Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) country brief

Overview

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) is a highly centralised totalitarian state. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, it maintains one of the largest militaries and devotes significant resources to nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs, which pose a serious threat to regional security and a major challenge to global non-proliferation objectives.

Australia maintains limited diplomatic relations with the DPRK, but the relationship is severely constrained by Australia's deep concerns over the DPRK's nuclear weapons and missile programs. Australia strongly condemns the DPRK’s nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches – all of which are destabilising in the region and in contravention of United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions. Australia has repeatedly called on the DPRK to cease its provocative behavior, abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and engage constructively with the international community.

Other serious provocations include the testing of three intercontinental ballistic missiles in July and November 2017; two flyovers of Japan of intermediate range ballistic missiles; the assassination of Kim Jong-nam at an international airport using a powerful nerve agent; the DPRK's shelling of the Republic of Korea's (ROK, also known as South Korea) Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 ; the disclosure of a uranium-enrichment program in November 2010; and the sinking of the ROK naval vessel, the Cheonan, in March 2010. Australia continues to work closely with the UN, the ROK, the United States, Japan and other countries in support of DPRK denuclearisation and maintains strong sanctions against the DPRK.

Australia's bilateral aid program to the DPRK was suspended in 2002 due to concerns about the DPRK's nuclear weapons program. Separately, Australia provided more than $90 million in humanitarian assistance to the people of North Korea through the UN World Food Programme (WFP) between 1994 and 2015. Australia continues to raise its concerns over social conditions and human rights violations in the DPRK.

History

The Korean Peninsula was first unified as a sovereign state in 918 under the Goryeo Dynasty (the source of the English name "Korea"). In 1392, the Joseon Dynasty took power, and ruled until it was replaced by the Korean Empire in 1897. From 1910 to 1945, the Korean Peninsula was subject to colonial rule by Japan. Following Japan's defeat in World War II, Korea was temporarily divided into two occupied zones along the 38th parallel, with the United States administering the southern half and the Soviet Union administering the northern half. Initial plans to unify the Peninsula quickly dissolved due to domestic opposition and the politics of the Cold War. In 1948, new governments were established in the two occupied zones – the ROK and the DPRK.

Reflecting the policies of the two temporarily occupying powers, the US and the (then) Soviet Union, the ROK and DPRK operated under vastly different political, economic and social systems. The DPRK invasion of the ROK led to the Korean War from 1950-53. Australia committed more than 17,000 troops to serve as part of UN forces in support of the ROK. 340 Australians died in the war and over 1,216 were wounded. The 1953 armistice ended the conflict, though a more comprehensive peace agreement has not been negotiated.

Geography

North Korea is located in North-East Asia on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula and has an area of 120,538 km². It has 1,671.5 kilometres of land boundaries; of these, 1,416 kilometres are with China, 238 kilometres with South Korea, and 17.5 kilometres with Russia. These borders run along the Yalu River (China), the Tumen River (China and Russia), and the Demilitarized Zone (Republic of Korea). The Yellow Sea and Korea Bay (an extension of the Yellow Sea) lie off the west coast and the Sea of Japan lies off the east coast.

The terrain consists mostly of medium-sized mountain ranges and large hills, separated by deep, narrow valleys. The highest peak on the Peninsula, Mount Paekdu, is located on its northern border with China, and rises to 2,744 m. It is an active volcano and with a caldera lake, which many Koreans consider to be their countries' spiritual home. The west coast has wide coastal plains, while along the eastern coastline, narrow plains rise into mountains. As with the Republic of Korea, dozens of small islands dot the western coastline.

The mountain ranges in the northern and eastern parts of North Korea form the watershed for most of its rivers, which run in a westerly direction and empty into the Yellow Sea and Korea Bay. North Korea's longest river is the Yalu. Other large rivers include the Tumen, Daedong and Imjin. The Daedong River, flows through the capital, Pyongyang. It is North Korea’s third largest river and is navigable for 245 of its 397 km.

