Flag of the Democratci People's Republic of Korea

Democratic People's Republic of Korea country brief


The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) is a highly centralised communist state. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and relies heavily on external assistance. Despite this, it maintains one of the largest militaries in the world 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 diplomatic relations with the DPRK, but the relationship is severely constrained by Australia's concerns over the DPRK's nuclear weapons and missile programs. The relationship was further strained by the DPRK's third nuclear test in February 2013 and launch of a long-range rocket in December 2012 in contravention of United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions. Earlier serious provocations included 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 has been suspended since 2002 due to concerns about the DPRK's nuclear weapons program. Australia's aid to the DPRK is limited to humanitarian assistance provided to the DPRK through the UN World Food Programme and other international agencies. Australia continues to raise its concerns over social conditions and human rights violations in the DPRK. The Australian Government is prepared to take forward its bilateral relationship, but for this to occur, Australia would need the DPRK to make substantial progress towards denuclearisation and cease all provocative actions that reduce the stability of the Korean Peninsula.


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, with the United States administering the southern half and the Soviet Union administering the area north of the 38th parallel. 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 Soviet Union, the ROK and DPRK operated under vastly different political, economic and social systems. Unresolved tensions created by the division led to the Korean War of 1950-53, which was sparked by the DPRK invasion of the ROK. Australia committed more than 18,000 troops to serve under UN command in support of the ROK, and 340 Australians died in the war. The 1953 armistice ended the conflict, though a more comprehensive peace agreement has not been negotiated and technically, the two sides remain at war.

Political overview

The DPRK has a centralised government, strictly controlled by the nominally communist Korean Workers' Party (KWP), to which all government officials belong. The government operates under the national guiding principles of juche "self-reliance", and songun "military first".

Important positions in the government, economy and the military are held by party members or officials, and KWP Secretaries generally exercise greater authority over policy and administrative issues than government ministers. Although open to mass membership, access to the Party 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 KWP 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 People's Committee is the top decision-making body of the KWP and is responsible for directing Party affairs on a day-to-day basis; and the National Defence Commission (NDC) is the DPRK's highest office of state and is responsible for external and internal security and asserts significant influence over policy-making.

The Kims

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. On 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 KWP 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 KWP in 1997.

From 1994, Kim Jong-il was the DPRK's de facto head of state, exercising executive power as Chairman of the NDC, as well as General-Secretary of the KWP and Supreme Commander of the People's Armed Forces. Prior to his death in December 2011, Kim Jong-il had been preparing the way for his third son, Kim Jong-un, to follow him as supreme leader of the DPRK. In September 2010, Kim Jong-un was appointed to the KWP's Central People's Committee and elected Vice Chairman of the KWP's Central Military Commission. He was also promoted to the military rank of General. Following Kim Jong-il's death, Kim Jong-un was quickly declared the Great Successor and Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army. In April 2012, Kim Jong-un assumed his father's positions as head of the ruling Korean Worker's Party (as General-Secretary) and Chairman of the National Defence Commission.

Key political figures

Kim Jong-un

Supreme Commander of the People's Armed Forces; Vice Chairman of the KWP's Central Military Commission; member of the KWP's Central People's Committee; third son of the DPRK's former leader, the late Kim Jong-il

Hwang Pyong-so

Vice Marshall, Director of the KPA's General Political Bureau, member of NDC

Kim Yong-nam

President of the SPA Presidium (performs formalities of head of state); not related to Kim Jong-il

Pak Pong-ju


Ri Su-yong

Minister for Foreign Affairs

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. The DPRK relies heavily on humanitarian aid and other forms of external assistance. Out-dated infrastructure and poor energy supply remain serious obstacles to economic growth.

During the early part of the last decade, there was a slight relaxation of economic controls, increased toleration for a small private sector, and some modest reforms, including price, wage and agricultural reforms in 2002. However, in October 2005, the DPRK government reasserted central control over grain distribution and food rationing and in November 2008 announced restrictions on the operations of markets. In December 2009, the DPRK redenominated its currency at a rate of 100 to 1, with severe limits on the amount of old currency that could be converted. The measure resulted in increased inflation and the obliteration of savings. The government simultaneously announced even tighter state control of markets, regulations on consumption, and a ban on the possession or use of foreign currencies.

