U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: North Korea, June 1996
Released by the Bureau of Public Affairs
Official Name: Democratic People's Republic of Korea
Area: 120,410 sq. km. (47,000 sq. mi.), about the size of Mississippi.
Cities: Capital--Pyongyang. Other cities--Hamhung, Chongjin,
Wonsan, Nampo, and Kaesong.
Terrain: About 80% of land area is moderately high mountains
separated by deep, narrow valleys and small, cultivated plains. The
remainder is lowland plains covering small, scattered areas.
Climate: Long, cold, dry winters; short, hot, humid, summers.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Korean(s).
Population: 23 million.
Annual growth rate: About 2%.
Ethnic groups: Korean; small Chinese and Japanese populations.
Religions: Buddhism, Shamanism, Chongdogyo, Christian; religious
activities have been virtually nonexistent since 1945.
Education: Years compulsory--11. Attendance--3 million (primary, 1.5
million; secondary, 1.2 million; tertiary, 0.3 million). Literacy--90%.
Health: Medical treatment is free; one doctor for every 700 inhabitants;
one hospital bed for every 350. Infant mortality rate--27/1,000. Life
expectancy--males 66 yrs., females 73 yrs.
Type: Highly centralized communist state.
Independence: September 9, 1948.
Constitution: 1972; reportedly revised in 1992.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state); premier (head of
government). Legislative--Supreme People's Assembly. Judicial--
Supreme Court; provincial, city, county, and military courts.
Subdivisions: Nine provinces; four province-level municipalities
(Pyongyang, Kaesong, Chongjin, Nampo); one free trade zone (Najin-
Political party: Korean Workers' Party (communist).
Suffrage: Universal at 17.
GNP (1991): $22.5 billion; 30% is agriculture, 31% is mining and
manufacturing, and 39% is services and other.
Per capita GNP (1991): $1,038.
Agriculture: Products--rice, corn, potatoes, fruits, vegetables,
Mining and manufacturing: Types--steel, cement, textiles,
Trade (1990): Exports--$1.95 billion; machinery and equipment,
military hardware, iron, steel, metal ores, nonferrous metals,
nonmetallic minerals, textile fibers. Imports--$2.85 billion: textiles,
petroleum, coking coal, grain. Major partners--Russia, China, Japan,
Hong Kong, European countries. These figures do not include trade
with South Korea.
Exchange rate (August 1995)--2.02 won=U.S.$1.
* In most cases, the figures used above are estimates based upon
incomplete data and projections.
U.S. POLICY TOWARD NORTH KOREA
The United States does not maintain any diplomatic, consular, or trade
relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K., or
North Korea). Negotiations are ongoing to implement a provision of
the 1994 agreed framework between the U.S. and D.P.R.K. for an
exchange of diplomatic missions at the liaison office level.
On September 20, 1995, a consular protecting power arrangement was
implemented, allowing for consular protection by the Swedish embassy
of U.S. citizens traveling in North Korea. The Swedish embassy in
Pyongyang is not authorized to issue U.S. visas. U.S. citizens and
residents wishing to travel to North Korea must obtain visas in third
There are no U.S. Government restrictions on travel by private U.S.
citizens to North Korea. However, they may only spend money in
North Korea to purchase items related to travel. In addition, $100
worth of merchandise for personal use may be brought back into the
United States as unaccompanied baggage. (Also see Travel and
North Korea has been included on the U.S. list of states supporting
international terrorism since January 1988, after North Korean agents
bombed a South Korean airliner--KAL flight 858--on November 29,
1987, causing the deaths of 115 people.
U.S. law prohibits almost all financial and commercial transactions
with North Korea by persons or firms subject to U.S. jurisdiction.
Exceptions were made in 1988 for informational material and
commercial export of goods meeting basic human needs. Export of
goods, whether as a sale or donation, requires a specific license by the
U.S. Treasury Department. Under the 1994 agreed framework, the
United States is committed to further easing of its sanctions on North
Korea as progress is made in implementing the framework.
The U.S. seeks progress from North Korea in the following areas as
being necessary for improved bilateral relations: credible
condemnations of terrorism, dialogue between North and South Korea
on the future and possible reunification of the Korean peninsula;
nuclear matters, return of the remains of U.S. military personnel
missing in action during the Korean war, and greater respect for human
rights. The U.S. also has expressed concern about North Korea's export
of ballistic missiles and related technology, and the North Korean
conventional military threat.
U.S. Support for North-South Reunification
The United States supports the peaceful reunification of Korea--divided
following World War II--on terms acceptable to the Korean people and
recognizes that the future of the Korean peninsula is primarily a matter
for them to decide. The U.S. believes that a constructive and serious
dialogue between the authorities of North and South Korea is necessary
to resolve the issues on the peninsula, and that concrete steps to
promote greater understanding and reduce tension are needed to pave
the way for reunifying the Korean nation. The U.S. remains prepared to
participate in negotiations between North and South Korea if so desired
by the two Korean Governments and provided that both are full and
equal participants in any such talks.
On the basis of these principles, on April 16, 1996, President Clinton
and South Korean President Kim Young Sam proposed to convene a
"Four Party Meeting" of representatives of South Korea, North Korea,
the United States, and the People's Republic of China as soon as
possible, without preconditions. The purpose of this meeting would be
to initiate a process aimed at replacing the current military armistice
agreement with a permanent peace. In framing this proposal, the U.S.
and South Korea took the D.P.R.K.'s expressed concerns into account.
