How Is North Korean Repatriation Important To Considerations Of The Cold War?

How Is North Korean Repatriation Important To Considerations Of The Cold War?

During the Pacific War millions of Koreans were moved around the Japanese Empire, some were forcibly taken for their labour, and others chose to move voluntarily, pursuing economic and other opportunities.

As a result, at the end of the war in 1945 a large number of Koreans were left in a defeated Japan. With the American occupation of Japan and the Korean Peninsula split into North and South Korea, the question of their repatriation became increasingly complicated.

The devastation caused by the Korean War and the hardening of the Cold War meant that by 1955 over 600,000 Koreans remained in Japan. Many Koreans were on welfare, being discriminated against, and were not living in good conditions in Japan. They therefore wanted to repatriate back to their homeland.

The destruction of rail cars south of Wonsan, North Korea, an east coast port city, by U.S. Forces during the Korean War (Credit: Public Domain).

Although the vast of the Koreans in Japan originated from South of the 38th parallel, between 1959 and 1984 93,340 Koreans, including 6,700 Japanese spouses and children, were repatriated to North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

This particular event is largely ignored when regarding the Cold War.

Why North Korea?

The Syngman Rhee regime of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in South Korea was built upon strong anti-Japanese sentiments. During the 1950s, when the United States needed their two major East Asian allies to have close relations, the ROK was instead rather hostile.

Immediately following the Korean War, South Korea was economically behind the North. Rhee’s South Korean government showed a clear reluctance to receive repatriates from Japan. The options for the 600,000 Koreans left in Japan were to remain there, or go to North Korea. It is within this context that Japan and North Korea started secret negotiations.

Both Japan and North Korea were willing to proceed with a significant degree of collaboration despite the heightened tensions of the Cold War which should have severely impacted their relations. Their cooperation was facilitated substantially by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) facilitated much of the event. Political and media organizations also backed the project, calling it a humanitarian measure.

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A survey taken in 1946 found that 500,000 Koreans sought to return to South Korea, with only 10,000 opting for the North. These figures reflect the refugees’ point of origin but World tensions helped to reverse these preferences. Cold War politics played out within the Korean community in Japan, with competing organisations creating propaganda.

It was a significant shift for Japan to either initiate or respond to North Korea when they were also trying to normalize relations with South Korea. A rigorous process was involved in getting a place on a ship borrowed from the Soviet Union, including interviews with the ICRC.

Response from the South

The DPRK saw repatriation as a chance to improve relations with Japan. The ROK, however, did not accept the situation and the South Korean government did its best to prevent repatriations to the North.

A report claimed that a state of emergency had been declared in South Korea and that the Navy was put on alert in case there would not be any other way to prevent the arrival of the repatriate ships in North Korea. It also added that UN soldiers had been commanded against participating in any action should something transpire. The president of the ICRC even warned that the issue threatened the entire political stability of the Far East.

Japan was so alarmed that they tried to complete the return process as quickly as possible. Departures were sped up in an attempt to resolve the repatriation issue to focus on mending the broken down relationship with the South. Fortunately for Japan a regime change in the Republic of Korea in 1961 eased tensions.

Major-General Park Chung-hee and soldiers tasked with effecting the 1961 coup which created an anti-socialist government more accepting of collaboration with Japan (Credit: Public Domain).

The issue of repatriation became an indirect route of communication between North and South Korea. Propaganda spread internationally about the great experience of returnees in North Korea, and emphasised the unhappy experience of those who had visited South Korea.

The repatriation scheme was meant to lead to closer relations between North Korea and Japan, however it ended up tinting relations for decades after and continues to cast a shadow over North East Asian relations.

The outcome of repatriations

After the normalization of relations between Japan and South Korea in 1965, repatriations did not stop, but significantly slowed down.

The central committee of the North Korean Red Cross stated in 1969 that repatriation had to continue as it showed that Koreans chose to return to a socialist country, rather than to stay in or return to a capitalist country. The memorandum claimed that Japanese militarists and the South Korean government were eager to foil repatriation attempts, and that the Japanese had been disruptive from the beginning.

