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22,224,195 (July 2002 est.)


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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: 013 - (27/05/04)

The past month has offered a variety of perspectives, and a mixture of motives, on the uses and abuses of engagement with North Korea. The first working groups for the six-party talks, held in Beijing, got nowhere as usual. A visit to Pyongyang by Junichiro Koizumi saw the Japanese prime minister bring back the children of former abductees; but it was unclear whether this will boost ties, or backfire as happened before. Also, for the first time senior military officers of the two Koreas have met, at Seoul's urging.
Unless one counts merely meeting as a virtue in itself - and getting North Korea to agree to turn up, as Kim Jong-il did when he visited Beijing in April - then it is hard to get too excited about the six-party nuclear talks, or at least their current prospects. The best one can hope for is that this framework - combining, as it does, both Korean states plus the four powers most involved in the peninsula: China (the host), the US, Japan, and Russia - will one day be a place where important security issues are resolved; and perhaps even be the beginning of a permanent security architecture sorely lacking in north-east Asia.

Going through the motions
For now, however, the two prinicpals are in effect merely going through the motions. The US stuck to its mantra of CVID (complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament) as non-negotiable. North Korea, as before, offered a phased two-way process: starting with a freeze for which it would be rewarded, and building up from there. Neither is serious at this point about breaking the logjam: Bush is preoccupied in Iraq, while Kim Jong-il is waiting in the hope that from next year a Kerry administration will be more amenable.
If and when serious negotiation begins, one old and one new stumbling block will arise. North Korea still denies that it has a second covert nuclear programme, based on highly enriched uranium (HEU); even though revelations from Pakistan's Dr A Q Khan are thought to confirm the suspicions long held by the US, raising which in October 2002 precipitated the current crisis. Pyongyang similarly used to deny its now admitted and reactivated first, plutonium-based programme. It would help if they came clean on HEU.

Did the DPRK sell Libya uranium?
The new stumbling block is a recent press report that North Korea may have supplied Libya with uranium. Caution is in order, since the New York Times (somewhat counter-intuitively, in view of its liberal stance) has long been the vehicle of choice for strategic leaks by Washington hawks. But if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms such suspicions, or indeed identifies the DPRK as the source, then this will be very serious. Pyongyang, while admitting it sells missiles (quite legally, if unhelpfully), has always denied that it had or would ever sell nuclear materials. Yet with reserves of some 4 million tons of high-quality uranium, the temptation for a cash-strapped rogue regime to sell anything to anybody must be great. Even for a US administration bogged down in Iraq, and for whom North Korea has rarely been on the front burner, any hint of nuclear proliferation is a red rag; perhaps even a red line. We shall see how this unfolds.

State vs Pentagon: Washington's war of the leaks
Meanwhile, the DC leak machine went into action on another front. A Washington Times story on May 19 headlined "US Considers Reactor Deal on North Korea," by Bill Gertz, another favoured outlet, accused the State Department's new point man on North Korea, Joseph DeTrani, of exceeding his brief in going "beyond the very limited talking points (sic) that prevent him from discussing concessions." The presumed source is the Defense Department's Chuck Jones, who at the last full-dress six-way talks similarly threatened to report DeTrani for going beyond his brief. With other participants - China, Russia, and even its ally South Korea - frustrated by US rigidity, it is not surprising if DeTrani strove to do his best with a strict script, just to try to move matters forward. None of this bodes well for progress at the next full-dress talks, supposed to be held by the end of June.

Japan joins the 'axis of carrot'?
With Seoul in effect joining Beijing and Moscow in an informal 'axis of carrot', hitherto America's sole real ally in its hard line had been Japan. Tokyo's has its own priorities as regards North Korea. Nukes apart, Japan fears being a target for DPRK missiles. Above all, there is the abductions saga. In September 2002, when Junichiro Koizumi became the first Japanese premier ever to visit Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il confessed that North Korea had indeed (as long suspected) kidnapped several Japanese in the 1970s; most of whom were now dead. Far from laying the matter to rest, as had been hoped, this enraged public opinion. Since then Tokyo has passed, but not implemented, several laws aimed at North Korea, giving it powers to impose economic sanctions. Japan had been the DPRK's no 2 trade partner, while pro-North Koreans in Japan are an important source of remittances.

Koizumi takes another day trip to Pyongyang
With Tokyo's line thus hardening, there was surprise when, at short notice, on May 22 Koizumi once more flew to Pyongyang. (As before, he just went for the day, taking his own lunch-box: no banquets or toasts.) This time he met Kim Jong-il for only 90 minutes: less than the expected two hours, which some saw as a slight. He brought back, as was no doubt pre-agreed, the five children of two abductee couples returned in 2002. Two more children and their father, an ex-US army deserter, declined to come for fear that the latter could be extradited to the US. While denying any linkage, Koizumi said Japan will give 250,000 tons of rice (its first food aid in several years) and medical aid worth $10m, and will hold off implementing sanctions legislation.
Opinion is divided on both the motive for and impact of this trip. Critics saw it as a stunt: to deflect attention from a pensions scandal, and boost Koizumi before July's elections to the House of Councillors, the upper chamber of the Diet. (It did indeed immediately raise his opinion poll ratings by around 10%, to the mid-50s.) Many on his own side urged him not to go, if merely to bring back family members. This time Kim Jong-il made no further confessions or concessions either on the fate of dead abductees or the wider nuclear issue. All in all, this summit looks like an ace played for little gain. Still, Koizumi's initiative to try for a breakthrough contrasts with the Bush administration's rigid inertia, suggesting Japan too may be shifting toward the 'axis of carrot' camp. In that case the next full-dress six-party talks, due by end-June, could see the US isolated in its hardline stance.

Southern commodore meets northern general
On May 26, senior North and South Korean military officers met bilaterally for the first time in half a century. Seoul had long sought such a meeting, but had long been rebuffed. Pyongyang nominally agreed in February, but would not fix a date and kept stonewalling. Eventually they relented, and an ROK commodore met a DPRK major-general at the North's Hyundai-run Mt Kumgang resort, which doubles as a venue for dialogue. They talked formally for two hours and informally for a further four, and agreed to meet again on June 3 at Mt Sorak, an equivalent Southern resort near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
As sending a navy man implies, Seoul's initial aim is to avoid border clashes west of the peninsula in the current crab-fishing season. In 1999 and 2002, brief but fierce firefights left several dead. Beyond this, South Korea wants to add a missing military dimension to its range of dialogue with Pyongyang. The latter had hitherto refused, claiming the US as its sole counterpart for security negotiations. So this new bilateral inter-Korean channel is hopeful; but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. A day later, the ROK Defence Security Command (DSC) accused the DPRK of operating a crack cyber-terrorist unit, which regularly hacks into ROK government computer networks to try to steal secrets. So there would be much for any continuing military talks to discuss, if they are serious.

Much talk, little action
All in all, there is no lack of talking with North Korea these days. What any of it amounts to is less clear. Pyongyang as ever keeps its powder dry, indeed boasts of strengthening its nuclear deterrent; while varied interlocutors have their own mixed motives for stalling, stunts, and all points in between. Progress on the nuclear issue looks remote; but equally, with the US bogged down in Iraq and everyone else favouring dialogue, there is little risk of this flaring into a full-blown crisis. Meanwhile, assisting Pyongyang's tentative moves towards a market economy may be a better way to lure Kim Jong-il in from the cold. But there are no guarantees: the dear leader may just take the money and keep the nukes, if he can get away with it. The talking will continue; but it may not accomplish a great deal.

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