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Korea is in fact one of the world's older nations. Most of the peninsula was unified in 668CE, when the southern kingdom of Shilla conquered its northern rival, Koguryo. Despite owing much of its civilisation to China, to which it was long a formal vassal, Korea is ethnically and linguistically quite distinct and was in practice self-governing.

Few countries have known a more painful passage to modernity. The imperialist age found the last Chosun dynasty in decay. Its efforts to keep out the wider world earned it the sobriquet 'hermit kingdom'; but its stubborn refusal to reform made it a "shrimp among whales": prey to whichever power achieved regional dominance. That turned out to be Meiji Japan, which trounced the fading Chinese and Russian empires to rule Korea brutally during 1905-45. This brought some development; yet the scars - such as 'comfort women' (sex slaves) - still poison ties between Japan and today's Koreas.

Those scars include Korea's almost accidental, yet fateful, partition: a 'temporary' US idea in 1945, to stop the Red Army occupying the whole peninsula. Predictably, US and Soviet zones hardened into separate regimes, proclaimed in 1948: the Republic of Korea (ROK) south of the 38th Parallel, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the north. In 1950 the north's ex-guerilla leader, Kim Il-sung, invaded the south, but was beaten back by a US-led UN force. The 1953 Armistice - there is still no peace treaty - left both states in place, but terribly ravaged. Four million died. The sealed border, now ironically called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), hardly budged.

Thereafter the two Koreas competed economically and diplomatically. The DPRK led at first: its GNP was ahead of the ROK's until the 1970s, giving it clout in the Non-Aligned Movement. But the south's alliance with the US and export-oriented model proved a more lasting formula for success, even before the USSR's demise in 1991 both alarmed the now ageing Kim Il-sung and removed his main source of subsidy.

That blow exposed the 'Great Leader''s vaunted self-reliance (Juche) as a myth. As in Cuba, North Korea's economy went into free fall. Unlike Cuba, the regime's refusal to adapt led to catastrophe. In a uniquely tragic trajectory, a once industrial economy took a great leap backwards. In 1996-98, famine killed at least one million out of 23m people: some estimates run as high as 3m. The country now relies on food aid, which is falling as needs arise elsewhere (Afghanistan, Iraq) and donors grow exasperated. 

Their frustration is threefold. Economically, until recently the DPRK resisted reform. In July 2002 it imposed drastic wage and price rises; but without supply-side steps to match, these produced little except inflation. In 2003, however, it became clear that wider, if cautious, market reforms were under way. Politically, the extreme cult of personality around Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, passed to his son Kim Jong-il in a system which in the C21 remains Stalinist, ossified, opaque, bizarre, and cruel. Yet even its foes must admit, and rue, the DPRK's staying power. Over a decade after the demise of the USSR, its battered Korean epigone is still alive and kicking.

Thirdly, rather than reform, North Korea's response to adversity was to rearm. In a policy of militant mendicancy, the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), real or suspected, has been used to parlay resources. Thus after the 1993-94 nuclear crisis, when the Clinton administration considered bombing the Yongbyon nuclear site, the 1994 Agreed Framework (AF) with the US shut Yongbyon - in exchange for fuel oil and two new light water reactors (LWRs), to be built and paid for mainly by the ROK via a consortium, KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization).

Hopes of the AF as a model rose when Kim Dae-jung became ROK president in 1998. His 'sunshine' policy of outreach led to the first ever North-South summit, held in the DPRK capital Pyongyang in June 2000, for which Kim won that year's Nobel Peace Prize. But progress proved fitful, as the US under George W Bush took a harder line: naming North Korea in 2002, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an "axis of evil".

In October 2002 the US accused the DPRK of having a new covert nuclear project, based on highly enriched uranium (HEU) - and says it admitted as much. (North Korea denies both.). This sparked a new nuclear crisis. KEDO cut off oil supplies; North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors, restarted its Yongbyon reactor, and became the first of 170 signatory states ever to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Provocations continued, in a bid to gain the attention of a US busy with Iraq. North Korea tested two short-range missiles - one spoilt the inauguration of a new ROK president, Roh Moo-hyun, despite his pro-sunshine bent - and buzzed a US spyplane. 

A shift to dialogue came when an anxious China brokered talks between North Korea and the US in April. Wider six-party talks followed in August, bringing South Korea, Japan and Russia to the table too. Neither round made substantive progress; at both Pyongyang hinted that it has nuclear weapons, and might sell or test them. This may be bluff; nor is it clear if any nuclear arsenal is negotiable, or whether Kim Jong-il has concluded after Iraq that only a nuclear deterrent can save him from sharing the fate of Saddam Hussein. With pressure from China, and some signs of a softer line by the US towards meeting North Korea's concerns, it was hoped that six-party talks would reconvene in 2003; but this deadline passed. In January an unofficial US delegation was shown what appeared to be plutonium at Yongbyon, whose reactor is up and running. The six finally met again in late February, but agreed only to hold a third round by June, preceded by working groups. The June meeting brought hints of movement: for the first time the US tabled a concrete proposal, with incentives. But wide gaps remain; a fourth round is due in September. Concrete obstacles include Pyongyang's continued blanket denial of any HEU activity.