In reality, however, the numbers applying to go to North Korea dropped sharply in the 1960s as knowledge of the poor economic conditions, social discrimination, and political repression faced by both Korean and Japanese spouses filtered back to Japan.

Repatriations to North Korea from Japan, shown in “Photograph Gazette, 15 January 1960 issue” published by Government of Japan. (Credit: Public Domain).

Family members in Japan sent money to support their loved ones. It was not the paradise on earth that the propaganda had promised. The Japanese government had failed to publicise information that they had received as early as 1960 that many returnees suffered as a result of North Korea’s harsh conditions.

Two-thirds of the Japanese who migrated to North Korea with their Korean spouse or parents are estimated to have gone missing or have never been heard from. Of the returnees, about 200 defected from the North and resettled in Japan, while 300 to 400 are believed to have fled to the South.

Experts argue that because of this, the Japanese government would “surely prefer the whole incident to sink into oblivion.” The governments from North and South Korea also remain silent, and have aided in this issue being largely forgotten. The legacy within each country is ignored, with North Korea labelling the mass return as “the Great Return to the Fatherland” without commemorating it with much enthusiasm or pride.

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The repatriation issue is very important when considering the Cold War in North East Asia. It came at a time when North Korea and South Korea were contesting each other’s legitimacy and trying to gain a foothold in Japan. Its effects were vast and had the potential to completely change the political structures and stability in East Asia.

The repatriation issue could have led to conflict between the USA’s key allies in the Far East while Communist China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union watched on.

In October 2017, Japanese scholars and journalists established a group to record the memories of those who resettled in North Korea. The group interviewed returnees who fled the North, and aims to publish a collection of their testimonies by the end of 2021.

American prisoners of war who refused to return to America at the end of the Korean War, 1960s

Twenty-one American soldiers refused to return to America at the end of the Korean War. The sign on the truck reads: “We Stay for Peace”.

On 27 June 1953, the United Nations Command (UNC) and North Korean Communist forces signed an armistice ending three years of fighting in Korea. Although the American-led UNC failed to win the entire peninsula, it successfully repelled Communist attacks south of the 38th parallel. Moreover, though contrary to the 1947 Geneva Convention, which mandated the wholesale exchange of all POWs, President Truman’s policy of voluntary repatriation proved highly successful: 47,000 Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war struck a propaganda blow against their Marxist governments by choosing not to return to their homelands.

In September, however, 23 American prisoners of war also refused repatriation, sparking a nationwide debate among journalists, politicians, military officials, psychiatrists, and the soldiers themselves. During a 90-day cooling off period, the GIs were held in the neutral zone at Panmunjom, but only two changed their minds in response to entreaties by U.S. officials and letters from the GIs’ families.

The commonly accepted reason at the time was that they were brainwashed while held prisoner. This was effectively confirmed by 149 other POWs held by the Chinese/North Koreans who “reported that their captors had waged a systematic effort to break down their beliefs and entice them to collaborate”. Time and Newsweek published articles looking for defects in the 21, to explain why they were able to be brainwashed. The magazines blamed reasons such as alcoholism, STDs, low IQs, and being “diseased”.

Race played an important role throughout the nationwide debate, especially since three of the 21 nonrepatriates were black. Discussion of the black nonrepatriates in the white press highlights public perceptions of Communism and civil rights in the mid-1950s. For example, many publications noted the special effort the Chinese had made to woo black American soldiers, how they had stressed that in their Marxist nation all members of society were treated equally.

During the 90 day cooling off period all 23 US soldiers were held on neutral territory. The 2 that left the group were court martialed for desertion and collaboration, one was given a 20 year sentence and the other 10. The remaining 21 were dishonorably discharged and journeyed in China.