Political overview

The DPRK has a centralised government strictly controlled by the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). In May 2016, the WPK held its 7th Workers’ Party Congress, the first since 1980, during which Kim Jong Un was elected Chairman. The government operates under the national guiding principles of juche ( self-reliance ), songun (military first) and byungjin ( the parallel development of the economy and of the nuclear weapons program).

Important positions in the government, economy and the military are held by party members or officials, and WPK Secretaries generally exercise greater authority over policy and administrative issues than government ministers. Although open to mass membership, access to the WPK is denied to those without a 'reliable' class background. Official party membership is estimated at over three million.

Under the DPRK Constitution, which has been amended many times, the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) is the DPRK's highest legislative body. In theory, the SPA appoints the President, approves the national budget, enacts laws and sets forth the country's basic policies, including foreign and defence policy. In reality, the SPA serves to ratify WPK decisions.

Three key entities control the DPRK government: the Cabinet oversees government ministries and is the dominant administrative and executive agency; the Politburo of the Central  Committee is the top decision-making body of the WPK and is responsible for directing Party affairs on a day-to-day basis; and the State Affairs Commission (SAC) is the DPRK's highest office of state and is responsible for a range of national policy areas, including external and internal security, and foreign and inter-Korean policies.

The Kims

North Korea’s political leadership since the 1980s can be described as the suryong (leader) system. This system serves to perpetuate the guidance of the leader through hereditary succession. While it draws some influence from Leninism, it is primarily based on juche ideology, and the political leadership of the suryong has been elevated above that of the WPK. This system requires unconditional and absolute obedience to the “guidance” of the suryong as the supreme leader of society and the WPK conveys this guidance to the people.

The DPRK's first leader was Kim Il Sung, revered in the DPRK as the 'Great Leader'. Kim Il-sung fought with Chinese communists in the 1930s against the Japanese occupation, before moving to the Soviet Union in 1940, where he received training and backing. Following Japan's defeat in 1945, Kim Il Sung was installed by the Soviets as head of the Provincial People's Committee and, in 1948, on the proclamation of the DPRK, became its Premier. Kim Il Sung held all key party positions including WPK General-Secretary, Member of the Presidium of the Politburo and Chairman of the Central Military Commission until his death in 1994, when he was designated "Eternal President". Kim Il Sung's oldest son, Kim Jong Il, was appointed General-Secretary of the WPK in 1997.

From 1994, Kim Jong Il was the DPRK's de facto leader, exercising executive power as Chairman of the National Defence Commission (now the SAC), as well as General-Secretary of the WPK and Supreme Commander of the People's Armed Forces.

Following Kim Jong Il's death in December 2011, his third son Kim Jong Un was quickly declared the Great Successor and Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army. Kim Jong Il’s other children included Kim Jong Nam ( assassinated at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February 2017), Kim Jong Chul and two known daughters, Kim Yo Jong and Kim Sol Song. In April 2012, Kim Jong Un assumed his father's positions as head of the ruling WPK (as General-Secretary) and Chairman of the National Defence Commission. On 9 May 2016 Kim Jong Un was elected Chairman of the WPK following the first WPK Congress in 36 years. In October 2017, Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was elected to the Central Committee Politburo.

Key political figures

Kim Jong- Un

Supreme Commander of the People's Armed Forces; Chairman of the WPK; Chairman of the SAC

Hwang Pyong- So

Vice Marshall, Director of the KPA's General Political Bureau, Vice Chairman of the SAC, Presidium Member of the WPK Political Bureau

Kim Yong- Nam

President of the SPA Presidium (performs formalities of head of state); Presidium Member of the WPK Political Bureau; not related to Kim Jong Un

Pak Pong-Ju

Premier; Vice-Chairman of the SAC, Presidium Member of the WPK Political Bureau

Ri Su-Yong

Former Minister for Foreign Affairs; Member of the SAC

Ri Yong-Ho

Minister for Foreign Affairs

Kim Yo Jong

Sister of Kim Jong Un, Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers' Party of Korea and Alternate Member, Political Bureau of the WKP Central Committee.

