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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone; written about seven years ago but not much has changed)

North Korea is a country in eastern Asia which is frequently in the news for all the wrong reasons. The communist economy performs poorly and famine has been a problem since 1994. Despite this, the country has one of the largest armies and has a controversial nuclear program. There are reports of a brutal government allowing few human rights.


Korea was split after World War II and the northern section came under Soviet influence after gaining independence from Japan on 15 August 1945. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, was founded on 9 September 1948. North Korea failed to defeat South Korea in the Korean War of 1950-53 and adopted a policy of self-reliance. It was also the country’s aim to “unify” Korea, but under the leadership of the communist north.

Since its famine of the mid 1990s, North Korea has relied on international aid to feed its people, but maintains an army of over one million. In 2002, the country was found to be carrying out a nuclear weapons program, and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. It tested ballistic missiles in 2006. Pressure from the international community led to North Korea agreeing to wind back its nuclear program.


North Korea is located in eastern Asia on the northern part of the Korean Peninsula between Korea Bay and the Sea of Japan. Its total coastline is 1,550 miles in length. It has a 150 mile border with South Korea, an 880 mile border with China to the north-west, and a 12 mile border with Russia in the north. To its east is Japan. It has a total area of 46,500 square miles, about the size of Mississippi.

The country has a temperate climate with most rainfall in the summer months. It often suffers drought in late spring, followed by flooding. Most of the country is mountainous, with narrow valleys. The highest mountain is Paektu-san with an altitude of 9,000 feet. It has a wide coastal plain in the west and in parts of the east. About 22 per cent of the land is arable and 1.7 per cent is under crop.

North Korea is fairly rich in natural resources, including substantial reserves of coal, lead, zinc, iron ore, copper, and gold. Environmental problems include water pollution and a lack of drinking water. Deforestation has led to erosion and degradation of soil.


The country had a population of 23.3 million in July 2007, slightly larger than Australia. It has a reasonably young population with median age of 32.4 years, including about 31 years for males and 34 years for females. Its population is growing at about 0.8 per cent a year. All its growth comes from births and deaths as North Korea officially has no migration. Life expectancy at birth is 72 years, with males expected to live to 69 years and females to 75 years.

Apart from a small number of mainly Chinese and Japanese, the population is Korean. Main religions are Buddhism and Confucianism, although religion is fairly suppressed despite the government sponsoring religious groups. More than 7 in 10 people are recorded as atheists. The only language of any significance is Korean. Literacy is high with 99 per cent of the population able to read and write.

The capital city is Pyongyang, founded more than 4,000 years ago as Wanggomsong, in the country’s south. It has a population of probably more than three million, although the official figure isn’t given. Next largest cities are Hamhung with 870,000 people and Nampho with 455,000. Eleven other cities have populations of 100,000 or more.


North Korea has a communist system of government headed by a dictator. The leader since 1994 has been Kim Jong-Il (now Kim Jong-un, since 2011) of the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland party, a coalition of three parties, the main one being the Korean Workers’ Party.

The country is divided into nine provinces and four municipalities. Its legal system is based on the old Prussian civil law system, with strong communist influence. There is no judicial review of legislation. North Korea holds “elections”, with the last one in September 2003. The unicameral parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, approves the only candidates who are then elected unopposed. Certain minor parties are tolerated and they hold a few seats.

Its flag has three bands of blue, red and blue. The red band has a white edge and white disk with red five-pointed star.


North Korea has a centrally run closed economy. Infrastructure is old and in disrepair. The country doesn’t have reliable national accounting data, although gross domestic product has been estimated at $23 billion, which is believed to be less than 1980s levels. This equates to about $1,000 per person, about four per cent of the level in South Korea and little more than two per cent of the United States figure.

An estimated 23 per cent of output comes from agriculture, 43 per cent from industry, and 34 per cent from services. Agriculture mainly consists of rice, corn, soybeans, potatoes, and cattle. Industries include military manufactures, machinery, electricity, chemicals, mining, textiles, and food processing. Exports are $1.5 billion a year, mainly to South Korea (32 per cent) and China (29 per cent). Its external debt is $12.5 billion. The official exchange rate in 2006 was 141 won per US dollar, although the market figure was 2,500-3,000 won per US dollar, making it worth only a fraction of its official value.

There have been food shortages every year since 1994. Malnutrition is widespread and living conditions are poor. Private farmers’ markets have been permitted to sell a range of goods since 2002, but the government partly wound back this policy in 2005.

It refused international humanitarian aid from 2005 and relies mainly on China and South Korea. However, the government capitulated in 2007 and asked for aid after the worst floods in 40 years hit the country.

Transport and communication

The country has about one million telephones, or one for every 23 people. The number of mobile phones rose from 3,000 in 2002 to 20,000 in 2004, but they were then banned. It has a number of AM radio stations, including 11 belonging to the Korean Central Broadcasting Station. It also has cable radio connected to most houses and businesses, feeding people news and commentary. It has had FM only since 2006. There are four television stations.

North Korea has 77 airports, with 36 having paved runways. Its railway system has 3,250 miles of track, with about 2,200 miles electrified. Its 15,800 miles of roadways include only 450 miles of paved roads. The country’s 1,400 miles of waterways are mainly only navigable to small vessels.


The country’s army is called the North Korean People’s Army and consists of ground forces as well as a navy, an air force, and civil security forces. All residents have to serve in the military for a period from age 17 years. North Korea has the world’s fourth largest military system with 1.2 million armed personnel. In 2005, the country had 9.6 million males and females aged 17-49 years available for military service.

A “military first” policy was adopted in 1995 after a major famine and the collapse of its major trading partner, the USSR. The country does not release details of military spending but it is estimated to be around $5 billion a year, or 20-25 per cent of gross domestic product.


North Korea’s literature, music, film, and theatre tend to revolve around glorifying late president Kim Il-sung and his son and current leader Kim Jong-Il (now his son Kim Jong-un, since 2011). The major cultural event in the country is the Mass Games. They run for two months, six nights a week, and involve more than 100,000 performers participating in dancing, gymnastics, and other routines.