Once in China the soldiers were sent to a collective farm to work. Within 1.5 years three of them ran away and sought refuge at the British Embassy in Peking. By 1958, 7 more of the soldiers had left China. By 1966, only two remained in China. One of the 21 returned to the US in 1965 and explained his actions in 1953 as being motivated by “anger by the recall of his idol, General Douglas MacArthur, who favored the use of nuclear weapons to end the war. During his two years as a prisoner, he increasingly felt abandoned by America”.

One of the three black soldiers (who returned to the US in 1966) explained that discrimination in US was the reason he went to China in 1953. In 1991, he said: “Brainwashed? The Chinese unbrainwashed me. The black man had his mind brainwashed long before the Korea War”. As the soldiers trickled back to the US, an additional reason was revealed: A handful apparently had informed on their fellows while in POW camps, and rather than rejecting the economic and political situation in the United States they were simply afraid to return.

How to Help North Korean Refugees

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea, remains one of the most severe dictatorial regimes in the world, and about 24 million people live under the control of its secretive and repressive government. Since the creation of North Korea in 1948, many have fled the country for political, ideological, religious, economic or personal reasons. As the country has become an important piece in East Asian politics and the dire situation in the country has continued, here are some facts about its situation as well as how to help North Korean refugees.

North Korean Refugees

People also call North Korean refugees “North Korean defectors” because of the political weight the cold war between North and South Korea caused. This other term, “defectors,” is important to know, as there is a constant stream of articles and news stories about North Korean defectors. As of 2017, some sources estimate that over 1,000 North Koreans escape every year.

From the end of the 20th century to today, one of the main causes of North Korean defection has been the lack of food. The drastic lifestyle change from North Korea to their new countries often shocks refugees. One refugee living in Seoul was so hungry as a child that he could not even find the words to describe it, but today has almost any food imaginable available with a quick online order.

Reports in 2017 showed that 85 percent of North Korean refugees were women. Women made up 71 percent of refugees in South Korea, a very common destination for North Korean refugees. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, there have been about 31,000 North Korean refugees that have fled to South Korea’s capital city of Seoul and the surrounding region of Gyeonggi.

However, the majority of North Korean refugees go to China. Some sources estimate that between 50,000 and 200,000 North Korean refugees are currently living in China. For some refugees, China is the first stop of their journey to other Asian countries. After all, China is North Korea’s main ally, and the Chinese border is much easier to cross than the heavily-monitored DMZ with South Korea. However, under Kim Jong-un’s heightened border security and crackdowns on smugglers, the number of refugees successfully escaping the country has decreased in recent years. While there were 2,706 defections to South Korea in 2011, this number dropped to 1,127 in 2017.

Challenges of Leaving North Korea

Sex trafficking is a big issue for female North Korean refugees in areas such as China, South Korea and Russia. In China, traffickers traffick about 80 percent of female refugees through black markets for the purpose of becoming North Korean brides. With the vast majority of refugees being female, entering a new country when going to the police or other authorities likely means repatriation back to North Korea, these women are extremely vulnerable to human trafficking and abuse.

Leaving North Korea is incredibly hard. Even travel within the country receives strict regulation, and leaving the country is an act of treason, with the punishment being a minimum of seven years at a North Korean concentration camp. These concentration camps, with estimated 80,000-120,000 prisoners, systematically starve, torture and work people to death. The journey of a successful North Korean defector is extremely hard and takes a great number of risks.

In 2016, approximations determined that up to 30,000 half-North Korean children living in China were the result of forced marriages between North Korean refugees and Chinese men through sex trafficking. Many mothers end up arrested or dead, and the often poor Chinese fathers struggle to provide resources to support their children. These children, struggling to survive in their own unfortunate circumstances, are vulnerable to abuse without any immediate family to care for them. Organizations, such as Crossing Borders, work to help these children gain a stable life.