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, by force if necessary. 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.

Economic statistics for the DPRK are difficult to obtain due to the closed nature of its society. In 2011, the DPRK's GDP was estimated at US$12.4 billion. The DPRK has expanded international trade over the last decade, but the total value remains low, estimated at US$8.5 million in 2012.

China is the DPRK's principal trading partner, accounting for around 70 per cent of the DPRK's total trade in 2011 (mostly anthracite coal and other resources). The ROK accounted for around 31 per cent of the DPRK's total trade in 2010, with the majority associated with the Gaesong Industrial Complex (GIC). The GIC is where the majority of inter-Korean commercial cooperation takes place and is a special economic zone established by the DPRK and the ROK close to the demilitarized zone that separates the DPRK and the ROK. The operation of the GIC has, however, been problematic and hostage to political manoeuvring by the DPRK, and the complex was shut down between April and September 2013.

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 the death of up to two million DPRK citizens 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 is heavily reliant on international humanitarian assistance, but this has been in decline since 2008, when its two main aid donors, the ROK and the United States, suspended humanitarian aid in response to concerns over the DPRK's nuclear and proliferation activities.

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.

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 limited to officials, sporting teams or trusted artists and performers. Tourism by North Koreans, even to other communist countries and among the elite, is limited. Tourism by foreigners to the DPRK, generally on package holidays, is permitted.

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.

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 publicly 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.

Foreign Relations and 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 weapons and 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. The first, a research reactor, was supplied by the Soviet Union and completed in 1967. The second, the DPRK's main plutonium-producing reactor, was finished in 1985.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the DPRK recognised the need to improve relations with the United States. It sought a non-aggression pact and, through the 1980s and 1990s, took steps towards denuclearisation: in 1985, the DPRK joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state and in 1992, the DPRK and the ROK agreed the Joint Declaration for a Non-Nuclear Korean Peninsula. But in 1993, tensions escalated when the DPRK failed to implement an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for inspection of the DPRK's nuclear facilities, and threatened to withdraw from the NPT. An international standoff followed, with the UN urging the DPRK to cooperate with the IAEA. In 1994, the DPRK and the United States signed an Agreed Framework aimed at ending the DPRK's nuclear weapons programs. Between 1994 and 2002, the DPRK and the United States worked together to fulfil commitments under the Agreed Framework.

In 2000, the DPRK established or restored diplomatic relations with a number of countries, including Australia, and was also accepted into the ASEAN Regional Forum. Pyongyang hosted an historic inter-Korean leaders' summit in June 2000, which resulted in a landmark Joint Statement by the leaders of the DPRK and the ROK.

The DPRK's international relations deteriorated following comments by the United States in October 2002 that DPRK officials had admitted the DPRK was conducting a covert highly-enriched-uranium program in pursuit of nuclear weapons. In December 2002, the DPRK removed IAEA surveillance equipment from its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, and announced its intentions to re-start its nuclear program to provide itself with a deterrent force in the face of the United States' "hostile policy". In January 2003, the DPRK announced its withdrawal from the NPT.

Trilateral talks between the DPRK, the United States and China were held in Beijing in April 2003, during which the DPRK admitted to having a nuclear weapon capability. To find a peaceful resolution to the DPRK nuclear issue, the Six-Party Talks were initiated in August 2003 between the DPRK, the ROK, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.

In February 2005, the DPRK announced that it had manufactured nuclear weapons and postponed indefinitely its participation in the Six-Party Talks. In March 2005, the DPRK declared itself a "fully-fledged nuclear weapons state" and announced it would no longer be bound by a 1999 voluntary moratorium on ballistic missile testing.

In July 2005, the DPRK returned to the Six-Party Talks. The fourth round concluded in September 2005 with all parties endorsing a Joint Statement of Principles in which the DPRK committed to abandon its nuclear weapons program and return to the NTP and IAEA safeguards. In return, the other parties agreed to provide economic cooperation and energy assistance.

In July 2006, the DPRK conducted a number of ballistic missile tests, including tests of its long-range Taepodong 2 missile. In response, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1695, which included restrictions on the sale of missile and WMD-related technologies to the DPRK.