The main difference between this proposal and North Korean proposals
is that the D.P.R.K. wishes to negotiate only with the U.S. This is not
feasible, as the establishment of a permanent peace is primarily the
responsibility of the Korean people--North and South.
Recognizing that the North's isolation is an inherently destabilizing
factor in the Northeast Asia region and an impediment to the peaceful
reunification of Korea, the United States encourages the D.P.R.K. to
adopt policies that will help bring it more fully into the world
community. To advance this goal--and in support of South Korean
President Roh Tae Woo's 1988 reunification initiatives (see, under
Foreign Relations, Reunification Efforts Since 1971)--the U.S.
Government on October 31, 1988, announced the following steps
regarding relations with the D.P.R.K.:
--Authorized U.S. diplomats to hold substantive discussions with
D.P.R.K. officials in neutral settings;
--Encouraged unofficial, nongovernmental visits from the D.P.R.K. in
academics, sports, culture, and other areas;
--Facilitated the travel of U.S. citizens to the D.P.R.K. by permitting
travel services for exchanges and group travel on a case-by-case basis;
--Permitted certain commercial exports to the D.P.R.K. of goods that
meet basic human needs (food, clothing, medical supplies, etc.) on a
As a result, there have been cultural, academic, and diplomatic
exchanges between the two countries. From January 1989 to May
1993, U.S. and North Korean officials met 33 times in Beijing, China.
The first political-level meeting between the U.S. and the D.P.R.K.
occurred on January 22, 1992, between U.S. Under Secretary of State
Arnold Kanter and Korean Workers' Party Secretary Kim Yong Sun.
Both sides outlined their policies toward bilateral and inter-Korean
U.S. Efforts on Denuclearization
North and South Korea had begun talks in 1990 which resulted in a
1991 denuclearization accord (see, under Foreign Relations,
Reunification Efforts Since 1971). Lack of progress on implementation
of this accord triggered actions on both sides that led to North Korea's
March 12, 1993, announcement of its withdrawal from the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The UN Security Council on May 11
passed a resolution urging the D.P.R.K. to cooperate with the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to implement the
1991 North-South denuclearization accord. It also urged all member
states to encourage the D.P.R.K. to respond positively to this
and to facilitate a solution.
The U.S. responded by holding political-level talks with the D.P.R.K.
in early June 1993 that led to a joint statement outlining the basic
principles for continued U.S.-D.P.R.K. dialogue and North Korea's
"suspending" its withdrawal from the NPT. A second round of talks
was held July 14-19, 1993, in Geneva. The talks set the guidelines for
resolving the nuclear issue, improving U.S.-North Korean relations,
and restarting inter-Korean talks, but further negotiations deadlocked.
Following the D.P.R.K.'s spring 1994 unloading of fuel from its five-
megawatt nuclear reactor, the resultant U.S. push for UN sanctions, and
former U.S. President Carter's June 1994 visit to Pyongyang, a third
round of talks between the U.S. and the D.P.R.K. opened in Geneva on
July 8, 1994. The talks were recessed upon news of the July death of
North Korean President Kim Il Sung, then resumed in August. On
October 21, 1994, representatives of the United States and the D.P.R.K.
signed an agreed framework for resolving the nuclear issue.
The 1994 framework calls for the following steps.
--North Korea agreed to freeze its existing nuclear program under
enhanced IAEA safeguards.
--Both sides agreed to cooperate to replace the D.P.R.K.'s graphite-
moderated reactors for related facilities with light-water (LWR) power
--The two sides agreed to move toward full normalization of political
and economic relations.
--Both sides will work together for peace and security on a nuclear-free
--Both sides agreed to work together to strengthen the international
nuclear non-proliferation regime.
In accordance with the terms of the 1994 framework, the U.S.
Government in January 1995 responded to North Korea's decision to
freeze its nuclear program and cooperate with U.S. and IAEA
verification efforts by easing economic sanctions against North Korea
in four areas through:
--Authorizing transactions related to telecommunications connections,
credit card use for personal or travel-related transactions, and the
opening of journalists' offices;
--Authorizing D.P.R.K. use of the U.S. banking system to clear
transactions not originating or terminating in the United States and
unblocking frozen assets where there is no D.P.R.K. Government
--Authorizing imports of magnesite, a refractory material used in the
U.S. steel industry--North Korea and China are the world's primary
sources of this raw material; and
--Authorizing transactions related to future establishment of liaison
offices, case-by-case participation of U.S. companies in the light water
reactor project, supply of alternative energy, and disposition of spent
nuclear fuel as provided for by the agreed framework, in a manner
consistent with applicable laws.
Despite this, smooth implementation of the 1994 agreed framework
was obstructed for a time by North Korea's refusal to accept South
Korean-designed LWR model reactors. U.S. and D.P.R.K. negotiators
met for three weeks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and on June 12, 1995,
reached an accord resolving this issue.