Organizations Helping North Korean Refugees

Crossing Borders is a Christian nonprofit based in China, which commits itself to helping refugees live a better life by securing safety and stability for them. Refugees’ delicate legal status leaves them in a position to suffer exploitation, trafficking and even murder, but Crossing Borders is determined to provide support to them. Crossing Borders has two main programs to help North Korean refugees: Refugee Care and Orphan Care. These have provided safety, medicine, financial aid and counseling to North Korean refugees in China.

Liberty in North Korea is an organization committed to getting North Koreans to safety through charitable donations. It has gathered information about escape routes throughout China and Southeast Asia and has formed relationships with individuals that will help move refugees safely across borders. It has rescued 1,000 refugees so far. Its team includes individuals located in the U.S., South Korea and Southeast Asia.

Based on the Korean peninsula, Helping Hands Korea works to raise awareness of North Korean refugees and help refugees in crisis. Helping Hands Korea has delivered food, medicine and clothing to vulnerable groups in North Korea and has assisted children separated from their mothers by providing foster care or money to grandparents to help care for them.

While fewer North Koreans are successfully escaping the country today, their desperate situation continues to draw concern and aid. For those who want to know how to help North Korean refugees, supporting and donating to organizations such as Crossing Borders, Liberty in North Korea and Helping Hands Korea will help ensure that these people are safe and living in stable conditions.

The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War: The Untold Story

This book is not for readers intolerant of wordy, repetitive, and sometimes obscure prose or occasional minor factual errors. Yet those able to forgive such shortcomings will learn much from the original research and analysis provided by a promising young scholar.

Author Monica Kim takes the Korean War off the battlefields of military conflict and into the interrogation rooms in which prisoners-of-war (POWs) were grilled by their captors about their individual histories and beliefs. Making extensive use of postcolonial theory, Kim traces Korea's painful journey from independence, to a colony of Japan, to liberation from Japan under conditions that left the country divided and still imposed on from outside, to a brutal war that resolved little, and, finally, to the post-armistice dispensation of POWs. She devotes major attention to how the United States attempted to construct a liberal world order after World War II and how that attempt influenced the U.S. occupation of Korea, the creation (through the United Nations [UN]) of an independent South Korea, and eventually the policy of “voluntary repatriation” during the armistice talks in the Korean War.

Most importantly, Kim describes and analyzes how Korean POWs sought to maintain their lives and their individual identities under extremely difficult circumstances. She also includes a rich final chapter on the journey of American POWs through camps in North Korea and back to the United States, where they faced interrogations by their own government at least as rigorous as those executed by their former captors. The Interrogation Rooms and David Cheng Chang's The Hijacked War: The Story of Chinese POWs in the Korean War (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019) represent major contributions to the scholarship on the Korean War, especially in moving the ever-broadening fields of diplomatic and military history beyond their traditional concentration on high-level politics and battlefield tactics and strategies to integrate and contextualize the personal stories of soldiers who were captured.

Kim argues that the POW issue in the Korean War is best seen as part of “the changing script of warfare in the mid-twentieth century,” a process in which “the interior worlds of individuals” became at least as important as “a traditional sense of sovereignty in the state-territorial sense” (p. 5). This is so because Korea and the other “hot” wars of the Cold War occurred in the context of decolonization in which societies were often deeply divided internally, in part due to outside influences. In South Korea the predominant external influence was the United States, for which “the interrogation room was a compressed site for the configuring and inventing of the labor, infrastructure, and policy required for [its] … new liberal empire” (p. 15). The United States created “a stark binary between ‘voluntary’ and ‘forced’ repatriation at the negotiating tables” and, in doing so, made “the stunning assertion … that the most opaque and coercive space of warfare … could be transformed … into a liberal, bureaucratic space” (p. 8). This assertion was nonsense, a point other historians have made, albeit with a less theoretical perspective.