Economic overview

The DPRK has a centrally planned economy that, for the most part, operates outside international economic, banking and trade systems. The allocation of food rations, housing, healthcare and education is controlled by the state. Taxes were abolished in 1974 although mandatory contributions of food and labour remain a fact of life. The DPRK is one of the poorest countries in the world, and has fallen far behind the ROK in economic development and living standards.  Out-dated infrastructure and poor energy supply remain serious obstacles to economic growth.

Since coming to power, Kim Jong Un has eased restrictions on foreign currency and private enterprise.  There are regular reports of greater use of private markets and ‘kitchen gardens’ to supplement insufficient government rations.

The DPRK stopped publishing economic statistics (Net Material Product tables) in 1965, and no state budget numbers have been announced since the 2001 financial year. Consequently, accurate economic statistics for the DPRK are difficult to obtain, vary widely and are impossible to verify due to the closed nature of its society. The Bank of Korea estimated the DPRK's 2016 GDP at US$ 28.5 billion. The DPRK has expanded international trade over the last decade, but the total value remains low, estimated at US$6.3 billion in 2015. UN Security Council resolutions adopted in 2016 and 2017 have banned over 90 per cent of the DPRK’s publicly reported 2016 exports.

Contributing to the DPRK's poor economic performance is the disproportionately large share of GDP assigned to the military. The DPRK has placed a high priority on maintaining a strong defence capability, with most aspects of the economy and society revolving around defence-related programs. For many years, Pyongyang has mounted an extensive effort to prepare the population for war and has consistently proclaimed its overriding objective of reunifying the Korean Peninsula. The DPRK maintains an active-duty military force of up to 1.2 million personnel, and possibly 4.5 million reservists, one of the largest in the world.

China is the DPRK's principal trading partner, accounting for the vast majority of the DPRK's total trade in 2016 (mostly anthracite coal, other resources and textiles). Before the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) the ROK accounted for around 2 per cent of the DPRK's total trade in 2014. The GIC, where the majority of inter-Korean commercial cooperation took place, was a special economic zone established by the DPRK and the ROK close to the demilitarized zone that separates the DPRK and the ROK. The ROK cancelled cooperation with the DPRK at the complex in February 2016, arguing that the income from the zone had been used by Pyongyang to finance its nuclear and missile programs. The DPRK in turn froze all assets at the complex, expelling all South Koreans and declaring it a military security area.

Humanitarian Situation

The DPRK faces regular natural disasters and ongoing humanitarian emergencies, including food shortages. In 1995, record floods and fallout from the collapse of the intra-communist bloc subsidised trading system caused severe food shortages which some sources estimate resulted in up to two million DPRK citizens dying from starvation and hunger-related illnesses. While the situation is not as serious as during the crisis in 1996-97, chronic food shortages are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The DPRK was heavily reliant on international humanitarian assistance, but this has been in decline since 2008, when the United States suspended humanitarian aid in response to concerns over the DPRK's nuclear and proliferation activities. Serious flooding in September 2016 again highlighted the vulnerability of the North Korean population.

Resource shortages and inadequate sanitation facilities have led to serious public health concerns, including the re-emergence of diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria. Existing health services are unable to tackle increasing health problems and the prevalence of acute malnutrition.

Social Conditions and Human Rights

Australia continues to raise its grave concerns over serious human rights violations in the DPRK. Violations extend to the systematic and daily denial of basic freedoms, including freedoms of expression, religion and association, extensive torture, public executions, collective punishment (including imprisonment of the families of dissenters), and the extensive use of forced labour camps with abhorrent conditions.

The DPRK government subjects its citizens to a pervasive program of indoctrination and close surveillance. Although some households have radios and television sets, reception is restricted to government broadcasts. All mass organisations are directed at supporting the regime. Community access to the internet is strictly prohibited, with only limited access for select users.

