"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." – Albert Einstein

Country profile: North Korea

Country profile: North Korea

Map of North Korea

For decades North Korea has been one of the world’s most secretive societies. It is one of the few countries still under communist rule.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have exacerbated its rigidly maintained isolation from the rest of the world.

The country emerged in 1948 amid the chaos following the end of World War II. Its history is dominated by its Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, who shaped political affairs for almost half a century.


After the Korean War, Kim Il-sung introduced the personal philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance, which became a guiding light for North Korea’s development. Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il, is now head of state, but the post of president has been assigned “eternally” to his late father.

Decades of this rigid state-controlled system have led to stagnation and a leadership dependent on the cult of personality.


Parade in Pyongyang marking 60th anniversary of ruling party, 2005
Politics: Supreme leader Kim Jong-il heads a secretive, communist regime which tolerates no dissent
Economy: North Korea’s command economy is dilapidated, hit by natural disasters, poor planning and a failure to modernise
International: With its nuclear ambitions, North Korea presents a serious challenge to those trying to rein it in; the two Koreas are still technically at war

Aid agencies have estimated that up to two million people have died since the mid-1990s because of acute food shortages caused by natural disasters and economic mismanagement. The country relies on foreign aid to feed millions of its people.

The totalitarian state also stands accused of systematic human rights abuses. Reports of torture, public executions, slave labour, and forced abortions and infanticides in prison camps have emerged. A US-based rights group has estimated that there are up to 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea.

Pyongyang has accused successive South Korean governments of being US “puppets”, but South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s visit in 2000 signalled a thaw in relations. Seoul’s “sunshine policy” towards the north aimed to encourage change through dialogue and aid.

But this tentative reaching-out to the world was dealt a blow in 2002 by Pyongyang’s decision to reactivate a nuclear reactor and to expel international inspectors.

In October 2006 North Korea said it had successfully tested a nuclear weapon, spreading alarm around the region.

Since then, intensive diplomatic efforts have aimed to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. After years of on-and-off talks, a deal was thrashed out in February 2007 under which Pyongyang agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor in return for fuel and aid.

North Korea admitted International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who verified the shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor in July.

However, the denuclearisation process stalled yet again when Pyongyang failed to meet an end-of-year deadline to make a full declaration of its nuclear programmes. It eventually handed over a list of the country’s nuclear assets in June 2008.

North Korea maintains one of the world’s largest standing armies and militarism pervades everyday life. But standards of training, discipline and equipment in the force are said to be low.

In 2002 US President George W Bush named the country as part of an “axis of evil”.


  • Full name: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
  • Population: 23.8 million (UN, 2007)
  • Capital: Pyongyang
  • Area: 122,762 sq km (47,399 sq miles)
  • Major language: Korean
  • Major religions: Mainly atheist or non-religious, traditional beliefs
  • Life expectancy: 60 years (men), 69 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 won = 100 chon
  • Main exports: Minerals and metals, cement, agricultural products
  • GNI per capita: n/a
  • Internet domain: .kp
  • International dialling code: +850


Eternal president: Kim Il-sung (deceased)

Chairman, National Defence Commission: Kim Jong-il

Beyond the elaborate personality cult through which he rules, little is known about Kim Jong-il’s character.

Kim Jong-il

“Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il

He is rarely photographed and is almost never heard in radio and TV broadcasts.

After the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, Kim Jong-il did not immediately assume his father’s titles; there were reports that Kim Il-sung’s first choice as successor was the younger brother, Kim Yong-ju. Kim Jong-il eventually became head of the Korean Workers’ Party in 1997.

He is credited with writing six operas in two years, and with personally designing the huge Juche tower in Pyongyang.

In recent years he has met several world leaders, including the South Korean president and the Japanese prime minister. He has attended summits in Moscow and Beijing.

Mr Kim is sometimes caricatured as a reclusive playboy with bouffant hair, platform shoes and a taste for cognac.

There has been speculation about his health. Mr Kim is said to have gastric problems arising from his love of spicy food. Other reports suggest that he has liver problems. North Korea watchers believe that one of Mr Kim’s three sons will become the dictator’s anointed heir.

Kim Jong-il was born in Siberia in 1941 during his father’s period of exile in the former Soviet Union.

But official North Korean accounts say he was born in a log cabin at his father’s guerrilla base on the country’s highest mountain – an event marked by a double rainbow and a new star in the sky.


Radio and TV sets in North Korea are pre-tuned to government stations that pump out a steady stream of propaganda. The state has been dubbed the world’s worst violator of press freedom by the media rights body Reporters Without Frontiers.

North Koreans still live under the yoke of propaganda devoted entirely to the personality cult of Kim Jong-il
Reporters Without Borders, 2006

Press outlets and broadcasters – all of them under direct state control – serve up a menu of flattering reports about Kim Jong-il and his daily agenda. North Korea’s economic hardships or famines are not reported.

However, after the historic Korean summit in Pyongyang in 2000, media outlets toned down their fierce denunciations of the Seoul government.

Ordinary North Koreans caught listening to foreign broadcasts risk harsh punishments, such as forced labour.

North Korea has a minimal presence on the internet. The web pages of North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, are hosted by the agency’s bureau in Japan.

The press

  • Rodong Sinmun (Labour Daily) – organ of Korean Workers’ Party
  • Joson Inmingun (Korean People’s Army Daily)
  • Minju Choson (Democratic Korea) – government organ
  • Rodongja Sinmum (Workers’ Newspaper) – organ of trade union federation

Television and radio

  • Korean Central Broadcasting Station – radio station of Korean Workers’ Party
  • Korean Central TV – TV station of Korean Workers’ Party
  • Mansudae TV – cultural station
  • Voice of Korea – state-run external service, via shortwave

News agency


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