufacturing facilities need modernization and the expansion of its light and consumer industries. An improved relationship between North and South Korea has brought the North limited investment by 2 South Korean companies, Samsung and LG, who manufacture electronics in North Korea. These companies take advantage of the country's low labor costs. The South Korea-based car company Hyundai has also been negotiating with the North Koreans about the possible creation of an export-oriented industrial complex.


The construction industry has also suffered from the country's economic decline. Since the 1990s, a decline in industrial construction, housing, and building of infrastructure has reduced activity in the sector. The construction industry's share of GDP fell from 9.1 percent in 1992 to 6.1 percent in 1999.


Services are the least developed sector in the North Korean economy, contributing just 28 percent of GDP in 1999. There is no precise record of employment figures for the services sector, but the little available evidence indicates that only a small percentage of the labor force is involved.


Since the 1990s, some tourists have begun to visit North Korea from Taiwan, Singapore, and the West. The country's scenic landscape and mountains offer much potential for the growth of tourism. The government built new hotels in the 1990s, and there is a casino for the use of foreigners, which accepts hard currencies only. Improved relations between the 2 Koreas have made short trips to the North possible for tourists from South Korea. The South Korean Hyundai company took a total of 80,000 South Koreans to Mount Kumgang between November 1998 and June 1999, but the South Korean government suspended such trips after a South Korean tourist was arrested on spy charges. North Korea claims that the number of tourists doubled in 2000 compared to 1999, but no actual figures are available for either year.


The retail sector is also state-dominated, although there is now a little room for limited private initiatives. The sector consists of state-run stores and direct factory outlets for average citizens, farmers' markets, and special shops for the elite where luxury products are sold. There is a chain of hard-currency stores in large cities that were established as a joint venture between the state and the Chongryun. As a general rule, the range of consumer goods is limited and their quality is low.


North Korea's financial sector is state-dominated. Two state banks control the entire industry: the Central Bank of North Korea, which has 227 local branches, and Changgwang Credit Bank, with 172 branches. The Foreign Trade Bank handles most international trade affairs. Two state companies, the State Insurance Bureau and the Korea Foreign Insurance Company, monopolize the insurance industry.


North Korea's international trade is characterized by its ongoing deficit, which varied from US$570 million in 1995, US$320 million in 1998, and US$440 million in 1999. This chronic disparity between import expenditure and export income reflects the low level of the country's exportable products as well as its international isolation, which limits the number of its trade partners. The loss of large-scale trade with Russia in 1991 was a blow that worsened the trade deficit. Soviet-North Korean trade dropped from US$2.7 billion in 1990 to US$100 million in 1999. The loss increased North Korea's growing foreign debt.

North Korea exports minerals, metallurgical products, manufactures, armaments, timbers, and fish products, and imports energy products, grain, machinery, equipment, and consumer goods. Its 2 largest trading partners are China and Japan, with South Korea, Germany, and Russia making up its other markets. In 1995, Japan purchased 28 percent of North Korea's exports, followed by South Korea (21 percent), China (5 percent), Germany (4 percent), and Russia (1 percent.) The largest suppliers of imports to North Korea were China (33 percent), Japan (17 percent), Russia (5 percent), South Korea (4 percent), and Germany (3 percent).

Better relations between North and South Korea might well turn the South into the North's largest trading partner. Inter-Korean trade increased by 24 percent during the first 5 months of 2000, with more than a third of this sum contributed in aid from South Korea.


North Korea used to have multiple exchange rates , but now has a single, fixed rate set by the Central Bank of North Korea. A free- floating exchange rate , determined by supply and demand, exists in the Rajin-Sonbong Free Economic and Trade Zone only (a zone in the north of Korea in which state control has been relaxed and free-market interactions flourish). This rate, and that of the black market , reveal the lack of worth of the North Korean currency. In 1999, floating and black market rates revealed an exchange rate of 200 won to US$1, while the official rate was 2.20 won to US$1. The economic upheavals of the 1990s had no impact on the official fixed rate, which has been kept just higher than 2 won against the U.S. dollar since 1989. The artificial rate and the low value of the North Korean won on the open market have made it very difficult for the country to trade with most modernized economies. North Koreans and foreigners are subject to exchange restrictions, with certain exceptions in the Rajin-Sonbong zone.


Neither extreme poverty nor wealth exists in North Korea, though in general the inhabitants live under conditions that do not match those of people in more modern countries, including their prosperous neighbors in South Korea. The government is committed to providing necessities to every person, but the ruling elite enjoys a more prosperous life than the general population. They are entitled to privileges such as quality housing, access to select shops with quality imported goods, and foreign travel.

Until the famine of 1995, North Korea's education, health-care, and nutrition systems were thought to operate efficiently. Education is free and compulsory to age 15, which may explain the 99 percent literacy rate. A kindergarten system is available to all children. Higher education is serviced by over 200 institutions, which specialize in science and technology. In 1998 college graduates made

Exchange rates: North Korea
North Korean won (KPW) per US$1
May 19942.15
May 19922.13
Sep 19912.14
Jan 19902.1
Dec 19892.3
Note: Latest data available.
SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [ONLINE].
GDP per Capita (US$)
North Korea9009001,0001,0001,000
United States28,60030,20031,50033,90036,200
South Korea14,20013,70012,60013,30016,100
Note: Data are estimates.
SOURCE: Handbook of the Nations, 17th,18th, 19th and 20theditions for 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999 data; CIA World Factbook 2001 [Online] for 2000 data.

up 13.7 percent of the adult population, compared to 9.2 percent in South Korea. Health care is free in North Korea. The health system provides a large number of hospitals and clinics staffed by skilled professionals.

The natural disasters of the late 1990s caused phenomenal human casualties, however. Although little information is available about survivors in the affected areas, the worsening economic situation and famine have lowered the living standard of the entire population. Attendance has fallen at all educational institutions, and there have been reports of severe shortages of medicines and equipment. Malnutrition among children has been increasing since 1995. A system of food rationing designed to provide an adequate diet collapsed in various parts of the country during the late 1990s. In 1998 about 16 percent of children were malnourished, and another 62 percent suffered from illnesses related to undernourishment.


Although North Korea has labor laws, it is not a member of the International Labor Organization. All working-age North Koreans are expected to work for the good of the nation. Women have equal rights, and are well represented in the workforce, except at senior party or government levels. Forced labor is not prohibited and is often used as punishment for political offenses; in addition, people are often mobilized for construction projects. Child labor for children under the age of 16 is prohibited, but school children are sent for short periods to factories or farms to help production. The law provides for an 8-hour working day, but some reports claim that the hours are longer.

The country's union, the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea, is run by the state. It encourages workers to meet production goals and also provides health, education, cultural, and welfare services to its members. Workers do not have the right to organize, bargain collectively, or strike. The formation of independent unions is prohibited.

The government sets wages and assigns all jobs. Besides free medical care and education, it provides other benefits such as subsidized housing. No data exists on the minimum wage paid by the state-owned enterprises, but it fluctuates between US$80 and US$110 per month in North Korea's free economic zone, and in foreign-owned businesses and joint ventures.


1910. Japan annexes Korea following wars on the Asian continent with China and Russia, ruling Korea as a colony until the end of World War II in 1945.

1945. At the end of World War II, Japan surrenders to the Western allies and ends its colonial rule of Korea. The Korean Peninsula is "temporarily" divided between the Soviet Union and the United States.

1948. Led by Kim Il Sung, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.

1950-53. The Korean War pits the communist North, backed by Russia and China, against the capitalist South, backed by the United States. The war is fought to a standstill, and ends with the 2 countries divided by a demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel.

1950s. Agriculture is collectivized .

1980. Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il, is announced as his father's successor.

1991. The Soviet Union collapses and the Russian government stops economic assistance to North Korea.

1993. In December, North Korea's government admits the failure of its 7-year economic plan.

1994. Kim Il Sung dies and is replaced by his son, Kim Jong Il, as the country's supreme leader.

1995. A flood devastates North Korea's agriculture, sparking widespread famine.

1996. Another flood further damages agriculture and mining.

1997. A drought paralyzes the North Korean agricultural sector and worsens the famine.

1998. North Korea amends its constitution to make room for the growth of a small private sector.

2000. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright pay an official visit to P'yongyang, marking the end of North Korean isolation.