On 9 October 2006, the DPRK conducted its first nuclear test. In response, on 14 October 2006, the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 1718. The Resolution imposed a ban on trade with the DPRK in military and WMD-related goods, a ban on the provision of associated training or assistance and a ban on the export of luxury goods to the DPRK. Australia fully implemented these sanctions and put in place additional autonomous measures (refer below).

The fifth round of the Six-Party Talks resumed in February 2007, and concluded with all parties agreeing to a statement on Initial Actions for Implementation of the Joint Statement, in which the DPRK agreed to shut down and seal its Yongbyon nuclear facility and allow the return to the DPRK of IAEA monitoring and verification personnel. In July 2007, the IAEA announced that the DPRK had shut down and sealed its Yongbyon nuclear facilities.

On 26 June 2008, the DPRK submitted a declaration of its nuclear programs, and, in October 2008, United States and DPRK officials agreed to a series of measures to verify the DPRK's declaration. In October 2008, the United States removed the DPRK from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The verification measures agreed were intended to form the basis of a protocol to be agreed in the Six-Party Talks. However, talks in Beijing in December 2008 failed to agree on any such verification protocol. The Six-Party Talks have not been convened since.

On 5 April 2009, the DPRK launched a long-range rocket, claiming to have put a satellite into orbit. Following the launch, a number of world leaders, including then-Prime Minister Rudd, issued statements condemning the DPRK's missile launch as a breach of UNSC Resolution 1718, and urging the UNSC to immediately consider further action. The UNSC responded by adopting a Presidential Statement which condemned the launch as a contravention of Resolution 1718. The DPRK condemned the Presidential Statement, announced it would not participate further in Six-Party Talks, and pledged to strengthen its 'nuclear deterrent' capability.

On 25 May 2009, the DPRK announced it had conducted a second nuclear test and followed with a number of short-range missile tests. The UNSC responded to the claimed nuclear test by adopting Resolution 1874 on 12 June 2009. The Resolution built on Resolution 1718 sanctions, and included an expanded arms embargo, financial measures and provisions for the inspection and interdiction of vessels suspected of carrying banned cargo. Australian regulations were amended in July 2009 to give effect to the mandatory provisions of Resolution 1874.

Speculation of a possible resumption of the Six-Party Talks increased following the visit in December 2009 to the DPRK by the US Special Representative for North Korea, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth. He reported that the two sides had identified some common understandings on the need for, and the role of, the Six-Party Talks and the importance of implementing the 2005 Joint Statement, but it remained to be seen when and how the DPRK would return to the Talks.

In March 2010, China's Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs Wu Dawei pushed for the Six-Party Talks to resume in the first half of 2010, but hopes were dashed following the sinking later that month of the ROK naval vessel Cheonan by the DPRK with the loss of 46 of its crew.

A ROK-led investigation involving experts from the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Canada and Australia found that a torpedo fired from a DPRK submarine had sunk the Cheonan. 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.

On 12 November 2010, Dr Siegfried Hecker (from Stanford University in the United States) visited the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex and was reportedly shown a light-water nuclear reactor in the early stages on construction and a new industrial-scale uranium-enrichment facility with 2000 centrifuges. Australia condemned the DPRK's actions and called for a strong response in the UNSC.

On 23 November 2010, the DPRK launched an artillery attack on the ROK's Yeonpyeong Island, which killed four and wounded 55 citizens. Tensions peaked on the peninsula when the ROK conducted subsequent live-fire exercises in late December. The DPRK threatened to retaliate, but did not.

Inter-Korean tensions eased in 2011 and dialogue with the DPRK resumed, ROK and DPRK nuclear envoys met on 20 July in Bali and 21 September in Beijing. US-DPRK bilateral talks were held from 27 to 28 July in New York, 24 to 25 October in Geneva and from 23 to 24 February 2012 in Beijing.

Following the US-DPRK bilateral talks, on 29 February 2012 the DPRK announced a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities (including uranium enrichment) and said IAEA inspectors would be allowed to return. At the same time, the United States announced it would resume food aid (halted in early 2009).