Yet North Korea's two nuclear programmes are just the start. On the security front, other worries include its missiles, suspected chemical and biological weapons (CBW), the million-strong Korean People's Army (KPA), and more. Further concerns include abductions (a major issue for Japan), counterfeiting, drug trafficking, refugees fleeing into China, and human rights. With interlocutors having different priorities, it is very hard to see what kind of deal the DPRK can accept that would resolve much or all of this. However, a visit by Kim Jong-il to Beijing in late April, with an entourage consisting mainly of reformers, raised hopes that Pyongyang may prove more amenable in future; while soon after, a serious railway explosion which killed 161 people starkly emphasized the dire state of North Korea's infrastructure and its urgent need for new investment.

Thus Korea now has odd echoes of two older eras. Again a hermit strategy has failed; and again south has trumped north, at least economically. The gap is so wide that the two no longer fit on the same graph. South Korea exports more in two days than the North in a year, and throws away more food than the North eats. Southerners today are substantially taller and heavier than Northerners. The Korean question today is thus not just about nukes, but how these widening chasms can ever be bridged.

Four scenarios are possible. A 'soft landing', with Kim Jong-il gradually embracing peace and reform, is still feasible and devoutly to be hoped and worked for. Secondly, the alarums may continue, and North Korea limp on as is - but surely not indefinitely. Collapse and absorption is a third possibility: sure to be even more expensive than in Germany, but unlikely to be as peaceful. Finally, a second Korean War would inflict vast casualties (again), and cost trillions of dollars to rebuild South as well as North. 

Even a world awash in turmoil has few unfolding dramas with stakes as high as this. The chapter in Korea's long history that began in 1945 is coming to a close. Can the DPRK leopard change its spots, and if so how and with what result? As a sub-plot, but of major import: a growing US-ROK rift, with some Koreans seeing Bush as raising tensions, may yet push South Korea into the arms of a waiting China, already its main trade partner. Unlike most of China's neighbours, Koreans feel comfortable with this; so here again history may repeat itself, and shift East Asia's security tectonic plates. The only certainty is that developments in Korea will demand our utmost vigilance.

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Update No: 015 - (26/07/04)

Might Kim Jong-il emulate Qadhafi?
July in North Korea is traditionally designated a "month of anti-US struggle." In happier times, the period between June 25 (the date the Korean War broke out in 1950) and July 27 (when the Armistice was signed in 1953), saw celebrations of what was boasted as a famous victory over the US. So one expects some intensification of Pyongyang's rhetoric at this time of year. On July 25, the party daily Rodong Sinmun repeated old allegations that the US used germ warfare in 1952. The same day, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) accused the US of conducting over 1,200 spy flights so far this year, claiming this proves that they are "looking for a chance to launch a pre-emptive attack." 

So far, so boilerplate. More significant was a KCNA report a day earlier, which quoted the DPRK foreign ministry as dismissing US disarmament proposals as "nothing but a sham offer." The immediate stimulus of this was a trip earlier in the week to South Korea and Japan by John Bolton: the US under-secretary of state for disarmament, and one of the Bush administration's leading hawks on North Korea. Last time he came to Seoul, Bolton alarmed his hosts - who continue to stick to a "sunshine" policy of engagement with the North, the nuclear crisis notwithstanding - by attacking Kim Jong-il by name some 40 times; prompting Pyongyang media to call him a "vampire" and "human scum."

A softer, gentler Bolton
This time, by contrast, he was almost cajoling. In both Seoul and Tokyo, Bolton cited the Libyan precedent as a model for Kim Jong-il to follow. It is worth quoting his words:

"[T]he point of the Libyan model is that Colonel Moamer Qadhafi, who is the central decision maker in Libya as Kim Jong-il is . in North Korea, took a very calculated look at the status of Libya in the world.. He made a cost-benefit analysis that . Libya would be much safer renouncing the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. In fact, that was an accurate decision on his part. I think the Libyan example demonstrates we can move very quickly [to dismantle weapons of mass destruction and to deliver economic incentives elsewhere] . That could be a way ahead both for North Korea and for Iran."

The same message had come a fortnight earlier from the US National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice. Again speaking in Seoul, Dr Rice - tipped as a future Secretary of State, if George Bush wins a second term - said on July 9 that she wished Kim Jong-il would talk to Qadhafi, adding: "North Korea will be surprised to see how much will be possible," if it only gives up its nuclear programmes. "So much is possible," she repeated. 