North Korea agreed to accept the decisions of the Korean Peninsula
Energy Development Organization (KEDO) with respect to the model
for the LWRs and agreed that KEDO would select a prime contractor
to carry out the LWR project. The KEDO executive board announced
that it had selected the South Korean-designed Ulchin 3-4 LWR as the
reference model for the project and that a South Korean firm would be
the prime contractor. The South Korean prime contractor would be
responsible for all aspects of the LWR project including design,
manufacture, construction, and management. In this Kuala Lumpur
accord to the 1994 Geneva agreed framework, the D.P.R.K. also agreed
to negotiate directly with KEDO on all outstanding issues related to the
On December 15, 1995, KEDO and the D.P.R.K. signed the Light
Water Reactor Supply Agreement. KEDO teams have also made a
number of trips to North Korea to survey the proposed reactor site; in
the spring of 1996, KEDO and the D.P.R.K. began negotiations on
implementing protocols to the supply agreement.
Historical and Cultural Highlights
The Korean peninsula was first populated by peoples of a Tungusic
branch of the Ural-Altaic language family who migrated from the
northwestern regions of Asia. Some of these peoples also populated
parts of northeast China (Manchuria); Koreans and Manchurians still
show physical similarities.
Koreans are racially and linguistically homogeneous. Although there
are no indigenous minorities in North Korea, there is a small Chinese
community (about 50,000) and some 1,800 Japanese wives who
accompanied the roughly 93,000 Koreans returning to the North from
Japan during 1959-62.
Korean is a Ural-Altaic language and is related to Japanese and
remotely related to Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, and Mongolian.
Although dialects exist, the Korean spoken throughout the peninsula is
mutually comprehensible. In North Korea, the Korea alphabet (hangul)
is used exclusively, unlike in South Korea, where a combination of
hangul and Chinese characters is used as the written language.
Korea's traditional religions are Buddhism and Shamanism. Christian
missionaries arrived as early as the 16th century, but it was not until
the 19th century that they founded schools, hospitals, and other modern
institutions throughout Korea. Major centers of 19th-century
missionary activity included Seoul and Pyongyang, and there was a
relatively large Christian population in the north before 1945. Although
religious groups exist in North Korea, most available evidence suggests
that the government severely restricts religious activity.
According to legend, the god-king Tangun founded the Korean nation
in 2333 BC. By the first century AD, the Korean peninsula was divided
into the kingdoms of Silla, Koguryo, and Paekche. In 668 AD, the Silla
kingdom unified the peninsula. The Koryo dynasty--from which
Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century derived the Western name
"Korea"--succeeded the Silla kingdom in 935. The Choson dynasty,
ruled by members of the Yi clan, supplanted Koryo in 1392 and lasted
until the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910.
Throughout most of its history, Korea has been invaded, influenced,
and fought over by its larger neighbors. Korea was under Mongolian
occupation from 1231 until the early 14th century and was plundered
by Japanese pirates in 1359 and 1361. The unifier of Japan, Hideyoshi,
launched major invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597. When Western
powers focused "gunboat" diplomacy on Korea in the mid-19th
century, Korea's rulers adopted a closed-door policy, earning Korea the
title of "Hermit Kingdom."
Though the Choson dynasty paid fealty to the Chinese court and
recognized China's hegemony in East Asia, Korea was independent
until the late 19th century. At that time, China sought to block growing
Japanese influence on the Korean peninsula and Russian pressure for
commercial gains there. This competition produced the Sino-Japanese
War of 1894-95 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Japan
emerged victorious from both wars and in 1910 annexed Korea as part
of the growing Japanese empire.
Japanese colonial administration was characterized by tight control
from Tokyo and ruthless efforts to supplant Korean language and
culture. Organized Korean resistance during the colonial era--such as
the March 1, 1919, Independence Movement--was unsuccessful, and
Japan remained firmly in control until the end of World War II in 1945.
Japan surrendered in August 1945, and Korea was liberated. However,
the unexpectedly early surrender of Japan led to the immediate division
of Korea into two occupation zones, with the U.S. administering the
southern half of the peninsula and the U.S.S.R taking over the area to
the north of the 38th parallel. This division was meant to be temporary
and to facilitate the Japanese surrender until the U.S., U.K., Soviet
Union, and China could arrange a trusteeship administration.
At a meeting in Cairo, it was agreed that Korea would be free "in due
course;" at a later meeting in Yalta, it was agreed to establish a four-
power trusteeship over Korea. In December 1945, a conference
convened in Moscow to discuss the future of Korea. A five-year
trusteeship was discussed, and a joint Soviet-American commission
was established. The commission met intermittently in Seoul but
deadlocked over the issue of establishing a national government. In
September 1947, with no solution in sight, the United States submitted
the Korean question to the UN General Assembly.
Initial hopes for a unified, independent Korea quickly evaporated as the
politics of the Cold War and domestic opposition to the trusteeship
plan resulted in the 1948 establishment of two separate nations with
diametrically opposed political, economic, and social systems and the
outbreak of war in 1950 (see, under Foreign Relations, Korean War of
North Korea's faltering economy and the breakdown of trade relations
with the countries of the former socialist bloc--especially following
fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the
Soviet Union--have confronted Pyongyang with difficult policy
choices. Other centrally planned economies in similar difficulties have
opted for domestic economic reform and liberalization of trade and
investment. Despite its recent moves toward limited economic
opening, North Korea's leadership seems determined to maintain tight
political and ideological control.
About 80% of North Korea's terrain consists of moderately high
mountain ranges and partially forested mountains and hills separated
by deep, narrow valleys and small, cultivated plains. The most rugged
areas are the north and east coasts. Good harbors are found on the
eastern coast. Pyongyang, the capital, near the country's west coast, is
located on the Taedong River.
