North Korea's history begins after World War II, when
Korea was divided into North Korea (Democratic People's
Republic of Korea) and South Korea (Republic of Korea), both
proclaimed as separate states in 1948. Between 1950 and
1953, the Korean War between North and South continued.
After the split, Kim Il Sung became leader of the Labor
Party in the Communist North. Since then, power has been
inherited, and his grandson Kim Jong-un is now the supreme
leader. The border between North and South Korea is the
world's most militarized, and North Korea is an extremely
closed and isolated country.
Kim Il Sung
Kim Il Sung held a strong but unquestioned leadership
position when North Korea was proclaimed its own state in
1948. He removed rival persons and groups, and by the end of
the 1950s all true opposition had been overcome. See
abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of North Korea. After
almost 25 years as prime minister (1948-1972) he became
president in 1972.
From 1945 until his death in 1994, he was leader of the
Communist Party with the official name of Korea's Labor
Party. The Korean variant of communism is based on Kim Il
Sung's juche ideology of "creating everything with
your own powers". The people's total support for Kim Il Sung
was strongly emphasized, and 30,000 statues were erected by
"The Great Leader", which was his official honorary title.
The elections in North Korea have been portrayed as total
victories with over 99 percent turnout and 100 percent yes
votes for party candidates.
In 1980, Kim Jong-il was named first party secretary and
ranked second in the hierarchy by father; later obvious
preparations were made for him to inherit his father's
position of power. Kim Il Sung had been commander-in-chief
of the armed forces since the Korean War, but on January 1,
1992, his son assumed this position with the rank of
marshal. He was also given responsibility for the country's
nuclear power plants, and thus a central position in the
conflict with the United States and the United Nations for
inspection of the country's nuclear facilities.
Kim Il Sung died on July 8, 1994. Kim Jong-il, who was
consistently called "The Dear Leader," gradually took over
his father's sovereign power and became the subject of the
same extreme personal cult. He has been considered among the
advocates of the hard line in Pyongyang, and had previously
been accused by South Korea of being the brain behind a
number of international terrorist attacks. In 1997, the
takeover of power was formalized by Kim Jong-il becoming the
party's secretary general (party leader) and then head of
state. At the same time, the party decided to introduce a
new era, which was based on Kim Il Sung's birth year 1912.
The deceased was now proclaimed North Korea's "forever
While the national juche ideology was founded by Kim Il
Sung, the so-called songun policy is linked to the heir Kim
Jong-il. Songun puts the armed forces at the center of
development as the "pillar of the revolution"; military
needs and expenses should therefore be given the highest
priority. The new line was launched in 1999 despite deep
economic crisis and hunger.
The Great Famine
In the mid-1990s, North Korea was hit by a widespread,
acute famine after a year of agriculture due to flood
damage. A massive international relief effort was launched
under the auspices of the UN and with the World Food Program
(WFP) as the main player. In 1995–1998, WFP provided the
necessary food to 7.9 million North Koreans from the most
vulnerable part of the population. Ancient enemy countries
such as the United States, Japan and South Korea were among
the largest contributors. Norway contributed approximately
NOK 30 million annually from the UD Disaster Fund. Since
1995, North Korea has been the world's largest recipient of
Researchers from the World Food Program and UNICEF
estimated in 1998 that 62 percent of children under seven
years suffered from chronic malnutrition, which in many
could lead to lasting loss. In 1999, UN personnel associated
with relief efforts estimated the number of deaths due to
starvation - directly or indirectly - to around two million.
The figure is very uncertain, partly because large areas
were closed to all external view.
With sustained food aid over a decade, the situation
improved significantly, but in 2005 WPF still provided daily
food rations to 6.5 million. Food shortages in the country
were still described as precarious. Over the years, WFP and
other organizations repeatedly complained that North Korea
only allowed limited control of distribution and
distribution; this led to speculation as to whether parts of
aid ended up with the military or the political elite.