Bush proffers olive branches
Nor were these the only olive branches from the Bush administration last month. On July 23, the US said it will contribute 50,000 tons of grain to the UN World Food Programme (WFP)'s appeal for North Korea: more than 10% of the 484,000 tons WFP is seeking this year, but less than the 100,000 tons it gave last year, let alone 2002's 200,000 tons. In the past decade the US has donated over 2 million tons of grain to Pyongyang: supposedly on humanitarian grounds, but the timing of donations (as now) looks politically motivated.

Earlier that week on July 20, Washington witnessed a rare, perhaps unprecedented, sight. Two senior DPRK diplomats - Pak Gil-yon, North Korea's ambassador to the UN, and his deputy - spent a day on Capitol Hill with influential members of Congress and others; at a meeting organized by the Korea Society, whose chairman Donald Gregg is a former ambassador in Seoul and a leading Republican dove. It is a little known fact that North Korean diplomats have been based on US soil for over 30 years, at first as an observer mission before the two Koreas joined the UN in 1991. Yet to this day they are confined to a 25 mile radius of New York unless special permission is given, as in this instance. In the past top-level DPRK figures, visiting the UN, wanted to go to Washington but were rebuffed. It is hard not to see this as decades of wasted opportunity; albeit South Korea would have fiercely opposed such contacts, until its own recent conversion to sunshine.

Another high-level North Korean negotiator, Ri Gun, is due in New York on August 9 for several days to attend a conference; he is expected to meet the US special envoy on North Korea, Joseph DeTrani. Each is number two in their delegations to the six-party talks.

Pyongyang pouts
All these developments would seem to reinforce the Bush administration's belated shift to engagement at the third round of six-party talks in Beijing in late June, when - as New Nations reported in last month's update - for the first time the US offered a package of steps, including incentives, rather than simply demanding CVID (complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea's nuclear facilities). So it was disappointing that Pyongyang's July 24 statement not only rejected the Libyan comparison, but poured cold water also on what it nonetheless called the "landmark" US proposal - presumably meaning the June package, to which North Korea has yet to make an official response.

Yet studied ambiguity, not outright rejection, is the name of the game. Once agan, the exact words matter. "The landmark proposal made by the United States is little worthy to be considered any longer" is very mild by North Korean standards. "Sham" is stronger, yet milder than much of Pyongyang's routine bellicosity. So what is going on, exactly?

Is Libya relevant?
The timing suggests that John Bolton was in fact the main target. North Korea has from the start rejected any analogy with Libya. Back in January, KCNA called this comparison "nothing but a folly of imbeciles utterly ignorant of the DPRK's independent policy... the DPRK has never been influenced by others and this will not happen in the future, too. To expect any 'change' from the DPRK stand is as foolish as expecting a shower from clear sky . It is the historical truth that peace is won and defended only with strength."

This is not mere rhetoric. KCNA's July 24 statement added that: "It is a daydream for the U.S. to contemplate forcing the DPRK to lay down arms first under the situation where both are in a state of armistice and at war technically." As this implies, North Korea sets the nuclear issue in the wider context of over half a century of US-DPRK hostility. With two states technically still at war, one-sided disarmament is unthinkable. Also, Qadhafi has oil; whereas a Kim Jong-il stripped of his nuclear card might feel very exposed.

A negotiating gambit
That all this is a negotiating move, rather than a rejection, is clear from other demands. Pyongyang called on the US to lift economic sanctions, stop accusing it of terrorism, and supply 2 million kilowatts of electricity, in return for a nuclear freeze. The US plan is not published, but reports in Seoul (whose draft the US took as a basis) say that it includes an offer of heavy fuel oil (but from US allies) and longer term energy aid; talks about lifting sanctions and removing the DPRK from the State Department's list of states accused of sponsoring terrorism; and a provisional security guarantee. North Korea had demanded a full peace treaty, but now more modestly just calls for the US to drop its hostile attitude.

Clearly there is overlap here, creating potential at last for the substantive progress which three rounds of six-party talks in the past year have yet to bring. Thus Pyongyang could, and conceivably will, win removal from the US terrorist list simply by returning four ageing Japanese Red Army hijackers, whom it has harboured since 1970 and who now reportedly want to go home and face the music. The US does not accuse Kim Jong-il of any recent terrorist acts. Once delisted, North Korea would be free to apply to join bodies like the World Bank and IMF: a move the US must oppose as long as it remains listed.

Issues like these need discussion at working level - and soon, if the deadline of a fourth round of six-party talks by end-September is not to slip. Last time working groups were held immediately before the main talks, which is practically useless. On July 25 reports from Tokyo suggested that moves are afoot to convene working groups in late August.

