Country profile: North Korea

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Country profile: North Korea


Pyongyang, the capital. Schoolchildren are practising for the National Day parade in Kim Il-Sung Square. © Christian Petersen-Clausen

Everyone knows about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – DPRK, or North Korea.

Newspapers often write about strange evil things the young leader Kim Jong-un has done (or not). He came to power when his father Kim Jong-il died in 2011. And his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, started North Korea in 1948. There are many books published in English about North Korea. And many tour firms can take you there to visit.

It does not help to say North Korea is evil. It is not good for a government to have nuclear weapons, but not give its people enough food. North Korea is a threat and has many problems and enemies.


We need to look clearly at North Korea and understand the history. Many years ago they had to protect the country against attack from the outside. Japan took over in 1905, then the US and Soviets took control in 1945. In 1948 they decided to make it 2 separate countries. In 1950 Kim Il-sung invaded the South, and there was a war. Four million people died in three terrible years, but the border stayed almost the same.

The two Koreas were then in competition to develop. The US helped South Korea, and the Soviet Union helped North Korea. The North grew fastest at first with industrialization and growing cities. But they spent too much money on the military. So the South then grew more because of exports. The UN now says GCP per person is $621 in the North, and $26,482 in the South (43 times higher). Korea today is one country, two planets.


Dancing for foreign visitors in a kindergarten in the countryside. Christian Petersen-Clausen

After 1990, North Korea had many problems, when Moscow stopped giving them money. At least a million people died (5% of the population) in the famine in the late 1990s. North Korea did not want to ask for help, but they had to. The UN World Food Programme helped a lot. But there is less help now, because people do not agree with the government (eg. with three nuclear tests).

North Korea was different after the famine. People had to create unofficial markets - these are now very important to the economy. The government does not try to stop them, but does not help them. Some people say they will change the markets. But they still force the city people to go to the countryside to plant rice.

North Korea demands total loyalty. The UN investigated a lot of human rights abuse in 2014. Many North Koreans secretly watch South Korean TV, so they know a better world exists. Some people escape to the South, but do not have the right skills so do often do not do well.

Many people have said that North Korea will collapse, but it continues. It does not seem possible that the government will change. And, because they have nuclear weapons, they may not have the problems of Iraq, Syria or Libya. Change must come from inside the country.

by Aidan Foster-Carter

Country profile: North Korea Fact File

Leader Kim Jong-un

Economy GDP per person $621 (South Korea $26,482 – UN estimates 2013).

Money Won (KPW). Official rate 109 to US$, black market rate 8,300. The markets often use the Chinese yuan. People rely more on foreign currencies than the KPW.

Main exports Minerals eg. coal and iron ore. About 70% of trade is with China; and 24% is with South Korea (light manufactured goods from the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex).

People 24.9 million. Annual population growth 1990-2013: 0.9%. People per square kilometre 207 (South Korea 517). Health They were successful at first, but then suffered from famine and lack of money. Infant mortality got worse (9 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 26 in 2008) then improved a little to 22 by 2013 (South Korea 3).

Environment Most of Northern Korea is mountains - not suitable for agriculture. Storms often wash away the terraces. A lot of trees have gone - Kim Jong-un wants to plant more.

Religion There are a few churches and Buddhist temples – but they are only for show. People follow other religions in secret. But the only official religion is worshipping the Kim family.

Language Korean. Both South and North Koreas only have one ethnic group. This is not common. The North stopped using Chinese characters. They only use the Korean alphabet; they also stopped using many words that came from Chinese.

Human development index No information.

Country profile: North Korea ratings in detail

Income distribution Not much information. But North Korea pays more money for importance, loyalty and job. And there is a new group of richer people now, only in Pyongyang, because of new freer markets.

Life expectancy 70 years (South Korea 82). This was 73 in 1993, but fell because of the 1990s famine.

Position of women In 1946, they stopped making women less important than men (based on Confucianism). But men still control North Korea. There are not many women in public life. Women are important in the new market economy.

Literacy They say literacy is 100%, but this has not been checked. From 1972, they had free compulsory 11-year schooling. This became 12 years in 2012. There are not many subjects at school: basic sciences, few humanities and a lot of stories about how important the Kim family is.

Freedom North Korea is nearly at the bottom of international freedom lists. In September 2015, the World Bank said North Korea was last of 230 countries in many areas eg. press freedom and rule of law.

Sexual minorities North Korea says there is no homosexuality or HIV in their country. It is very racist and sexist. They say Barack Obama is a ‘wicked black monkey’ and South Korean President Park Geun-hye is a ‘prostitute’ and ‘comfort woman’.

NI Assessment (Politics) There are problems. Kim Jong-il’s songun policy said the Army was the most important. But Kim Jong-un is trying to make the Party more important. Some people have been executed eg. his uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013. This might make the important people worried. In the 21st century, it is strange to have a mixture of traditional Confucianism, Japanese emperor-worship and Stalinism. But it has survived so far. By 2020 it will have lasted longer than the USSR. No-one knows when and how it might change.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).