During a sharp controversy in the fall of 2005, North Korea
rejected new demands for control measures, threatening the
expulsion of WFP representatives.
In 2006, the UN organization was declared undesirable in
North Korea and expelled staff, after demanding better
control of emergency aid distribution. WFP was allowed to
return in 2007, but was also unable to monitor distribution
north-east of the country, where food shortages were
believed to be most precarious.
In June 2008, however, some restrictions were eased. WFP
now gained access to 128 districts against only 50
previously, and could thus reach five to six million people
in need more directly. In July 2008, WFP labeled the food
shortage as perhaps the worst since the famine in the late
1990s, when over a million North Koreans are said to have
died of starvation. The Food Fund in particular pointed out
malnutrition among the youngest children.
In the spring of 2009, a large part of the population was
still suffering from food shortages. Norwegian Torben Due,
who heads the World Food Program in North Korea, in February
2009 described the situation as precarious. Lack of
resources meant that the UN organization was able to provide
food aid to just two million, while 8.7 million could need
such assistance, according to Due. Large parts of the
population live constantly on hunger. Still, widespread
famine can only be kept out the door with the help of
massive outside assistance.
Food and fuel should be the premium for stopping the
nuclear weapons program. On the contrary, North Korea has
stepped up its confrontation with the outside world. While
the national economy is on the verge of bankruptcy, the
regime is using large resources to develop nuclear weapons
and long-range rockets.
North Korea's own food production is estimated to reach
just over two-thirds of the population of about 23 million.
The dispute over the nuclear weapons program could lead to
further aggravation of the crisis. South Korea stopped food
aid after the second nuclear explosion in April 2009. It had
been over half a million tonnes a year. In August 2009, WFP
warned that food shortages had become even more precarious.
The world's willingness to help seemed to have been weakened
after North Korea's nuclear test in April of that year. Only
about 15 per cent of the food WFP had requested in its
appeal to the UN member states was only given.
1958 is officially considered the year when total
"socialization", or state control of the economy, was
implemented. Since then, all economic activity was run by
the state. Since the mid-1970s, North Korea has had a crisis
in its foreign economy. In the past, foreign trade was
almost exclusively with other communist countries, but to
keep up with South Korea, the capital imported Pyongyang
technology and entire industrial plants from the West. North
Korea later proved unable to pay the purchases, and in the
1990s was considered among the countries in the world with
the lowest credit rating.
In the early 1990s, the country plunged deeper into
economic crisis. A hard blow was that from 1991 both China
and the Soviet Union (later Russia) demanded settlement for
more of the hard currency trade and at market prices.
Extensive assistance from Moscow, including in the form of
cheap oil, stopped after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union had accounted for half the foreign trade,
but now trade with Moscow collapsed and foreign trade in
total shrunk by 40 percent. The energy shortage was acute.
Even before aid from the Eastern Bloc stopped, the economy
was about to stall, partly as a result of disproportionate
military spending. Compared to the population, North Korea
is believed to have the world's largest standing army.
Already in the 1980s malnutrition was widespread. After
the support of Communist countries fell away, North Korea
now became dependent on the world community to feed its
citizens. During the hunger crisis, North Korea seemed to
abandon some of its extreme isolationism, showing signs of a
beginning opening to the West. In 1996, a special economic
zone opened near the China border for foreign investors,
which, however, was pending. In the propaganda, the
juche ideology of self- preservation was still upheld.
This was a major setback when one of the leading juche
ideologues, Hwang Jang Yop, jumped off to South Korea in
North Korea's economy has largely been darkened, with
minimal information to the outside world. GDP, according to
Western estimates, showed a declining trend throughout the
1990s. However, at the turn of the millennium, North Korea
took cautious steps towards a mixed economy. Sensational
"adjustments" were announced in July 2002 in the form of an
economic decree. State aid should be cut back. Strict price
and wage controls were softened, with the opening for
industrial workers to receive bonus pay after efforts.