The agreement was terminated with the DPRK's launch on 13 April 2012 of a long-range rocket which used ballistic technology. The rocket failed shortly after take-off. Australia joined the international community in condemning the launch. On 16 April, the UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement that: condemned the launch as a serious violation of UNSC Resolutions 1718 and 1874; demanded that the DPRK not conduct further launches; expressed the UNSC's determination to take action in the event of a further DPRK launch or nuclear test; and agreed to additional designations under UNSC Resolution 1718 imposing financial sanctions on designated entities (companies) and a trade ban on designated nuclear-and-missile-sensitive items. On 2 May, three DPRK companies were added to the UN sanctions list.

On 12 December 2012, the DPRK successfully launched a long-range rocket. Australia condemned the launch. On 22 January, the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2087 which: condemned the DPRK’s long-range rocket launch; demanded the DPRK not conduct further provocations, including a nuclear test; included additional designations of six DPRK companies and four DPRK individuals; and strengthened the language on interdiction.

On 12 February 2013, the DPRK conducted a third nuclear test which Australia condemned. On 7 March, the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2094 which: condemned in the strongest possible terms the DPRK’s nuclear test; demanded the DPRK not conduct any further provocations, including missile launches and nuclear tests; imposed new financial sanctions on the DPRK; further strengthened states’ ability to inspect inbound and outbound DPRK vessels considered suspicious; and contained additional designations for two DPRK companies and three DPRK individuals. UNSC Resolution 2094 is legally binding on all member states.

Following the adoption of UNSC Resolution 2094, the DPRK’s threats and provocations escalated and the Gaesong Industrial Complex, an important symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, was closed. On 12 April 2013, ROK President, Park Geun-hye, made an offer of dialogue to the DPRK in an attempt to defuse tensions. On 14 April, the DPRK denounced the offer (after extensive negotiations, the complex was eventually reopened in September 2013). In late 2013 the DPRK restarted its five-megawatt plutonium-producing reactor and was continuing work to its uranium-enrichment facilities at Yongbyon.

On 12 February 2014 the DPRK and the ROK held their first high-level talks since 2007. The first family reunions since October 2010 were held between 20-25 February 2014. 813 South and North Koreans were reunited with relatives.

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 for financial reasons in January 2008. The DPRK's Embassy in Jakarta has been formally accredited to Australia since February 2012. Australia's Ambassador in Seoul has been accredited to the DPRK since August 2008.

The Australian Government has fully implemented UN sanctions against the DPRK and also put in place autonomous sanctions (refer below). The Australian Government hopes to take forward our bilateral relationship with the DPRK but, for this to occur, the DPRK needs to make substantial progress towards denuclearisation and cease its provocations that increase instability on the Korean Peninsula.


Australia suspended bilateral development assistance to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in late 2002 following revelations about the DPRK's nuclear program. Resumption of bilateral assistance will be contingent on DPRK’s progress towards denuclearisation.

But Australia does provide humanitarian assistance in response to the protracted emergency and regular natural disasters that the people of North Korea face. Since 1994, Australia has provided over $50 million in humanitarian assistance with a focus on food and nutritional supplementation which targets vulnerable groups. Our humanitarian assistance is channelled through multilateral agencies—principally the World Food Programme—not the DPRK authorities

Commercial Links

Australian companies can pursue business opportunities in the DPRK, or with DPRK companies, provided that they do not contravene existing export control regulations and sanctions against the DPRK. Before initiating business dealings, Australian companies are advised to conduct thorough due diligence and seek appropriate independent legal advice to determine if transactions or respective DPRK entities are subject to sanctions. Australian companies should also be aware of the poor payment record of many DPRK agencies in past commercial ventures.

Two-way trade between Australia and the DPRK is negligible.


Australia has fully implemented UN sanctions against the DPRK under UNSC Resolutions 1718 (adopted 14 October 2006), 1874 (adopted 12 June 2009), 2087 (adopted 22 January 2013), and 2094 (adopted 7 March 2013). In addition, Australia has imposed a number of autonomous measures against the DPRK, targeted at the DPRK's missiles and weapons of mass destruction programs.

In September 2006, Australia implemented autonomous financial sanctions against 12 companies and one individual connected with financing the DPRK's nuclear and weapons of mass destruction programs. In October 2006, Australia imposed additional autonomous sanctions in response to the DPRK's nuclear test, including a ban on DPRK-flagged vessels from entering Australian ports and sanctions on nine DPRK companies.

Australia last updated its autonomous sanctions against the DPRK in December 2013.

Further information on sanctions on the DPRK.