Although most North Korean citizens live in cities and work in
factories, agriculture remains a rather high 30% of total GNP, although
output has recently been falling. While trade with the South has
expanded since 1988, no physical links between the two remain, and
the infrastructure of the North is generally poor and outdated.
North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages, which were
exacerbated by record floods in the summer of 1995. In response to
international appeals, the United States, from September 1995 through
June 1996, has provided four tranches of humanitarian aid totaling $8.5
million for international agencies' relief activities in the D.P.R.K.
Colonial Rule and Postwar Division
Beginning in the mid-1920s, the Japanese colonial administration
concentrated its industrial development efforts in the comparatively
underpopulated and resource-rich northern portion of Korea, resulting
in a considerable movement of people northward from the agrarian
southern provinces of the Korean peninsula.
This trend was reversed after the end of World War II, when more than
2 million Koreans moved from North to South following the division
of the peninsula into Soviet and American military zones of
administration. This southward exodus continued after the
establishment of the D.P.R.K. in 1948 and during the 1950-53 Korean
war. The North Korean population is now 21.8 million, compared with
44.5 million in South Korea.
The post-World War II division of the Korean peninsula resulted in
imbalances of natural and human resources, with disadvantages for
both the North and the South. By most economic measures, after
partition the North was better off in terms of industry and natural
resources. The South, however, had two-thirds of the work force. In
1945, about 65% of Korean heavy industry was in the North but only
31% of light industry, 37% of agriculture, and 18% of the peninsula's
North and South both suffered from the massive destruction caused
during the Korean war. In the years immediately after the war, North
Korea mobilized its labor force and natural resources in an effort to
achieve rapid economic development. Large amounts of aid from other
communist countries, notably the Soviet Union and China, helped the
regime achieve a high growth rate in the immediate postwar period.
Efforts at Modernization
During the early 1970s, North Korea, probably noting the more rapid
economic development of the South, attempted a large-scale
modernization program through the importation of Western
technology, principally in the heavy industrial sectors of the economy.
Unable to finance its debt through exports that shrank steadily after
the worldwide recession stemming from the oil crisis of the 1970s, the
D.P.R.K. became the first communist country to default on its loans
from free market countries.
In 1979, North Korea was able to renegotiate much of its international
debt, but in 1980 it defaulted on all of its loans except those from
Japan. By the end of 1986, the North's hard-currency debt had reached
more than $4 billion. It also owed nearly $2 billion to communist
creditors. The Japanese also declared the North in default. By 1993,
North Korea's debt was estimated at $10 billion.
Largely because of these debt problems but also because of a
prolonged drought and mismanagement, North Korea's industrial
growth slowed and per capita GNP fell below that of the South. By the
end of 1979, per capita GNP in the North was about one-third of that in
the South. The causes for this relatively poor performance are complex,
but a major factor is the disproportionately large percentage of GNP
(possibly as much as 25%) that the North devotes to the military.
In April 1982, Kim Il Sung announced a new economic policy giving
priority to increased agricultural production through land reclamation,
development of the country's infrastructure--especially power plants
and transportation facilities--and reliance on domestically produced
equipment. There was also more emphasis on trade.
In September 1984, North Korea promulgated a joint venture law to
attract foreign capital and technology. The new emphasis on expanding
trade and acquiring technology, however, was not been accompanied
by a shift in priorities away from support of the military. Today, North
Korea has an international trade share--exports plus imports--of 12% of
GNP, well below South Korea's figure of 55%.
In 1991, the D.P.R.K. announced the creation of a Special Economic
Zone (SEZ) in the northeast regions of Najin, Chongjin, and Sonbong.
Investment in this SEZ has been slow in coming. Problems with
infrastructure, bureaucracy, and uncertainties about investment security
and viability have hindered growth and development.
Most recently, the D.P.R.K. announced in December 1993 a three-year
transitional economic policy placing primary emphasis on agriculture,
light industry, and foreign trade.
North-South Economic Ties
The two Koreas have begun to develop economic ties. Following a
1988 decision by the South Korean Government to allow trade with the
D.P.R.K. (see, under Foreign Relations, Reunification Efforts Since
1971), South Korean firms began to import North Korean goods.
Direct trade with the South began in the fall of 1990 after the
unprecedented September 1990 meeting of the two Korean Prime
Ministers. Trade between the countries increased from $18.8 million in
1989 to $174 million in 1992.
During this period, the chairman of the South Korean company
Daewoo--Kim Woo Choong--visited the North, and an agreement was
created to build a light industrial complex at Nampo. In other
negotiations, there were discussions to develop tourism and build road
and rail links in Korea. Economic contacts continued to develop until
the spring of 1993, when North Korea's withdrawal from the NPT
slowed the expansion of North-South economic cooperation.
South Korean President Kim Young Sam prohibited substantial direct
investment in the North until the nuclear issue was resolved, although
inter-Korean trade continued, with South Korea becoming one of the
D.P.R.K.'s largest trading partners. With the signing of the U.S.-
D.P.R.K. agreed framework on October 21, 1994, President Kim
announced he would again allow discussions for investments.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
North Korea has a centralized government under the rigid control of
the communist Korean Worker's Party (KWP), which all government
officials belong to. A few minor political parties are allowed to exist
in name only, presumably to present a facade of representative
government to the outside world. Kim Il Sung, commonly referred to
as "Great Leader," dominated the government from 1948 until his
death in July 1994. Kim served both as Secretary General of the KWP
and as President of North Korea.