Selected farmers were now allowed to sell self-produced
goods in free markets; the framework for growing own
vegetables was expanded. Previously, the state distributed
matrations to 70 percent of the population through a strict
coupon system, and at largely low prices.
After the temporary new arrangement, the goods were to be
paid in cash. The transition to the new monetary economy was
obviously problematic for many. According to diplomatic
reports, there was a sharp rise in prices in the following
years, and greater social inequalities emerged, including in
the form of a partially starving subclass in the cities. It
seemed that the regime would to some extent follow China's
example of the 1980s and gradually soften an extremely rigid
planning economy while maintaining the political power
monopoly. The economic decree in 2002 came just months after
Kim Jong Il had been to China on his first foreign trip in
17 years. The visit should have aroused interest in the
Chinese development model.
The new guidelines were seen as a first step to get out
of economic disabilities and political isolation, but in
2005 the authorities tightened again. The reform line was
tightened further in 2006. According to diplomatic reports,
all men were then again prohibited from conducting private
business. In 2007, the ban should have been extended to all
women under the age of 50. The tightening since 2005 may
indicate that the regime fears losing control if market
forces are not kept in very tight bridges.
Lack of reliable data makes it difficult to assess North
Korea's economic situation. The government only states
percentage changes in the state budget and foreign trade.
Pyongyang's own claims of good economic growth are
questioned by international analysts. While the national
economy seems to be on the verge of bankruptcy, the regime
is using large resources to develop nuclear weapons and an
advanced rocket arsenal.
North Korea was long under the strong Soviet influence,
but in Khrushchev's time struck a prokinesian line. From
1966, the country sought to mark itself as independent and
avoid being dominated by some of the communist great powers,
but received considerable financial assistance from both.
With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism
in Western Europe in the early 1990s, aid fell in. Until the
1960s, North Korea only had links with other communist
countries, but then led a diplomatic offensive in the Third
In 1973, the Nordic countries became the first in the
Western world to establish diplomatic relations with North
Korea. In 1976, all North Korean diplomats in Norway,
Sweden, Denmark and Finland were expelled for extensive
smuggling and illegal sales of spirits and cigarettes. In
1996, three diplomats, who were also later accredited to
Norway, were expelled from Sweden following a new smuggling
In 1993, North Korea clashed with the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over its nuclear energy program.
The North Koreans then began replacing fuel rods from their
five megawatt large reactor in Yongbyon without mandatory
control. North Korea had signed the non-proliferation
agreement, but for years, despite the agreement's provisions
to allow IAEA inspectors to release. This was particularly
true of two plants in which the West suspected that the
North Koreans had transformed spent nuclear fuel into
plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Former US President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) negotiated
an agreement in Pyongyang in 1994 in which North Korea
pledged to halt a nuclear weapons program, including failing
to enrich 8,000 burnt fuel rods, which could have given
plutonium to four or five nuclear bombs. In 1999, North
Korea continued to freeze its long-range ballistic missile
program, and the United States pledged to ease financial
Following the historic summit in the summer of 2000
between the heads of state of Korea, Pyongyang seemed to
have embarked on a more conciliatory line. What had long
been called the world's last Stalinist state was recognized
in 2001 and diplomatic relations were established with the
EU and 13 of the EU's 15 member states. Until then, Sweden
was the only western country to have an embassy in
Pyongyang. A more active dialogue with the United States and
other countries was initiated in the shadow of the famine
disaster with its continuing need for outside assistance.
Relations with the United States are renewed when President
George W. Bush in January 2002 described North Korea as part
of the " axis of evil ".