The most original part of the book, other than Kim's sometimes labored theoretical constructs, develops the stories of individual POWs and their interrogators. Kim's writing is far more accessible here, and her research in U.S. archives—including the recently declassified records of the U.S. Counterintelligence Corps, Korean-language materials, UN and International Red Cross documents, obscure memoirs, and oral histories, over half of which she conducted herself—is truly impressive. Unlike David Cheng Chang, whose research on Chinese POWs is equally impressive, Kim devotes most of her attention to Korean prisoners in UN camps in South Korea and their interrogators and to U.S. prisoners in North Korea and their Chinese and North Korean interrogators. Two of the most fascinating stories are of the 76 Korean POWs who upon release chose to go to a “neutral” country and of Japanese Americans who served as interrogators after having endured concentration camps in the United States during World War II.

Unfortunately, in the second case Kim makes assertions not entirely consistent with the evidence presented. Thus, “the U.S. military assumed that … the inclusion of Japanese Americans into the national project of U.S. warfare would [persuade] … ‘Oriental’ prisoners of war that they should embrace the benevolence of the United States” (p. 128). Although U.S. soldiers often lumped all East Asians together, they were just as likely to make sharp distinctions between Koreans and Japanese, and they understood that most of the former hated the latter for their depredations on the peninsula earlier in the century. A more persuasive interpretation, for which Kim provides clear evidence, is that the U.S. military believed that Japanese Americans were more likely than Caucasian Americans to be able to communicate with Korean prisoners, who often possessed some understanding of the Japanese language. This is one illustration of a larger problem with Kim's discussion of American racism, which was undeniably widespread among mid 20th-century white Americans. Nonetheless, her failure to make clear distinctions between race and culture leads to uncertainty as to their weight in specific situations.

Finally, although Kim does delve into U.S. policy deliberations regarding the POW issue, her determination to fit voluntary repatriation into her theoretical framework leads to an exaggeration of the role of the Psychological Strategy Board in the overall process, as well as an underestimation of the degree to which the outcome was influenced by President Harry S. Truman's sense of moral outrage over Communist behavior. The book justifies the label “international history” for its coverage of the United States, Korea, and even India, which played an important role both during the last year of the fighting and in the months following the July 1953 armistice. However, the relative inattention to the Communist powers sometimes results in the absence of sufficient context to explain U.S. action fully.

It would be unfair to end on anything other than a positive note. Kim has labored tirelessly in archives on three continents and tracked down a significant number of living POWs for productive interviews. She has written a thoughtful book with broad implications for the course of the Cold War in the postcolonial world and promises to become a major figure among the new generation of Korean War scholars determined to reach well beyond those who have preceded them.


The name Korea is derived from the name Goryeo (also spelled Koryŏ). The name Goryeo itself was first used by the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo (Koguryŏ) which was one of the great powers in East Asia during its time, [27] [28] [29] [30] ruling most of the Korean Peninsula, Manchuria, parts of the Russian Far East [31] and parts of Inner Mongolia, [32] under Gwanggaeto the Great. [33] The 10th-century kingdom of Goryeo succeeded Goguryeo, [34] [35] [36] [37] and thus inherited its name, which was pronounced by visiting Persian merchants as "Korea". [38] The modern spelling of Korea first appeared in the late 17th century in the travel writings of the Dutch East India Company's Hendrick Hamel. [39]

After the division of the country into North and South Korea, the two sides used different terms to refer to Korea: Chosun or Joseon (조선) in North Korea, and Hanguk (한국) in South Korea. In 1948, North Korea adopted Democratic People's Republic of Korea (Korean: 조선민주주의인민공화국 , Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk listen ) as its new legal name. In the wider world, because the government controls the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, it is commonly called North Korea to distinguish it from South Korea, which is officially called the Republic of Korea in English. Both governments consider themselves to be the legitimate government of the whole of Korea. [40] [41] For this reason, the people do not consider themselves as 'North Koreans' but as Koreans in the same divided country as their compatriots in the South and foreign visitors are discouraged from using the former term. [42]


After the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, Korea was occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945. Korean resistance groups known as Dongnipgun (Liberation Army) operated along the Sino-Korean border, fighting guerrilla warfare against Japanese forces. Some of them took part in allied action in China and parts of South East Asia. One of the guerrilla leaders was the communist Kim Il-sung, who later became the first leader of North Korea.