Internal travel in the DPRK is strictly controlled, with a travel pass required for any movement outside one's hometown. Permission is required in order to enter or reside in Pyongyang, and foreign travel is severely restricted . Tourism by North Koreans, even to other communist countries and among the elite, is limited. Strictly controlled tourism by foreigners to the DPRK, generally on package holidays, is permitted.

In March 2013, the UN Human Rights Council mandated a Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in the DPRK. The Commission, chaired by former Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby, released its report on 17 February 2014. The report gives a detailed account of widespread and systematic human rights violations, and contains a number of recommendations for the DPRK, other states, and the international community. The Inquiry concluded that in many instances, the violations of human rights found by the Commission constitute crimes against humanity. Australia urges the DPRK to adopt the recommendations of this report and to cooperate with efforts to hold to account those responsible for grave human rights violations.

The UN Security Council considered ‘the situation in the DPRK’ on 22 December 2014 and reviewed human rights issues. The item was again discussed by the UN Security Council on 10 December 2015, 9 December 2016 and 11 December 2017.

The DPRK has acknowledged that in the 1970s and 1980s, it abducted a number of Japanese citizens who were forced to teach Japanese language skills to DPRK military and government officials. While some of the victims have been returned to Japan, the two countries are yet to agree on the number of people affected. The Australian Government supports Japan's calls for the DPRK to provide a full accounting of the issue.

The DPRK Nuclear Issue

The DPRK's nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a grave threat to regional security and a serious challenge to international non-proliferation efforts. Australia continues to work closely with the United Nations, the ROK, the United States, Japan, China and other countries in support of international efforts to bring about an end to the DPRK's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.

It has been reported that the DPRK first began to pursue nuclear technology as early as 1956. The DPRK has completed two nuclear reactors, both located at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centre.  It has conducted six nuclear tests, the most recent on 3 September 2017.  Under Kim Jong Un, the pace of testing has increased.  In 2016 the DPRK conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 ballistic missile launches. In 2017, the DPRK conducted over 21 launches including three launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and two intermediate range ballistic missiles which flew over Japan.

In addition to UNSC resolutions, the DPRK nuclear and missile programs also violate a number of commitments and agreements made by the DPRK.  In 1985, the DPRK joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state, only to declare its withdrawal in 2003. In 1992, the DPRK and the ROK agreed the Joint Declaration for a Non-Nuclear Korean Peninsula and, in 1994, the DPRK and the United States signed an Agreed Framework aimed at ending the DPRK's nuclear weapons programs. The DPRK has also reneged on commitments made during the Six Party Talks process (which was initiated by China in August 2003 between the DPRK, the ROK, China, the United States, Japan and Russia) and in the “Leap Day Agreement”, made between the US and the DPRK on 29 February 2012. 

Inter-Korea Relations

The ROK and North Korea reopened direct communication after almost two years, with talks in Panmunjom on 9 January 2018.  Subsequently, North Korea’s de facto head of state, Kim Yong Nam, led a delegation accompanied by Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong to attend the opening of the Winter Olympics. Olympians from both Koreas marched under one flag.  At a meeting on 10 February 2018 in Seoul, Kim Yo Jong, extended an invitation to President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang for talks.

An ROK delegation visited North Korea on 5-6 March, and High-level talks between North and South Korea wereheld in Panmunjom on 29 March 2018, to prepare for a summit between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un. Both parties have agreed to hold the inter-Korean summit on 27 April 2018.

Following the DPRK's fourth nuclear test in January 2016, the ROK froze all cooperation and interaction between the two Koreas, including the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC).  At the time, inter-Korean relations were already diminished following the ROK's introduction of “May 24 Measures” in 2010, which prohibited or diminished many aspects of inter-Korean cooperation. 