Little is known about the actual lines of power and authority in the
North Korean Government despite the formal structure set forth in the
constitution. Following the death of Kim Il Sung, his son--Kim Jong Il-
-appears to have inherited supreme power. However, 11/2 years after
his father's death, Kim Jong Il has not formally assumed Kim Il Sung's
two main titles: North Korean President and Secretary General of the
An inner core of ranking members of the Korean Workers' Party,
including an increasing number of Kim Jong Il's followers, dominates
the political system and the economy through an elaborate party
structure and through the civilian and military bureaucracies. A
pervasive personality cult has developed around Kim Jong Il, who was
groomed for many years to succeed his father. Kim's continuing media
buildup suggests that he eventually will succeed his father in one or
both of his positions.
North Korea's 1972 constitution was reportedly amended in late 1992,
but the D.P.R.K. has never publicized the changes. The government is
led by the president and, in theory, a super-cabinet called the Central
People's Committee (CPC).
The constitution designates the CPC as the government's top
policymaking body. It is headed by the president, who also nominates
the other committee members. The CPC makes policy decisions and
supervises the cabinet, or State Administration Council (SAC). The
SAC is headed by a premier and is the dominant administrative and
Officially, the legislature, the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), is the
highest organ of state power. Its members are elected every four years.
Usually only two meetings are held annually, each lasting a few days.
A standing committee elected by the SPA performs legislative
functions when the Assembly is not in session. In reality, the Assembly
serves only to ratify decisions made by the ruling KWP.
North Korea's judiciary is "accountable" to the SPA and the president.
The SPA's standing committee also appoints judges to the highest court
for four-year terms that are concurrent with those of the Assembly.
Administratively, North Korea is divided into nine provinces and four
provincial-level municipalities--Pyongyang, Chongjin, Nampo, and
Kaesong. It also appears to be divided into nine military districts.
Principal Party and Government Officials
Kim Jong Il--KWP Politburo Standing Committee member; KWP
Secretary; Supreme Commander of the People's Armed Forces;
Chairman of the National Defense Commission; son of Kim Il Sung
and de facto heir.
Kang Song San--SAC Premier; KWP Politburo member
Kim Yong Nam--Foreign Minister; SAC Vice Premier; KWP Politburo
Kim Hyong U--Ambassador to the UN
North Korea's relationship with the South has informed much of its
post-World War II history and still drives much of its foreign policy.
North and South Korea have had a difficult and acrimonious
relationship in the four decades since the Korean war.
North Korea occupies the northern portion of a mountainous peninsula
projecting southeast from China, between the Sea of Japan and the
Yellow Sea. Japan lies east of the peninsula across the Sea of Japan.
North Korea shares borders with the People's Republic of China along
the Yalu River and with China and Russia along the Tumen River.
The military demarcation line (MDL) of separation between the
belligerent sides at the close of the Korean war forms North Korea's
boundary with South Korea. A demilitarized zone (DMZ) extends for
2,000 meters (just over one mile) on either side of the MDL. Both the
North and South Korean Governments hold that the MDL is only a
temporary administrative line, not a permanent border.
During the postwar period, both Korean Governments have repeatedly
affirmed their desire to reunify the Korean peninsula, but until 1971,
the two governments had no direct, official communications or other
contact. They have yet to have a presidential-level summit. During
former U.S. President Carter's 1994 visit, Kim Il Sung agreed to a
ever North-South summit. The two sides went ahead with plans for a
meeting in July but had to shelve it because of Kim's death.
Korean War of 1950-53
As noted, differences developed after World War II over the issue of
establishing a Korean national government. The Soviet Union and
Korean authorities in the North refused to comply with the UN General
Assembly's November 1947 resolution on elections and blocked entry
of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea into the North.
Despite this refusal, elections were held in the South under UN
observation, and on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea was
established in the South. Syngman Rhee, a Korean nationalist leader,
became the Republic's first president. On September 9, 1948, the North
established the Democratic People's Republic of Korea headed by then-
Premier Kim Il Sung, known for his anti-Japanese guerrilla activities in
Manchuria during the 1930s. Both administrations claimed to be the
only legitimate government on the peninsula.
After the establishment of the two states, South Korea experienced
several violent uprisings by indigenous, pro-North Korean leftist
guerrillas. As Soviet troops left in late 1948 and U.S. troops in the
spring of 1949, border clashes along the 38th parallel intensified.
North Korean forces invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. The
United Nations, in accordance with the terms of its Charter, engaged in
its first collective action, and established the UN Command (UNC), to
which 16 member nations sent troops and assistance. Next to South
Korea, the United States contributed the largest contingent of forces to
this international effort. The battle line fluctuated north and south,
and after large numbers of Chinese "People's Volunteers" intervened to
assist the North, the battle line stabilized north of Seoul near the
Armistice negotiations began in July 1951, but hostilities continued
until July 27, 1953. On that date, at Panmunjom, the military
commanders of the North Korean People's Army, the Chinese People's
Volunteers, and the UNC signed an armistice agreement. Neither the
United States nor South Korea is a signatory to the armistice per se,
although both adhere to it through the UNC.