Economic realities should soon force the North Korean government to loosen its constraints on free enterprise while keeping its socialist framework in place. The country needs foreign assistance in various forms to address its many economic problems, which should push it towards the cementing of improved relations and the forging of closer ties with South Korea. A better relationship with the United States would also help North Korea engage more actively in international trade. However, unless North Korea provides a suitable environment for economic growth, dissolves its isolationism, and improves relations with South Korea, the United States, and the major economies in its geographical region (e.g. Japan), the economic situation will continue to deteriorate and cause more social and political problems. The reclusive leader of the country, Kim Jong Il, has not yet given clear indications that he is capable of leading his country in the direction of improved economic conditions.


North Korea has no territories or colonies.


Eberstadt, Nicholas. The End of North Korea. Washington, D.C.:AEI Press, 1999.

Economist Intelligence Unit. Country Profile: North Korea. London: Economist Intelligence Unit, 2001.

Eui-Gak, Hwang. The Korean Economies: A Comparison of North and South. London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hunter, Helen-Louise. Kim Il-song's North Korea. Westport, CT:Praeger, 1999.

Reese, David. The Prospects for North Korea's Survival. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook 2001. <http://>. Accessed September 2001.

U.S. Department of State. Background Notes: North Korea, October 2000. < notes/n-korea_0010_bgn.html>. Accessed October 2001.

Hooman Peimani




North Korean won (KPW). One won equals 100 ch'on (or jeon). There are coins of 1, 5, 10, and 50 ch'on. There are notes of 1, 5, 10, 50, and 100 won.


Minerals, metallurgical products, manufactures (including armaments), agricultural, fishery products.


Petroleum, coal, machinery and equipment, consumer goods, grain.


US$22 billion (purchasing power parity, 2000 est.).


Exports: US$520 million (f.o.b., 2000). Imports: US$960 million (c.i.f., 2000).

North Korea

views updated Jun 27 2018

North Korea

POPULATION 22,224,195
JUCHE between 20.0 and 70.0 percent
NONRELIGIOUS between 20.0 and 70.0 percent

Country Overview


Known officially as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea occupies the northern half of a peninsula that juts out of northeastern China toward southern Japan. Before North Korea was separated from South Korea in 1945, it was home to a vibrant and pluralistic religious culture. More than half of all the Christians on the Korean Peninsula lived in what is now North Korea. Cheondogyo, a religion founded in Korea in the nineteenth century, had more than twice as many believers in the northern half of the peninsula than in the south. Buddhism, on the other hand, was much stronger in the south. Nevertheless, there were at least 400 Buddhist temples and about 1,600 monks north of Seoul before 1945.

Though there are still a few Christians, Buddhists, and followers of Cheondogyo in North Korea, they are far outnumbered by believers in Juche, a political philosophy with religious overtones promoted by the Communist government of the north. The exact percentage of the North Korean population that believes in Juche is unclear. Close to 20 percent of the population are members of the Korea Worker's Party, which is open only to believers in Juche. Because the government heavily promotes Juche in schools and the media, outside observers assume that more than half of nonparty members may believe in Juche as well.

Government proselytizing of Juche would not have been so successful if Juche had not provided answers to the sorts of questions Koreans have traditionally asked religions to answer. For example, Juche has provided its own moral code emphasizing loyalty and obedience to the government and the ruling party to ensure that North Koreans do not have to turn to Christianity, Buddhism, or Cheondogyo for guidance on how to behave. It has depicted its founder, Kim Il Sung, as a paragon of wisdom and virtue, portraying him as superior in every way to Jesus, Buddha, and any other revered founder of a religion so that North Koreans do not have to look any farther than Kim to find someone to revere and to model their lives after. And Juche has created its own rituals so that North Koreans do not need to enter a Buddhist temple or a Christian or Cheondogyo church to join with others in communal displays of veneration for a power greater than themselves.


Article 68 of the constitution of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea states, "Citizens have freedom of religious belief." That same article adds, "No one may use religion as a means by which to drag in foreign powers or to destroy the state or social order." The North Korean government has used that second statement to legitimize its strict control of all religious activities within its borders. Moreover, the North Korean government adopted Juche as its official ideology, stating in article 3 of its constitution that Juche ideology is "the guiding principle of its actions," making Juche the equivalent of an official religion.

Major Religion


DATE OF ORIGIN 1960s c.e.


North Korea first appears in historical records in 108 b.c.e., when China established an outpost in what is now the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The Manchurian kingdom of Goguryeo overran Pyongyang in 313 c.e. and a century later, in 427, moved its capital there from southern Manchuria. The Goguryeo court, which controlled northern Korea until 668, borrowed Buddhism from China and made it the official religion. After 668 most of northern Korea came under the control of another Manchuria-based kingdom, Parhae (698–926), which was also influenced by Buddhism from China. When Parhae fell, the north Korean portion of its territory was absorbed by Goryeo (935–1392), the first kingdom to bring almost all of the Korean Peninsula under one government.

Goryeo adopted Buddhism as its official religion but also sponsored rituals honoring local deities and promoted Confucian scholarship. The Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), which replaced Goryeo, withdrew official support from Buddhism and folk religion and made Confucianism the official ideology of the country instead. When Confucianism was challenged by the birth of a Roman Catholic church in Korea in 1784 and the rise of Donghak (now called Cheondogyo), Korea's first indigenous organized religion, in 1860, the Joseon government responded with bloody persecutions. By the time the first Protestant missionaries arrived in Korea in the 1880s, however, the Joseon dynasty had grown too weak to engage in any more religious violence.

Japan absorbed Korea into its colonial empire in 1910, ending the reign of Confucianism. When Japan was forced off the Korean Peninsula in 1945, the peninsula was split in two for the first time in almost 1,000 years. Since September 1948 there have been two competing Korean governments: The non-Communist Republic of Korea has controlled the southern half of the peninsula, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has controlled the north. Since 1948 Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Cheondogyo have declined in North Korea and have largely been replaced by Juche. The Communist government of North Korea strictly controls any religious activity outside of the official state ideology of Juche.

The North Korean leader Kim Il Sung first used the term juche (self-reliance) in a formal speech in 1955. Initially he used the term to indicate that North Korea was an independent Communist country and would let neither China nor Russia control it. By 1965, however, Kim Il Sung was presenting Juche as a new ideology, a product of his uniquely Korean genius that superseded the traditional Marxism-Leninism that had been the official ideology of North Korea. The constitution of North Korea was revised in 1972 to show that Juche was now "the guiding principle of its [the country's] actions."

In the 1970s and 1980s Kim Jong Il, the son and future heir of Kim Il Sung, began elaborating on the implications of a philosophy of self-reliance for understanding the place of humanity in the universe. Kim Jong Il explained that traditional Marxist materialism slights the unique position of human beings. Human beings, and only human beings, possess consciousness, creativity, and autonomy, giving them not only the power but also the duty to dominate everything else in the universe and remake the world to better fit human needs.

Kim also explained that Juche philosophy, which he began to call Kimilsungism, recognizes that human beings exist only within societies. Because social relationships define human existence, human beings will continue to exist even after their individual physical lives end, as long as their society continues to exist. Because Juche is an immortal philosophy, all those who hold fast to Juche philosophy and unite around a Juche-led organization under the guidance of a leader who embodies Juche will enjoy an eternal sociopolitical life.

Though the leaders of North Korea have never claimed explicitly that Juche is a religion, it clearly has come to function as such in the lives of those who believe in it. Juche followers believe in the tenets of Juche with the same religious fervor as that displayed by followers of other religions, and they have the same expectation that their faith will be rewarded with immortality. Juche provides explanations of the meaning of life as comprehensive as those provided by other religions. Juche has commandments as obligatory and as wide-ranging as the moral codes of other religions. Juche has rituals that allow its followers to display respect for their founder with the same solemnity shown by followers of other religions when they worship their gods. And even though Juche denies the existence of gods, Juche writings have begun to refer to both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il with language that in other contexts would be interpreted as a reference to a supernatural being.