After an apparent breakthrough in the nuclear
negotiations in 2007, the US and North Korea for the first
time agreed on cultural exchange. In February 2008, the New
York Philharmonic joined Pyongyang on guest appearances. The
concert began with both national anthems. There were now
hopes that the "symphony diplomacy" would also usher in a
political hesitancy here where the Cold War has not yet
However, North Korea still has its fierce disputes
against the United States even after Barack Obama took over
the presidential post in Washington. In advance of Secretary
of State Hillary Clinton's visit to South Korea in February
2009, North Korea accused the United States of making active
preparations for nuclear war. Pyongyang also declared war on
South Korea. Clinton responded by warning North Korea
against provocation, and called for respect for agreements
Obama reacted sharply when North Korea conducted a trial
launch in April that the US government believed was a test
of the long-range missile Taepodong-2. The US fears that,
after further development, Taepodong-2 will be able to reach
US territory with nuclear warheads. Hopes for diplomatic
thugs were raised in August when former President Bill
Clinton (1993–2001) made a surprising “private” visit to try
to get two US journalists imprisoned. Clinton was received
by Kim Jong Il. The meeting led Kim to pardon the two, who
were allowed to travel with Clinton back to the United
States. After the visit, North Korea appeared to be more
reconciled, and willingly agreed to talks with the United
Relations with Japan have been tense after North Korea,
at its own discretion, fired rockets over Japanese
territory. With its medium-range missiles, North Korea
should be able to reach all cities in Japan. Serial
kidnappings of Japanese citizens to North Korea have been a
different theme for many years. In 2008, Pyongyang said he
was willing to accept new investigations into the case of an
unknown number of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean
agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Pyongyang has admitted to
abducting 13 Japanese citizens and allowing five of them,
allegedly the only survivors, to visit Japan in 2002.
However, Japan claims at least 37 have been abducted to
North Korea and some are still alive. North Korea's lack of
cooperation in this matter has long hampered the
normalization of relations with Japan.
North Korea's nuclear history
It sparked international dismay when, in October 2002,
North Korea quite openly admitted to leading the world: The
regime had kept a secret nuclear weapons program going for
years, contravening the 1994 agreement. The North Koreans
now even claimed that they had already manufactured nuclear
weapons. However, the world was in the wild as to whether
this was a bluff aimed at making use of the nuclear threat
as political and economic pressure. Internationally, the
alarm went serious when, in January 2003, Pyongyang threw
out inspectors from the United Nations Atomic Energy Agency
IAEA and wrecked the treaty against the proliferation of
Following constant pressure from the outside world, Kim
Jong Il agreed in August 2003 on multinational discussions
about the weapons program. At the negotiating table in
Beijing besides the host country China also included the US,
South Korea, Japan and Russia. During the negotiation game,
in March 2005, North Korea officially declared itself a
nuclear power with purportedly developed nuclear weapons.
After six difficult rounds of negotiations, an agreement was
signed in September 2005 in which North Korea in principle
promises to end the weapons program against various
objections. However, the parties immediately disagreed on
how the agreement should be interpreted, implemented and
monitored. North Korea declared that the country would still
not run the nuclear program until clear benefits were put on
the table. Thus, the tug of war continued without a final
solution. Skeptics have pointed to North Korea's tradition
of surprising play and breach of contract, with the 1994
agreement on the scrapping of the weapons program as one
In July 2006, North Korea conducted missiles with
different-range missiles, including the long-range
Taepodong-2. This is believed to be a fully developed
three-stage rocket capable of reaching parts of the United
States (Alaska, Hawaii, Guam). However, it crashed shortly
after the US National Day shooting on July 4. The rocket
tests were condemned by the UN Security Council.
September 4, 2009, North Korea with an announcement that
the experiments with the enrichment of uranium was reached a
"successful final phase." The announcement is considered to
be the clearest sign of Pyongyang's dual nuclear weapons
program going on for years. Unlike the official plutonium
program, the uranium project has been kept secret. Now it
was announced that North Korea is also preparing to
manufacture nuclear weapons using uranium, having mastered
the technological challenges associated with this fissile
Extreme for human rights
For decades, official propaganda has consistently drawn a
picture of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea as
something of a paradise on earth, thanks to an "ingenious"
and almost divine leadership. With strict control of all
information, the propaganda image has been left without
correction. All radio and television sets are locked and
sealed at one official frequency; The seal is checked
several times a year. People have been severely punished for
listening to foreign radio broadcasts illegally.