After the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II in 1945, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two zones along the 38th parallel, with the northern half of the peninsula occupied by the Soviet Union and the southern half by the United States. Negotiations on reunification failed. Soviet general Terentii Shtykov recommended the establishment of the Soviet Civil Authority in October 1945, and supported Kim Il-sung as chairman of the Provisional People's Committee for North Korea, established in February 1946. In September 1946, South Korean citizens rose up against the Allied Military Government. In April 1948, an uprising of the Jeju islanders was violently crushed. The South declared its statehood in May 1948 and two months later the ardent anti-communist Syngman Rhee [43] became its ruler. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in the North on 9 September 1948. Shtykov served as the first Soviet ambassador, while Kim Il-sung became premier.

Soviet forces withdrew from the North in 1948, and most American forces withdrew from the South in 1949. Ambassador Shtykov suspected Rhee was planning to invade the North and was sympathetic to Kim's goal of Korean unification under socialism. The two successfully lobbied Joseph Stalin to support a quick war against the South, which culminated in the outbreak of the Korean War. [44] [45] [46] [47]

Korean War

The military of North Korea invaded the South on 25 June 1950, and swiftly overran most of the country. The United Nations Command (UNC) was subsequently established following the UN Security Council's recognition of North Korean aggression against South Korea. The motion passed because the Soviet Union, a close ally of North Korea and a member of the UN Security Council, was boycotting the UN over its recognition of the Republic of China rather than the People's Republic of China. [48] The UNC, led by the United States, intervened to defend the South, and rapidly advanced into North Korea. As they neared the border with China, Chinese forces intervened on behalf of North Korea, shifting the balance of the war again. Fighting ended on 27 July 1953, with an armistice that approximately restored the original boundaries between North and South Korea, but no peace treaty was signed. [49] Approximately 3 million people died in the Korean War, with a higher proportional civilian death toll than World War II or the Vietnam War, making it perhaps the deadliest conflict of the Cold War-era. [50] [51] [52] [53] [54] In both per capita and absolute terms, North Korea was the country most devastated by the war, which resulted in the death of an estimated 12–15% of the North Korean population (c. 10 million), "a figure close to or surpassing the proportion of Soviet citizens killed in World War II," according to Charles K. Armstrong. [55] As a result of the war, almost every substantial building in North Korea was destroyed. [56] [57] Some have referred to the conflict as a civil war, with other factors involved. [58]

A heavily guarded demilitarized zone (DMZ) still divides the peninsula, and an anti-communist and anti-North Korea sentiment remains in South Korea. Since the war, the United States has maintained a strong military presence in the South which is depicted by the North Korean government as an imperialist occupation force. [59] It claims that the Korean War was caused by the United States and South Korea. [60]

Post-war developments

The relative peace between the South and the North following the armistice was interrupted by border skirmishes, celebrity abductions, and assassination attempts. The North failed in several assassination attempts on South Korean leaders, such as in 1968, 1974, and the Rangoon bombing in 1983 tunnels were found under the DMZ and tensions flared over the axe murder incident at Panmunjom in 1976. [61] For almost two decades after the war, the two states did not seek to negotiate with one another. In 1971, secret, high-level contacts began to be conducted culminating in the 1972 July 4th North–South Joint Statement that established principles of working toward peaceful reunification. The talks ultimately failed because in 1973, South Korea declared its preference that the two Koreas should seek separate memberships in international organizations. [62]

During the 1956 August Faction Incident, Kim Il-sung successfully resisted efforts by the Soviet Union and China to depose him in favor of Soviet Koreans or the pro-Chinese Yan'an faction. [63] [64] The last Chinese troops withdrew from the country in October 1958, which is the consensus as the latest date when North Korea became effectively independent. Some scholars believe that the 1956 August incident demonstrated independence. [63] [64] [65] North Korea remained closely aligned with China and the Soviet Union, and the Sino-Soviet split allowed Kim to play the powers off each other. [66] North Korea sought to become a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, and emphasized the ideology of Juche to distinguish it from both the Soviet Union and China. [67] In United States policymaking, North Korea was considered among the Captive Nations. [68]

