Dubbed ‘The Hermit Kingdom’ after it adopted a closed-door policy in the mid-19th century in response to the perceived threat of western powers, Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 through the conclusion of World War II in 1945, when it was divided into two temporarily occupied zones, with the Soviet Union assuming administrative responsibility for the northern zone. In 1948 this region was established independently as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea.
North Korea’s self-imposed isolation and policy of concealment has contributed to its enigmatic status. One of the few remaining communist states in the world, North Korea is headed by Kim Jong-il, whose leadership is widely seen as a totalitarian dictatorship. Yet, although North Korea’s economy is generally viewed as in a desperate state, the country has been resolute in trying to develop its military strength, including controversial and widely condemned efforts at developing nuclear weapons.
North Korea has one of the largest armies in the world, with an estimated 1.2 million active personnel. Military spending is estimated to be as much as a quarter of its GNP, with up to 20 per cent of Korean males aged 17-54 in the country’s regular armed forces. North Korean forces outnumber South Korea’s 2 to 1 and the United States and South Korea continue to believe that the US troop presence in South Korea remains an effective safeguard.
Almost immediately after establishment of North and South Korea, guerrilla warfare, border clashes and naval battles erupted between the two nations. North Korean forces launched a massive surprise attack and invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, but failed to conquer the US-backed Republic of Korea (ROK) in the ensuing Korean War (1950-53). From the postwar period until 1971, the two governments had no direct official communications or contact. Diplomatic negotiations since then have had no long-term success. A key reason is North Korea’s nuclear weapons development policies. North Korea joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state in 1985.
However, as the 1990s unfolded, concern over its breaches of agreements became a major issue in North-South relations and between North Korea and the United States. In 1993, Pyongyang announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT. But in 1995 the US Government eased economic sanctions against North Korea in response to its freezing of its graphite-moderated nuclear program. While North Korea has pursued a mixed policy in this area, a history of regional military provocations, proliferation of military-related items, long-range missile development, WMD programs (including nuclear weapons test in 2006 and 2009) and massive conventional armed forces remain of major concern to the international community. Small-scale diplomacy has intermittently been established between North and South Korea and the two generally continue to affirm a desire to reunify the Korean peninsula.
Little is known about the actual lines of power and authority in the North Korean government. Kim Jong-il was officially designated as his father’s successor in 1980. North Korea has a centralised government under the rigid control of the communist Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), although it is widely thought that the leadership closely resembles a dictatorship under the supreme rule of Kim Jong-il.
Despite its closed-door policy, since the mid-1990s North Korea has relied heavily on international aid to feed its population. North Korea experienced a severe famine following a record flood in the summer of 1995 and continues to suffer from chronic food shortages and malnutrition. The nation’s industry is operating at only a fraction of capacity due to lack of fuel, spare parts and other sources. Large-scale military spending draws off resources needed for investment and civilian consumption. North Korea has intermittently accepted aid from South Korea.
North Korea has also been subject to international criticism surrounding its human rights policies. Risking arrest, imprisonment and deportation, thousands of North Koreans a year cross into China to escape to escape poor social and economic conditions. Additionally, North Korean women and girls who are lured out of their country by the promise of food, jobs, and freedom, are forced into prostitution, marriage, or exploitative labor arrangements once in China. The media in North Korea is one of the most strictly controlled in the world.