The emphasis Juche ideology places on the leader's importance led to a growing apotheosis of Kim Il Sung from the 1970s onward. Already in 1967 he was being hailed as the father of the nation, and his mother was hailed as the mother of the Korean race. In 1972 a 20-meter high bronze statue of Kim was unveiled in Pyongyang; it has been a site for ritual displays of loyalty to Kim and his Juche philosophy ever since. Ten years later, in 1982, North Korea used more than 25,000 slabs of white granite to erect the Tower of the Juche Idea, which, at 170 meters, is slightly taller than the Washington Monument. Three years after Kim's death in 1994, the Tower of the Juche Idea was joined by a new granite tower, the Tower of Immortality, which proclaims, in golden letters stretching down its 92 meters, "The great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung will always be with us." Also in 1997 North Koreans changed the way they name the years starting with the year Kim Il Sung was born. Under this new Juche calendar the year of Kim's birth, 1912, became Juche 1, and 1997 became Juche 86.

After Kim Jong Il replaced his father as the actual head of the North Korean government (though the North Korean constitution states that Kim Il Sung remains the eternal president of the country, and the chairman of the parliament is the official head of state), he, too, was elevated far above the status of ordinary mortals. North Koreans are told that on the night Kim Jong Il was born, three stars suddenly appeared in the sky above his birthplace, and in subsequent years his birthdays have been marked by such supernatural events as the appearance of double rainbows above that same site. Kim Jong Il's purported birthplace, a log cabin on Korea's highest mountain, Mount Paekdu, has joined Kim Il Sung's birthplace in Pyongyang as a sacred site visited by pilgrims and newlyweds. Moreover, North Korean media have quoted Juche advocates calling Kim Jong Il "the only savior in the world" and even hanul-nim, an indigenous Korean term for the Supreme Being.

The moral code of Juche reflects this emphasis on a godlike leader, using terms that resonate with overtones of Confucianism. When Kim Il Sung was alive, North Koreans were told that they could be truly happy only when their hearts were filled with filial love for him. After his death North Koreans were frequently reminded that the moral principles of the Korean people find their highest expression in a person's absolute loyalty to Kim Il Sung. Though the North Korean government denies that Juche is a religion, the Juche promise of immortality and the language that Juche devotees use to talk about the two Kims make it difficult to deny that Juche functions as a religion for millions of North Koreans.


Kim Il Sung (1912–94) is considered the founder of Juche thought, given that the Korean term juche was not widely used until he began using it to refer to his policy of political and economic self-reliance. Moreover, it was Kim Il Sung who had North Korea officially adopt Juche as its "monolithic ideological system." It is his son, Kim Jong Il (born in 1942), however, who is credited with clarifying the implications of his father's ideas in order to provide a comprehensive explanation of the role of human beings in the cosmos, including a promise of sociopolitical immortality for individuals. Kim Jong Il also expanded the range of Juche thought to encompass cultural performances, such as drama, dance, and music. His most influential philosophical essays are "On the Juche Idea," "On Some Questions in Understanding the Juche Philosophy," and "On Correctly Understanding the Originality of Kimilsungism."


Scholars outside of North Korea recognize Hwang Jang Yeop as the person who turned Juche ideology into a full-fledged philosophy. He authored many of the articles attributed to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Before he defected to South Korea in 1997, Hwang had served as president of Kimilsung University, speaker of the Supreme People's Assembly (North Korea's parliament), and secretary of the ruling Worker's Party Central Committee. Hwang, who had majored in philosophy at Moscow University in the late 1940s, claims that in 1967 Kim Il Sung asked him to ghostwrite articles on Juche philosophy to be published under Kim's name. Later Hwang headed a research institute for Juche philosophy in the Organization and Guidance Department of the Worker's Party Central Committee. Hwang claims he defected because, among other reasons, Kim Jong Il had distorted Juche thought by placing too much emphasis on the role of a supreme leader.


Because the North Korean government claims that Juche is not a religion, it erects no houses of worship in the usual sense. Students and millions of other North Koreans, however, have made pilgrimages to Mount Paekdu (on North Korea's border with China) to show their respect for Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and their Juche philosophy. These pilgrimages include visits to such sacred places as the alleged site of Kim Il Sung's headquarters during his struggle against Japanese colonial rule and the log cabin where Kim Jong Il is said to have been born. Foreign visitors to Pyongyang are expected to join North Koreans in paying their respect at various sacred sites around that capital city. Of particular importance are Kim Il Sung's birthplace at Mangyongdae as well as the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, which has been transformed into a mausoleum preserving the embalmed body of Kim Il Sung and is now described by North Korea as the sacred temple of Juche.


North Koreans pay special reverence to two flowers: the Kimilsungia (developed in Indonesia in 1975) and the Kimjongilia (developed in Japan in 1988). Both are cultivated in special green-houses so that devout Juche followers can pay homage on such special occasions as Kim Il Sung's birthday (15 April) and Kim Jong Il's birthday (16 February).

Pilgrims to Mount Paekdu trek to various trees around Kim Il Sung's pre-1945 mountain headquarters, which, it was announced in 1987, still bear slogans carved more than 50 years ago praising Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Typical slogans found on those trees include "Lodestar General Kim Il Sung, born of heaven" and "The bright star of Paekdu [Kim Jong Il] has appeared over our land."

South Korean sources report that North Korea has more than 35,000 statues of Kim Il Sung, before which devotees bow to show respect and loyalty. As of 2003 no statues of Kim Jong Il have been reported.


The period from 16 February (Kim Jong Il's birthda) through 15 April (Kim Il Sung's birthday) is called the Loyalty Festival Period, the most festive period of the year in North Korea. Public celebrations are held throughout the country on the first and last days of this festival period, and in between, students are asked to demonstrate their loyalty by hiking in groups to sacred sites. Reflecting the Juche belief that Kim Il Sung was a sun providing light for all humankind, 15 April has been renamed Sun's Day.

The North Korean government has also preserved such traditional folk holidays as the Autumn Harvest Moon Festival (in the ninth month of the lunar calendar) and Cold Rice Day (in the fourth lunar month). Koreans traditionally visited their immediate ancestor's graves at the time of the Autumn Harvest Moon Festival and on Cold Rice Day. Now they are also expected to lay a bouquet of flowers before a statue of Kim Il Sung as part of the holiday festivities.


No special articles of clothing serve to identify a Juche believer, with one exception. When Kim Il Sung was alive, loyal North Koreans pinned to the left side of their chests a badge with Kim Il Sung's picture on it. That badge can now be replaced by a badge with Kim Jong Il's picture on it. The size of the badge indicates the rank of the badge wearer. The larger the badge, the higher the party or government rank of the person wearing the badge. Nonbelievers are not supposed to wear either of the badges.


There are no special dietary practices for followers of Juche.


Given that North Korea claims that Juche is not a religion, it has no formal worship services or prayers. Juche believers, however, are encouraged to bow before statues of Kim Il Sung and to place flowers before them every year on the anniversary of his birth. North Koreans are also encouraged to visit such sacred sites as Kim Il Sung's birthplace and Mount Paekdu, which is officially described as sacred to the Korean nation.

Moreover, North Koreans are mobilized in large numbers for "mass games" on special occasions, such as the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. These mass games involve thousands of people marching and dancing in unison to express their love for their country and their loyalty to its leader.


There are no Juche clergy to preside over weddings or funerals. When a couple marries, they both swear their loyalty to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. After the brief wedding ceremony the newly-weds are expected to visit a nearby statue of Kim Il Sung, place some flowers in front of it, and then have their picture taken with the statue in the background. At a funeral it is common for mourners to cry out, "Though this body is deceased, the spirit of the revolution still lives."


Compulsory classes on Juche thought are part of the curriculum at every level in the North Korean school system, from elementary school through university. North Korea has also attempted to promote Juche thought overseas. In 1988 it founded the International Seminar on the Juche Idea, which has headquarters in Tokyo but claims to have branches in more than 100 countries. Every year since 1988 such seminars have been held at various locations around the globe. North Korea also distributes booklets on Juche thought in Japanese, English, French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese.


North Korea claims that a society governed by Juche thought will eliminate poverty, provide education for everyone who wants it, and protect human rights. The Juche concept of human rights, however, focuses more on national autonomy than on individual liberty. Juche education teaches students Juche ideology rather than how to think independently and critically. And the elimination of poverty by Juche thought in North Korea has been defined as equal access to whatever health care, housing, and educational facilities are available, whether or not individuals have any discretionary income. North Korea, therefore, criticizes societies that do not follow its Juche ideology as lacking true human rights, failing to provide a proper education, and masking poverty with an abundance of consumer goods.