Japan has its own agenda
It is not only the US that is offering olive branches. In an informal summit on the South Korean resort island of Cheju on July 21, South Korea's president Roh Moo-hyun and the Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, promised economic and diplomatic support if only North Korea will "make a progressive move" at the next round of six-way talks.

Meanwhile Japan is busy pursuing a bilateral agenda with North Korea, with a possibility of fresh talks towards diplomatic ties in August. There had been sporadic discussions on this for over a decade, without success - despite the lure of compensation for Japan's pre-1945 colonial rule on the peninsula, which could mean an aid package worth $10 billion. That will not be forthcoming unless Japan gets satisfaction not only on the nuclear issue, but probably missile threats too, as well as its particular obsession: abductions. This soap opera currently focuses on Charles Jenkins: a former US sergeant who crossed the DMZ in 1965 and later married a Japanese abductee. They and their two daughters, having been reunited in neutral Indonesia, are now in Japan, where public opinion opposes any US bid to seek custody of Jenkins, who is ill. (Wiser voices in Washington urge leniency: after 39 years in Pyongyang, he must be an intelligence goldmine.) But Japan's mood is fickle: it could sour if Tokyo presses on the fates of other abductees, dead or (conceivably) alive.

A wider remit
Similar ambiguity persists in Washington too, where the olive branches described above are by no means the whole story. On July 15 the lead US negotiator at the six-party talks - James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asia - told a Senate foreign relations committee hearing that normal relations with North Korea would not be possible even if Pyongyang fully complied with US demands for nuclear disarmament. That would bring trade and aid benefits, but full ties would also require progress on human rights and an end to other nefarious activities. Kelly did not argue with a long charge-sheet laid out by a leading critic, Sen. Sam Brownback. This ranged from mass starvation, concentration camps, drug running, and counterfeiting to being "arms merchants for virtually every evil regime in the world.. Can we really negotiate with a group that has this track record?" 

More missile revelations
For good measure, Kelly himself added conventional forces and missiles to the list. Each of these is a weighty topic, and the latter - where the Clinton administration tried to reach a deal, which George W Bush chose not to follow up - saw further developments in July. In Tokyo on July 23, an unnamed senior US official - presumably John Bolton, or one of his staff - told the Asahi Shimbun of "very strong evidence indicating that Iran and North Korea are cooperating on ballistic missile development." This is hardly news: Iran's Shahab-3 is known to be based on North Korea's Nodong-1 medium-range missile.

It was the Asahi too which on July 19, in something of a scoop, got confirmation from Pakistan's ex-prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, that her country had bought missile know-how from North Korea. While denying this was exchanged for highly enriched uranium (HEU) nuclear technology, at least on her watch, she scorned the official account that Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan - who has admitted running clandestine nuclear sales - could have acted without the complicity of other governments in Islamabad. It was US suspicions of HEU, which it claims North Korea admitted in 2002 but has steadfastly denied since, that precipitated the ongoing slow-burn second DPRK nuclear crisis of the past 21 months.

CBW and refugees, too
At least two further concerns should be added. Libya, after all, gave up all its weapons of mass destruction (WMD): not only an embryonic nuclear programme, but also chemical and biological warfare (CBW) activities. Needless to say, North Korea too has CBW; but this has never yet been put on the formal agenda. On a different front, reports that the last week in July will see some 460 DPRK refugees brought to Seoul from a so far unnamed Southeast Asian country - the largest ever group to arrive - are bound to foreground yet another running sore. Fixation on the nuclear issue, as at the six-party talks, tends to distract from these wider worries: hardly less urgent, and many almost as intractable.

Will Congress act?
How or whether to raise such issues and prioritise them, much less resolve them, can be contentious. South Korea is largely silent on the human rights front, while Japan cares mainly when this affects kidnapped Japanese. Back in the US, the day after Pak Gil-yon's pioneering visit to Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives unanimously approved a North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA) - backed by Sen. Brownback, among others -which aims to widen the agenda. This commits the US to raising human rights issues with Pyongyang; it would fund groups devoted to this, and increase broadcasting to the DPRK by Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America to 12 hours daily. It also demands tighter monitoring of food aid, and the recognition of North Korean defectors as refugees; camps should be built for them, and they should be enabled to apply for asylum in the US.

A separate even tougher North Korea Freedom Act, explicitly seeking regime change, is before the Senate. Whether either bill will pass into law this session is uncertain. Critics - including the ruling Uri party in Seoul - do not deny the reality of the issues; but fear that North Korea will use this frontal assault as a pretext to pull out of the six-party process and become uncooperative across the board, so that the overall outcome will be negative. Even if that crux is avoided, Kim Jong-il might just play for time - and pray for Kerry.

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