The May 24 Measures were a response to the sinking of the ROK naval vessel Cheonan on 26 March 2010 by a DPRK submarine, killing 46 crew members.  Following a ROK-led investigation, then-Prime Minister Rudd joined leaders from around the world in condemning the attack as a flagrant violation of the UN Charter and the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement. Other provocations include a DPRK artillery attack on the ROK's Yeonpyeong Island on 23 November 2010, which killed four and wounded 55 citizens. Further, in the first week of August 2015, a mine planted by DPRK troops went off at the DMZ, wounding two ROK soldiers. In response to the landmine, the ROK started loudspeaker broadcasts to the North, across the DMZ, and an exchange of artillery fire occurred. On 25 August both parties reached an agreement which eased military tensions.  The last official talks held between the two countries were in December 2015.

While the Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) and the Lee Myeong-bak (2008-2013) administrations saw a reduction in inter-Korean cooperation, there have been periods of heightened cooperation between the two countries.  ROK inter-Korean policy under the Kim Dae-jung administration (1998–2003) emphasised a 'sunshine policy' of engagement with the DPRK. President Kim's overriding objective was to secure regional peace and stability, and build a firm foundation for reconciliation with the North and the eventual reunification of the Peninsula. This approach was continued by the succeeding Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003–2008). These periods saw increased trade, humanitarian aid, tourism and family reunions between the two countries. While a proponent of strong sanctions and the international pressure campaign, the current Moon Jae-in Administration (inaugurated on 10 May 2017) also favours negotiation and engagement with the DPRK where possible. However, the regular tempo of DPRK weapons tests has limited opportunities for engagement, while the DPRK has been unresponsive to proposals.

The DPRK’s international relations deteriorated in 2017 due to its ongoing, illegal development of nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. The United Nations Security Council agreed on greatly expanded sanctions against the DPRK in resolutions 2270 and 2321 of 2016 (adopted 2 March and 30 November respectively) and 2371 (5 August) and 2375 (11 September) of 2017. Many countries have downgraded their relationship or cooperation with the DPRK.  However, a number of countries still maintain diplomatic representation in Pyongyang or host DPRK embassies.  The DPRK’s continued commitment to its nuclear and missile programs has put a severe strain on many of its international relationships.

Bilateral relations

Australia and the DPRK established diplomatic relations in 1974. The DPRK opened an Embassy in Canberra in December 1974, and Australia opened an Embassy in Pyongyang in April 1975. Diplomatic relations were interrupted in November 1975, when the DPRK withdrew its Embassy from Canberra and expelled Australian Embassy staff from Pyongyang.

In the period after 1975, Australia maintained limited contact with the DPRK. All contact ceased during the 1993-1994 nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, but resumed with a number of unofficial and privately sponsored bilateral visits in the late 1990s.

In May 2000, Australia resumed diplomatic relations through the Australian Embassy in Beijing. The DPRK re-opened an Embassy in Canberra in May 2002, but closed it in January 2008. Diplomatic relations are now conducted via the DPRK's Embassy in Jakarta and Australia's Embassy in Seoul.

Aid

Australia suspended bilateral development assistance to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in late 2002 given concerns about the DPRK's nuclear program.

Australia does not currently provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea, due to concerns about aid money being diverted to support the DPRK’s weapons programs and lack of access. Between 1994 and 2015, Australia provided over $90 million in humanitarian assistance with a focus on food and nutritional supplementation which targets vulnerable groups. The humanitarian assistance was provided to the UN World Food Programme - not the DPRK authorities.

Commercial links and sanctions

Before initiating business dealings, Australian companies are advised to conduct thorough due diligence and seek appropriate independent legal advice to determine if the proposed dealings will violate the comprehensive sanctions Australia imposes in respect of the DPRK. Information concerning Australia’s sanctions on the DPRK can be found at DFAT’s sanctions webpage.

Australian companies should also be aware of the poor payment record of many DPRK agencies in past commercial ventures.

Last Updated: 3 May 2018