The family, rather than the individual, is the basic unit of North Korean society, just as it was in Confucian times. North Korea also maintains the Confucian stress on such familial virtues as filial piety. Unlike Confucianism, however, Juche holds that loyalty to the paternalistic leader of the country takes precedence over filial obedience to a biological parent.

In another departure from the Confucian past, men are not allowed to have more than one wife. Divorce is frowned upon today almost as much as it was in the past (except for cases of divorce from someone who is politically tainted). Moreover, though the Juche constitution of 1972 says that "women hold equal social status and rights with men," North Korea remains a patriarchal society, with men occupying the vast majority of the most powerful posts in government.


Given that Juche is enshrined in the North Korean constitution as its official ideology, it dominates political discourse. Moreover, because the words of Kim Il Sung, and increasingly the words of Kim Jong Il, are treated as sacred writ, it is tantamount to sacrilege to propose any major changes to government policies introduced in those writings. Significant political or economic reform is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. In addition, North Korea's relations with other nations are problematic because North Korea expects foreigners who visit Pyongyang, including official representatives of foreign governments, to participate in ritual displays of respect for Kim Il Sung, the founder of Juche thought.


Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Juche is the insistence that human existence has meaning only within a sociopolitical community centered on one supreme leader, to whom all owe undying loyalty. Almost as controversial is the Confucian legacy of respect for hereditary status, which has allowed Kim Jong Il to succeed his father as the only one with the proper bloodline to correctly understand and interpret Juche thought.

Juche thought per se takes no explicit position on issues controversial in other religious traditions, such as birth control or abortion. Juche writings frequently stress the importance of motherhood, and a woman who is still unmarried at middle age is viewed as abnormal. Kim Il Sung called for "making all women communist mothers and fine communist educators for the next generation."


Juche has impacted North Korean culture in a couple of ways. First, because Juche began as an assertion of Korean autonomy, North Korean music, drama, dance, literature, and art are supposed to draw more on Korean aesthetic traditions than on foreign models. That means, for example, that Juche music is performed with modified traditional musical instruments in addition to such imported instruments as pianos. Second, the dominance of Juche thought means that all cultural productions must preach Juche ideals. Kim Jong Il's comment on drama is typical of what he has written about dance, music, literature, and cinema as well. He wrote that drama must inspire "the people of our times with the Juche outlook that man is the master of the world" and that it "plays the decisive role in transforming the world."

Other Religions

Until 1945 the major difference between northern and southern Korea was that Koreans in the north were more likely to be a Christian or an adherent of Cheondogyo (an indigenous new Korean religion) than were Koreans in the south. In fact, before 1945 almost 60 percent of Korea's Protestants and 50 percent of Korea's Roman Catholics lived in what is now North Korea, as did more than 70 percent of Cheondogyo believers, even though the population of the northern half of the peninsula was much less than the population of the south. Buddhism and shamanism, on the other hand, were underrepresented in the north. Only about a third of Korea's shamans, and less than 15 percent of Korea's Buddhists, lived in the north. Nevertheless, it is estimated that there were a total of 400,000 north Koreans with a religious affiliation in 1945.

That changed with the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948. Under pressure from their Communist government to renounce existing religions, almost all of those in the north who had regularly participated in religious activity either fled south or abandoned any public display of their religious beliefs. The result was a sharp drop in the number of people willing to be recognized as religious to less than 40,000.

Cheondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way) is the strongest surviving non-Juche religious organization in North Korea. Founded in 1860 as Donghak (Eastern Learning), Cheondogyo is the oldest of Korea's indigenous new religions. Constructed from local Confucian, shamanistic, Roman Catholic, Buddhist, and Taoist elements, Cheondogyo has no links with foreign religious organizations and thus has been viewed more favorably by Communist authorities than have "imported" religions, such as Buddhism and Christianity. Moreover, Cheondogyo is identified with the Donghak peasant rebellion against the Joseon dynasty in 1894, giving it the image of a religion for the oppressed masses. The official Cheondoist Association boasts 15,000 members and 800 meeting halls, and a Cheondogyo political party, the Cheong'u (Young Friends) Party, fills several seats in the North Korean parliament as a junior partner to the ruling Worker's Party. Twice in recent years, in 1986 and again in 1997, leaders of Cheondogyo in the south have been drawn by the greater visibility of Cheondogyo in the north to defect and assume leadership positions in both the Cheondoist Association and the North Korean government. The Cheondoist Association has tried to establish links with another new religion in the south, Daejonggyo, which worships Dangun, the legendary ancestor of the Korean people. Given that there are no representatives of Daejonggyo in the north, the Cheondoist Association has since 1995 been leading the rituals honoring Dangun at the site of what North Koreans claim to be Dangun's tomb.

Buddhists in North Korea are represented by the Korean Buddhist Federation, which claims to have about 10,000 members, served by some 300 monks working in approximately 70 temples. There do not appear to be any major doctrinal differences between Buddhists in North Korea and those in South Korea. Unlike the majority of monks in South Korea, however, monks in North Korea are married and do not shave their heads. Moreover, their clerical robes resemble those worn when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule and are quite different in both color and style from the clerical garb favored by South Korean monks these days. Another major difference between Buddhism in South Korea and Buddhism in North Korea is that there are no nuns in the Korean Buddhist Federation, though there are thousands of nuns in South Korea.

Buddhism is permitted an institutional presence in Juche-dominated North Korea because of the contributions Buddhism has made over the centuries to Korean culture. Buddhist temples in North Korea are maintained primarily as manifestations of the architectural and artistic accomplishments of the Korean people in centuries past, not as sites for worship and religious ritual today. Moreover, the North Korean government in 1988 printed a 25-volume vernacular translation of the Korean Tripitaka to call attention to Korea's history of scholarly achievements, not to promote belief in Buddhism. Another reason the government allows the Korean Buddhist Federation to exist is that monks sometimes provide a useful channel for interaction with Buddhist believers in South Korea and elsewhere.

The same diplomatic benefits North Korea gains from its monks provides the rationale for two official Christian organizations. The Korean Catholic Association has fewer than 5,000 active members. It only has one church, in Pyongyang, and it is still waiting for a resident priest. Nevertheless, Korean Catholics have occasionally been dispatched overseas to explain the policies of the North Korean government to Catholics outside the country. The Korean Christian Federation has served the same purpose with Protestant communities. There are two Protestant churches in Pyongyang, serving a total membership of approximately 10,000. This small community has generated enough interest overseas to attract visits from such prominent Christian leaders as Billy Graham, who visited Pyongyang twice and, in 1992, preached at the Catholic church and at one of the Protestant churches.

Unlike Protestant Christianity in South Korea and most other countries, there are no competing denominations within North Korea's Protestant community. All Protestants in North Korea belong to the same denomination, the Korean Christian Federation. The doctrinal and ritual differences that separated Presbyterians and Methodists before 1945 have disappeared from public view.

Just as invisible is the folk religion that was the dominant religious orientation of the entire Korean Peninsula before 1945. Shamans are the ritual specialists in the folk religion, as well as being its most visible manifestation. Before 1945 shamans in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula were more conspicuous, though fewer in number, than those in the south because northern shamans tended to go into a trance and become possessed by spirits of gods and ancestors during a ritual, while most southern shamans did not. Now, though shamanism thrives in South Korea, no shamans are allowed to perform their rituals in North Korea. Despite the official ban on shamans and the animistic folk religion in which they are embedded, South Korean sources report that the extreme economic hardships endured by North Koreans for most of the 1990s stimulated a revival of folk religious practices, particularly shamanic fortune-telling. There have been no reports in the North Korean press to substantiate such claims, however. The beliefs, and even some of the practices, of Korea's centuries-old folk religion probably survive in North Korea's villages and possibly even its cities. Nevertheless, with no official shaman or folk religion association in North Korea, it is impossible to estimate how many believers and practitioners there are today.

Donald L. Baker

See Also Vol. 1: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism


Kang, Wi Jo. "Christianity in North Korea and Its Future in Relation to Christianity and the Politics of South Korea." In Christ and Caesar in Modern Korea: A History of Christianity and Politics, 155–63. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Kim Il Sung. Works. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Pub. House, 1980.

Kim Il Sung Encyclopedia. New Delhi: Vishwanath, 1992.

Kim Jong Il. Selected Works. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Pub. House, 1992.

Park, Han S. North Korea: Ideology, Politics, Economy. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996.