The armistice called for an international conference to find a political
solution to the problem of Korea's division. This conference met at
Geneva in April 1954 but, after seven weeks of futile debate, ended
without agreement or progress. No comprehensive peace agreement
has replaced the 1953 armistice pact; thus, a condition of belligerency
still exists on the peninsula.
Reunification Efforts Since 1971
In August 1971, North and South Korea agreed to hold talks through
their respective Red Cross societies with the aim of reuniting the many
Korean families separated following the division of Korea and the
Korean war. After a series of secret meetings, both sides announced on
July 4, 1972, an agreement to work toward peaceful reunification and
an end to the hostile atmosphere prevailing on the peninsula. Officials
exchanged visits, and regular communications were established
through a North-South coordinating committee and the Red Cross.
However, these initial contacts broke down and ended in 1973
following South Korean President Park Chung Hee's announcement
that the South would seek separate entry into the United Nations and
after the kidnapping from Tokyo of South Korean opposition leader
Kim Dae Jung by the South Korean intelligence service. There was no
other significant contact between North and South Korea until 1984.
The breakdown of these talks characterized the intermittent nature of
inter-Korean dialogue. Basic differences in approach--North Korea
insisting on immediate steps toward reunification before discussing
specific, concrete issues and South Korea maintaining that, given the
long history of mutual distrust, reunification must be a gradual, step-
by-step process--made improved North-South relations an elusive aim.
Dialogue was renewed on several fronts in September 1984, when
South Korea accepted the North's offer to provide relief goods to
victims of severe flooding in South Korea. Red Cross talks to address
the plight of separated families resumed, as did talks on economic and
trade issues and parliamentary-level discussions. However, the North
then unilaterally suspended all talks in January 1986, arguing that the
annual U.S.-South Korea "Team Spirit" military exercise was
inconsistent with dialogue. There was a brief flurry of negotiations on
cohosting the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which ended in failure and was
followed by the 1987 KAL flight 858 bombing.
In a major initiative in July 1988, South Korean President Roh Tae
Woo called for new efforts to promote North-South exchanges, family
reunification, inter-Korean trade, and contact in international forums.
Roh followed up this initiative in a UN General Assembly speech in
which South Korea offered for the first time to discuss security matters
with the North.
Initial meetings that grew out of Roh's proposals started in September
1989. In September 1990, the first of eight prime minister-level
meetings between North Korean and South Korean officials took place
in Seoul, beginning an especially fruitful period of dialogue. The prime
ministerial talks resulted in two major agreements: the Agreement on
Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges, and Cooperation (the
"basic agreement") and the Declaration on the Denuclearization of the
Korean Peninsula (the "joint declaration").
The basic agreement--signed on December 13, 1991--calling for
reconciliation and nonaggression established four joint commissions.
These commissions--on South-North reconciliation, South-North
military affairs, South-North economic exchanges and cooperation, and
South-North social and cultural exchange--were to work out the
specifics for implementing the general terms of the basic agreement.
Subcommittees to examine specific issues were created, and liaison
offices were established in Panmunjom, but in the fall of 1992, the
process came to a halt because of rising tension over the nuclear issue.
The joint declaration on denuclearization was initialed on December
31, 1991. It forbade both sides to test, manufacture, produce, receive,
possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons and forbade the
possession of nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.
A procedure for inter-Korean inspection was to be organized and a
North-South Joint Nuclear Control Commission (JNCC) was mandated
with verification of the denuclearization of the peninsula.
On January 30, 1992, the D.P.R.K. also signed a nuclear safeguards
agreement with the IAEA, as it had pledged to do in 1985 when
acceding to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This safeguards
agreement allowed IAEA inspections to begin in June 1992. In March
1992, the JNCC was established in accordance with the joint
declaration, but subsequent meetings failed to reach agreement on the
main issue of establishing a bilateral inspection regime.
As the 1990s progressed, concern over the North's nuclear program
became a major issue in North-South relations and between North
Korea and the U.S. The lack of progress on implementation of the joint
nuclear declaration's provision for an inter-Korean nuclear inspection
regime led to reinstatement of the U.S.-South Korea Team Spirit
military exercise for 1993. The situation worsened rapidly when North
Korea, in January 1993, refused IAEA access to two suspected nuclear
waste sites and then announced in March 1993 its intent to withdraw
from the NPT. During the next two years, the U.S. held direct talks
with the D.P.R.K. that resulted in a series of agreements on nuclear
matters (see, under U.S. Policy Toward North Korea, U.S. Efforts on
Defense and Military Issues
North Korea now has the fourth-largest army in the world. The North
has an estimated 1.2 million armed personnel, compared to about
650,000 in the South. Military spending equals 20-25% of GNP, with
about 20% of men ages 17-54 in the regular armed forces. North
Korean forces have a substantial numerical advantage over the South
(approximately 2 or 3 to 1) in several key categories of offensive
weapons--tanks, long-range artillery, and armored personnel carriers.
The North has perhaps the world's second-largest special operations
force (55,000), designed for insertion behind the lines in wartime.