Based on satellite observations and information from
shoppers, humanitarian organizations claim that a network of
prisons and labor camps houses an estimated 200,000
political prisoners. The prisoners are reportedly living on
the verge of starvation and subjected to abuse. Organized
political opposition is virtually unknown; most of them are
allegedly penalized because during the hunger crisis they
have tried to cross the border into China. Chinese
authorities are criticized because starving North Koreans
are being forced back as "economic immigrants" to an
uncertain fate in the penal camps. Amnesty International has
pointed out that universal human rights in North Korea are
described as illegitimate and hostile.
In contrast, impressive mass patterns of dance and games
stand on the regime's feast days. Over 100,000 participated
in the designs during the celebration of North Korea's 60th
anniversary in October 2005.
In October 2006, the UN General Assembly passed a
resolution complaining of systematic, comprehensive and
serious human rights violations in North Korea. Among the
abuses that are common here are " torture, extrajudicial and
arbitrary detention and executions, absence of legal
security, death penalty on political grounds, a large number
of prison camps and extensive use of forced labor."
The North Korean government commits "active crimes
against humanity to its own people," the UN resolution
states. They allowed around a million people to die of
starvation in the 1990s, while the authorities prioritized
resources for the military and the nuclear weapons program.
International food supplies have largely been used for their
own political gain.
North Korea has detained some 200,000 people in political
prison camps. Not only are alleged opposites imprisoned, but
so are their family members. Both the elderly and the
children are arrested under a special system for collective
guilt in three generations, according to the UN resolution.
Under the rule of guilt for several generations, children
and parents of convicted persons have also been placed in
forced labor camps. This practice was introduced by Kim Il
Sung under the slogan: "Class enemies, no matter who they
are, must be purged of punishment for three generations."
The labor camps, which by critical voices are called
"North Korea's GUL ", have aroused little interest in the
outside world. Despite disclosures in research reports and
documentaries, South Korea failed to criticize human rights
violations in the north for nearly a decade. The South
Koreans refrained from voting on UN resolutions that
criticized the regime, and did not mention the camps during
the summits with North Korea in 2000 and 2007. Instead, the
so-called sunshine policy was advocated in the name of
reconciliation with large, unconditional donations of food
and manure. However, under President Lee Myung Bak's rule,
South Korea has supported UN resolutions that punish the
regime in the north.
The camps have also not been discussed during meetings
between US diplomats and North Korean authorities. Under
President Clinton, contacts were almost exclusively about
preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.
President George W. Bush labeled North Korea as part of the
"axis of evil" and met several survivors of the camps, but
there was no contact with Washington-Pyongyang until North
Korea in 2006 detonated its first nuclear explosion. Since
then the negotiations were exclusively about disarmament.
Even during the Obama administrations, the camps have been a
When Kim Jong Il died in December 2011, the Kim dynasty
was passed on to the third generation. His youngest official
son, Kim Jong-un, was then designated as his successor and
commander-in-chief of the Korean People's Army.
Nobody outside the inner circles of power in North Korea
knows very much about him. Born in 1984, he has been a
student at an international school in Switzerland. Here he
is said to have gone on to be the son of a North Korean
embassy driver, and otherwise made himself known as a
supporter of the basketball team and as an aggressive player
out on the field. Before taking over his father's office, he
worked at the party's propaganda department. Elder son Kim
Jong Nam was originally said to have been the father's
chosen but "lost face" after an embarrassing episode: He was
arrested by Japanese police as he tried to get into Japan
with a false passport. The grounds were a strong desire to
experience Tokyo Disneyland.