——. North Korea: The Politics of Unconventional Wisdom. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.

Sinbeopt'a. "A Study of Buddhism in North Korea in the Late Twentieth Century: An Investigation of Juche Ideology and Traditional Buddhist Thought in Korea." In Pukhan pulgyo yeon'gu, 361–503. Seoul: Minjoksa, 2000.

Korea, North

views updated May 17 2018

Korea, North

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, occupies the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, which juts out between the Yellow Sea (also known as the Korea Bay) and the Sea of Japan. To the north, the DPRK shares a 1,416-kilometer (880-mile) border—along the Yalu and Tumen Rivers—with the People's Republic of China, and a very short 19-kilometer (12-mile) border with Russia. North Korea's most conspicuous neighbor, however, is South Korea, which sits across a 238-kilometer (148-mile) border running from east to west. The border between North and South Korea, it is important to note, is no ordinary one. Known as the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, it is one of the most intensely guarded and heavily militarized borders in the world. Almost no human activity and development exists within the 4-kilometer- (2.5-mile-) wide zone, but nearly 2 million military personnel and a vast array of weaponry are positioned on both sides of it. The DMZ symbolizes the long-standing hostility and distrust between the two Koreas, which engaged in a brutal and highly destructive conflict (the Korean War) from 1950 to 1953.

North Korea's total area is 120,540 square kilometers (46,538 square miles), which is a little larger than Cuba and slightly smaller than Greece. The country has an estimated population of about 22.4 million, which is less than half of its rival to the south. Population density in North Korea is a moderately high 184 persons per square kilometer, which ranks fifty-seventh among the world's 236 countries and dependencies. However, because of its mountainous topography (about 80 percent of North Korea's land area is composed of mountains and uplands), the population density is slightly understated. Pyongyang is North Korea's capital and, with a population estimated at 3.08 million at the end of 2003, it is the country's largest city (for many years, Pyongyang's population was below 2.5 million, but it suddenly surged by 500,000 in the later half of 2002).

North Korea is an ethnically and linguistically homogenous society. Only a few Chinese and a handful of Japanese live in North Korea, some of whom were forcibly abducted by North Korean agents in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For most of its short history, emigration and immigration were virtually non-existent, although in the past few years North Korea's borders have become increasingly porous, especially along the Yalu River, which separates North Korea from China.

brief political history

Although Korea has a long and complex history, including thirty-five years of far-reaching occupation by Japanese colonial authorities from 1910 to 1945, North Korea's formal existence dates back only to 1948, when, after three years of provisional governance under "People's Committees" (which were also set up in South Korea but outlawed by the U.S. occupation authorities) and relatively light-handed guidance on the part of Soviet occupation authorities, an indigenous communist regime was established. The new regime was led by Kim Il Sung (1912–1994), who used his background as a leader of the only "independent" anti-Japanese movement (i.e., a movement not dependent on outside assistance) and his immense political skills to gradually build an unchallengeable power base after the division of the country in 1945.

The DPRK was formally established on September 9, 1948. Kim Il Sung was named premier, and, after a constitutional change in 1972, became president, a position he held until his death in 1994. During his time in power, Kim Il Sung oversaw an immense amount of change in North Korea, much of which has turned out to have profoundly negative consequences. In particular, Kim attempted to construct a "self-reliant" communist system with uniquely Korean characteristics. This effort is epitomized in the concept of juche, which, according to the DPRK Constitution, is "a revolutionary ideology with a people-centered view of the world that aims to realize the independence of the masses, the guiding principle of its actions" (Handbook 1996, p. 11).

Unfortunately, the policies of self-reliance, much of which involved the adoption of independent economic and military strategies, had largely the opposite result; namely, North Korea became increasingly dependent on the outside world, and particularly on other communist countries, for vital resources (especially fuel), foodstuffs, and capital goods. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 unequivocally exposed the weaknesses of the juche system, but, significantly, it did not immediately destabilize the North Korean political system. Indeed, since 1989 and despite chronic shortages of fuel and electricity, long-term economic stagnation, and, most important, periodic bouts of famine, the regime has remained firmly in control. This is partly due to the DPRK's disproportionately large military and security apparatus, which has been thoroughly integrated in North Korean society, but also partly due to ideological indoctrination and insular policies that have isolated the North Korean people from the rest of the world.

Following Kim Il Sung's death, which was due to natural causes, Kim's son, Kim Jong Il (b. 1942) took power. The younger Kim was named General Secretary of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) in October 1997; a year later, he was reconfirmed as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the highest office of state in North Korea. The accession of Kim Jong Il was no accident. The elder Kim, according to most observers, began preparing his son to succeed him as early as 1971. Over two decades, the younger Kim was given positions of increasing importance and authority, culminating with his designation as supreme commander of the Korean People's Army in December 1991. When Kim Jong Il finally assumed formal control of North Korea, it marked the first dynastic succession ever in a communist regime. It should be noted, however, that Kim Jong Il's accession was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, it took three years after his father's death until he assumed complete control.

With only one major leadership transition in its first fifty years of existence, North Korea's political system is tightly controlled. Indeed, North Korea in practice has been a totalitarian dictatorship. Accordingly, political, social, and economic power in North Korea is highly centralized, although due to the extremely opaque nature of the North Korean regime, it is difficult to say exactly how power and authority is distributed and exercised. What is clear, however, is that the military and the KWP have been the two key political institutions in North Korea since the country's inception.

In the early years, the KWP played an instrumental and more autonomous role in North Korean politics as various leaders, including Kim Il Sung, vied for control of the party apparatus. By 1960, Kim had succeeded in purging all his rivals, and thereafter he was able to completely dominate the KWP. Since then, the KWP has served as the primary vehicle of policy making in North Korea. It operates through the national party congress, which is the supreme party organ. The party congress approves reports of the party organs, adopts basic party policies and tactics, and elects members to the KWP Central Committee and the Central Auditing Committee. Although North Korea also has a formal governmental structure—with a prime minister, a cabinet called the Central People's Committee, and a parliament (the Supreme People's Assembly)—most observers agree that none of the officials besides Kim Jong Il has real power. To a certain extent, the same can be said of the KWP, whose core membership has been handpicked by Kim Jong Il and a few loyal lieutenants.

The sheer size of North Korea's military—the fourth largest standing army in the world with an estimated 1.2 million soldiers—makes it a pivotal political and institutional force. Even more important, the North Korean army has, from the country's inception, been tightly integrated into the North Korean political system. It served as the essential base of power for Kim Il Sung and was a cornerstone of Kim's concept of juche, which was based as much on military self-reliance as economic self-reliance.

Since Kim Jong Il assumed power, moreover, the military has become even more entrenched. This is reflected in the status of the National Defense Commission, which not only exercises direct control over North Korea's armed forces, but is also, in practice, the highest state body in the country. As chairman of the National Defense Committee, therefore, Kim Jong Il became vested with supreme executive power. In this regard, it is worth noting that, unlike many other military-dominated dictatorships, the autonomy of the North Korean army has, for the most part, been held in check. In fact, there has never been a successful military coup in North Korea, although a planned coup was uncovered and derailed by secret police in 1995.

socioeconomic conditions

North Korea's isolation and extreme secretiveness make it difficult to assess accurately its level of socioeconomic development. The economy has fared very poorly, both in relative and absolute terms, since the early 1970s. Of course, many developing countries experienced economic difficulties during the 1970s, when oil prices rose sharply, but North Korea had not yet recovered by the beginning of the twenty-first century.

North Korea's economy was not always so depressed, however. After the Korean War (1950–1953) North Korea embarked on an ambitious reconstruction plan, which resulted in relatively rapid economic growth and the development of a heavy industrial and agricultural base. Much of this growth, however, was based on the ability of the regime to quickly and effectively marshal hitherto underutilized resources (especially labor and land) in a process scholars call "extensive economic growth." By the 1960s, North Korea, like many of its centrally planned counterparts, had largely exhausted this process, and economic growth slowed significantly. Still, the economy appeared robust, especially compared to South Korea's, which grew very slowly after the Korean War. Indeed, to many observers at the time, North Korea was considered the miracle economy, whereas few held out much hope for South Korea.