While the North has a relatively impressive fleet of submarines, its
surface fleet has a very limited capability. Its aging air force has
twice the number of aircraft as the South; but except for a few advanced
fighters, the North's air force is obsolete. The North--like the South--
deploys the bulk of its forces well forward, along the DMZ. Several
North Korean military tunnels under the DMZ were discovered in the
In 1953, the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) was created to
oversee and enforce the terms of the armistice. The Neutral Nation
Supervisory Committee (NNSC)--originally made up of delegations
from Poland and Czechoslovakia on the D.P.R.K.-Chinese People's
Volunteers side and Sweden and Switzerland on the UN side--monitors
the activities of the MAC.
In recent years, North Korea has sought to dismantle the MAC in a
push for a new "peace mechanism" on the peninsula. In April 1994, it
declared the MAC void and withdrew its representatives. Prior to this,
it had forced the Czechs out of the NNSC by refusing to accept the
Czech Republic as the successor state to Czechoslovakia, an original
member of the NNSC. In September 1994, at the D.P.R.K.'s urging,
China "recalled" the Chinese People's Volunteers representatives to the
MAC, and in early 1995, North Korea forced Poland to remove its
representatives to the NNSC from the North Korean side of the DMZ.
In April 1996, the D.P.R.K. declared that it would no longer fulfill its
obligation under the military armistice agreement to maintain the
DMZ. This was followed by three nights of minor incursions into the
northern sector of the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom, after which
the situation returned to normal.
Also over the last several years, North Korea has moved even more of
its rear-echelon troops to hardened bunkers closer to the DMZ. Given
the proximity of Seoul to the DMZ (some 25 miles), South Korean and
U.S. forces are likely to have little warning of any attack. The United
States and South Korea continue to believe that the U.S. troop presence
remains an effective deterrent against North Korean aggression.
Relations Outside the Peninsula
After 1945, the Soviet Union supplied the economic and military aid
that enabled North Korea to mount its invasion of the South in 1950.
Soviet aid and influence continued at a high level during the Korean
war; as mentioned, the Soviet Union was largely responsible for
rebuilding North Korea's economy after the cessation of hostilities. In
addition, the assistance of Chinese "volunteers" during the war and the
presence of these troops until 1958 gave China some degree of
influence in North Korea. In 1961, North Korea concluded formal
mutual security treaties with the Soviet Union (inherited by Russia) and
China, which have not been formally ended.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the establishment of diplomatic relations
between the United States and China, the Soviet-backed Vietnamese
occupation of Cambodia, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan
created strains between China and the Soviet Union and, in turn, in
North Korea's relations with its two major communist allies. North
Korea tried to avoid becoming embroiled in the Sino-Soviet split,
obtaining aid from both the Soviet Union and China and trying to avoid
dependence on either. Following Kim Il Sung's 1984 visit to Moscow,
there was a dramatic improvement in Soviet-D.P.R.K. relations,
resulting in renewed deliveries of advanced Soviet weaponry to North
Korea and increases in economic aid.
The establishment of diplomatic relations by South Korea with the
Soviet Union in 1990 and with the PRC in 1992 put a serious strain on
relations between North Korea and its traditional allies. Moreover, the
fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the disintegration of
the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in a significant drop in communist
aid to North Korea. Despite these changes and its past reliance on this
military and economic assistance, North Korea proclaims a militantly
independent stance in its foreign policy in accordance with its official
ideology of juche, or self-reliance.
At the same time, North Korea maintains membership in a variety of
multilateral organizations. It became a member of the UN in September
1991. North Korea also belongs to the Food and Agriculture
Organization; the International Civil Aviation Organization; the
International Postal Union; the UN Conference on Trade and
Development; the International Telecommunications Union; the UN
Development Program; the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural
Organization; the World Health Organization; the World Intellectual
Property Organization; the World Meteorological Organization; the
International Maritime Organization; the International Committee of
the Red Cross; and the Nonaligned Movement.
The D.P.R.K. is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since
1987, when KAL 858 was bombed in flight. The D.P.R.K. has made
several statements condemning terrorism, most recently a May 1994
Foreign Ministry spokesman statement "opposing any act encouraging
and supporting terrorism." The D.P.R.K. and South Korea pledged in
their 1991 reconciliation agreement to "refrain from all acts destroying
and overthrowing the other side" and not use arms against one another.
North Korea appears to be respecting a promise to the Philippine
Government to suspend its support for the communist New People's
Normalization talks with Japan have been complicated by North
Korea's refusal to respond to questions concerning the status of a
Korean resident of Japan allegedly kidnapped by North Koreans in the
1980s to teach Japanese to D.P.R.K. agents. Pyongyang continues to
provide sanctuary to members of the Japanese Communist League-Red
Army Faction who participated in the hijacking of a Japan Airlines
flight to North Korea in 1970.
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program
provides Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel
Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that
Americans avoid travel to a certain country. Consular Information
Sheets exist for all countries and include information on immigration
practices, currency regulations, health conditions, areas of
crime and security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the
posts in the subject country. They can be obtained by telephone at
(202) 647-5225 or by fax at (202) 647-3000. To access the Consular
Affairs Bulletin Board by computer, dial (202) 647-9225, via a modem
with standard settings. Bureau of Consular Affairs' publications on
obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad are available from
the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may
be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202)
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at
(404) 332-4559 gives the most recent health advisories, immunization
recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking
water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health
Information for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-
95-8280, price $14.00) is available from the U.S. Government Printing
Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
U.S. passports are valid for travel to North Korea. Further information
on entry requirements may be available from the North Korean mission
to the UN in New York; otherwise, such information and visas are
available from North Korean consulates in countries which maintain
diplomatic relations with the D.P.R.K.