Recovery from the war was slowed by a massive famine in 1954-55. Local officials had exaggerated the size of the harvest by 50-70%. After the central government took its share starvation threatened many peasants about 800,000 died. In addition collectivization was resisted many farmers killed their livestock rather than turn them over to the collective farm. Another famine in 1994-98 killed 2.8 million. [69]

Industry was the favored sector. By 1957 industrial production reached 1949 levels. In 1959, relations with Japan had improved somewhat, and North Korea began allowing the repatriation of Japanese citizens in the country. The same year, North Korea revalued the North Korean won, which held greater value than its South Korean counterpart. Until the 1960s, economic growth was higher than in South Korea, and North Korean GDP per capita was equal to that of its southern neighbor as late as 1976. [70] However, by the 1980s, the economy had begun to stagnate it started its long decline in 1987 and almost completely collapsed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, when all Soviet aid was suddenly halted. [71]

An internal CIA study acknowledged various achievements of the North Korean government post-war: compassionate care for war orphans and children in general, a radical improvement in the status of women, free housing, free healthcare, and health statistics particularly in life expectancy and infant mortality that were comparable to even the most advanced nations up until the North Korean famine. [72] Life expectancy in the North was 72 before the famine which was only marginally lower than in the South. [73] The country once boasted a comparatively developed healthcare system pre-famine North Korea had a network of nearly 45,000 family practitioners with some 800 hospitals and 1,000 clinics. [74]

Post Cold War

In 1992, as Kim Il-sung's health began deteriorating, Kim Jong-il slowly began taking over various state tasks. Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack in 1994, with Kim Jong-il declaring a three-year period of national mourning before officially announcing his position as the new leader afterwards. [75]

North Korea promised to halt its development of nuclear weapons under the Agreed Framework, negotiated with U.S. president Bill Clinton and signed in 1994. Building on Nordpolitik, South Korea began to engage with the North as part of its Sunshine Policy. [76] [77]

Kim Jong-il instituted a policy called Songun, or "military first". There is much speculation about this policy being used as a strategy to strengthen the military while discouraging coup attempts. [78]

Flooding in the mid-1990s exacerbated the economic crisis, severely damaging crops and infrastructure and led to widespread famine which the government proved incapable of curtailing, resulting in the deaths of between 240,000 and 420,000 people. In 1996, the government accepted UN food aid. [79]

21st century

The international environment changed with the election of U.S. president George W. Bush in 2001. His administration rejected South Korea's Sunshine Policy and the Agreed Framework. The U.S. government treated North Korea as a rogue state, while North Korea redoubled its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons to avoid the fate of Iraq. [80] [81] [82] On 9 October 2006, North Korea announced it had conducted its first nuclear weapons test. [83] [84]

U.S. President Barack Obama adopted a policy of "strategic patience", resisting making deals with North Korea. [85] Tensions with South Korea and the United States increased in 2010 with the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan [86] and North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. [87] [88]

On 17 December 2011, Kim Jong-il died from a heart attack. His youngest son Kim Jong-un was announced as his successor. [89] In the face of international condemnation, North Korea continued to develop its nuclear arsenal, possibly including a hydrogen bomb and a missile capable of reaching the United States. [90]

Throughout 2017, following Donald Trump's assumption of the US presidency, tensions between the United States and North Korea increased, and there was heightened rhetoric between the two, with Trump threatening "fire and fury" [91] and North Korea threatening to test missiles that would land near Guam. [92] The tensions substantially decreased in 2018, and a détente developed. [93] A series of summits took place between Kim Jong-un of North Korea, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, and President Trump. [94] It has been 3 years, 6 months since North Korea's last ICBM test.