Beginning in the 1970s, the North Korean leadership attempted to reinvig-orate the economy with a large-scale modernization program, and for the first time the government turned to major Western countries for technology and financial capital. The program was largely unsuccessful. Part of the blame can be attributed to the oil crisis of the 1970s, which negatively affected almost all developing countries. Scholars also blamed North Korea's excessive military spending and its inefficient and ill-advised economic strategies, which were based on central planning and a rejection of free-market principles. Although these criticisms are valid, the South Korean government from the 1960s through the 1980s also had a disproportionately large military budget and engaged in centralized and heavily bureaucratized economic planning but it did not suffer the same setbacks.

In any case, North Korea was unable to finance its debts through exports, and the government ultimately defaulted on its loans from Western countries—becoming the first communist country to do so. In 1979, the country renegotiated its international debts, but a year later it defaulted again (except on loans from Japan). Beginning in 1980, North Korea has generally been excluded from international capital markets and has relied on "creative" methods to finance consistent trade deficits (e.g., arms sales, drug trafficking, counterfeiting, overseas remittances, and humanitarian aid).

By the 1980s, North Korea's per capita gross domestic product, which had once been higher than South Korea's, was only one-third of that of its rival. Kim Il Sung began to initiate several economic reforms. In 1982, Kim proposed a plan to increase agricultural production through land reclamation and development of the country's infrastructure. Two years later, in September 1984, he announced a joint venture law designed to attract foreign capital and technology. This reform proved to be largely unsuccessful, however; only sixty joint ventures were developed between 1986 and 1992. In 1991 the North Korea government created a Special Economic Zone, or SEZ, in the northeast regions of Najin, Chongjin, and Sonbong.

More seriously, the reforms failed to avert a severe food crisis, which hit North Korea in the 1990s. Some observers contend that this was the worst humanitarian disaster of the decade. According to one estimate, from 1994 to 1998, 2 to 3 million people died of starvation and hunger-related illnesses (as with other data related to North Korea, however, this figure is not completely reliable). Although the proximate cause of the food crisis was severe flooding, another contributing factor was the sharp reduction in imports of heavily subsidized food, equipment, and crude oil from the former Soviet Union and China in the early 1990s. At the same time, however, North Korea's heavy reliance on external sources—and its inability to respond adequately to the crisis—was exacerbated by deep and pervasive flaws in the country's economic and political systems.

north–south relations

Relations between North and South Korea have overshadowed virtually every aspect of political, economic, and social development in the two Koreas. Since the end of World War II (1945), and particularly following the end of the Korean War, the two countries have faced off as bitter and seemingly implacable rivals. Since the 1990s, however, the relationship has shown some signs of improvement, albeit in a very unpredictable and erratic fashion.

The most significant developments have been economic. In January 1992, for example, the chairman of the South Korean company Daewoo visited North Korea as the first officially invited business leader and reached an agreement on building a light industrial complex at Nampo. In other negotiations, Hyundai Asan, another major South Korean conglomerate, obtained permission to bring tour groups by sea to Kumgang-san on the southeast coast of North Korea, and, in August 2000, to construct an 800-acre industrial complex at Kaesong, near the DMZ, at a cost of more than $1 billion. This significant project could possibly serve as an essential building block for inter-Korean economic cooperation.

North Korea's embrace of economic cooperation with South Korea is driven primarily by its increasingly dysfunctional economy. It has led to important developments between the two states, including an historic summit meeting in Pyongyang between Kim Jong Il and then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (b. 1925) in June 2000. Whether or when there will be a permanent improvement in North–South relations, fundamental reform within North-Korea, or even reunification of the two countries is very much open to debate. But, unlike previous "breakthroughs," North and South Korea remained engaged in a continuous series of meetings and exchanges during the early twenty-first century. Moreover, large-scale projects, including the Kaesong project, continued to move forward.

At the same time, North Korea pursued an increasingly aggressive stance vis-à-vis its nuclear weapons program. In January 2003 the country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in August of the same year, it announced that it possessed nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. This issue held the potential to destabilize the Korean peninsula and the entire region for decades.

See also: Dictatorship; Korea, South; Totalitarianism.


Cornell, Erik. North Korea Under Communism. New York: Routledge/Curzon, 2002.

Cumings, Bruce. Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Eberstadt, Nicholas. Korea Approaches Reunification. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1995.

Feffer, John. North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Politics and the Korean Peninsula. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

A Handbook on North Korea. Seoul, South Korea: Naewoe Press, 1996.

Nam, Sung-wook. "Theory and Practice: Kaesong and Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation." East Asian Review 13, no. 1 (2001):67–88. <>.

Nanchu, Xing Hang. In North Korea: An American Travels Through an Imprisoned Nation. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2003.

Natsios, Andrew S. The Great North Korean Famine. Washington, DC: Institute of Peace, 2002.

Oh, Kong Dan. North Korea Through the Looking Glass. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2000.

Palka, Eugene, and Francis Galgano Jr. North Korea: Geographic Perspectives. New York: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 2003.

Suh, Dae-Sook. Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Timothy C. Lim

Korea, North

views updated May 17 2018

Korea, North

Official name: Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Area: 120,540 square kilometers (46,540 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Paektu-san (Mount Paektu) (2,744 meters/9,003 feet)

Lowest point on land: Sea level

Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern

Time zone: 9 p.m. = noon GMT

Longest distances: 719 kilometers (447 miles) from north-northeast to south-southwest; 371 kilometers (231 miles) from east-southeast to west-northwest

Land boundaries: 1,673 kilometers (1,040 miles) total boundary length; China 1,416 kilometers (880 miles); South Korea 238 kilometers (148 miles); Russia 19 kilometers (12 miles)

Coastline: 2,495 kilometers (1,550 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)


North Korea is located in eastern Asia on the northern half of the Korean h2ninsula, between the countries of China and South Korea. The country also shares a very short border with Russia. The Sea of Japan lies to the east and the Korea Bay to the west. With an area of about 120,540 square kilometers (46,540 square miles), the country is slightly smaller than the state of Mississippi. North Korea is divided into nine provinces.


North Korea has no outside dependencies or territories.


The temperature in North Korea varies from north to south during the winter, with the average January temperature at -17°C (1°F) along the northern border and -8°C (18°F) at P'yongyang, the capital. Summer temperatures have less variation from north to south, averaging 21°C (70°F) in the north, and 24°C (75°F) at P'yongyang.

Approximately 60 percent of the annual rainfall, from 75 to 100 centimeters (30 to 40 inches), occurs from June through September. The northernmost regions receive less rainfall, averaging 50 centimeters (20 inches).


The terrain of North Korea is mountainous; Paektu-san, an extinct volcano, is the highest point. A series of plains extends along the coasts on either side of the country. North Korea is situated on the Eurasian Tectonic Plate.


Seacoast and Undersea Features

The Sea of Japan, an enclosed arm of the western Pacific Ocean, lies to the east of North Korea. Its coastal waters are very deep, averaging about 1,676 meters (5,500 feet). Korea Bay, off the western coast, is an inlet of the Yellow Sea, which is also an arm of the Pacific Ocean. The Bay is shallow, and it has an unusually great tidal range of 6 to 12 meters (20 to 40 feet).

Sea Inlets and Straits

The main port on the west coast is Namp'o, which is located at the mouth of the Taedong River south of Sojoson Bay and is a center for both international and domestic trade. Further south are two more bays: Taedong Bay, which cuts into the coast south of Changsan Cape, and Haeju Bay, which is tucked in away from the larger Kyonggi Bay. The east coast has two major inlets: the large Tongjoson Bay, and the smaller Yonghung Bay.

Islands and Archipelagos

Although there are hundreds of small islands off the western coast of North Korea, none of the islands under North Korea's control are notable. The countries of North and South Korea currently are disputing ownership of many of the islands.

Coastal Features

The western coast along the Korea Bay is highly indented and irregular, and it is studded with a multitude of small offshore islands. Many of the tidelands have potential value as agricultural land, reed fields, and salt evaporation facilities.

In the east, where steep mountains lie close to the Sea of Japan, the coastline is relatively smooth, with few offshore islands. The coast is washed by both warm and cold currents, contributing to a wide variety of marine life, and causing the coastal region to be frequently shrouded in dense fog.


The largest natural inland body of water in North Korea is Kwangpo, which is actually a salt lagoon that covers an area of about 13 square kilometers (5 square miles).

The Changjin Reservoir, an artificial lake, is one of the nation's biggest lakes and a primary water source. It is located on the Changjin River.