There is no U.S. embassy or consulate in North Korea. The
Government of Sweden, acting through its embassy in Pyongyang,
serves as the interim consular protecting power for the U.S.
Government in North Korea. The Swedish embassy is located at
Daedonggang District, Pyongyang; tel. and fax: 850-2-381-7258.
Further Electronic Information:
Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). Available by modem, the
CABB provides Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings, and
helpful information for travelers. Access at (202) 647-9225 is free of
charge to anyone with a personal computer, modem,
telecommunications software, and a telephone line.
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the
Internet, DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S.
foreign policy information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes
Background Notes; Dispatch, the official weekly magazine of U.S.
foreign policy; daily press briefings; directories of key officers of
foreign service posts; etc. DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at
http://www.state.gov; this site has a link to the DOSFAN Gopher
Research Collection, which also is accessible at
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on a quarterly
basis by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on
the Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an
array of official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present.
Priced at $80 ($100 foreign), one-year subscriptions include four discs
(MSDOS and Macintosh compatible) and are available from the
Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O.
Box 37194, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800
or fax (202) 512-2250.
Federal Bulletin Board (BBS). A broad range of foreign policy
information also is carried on the BBS, operated by the U.S.
Government Printing Office (GPO). By modem, dial (202) 512-1387.
For general BBS information, call (202) 512-1530.
National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department
of Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related
information, including Country Commercial Guides. It is available on
the Internet (www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB
Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 for more information.
Available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government
Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402:
Library of Congress. North Korea: A Country Study. 1994
Department of State. The Record on Korean Unification 1943-1960.
Department of the Army. Communist North Korea: A Bibliographic
The following titles are provided as a general indication of the
published on this country. The Department of State does not endorse
Baldwin, Frank, ed. Without Parallel: The American-Korean
Relationship Since 1945. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.
Barnds, William J. The Two Koreas in East Asian Affairs. New York:
New York University Press, 1976.
Bucher, Lloyd M. Bucher: My Story. New York: Doubleday, 1970.
Chung, Joseph S. The North Korean Economy: Structure and
Development. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1974.
Clough, Ralph. Embattled Korea: The Rivalry for International
Support. Colorado: Westview Press, 1987.
Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 1. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1981.
________. The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 2. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1990.
Eckert, Carter, Ki-Baik Lee, Young Ick Lew, Michael Robinson, and
Edward W. Wagner. Korea Old and New: A History. Seoul: Ilchokak
Publishers for Harvard University Press, 1990.
Foot, Rosemary. The Wrong War: American Policy and the
Dimensions of the Korean Conflict, 1950-53. Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1985.
Han, Woo-kuen. The History of Korea. Honolulu: East-West Center
Henderson, Gregory. Korea: The Politics of the Vortex. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1968.
Henthorn, William. History of Korea. New York: The Free Press,
Hwang, In K. The Neutralized Unification of Korea. Cambridge:
Kihl, Young Hwan. Politics and Policies in Divided Korea. Colorado:
Westview Press, 1984.
Kim, Hak-joon. The Unification Policy of South and North Korea,
1948-1976: A Comparative Study. Seoul: Seoul National University
Kim, Ilpyong J. Communist Politics in North Korea. New York:
Kim, Joungwon Alexander. Divided Korea: The Politics of
Development 1945-1972. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Kim, Young C. and Abraham M. Halpern. The Future of the Korean
Peninsula. New York: Praeger, 1976.
Koh, Byung Chul. The Foreign Policy Systems of North and South
Korea. Berkeley: University of California, 1984.
________. The Foreign Policy of North Korea. New York: Praeger,
Lee, Chong-sik. Korean Workers' Party: A Short History. Stanford:
Hoover Institution Press, 1978.
________. Materials on Korean Communist 1945-1947. Honolulu:
Center for Korean Studies, University of Hawaii, 1977.
________. The Politics of Korean Nationalism. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1963.
Lee, Chong-sik and Se-Hee Yoo, ed. North Korea in Transition.
Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, 1991.
Lee, Ki-baik. A New History of Korea. Cambridge: Harvard University
MacDonald, Donald S. The Koreans: Contemporary Politics and
Society. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988.
Merrill, John. Korea: The Peninsular Origins of the War. Newark:
University of Delaware Press, 1988.
Nahm, Andrew C. North Korea: Her Past, Reality, and Impression.
Kalamazoo: Center for Korean Studies, Western Michigan University,
Paige, Glenn D. The Korean Decision. New York: The Free Press,
________. Korean People's Democratic Republic. Stanford: Hoover
Institution Press, 1966.
Palais, James B. Politics and Policy in Traditional Korea. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1976.
Ridgeway, Matthew B. Korean War. New York: Doubleday, 1964.
Scalapino, Robert A. and Jun-yop Kim, eds. North Korea Today:
Strategic and Domestic Issues. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian
________. and Chong-sik Lee. Communism in Korea. 2 vols.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
Suh, Dae-sook. Kim Il Sung: A Biography. Honolulu: University of
Hawaii Press, 1989.
________. The Korean Communist Movement, 1918-1948. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1966.
________ and Lee, Chong-sik. Political Leadership in Korea. Seattle:
University of Washington Press, 1976.
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