The major rivers of North Korea flow in a westerly direction into Korea Bay, the northern extent of the Yellow Sea. The longest river is the Yalu, which flows from Paektu-san to Korea Bay, a distance of almost 800 kilometers (500 miles). Because its course cuts through rocky gorges for much of its length, its alluvial plains are less extensive than its size would suggest. Oceangoing vessels can dock at Sinuiju and small watercraft can travel upstream as far as Hyesan. Although it is important for transportation and irrigation, the Yalu's main value lies in its hydroelectric power potential.

The Ch'ongch'on River flows in the valley between the Kangnam and the Myohyang mountain ranges.


There are no desert regions in North Korea.


The plains regions are important to the nation's economy, although they constitute only one-fifth of the total area. Most of the plains are alluvial, built up from silt deposited on the banks of flooding rivers. Other plains, such as the P'yongyang peneplain, were formed by thousands of years of erosion from surrounding hills. A number of plains areas exist on the western coast, including the P'yongyang peneplain and the Unjon, Anju, Chaeryong, and Yonbaek Plains. Of these, the Chaeryong and the P'yongyang are the most extensive, each covering an area of about 618 square kilometers (200 square miles). The Yonbaek Plain comprises about 315 square kilometers (120 square miles). The rest of the plains regions each cover about 207 square kilometers (80 square miles). The plains support most of the country's farmlands, and their small sizes illustrate the severe physical limitations placed on agriculture.


Mountains and uplands cover 80 percent of the territory. The major mountain ranges form a crisscross pattern extending from northwest to southeast and northeast to southwest. The Mach'ol Range extends from the vicinity of Paektu-san on the Chinese border in a southeasterly direction toward the eastern coast. This range has peaks of over 1,981 meters (6,500 feet) in altitude. At the summit of Paektu-san, the country's highest peak at 2,744 meters (9,003 feet), is a crater lake: Cho'onji (Heavenly Lake).


The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the stretch of land that marks the border between North and South Korea. The demarcation line, or border, was created at the 38th parallel (38° latitude) by a 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War. Since then, the DMZ, which covers an area of about 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles), has been almost entirely free from human intrusion. As a result, the ecosystem there has flourished and has become home for many rare and endangered species, including Asiatic black bears, Amur leopards, the red-crowned crane, and several others. Environmentalists and activists from around the world are working to make the area a protected nature reserve.

Running northeasterly from the center of the Mach'ol Range toward the Tumen River valley is the Hamgyong Range, which also has a number of peaks over 1,981 meters (6,500 feet), including Kwanmo-bon (Mount Kwanmo) at 2,540 meters (8,334 feet). The southwest extension of the Hamgyong Range is known as the Pujollyong Range. Running from north to south and marking the drainage divide for the eastern and western halves of the country is the Nangnim Range, averaging 1,499 meters (4,920 feet). To the west of the Nangnim Range are two less prominent ranges, the Myohyang and (in the center of the country) the Puktae, both of which reach heights of 500 to 1,000 meters (1,640 to 3,280 feet). Running in a southwestern direction from the Nangnim Range along the Yalu River (which forms the border with China) is the Kangnam Range, the name of which means "south of the river."

Korea's other major mountain chain, the T'aebaek Range, rises south of Wonsan and extends down the eastern side of the peninsula; it is often called the "backbone of Korea." Only a short portion of its length is in North Korea, but this section includes the scenic Kumgangsan ("Diamond Mountains") comprising the heart of North Korea's largest national park. Near the shore of the Sea of Japan, granite mountains feature nearly vertical sheer walls, deep canyons, and spectacular waterfalls.

The terrain east of the Hamgyong and Pujollyong consists of short, parallel ridges that extend from these mountains to the Sea of Japan, creating a series of isolated valleys accessible only by rail lines branching off from the main coastal track. West of the T'aebaek Range, the terrain of central North Korea is characterized by a series of lesser ranges and hills that gradually level off into plains along the western coast.

North Korea has an extensive coniferous forest located in its mountainous interior, especially in the north. Tree species include pine, spruce, fir, and cedar.


In some areas where mountain rock formations are made of limestone, there are many caves. One of the best-known caves is located near Yongbyon on the southern side of the Ch'ongch'on River. Known as T'ongnyonggul, it is about 5 kilometers (3 miles) long, with many chambers, some of which reach widths of 150 meters (500 feet) and heights up to 50 meters (150 feet).


To the west of the Hamgyong and Pujollyong ranges lies Kaema Plateau, sometimes referred to as the "roof of Korea." The Kaema Plateau is a heavily forested basaltic tableland with relatively low elevation, averaging 1,000 to 1,500 meters (3,280 to 4,950 feet).


Wind-power generating plants are located in the P'yongyang region. Dams have been built on the Yalu and four of its tributaries, the Changjin, Hoch'on, Pujon, and Tongno Rivers. These dams provide both water and hydroelectric power.



Breen, Michael. The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Hoore, James. Korea: An Introduction. New York: Kegan Paul International, 1988.

Landau, Elaine. Korea. New York: Children's Press, 1999.

Nash, Amy K. North Korea. New York: Chelsea House, 1999.

Oh, Kongdan, and Ralph C. Hassig. North Korea Through the Looking Glass. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2000.

Web Sites

Neufeld, Ann Nichole. "Korean Demilitarized Zone as a Bioreserve." ICE Case Studies. American University: Inventory of Conflict and Environment Program. (accessed April 24, 2003).

North Korea

views updated May 23 2018

North Korea

Basic Data

Official Country Name:Democratic People's Republic of Korea
Region (Map name):East & South Asia
Literacy rate:99.0%
Area:120,540 sq km
Number of Television Stations:38
Number of Television Sets:1,200,000
Television Sets per 1,000:54.6
Number of Radio Stations:42
Number of Radio Receivers:3,360,000
Radio Receivers per 1,000:152.9

Background & General Characteristics

Propaganda comprises most media in the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (DPKR), established on September 10, 1948. The communist Korean Workers' Party (KWP) was organized two years earlier. Since the Korean peninsula was divided at the thirty-eighth parallel after World War II, the communist-controlled northern half has utilized the press to achieve political control and dominance over the populace of approximately 21 million people, primarily peasants. The North Korean media has also manipulated the press to portray certain images of North Korea to its allies and foes. Circulation statistics and other facts concerning North Korean media are unavailable because the government keeps a tight hold on such statistics. DPKR media is primarily used for indoctrination by the government.

Choson Chungyang Tongsinsa, the state-operated Korean Central News Agency (KCNA,, collects and distributes officially created and sanctioned information in both Korean and English. Established on December 5, 1946, at P'yongyang, the KCNA prints the daily Choson Chungyang T'ongsin (Korean Central News), Sajin T'ongsin (Photographic News), and Choson Chungyang Yonbo (Korean Central Yearbook), spreading carefully worded news to designated media bureaus. The DPKR's Central Committee publishes party rhetoric in its official newspaper, Nodong Sinmun (Workers' Daily), which is estimated to have a circulation of approximately two million readers. Kulloja (The Worker) also distributes Central Committee theory.

The official government newspaper is the Minju Choson (Democratic Korea). Other periodicals provide news for specific occupational groups such as railway workers, military personnel, and teachers. The Foreign Languages Press Group issues the monthly magazine Korea Today and weekly newspaper P'yongyang Times ( in English, French, and Spanish.

State-Press Relations

The communist North Korean government uses media to achieve contrasting domestic and international agendas. When he became prime minister in 1948, Kim Il-sung recognized the power of the press to influence North Koreans and to confuse and alarm South Korea and its western allies. Kim Il-sung insisted that the DPKR was the only valid Korean government and emphasized Juche, his philosophy of self-reliance. He occasionally spoke to reporters and emphasized journalism education to support DPKR goals. Kim Il-sung established his dictatorship by developing a personality cult which encouraged North Koreans to glorify him and his family as mythical super humans.

Kim Il-sung's son Kim Jong-il received similar public adulation when he succeeded his father who died in 1994. The North Korean press insisted that Kim Jong-il's succession was unanimously supported; foreign media questioned this account and suggested that rivals had unsuccessfully countered Kim Jong-il because he did not assume power until 1997. Government-controlled North Korean media created a biography for Kim Jong-il that insisted he was destined to rule North Korea because natural phenomena, including a double rainbow, had occurred at the time of his birth. In August 2001, KCNA described Russians as being awestruck by Kim Jong-il's visit. The media claimed that rain stopped and sun shone wherever Kim Jong-il traveled and that the Russians revered his power to control nature.

Article 53 of the DPKR constitution grants North Korean citizens freedom of press and speech, but protects those rights only if media expressions are supportive of the government and the KWP. Censorship has been implemented as the basis of public media. All print and broadcast media emphasize the need for North Koreans to accept a collective lifestyle for the good of the country and to reject individualism. Membership in the Korean Journalist Union is mandatory for reporters.

Attitude toward Foreign Media

Foreign print and broadcast media are forbidden to average North Koreans who risk harsh penalties such as forced labor if they attempt to listen to or read any non-DPKR media. Only senior party officials are permitted access to external news sources. Foreign journalists are discouraged from entering North Korea uninvited.

North Korean news reports consistently deny that chronic famine conditions exist in North Korea despite evidence that mass starvation and crop failures have occurred. Statistics concerning such natural disasters as floods are not provided or incorrectly reported. Foreign press often obtains facts from defectors.

When U.S. President George W. Bush described North Korea as an "evil" country that posed terrorism threats in early 2002, the DPKR media began daily attacks on Bush's credibility and denounced the U.S. as trying to provoke another Korean War.

Broadcast Media

The KCNA issues broadcasts in Korean, English, French, Spanish, and Russian. Reports estimate 400,000 televisions and almost five million radios are in North Korea. Radios and televisions are set to receive only government broadcasts approved by the DPRK Radio and Television Broadcasting Committee. The Korean Central Television Station in P'yongyang and stations in Ch'ngjin, Kaesng, Hamhng, Haeju, and Siniju air broadcasts. The AM stations P'yongyang Broadcasting Station (Radio P'yongyang) and Joson Jung-ang Pangsong (Korean Central Broadcasting Station) and P'yongyang FM Pangsong (Broadcasting Station) are the main domestic DPKR radio media. Smaller stations air local programming to individual communities. Some large stations exist that issue international broadcasts.

North Korea also broadcasts in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The DMZ is a frequent topic in DKPR media because it is a sore point in international relations. DKPR press and other media sources often issue conflicting reports regarding the instigation of conflict in this area.


"The Hungry North." Economist 336. (July 1, 1995): 26.

Kim Il-sung. Chongsonyon kyoyang saop e taehayo. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Pub. House, 1974.

Savada, Andrea Matles, ed. North Korea: A Country Study. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division Library of Congress, 1994.

Elizabeth D. Schemer

Korea, North

views updated Jun 27 2018

Korea, North


120,540sq km (46,540sq mi)



capital (population):

Pyongyang (2,724,700)


Single-party dictatorship

ethnic groups:

Korean 99%


Korean (official)


Traditional beliefs 16%, Chondogyo 14%, Buddhism 2%, Christianity 1%


North Korean won = 100 chon

Republic in e Asia. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea occupies the n part of the Korean peninsula. North Korea is largely mountainous. The capital, Pyongyang, lies on the w coastal plain. North Korea's border with South Korea is based on the 38th Parallel. (For land, climate, and pre-1953 history, see Korea and Korean War)

History and Politics

In 1948, North Korea established a communist government led (1948–94) by Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung's Stalinist regime exploited North Korea's rich mineral resources. Industry was nationalized. Heavy industry and arms production greatly increased. Agriculture was collectivized and mechanized.

After the Korean War (1950–53), several million Koreans fled Kim Il Sung's dictatorial regime, and North Korea became a secretive society, largely closed to outside interests. It built alliances with China and the Soviet Union, and the collapse of the latter devastated North Korea's economy. North Korea's emphasis on its military sector destabilized regional politics and internal economic planning. In 1991, North and South Korea signed a non-aggression pact and agreed to a series of meetings on reunification. The process temporarily halted in 1994 with the death of Kim Il Sung. His son, Kim Jong Il, succeeded him.

During the early 1990s, North Korea's nuclear weapons' building programme gathered momentum. In 1994, North Korea briefly withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They rejoined after agreeing to halt the reprocessing of plutonium, in return for US$5 billion of fuel supplies. In 1995, flooding caused more than US$15 billion of damage and devastated agricultural production. In 1996, the United Nations (UN) sent emergency food aid to relieve famine. Aid agencies estimate that up to 2 million people died of famine in the 1990s. In 1998, North Korea launched a rocket over Japanese airspace. In 2000, Kim Jong Il met South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.


North Korea has considerable mineral resources, including coal, copper, iron ore, lead, tin, tungsten, and zinc. Despite these resources, it is a net consumer of energy and relies on oil imports (2000 GDP per capita, US$1000). Agriculture employs more than 40% of the workforce. Rice is the major crop. Industries: chemicals, iron and steel, machinery, processed food, and textiles.

Political map

Physical map


North Korea

views updated May 23 2018

North Korea

At a Glance

Official Name: Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Continent: Asia

Area: 46,768 square miles (120,540 sq km)

Population: 21,386,109

Capital City: Pyongyang

Largest City: Pyongyang (2,741,260)

Unit of Money: North Korean Won

Major Languages: Korean (official)

Natural Resources: Coal, lead, tungsten

The Place

North Korea lies on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula in Asia. It is separated from Russia and China by the Yalu and Tumen rivers in the north. The country is bordered in the south by South Korea. The Yellow Sea, the Korea Bay, and the Sea of Japan form the country's coastlines.

Almost 80% of North Korea is mountain ranges and uplands. The Kaema Plateau, which has an area of 4,000 square miles (10,360 sq km), is the country's largest upland area. Mount Paektu—the country's highest peak at 9,022 feet (2,750 m)—is there. The Nangnim Moutains are in the central part of the country, and the Hamgyong Mountains are in the east. The rest of North Korea consists of plains and lowlands. The P'yongyang and Chaeryong plains in the southwest are the country's most fertile areas. Coniferous trees, such as Siberian fir, spruce, pine, and cedar, cover about half the country.

North Korea's major rivers are the 491-mile-(790-km-) long Yalu and the 324-mile-(521-km-) long Tumen.

North Korea has a cool, temperate climate with long, cold winters and wet summers. The country has an average temperature of 47°F (8°C). Most of North Korea's rain falls in the summer—about 40 inches (102 cm). Typhoons sometimes occur in September and August.

The People

Most people in North Korea are Korean. There are small groups of Chinese and Japanese in the country. Korean is the official language.

After the Korean War in 1953, the government tried to make the country more industrialized. About two-thirds of North Koreans live in urban areas, with the coast the most populated region. Many work in government-run factories. Most live in one or two room apartments. Few people own cars. Those living in rural areas work on collective farms. Collective farms are operated by a group of farmers. About 25% of the country's labor force works in agriculture, 60% in industry, and 15% in services.

North Korea has a population density of 464 people per square mile (179 people per sq km). It has an annual population growth rate of 1.4%. Life expectancy is 51 years. In recent years, a famine in the country has affected the lives of most Koreans.

The North Korean government discourages the belief in religion because it goes against the teachings of communism, even though freedom of religion is allowed in the country's constitution. Confucianism and Buddhism are the most popular belief systems in the country.


North Korea's elementary school system is made up of grades 1 to 4, and its senior middle school goes from grades 5 to 10. Students must receive government permission to continue their education. With the government's approval, a student can go on to a 2-year high school, a 2-year vocational school, or a 3-or 4-year technical school. Those who finish high school or technical school can then continue on to college. Students who graduate from a vocational school must complete a year of special study before moving on to college.

North Korea has one college, Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. The country also has 200 specialized colleges that teach students certain subjects, such as engineering.

North Korea has a literacy rate of about 99%.


Type: Communist

Structure: Executive

Leader: President/Premier


NA army personnel

NA tanks

NA major ships

NA combat aircraft

Popular Culture/Daily Life

In North Korea, the government controls an artist's work and encourages work that supports Communist Party beliefs. Art that goes against communism is prohibited.

Most North Koreans enjoy reading poems, novels, and short stories. The cities have theaters for drama, opera, and movies. Drama groups travel to rural areas to perform. North Koreans enjoy participating in folk dances, such as the drum dance sungmu, where dancers wear drums around their necks.

The government also operates gymnasiums that focus on organized sports, such as gymnastics, and tae kwon do, a martial art.

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North Korea