North Korea occupies the northern portion of the Korean Peninsula, lying between latitudes 37° and 43°N, and longitudes 124° and 131°E. It covers an area of 120,540 square kilometers (46,541 sq mi). [7] To its west are the Yellow Sea and Korea Bay, and to its east lies Japan across the Sea of Japan.

Early European visitors to Korea remarked that the country resembled "a sea in a heavy gale" because of the many successive mountain ranges that crisscross the peninsula. [95] Some 80 percent of North Korea is composed of mountains and uplands, separated by deep and narrow valleys. All of the Korean Peninsula's mountains with elevations of 2,000 meters (6,600 ft) or more are located in North Korea. The highest point in North Korea is Paektu Mountain, a volcanic mountain with an elevation of 2,744 meters (9,003 ft) above sea level. [95] Considered a sacred place by North Koreans, Mount Paektu holds significance in Korean culture and has been incorporated in the elaborate folklore and cult personality around the Kim dynasty. [96] For example, the song, "We Will Go To Mount Paektu" sings in praise of Kim Jong-un and describes a symbolic trek to the mountain. Other prominent ranges are the Hamgyong Range in the extreme northeast and the Rangrim Mountains, which are located in the north-central part of North Korea. Mount Kumgang in the Taebaek Range, which extends into South Korea, is famous for its scenic beauty. [95]

The coastal plains are wide in the west and discontinuous in the east. A great majority of the population lives in the plains and lowlands. According to a United Nations Environmental Programme report in 2003, forest covers over 70 percent of the country, mostly on steep slopes. [97] North Korea had a 2019 Forest Landscape Integrity Index mean score of 8.02/10, ranking it 28th globally out of 172 countries. [98] The longest river is the Amnok (Yalu) River which flows for 790 kilometers (491 mi). [99] The country contains three terrestrial ecoregions: Central Korean deciduous forests, Changbai Mountains mixed forests, and Manchurian mixed forests. [100]


North Korea experiences a combination of continental climate and an oceanic climate, [97] [101] but most of the country experiences a humid continental climate within the Köppen climate classification scheme. Winters bring clear weather interspersed with snow storms as a result of northern and northwestern winds that blow from Siberia. [101] Summer tends to be by far the hottest, most humid, and rainiest time of year because of the southern and southeastern monsoon winds that carry moist air from the Pacific Ocean. Approximately 60 percent of all precipitation occurs from June to September. [101] Spring and autumn are transitional seasons between summer and winter. The daily average high and low temperatures for Pyongyang are −3 and −13 °C (27 and 9 °F) in January and 29 and 20 °C (84 and 68 °F) in August. [101]

Administrative divisions

North Korea functions as a highly centralized, one-party state. According to its 2016 constitution, it is a self-described revolutionary and socialist state "guided in its activities by the Juche idea and the Songun idea". [102] In addition to the constitution, North Korea is governed by the Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System (also known as the "Ten Principles of the One-Ideology System") which establishes standards for governance and a guide for the behaviors of North Koreans. [103] The Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), led by a member of the Kim dynasty, [104] has an estimated 3,000,000 members and dominates every aspect of North Korean politics. It has two satellite organizations, the Korean Social Democratic Party and the Chondoist Chongu Party [105] which participate in the WPK-led Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland of which all political officers are required to be members. [106]

Kim Jong-un of the Kim dynasty is the current Supreme Leader or Suryeong of North Korea. [107] He heads all major governing structures: he is General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, President of the State Affairs Commission, and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. [108] [109] His grandfather Kim Il-sung, the founder and leader of North Korea until his death in 1994, is the country's "eternal President", [110] while his father Kim Jong-il who succeeded Kim Il-sung as the leader was announced "Eternal General Secretary" and "Eternal Chairman of the National Defence Commission" after his death in 2011. [108]

According to the Constitution of North Korea, there are officially three main branches of government. The first of these is the State Affairs Commission (SAC), which acts as "the supreme national guidance organ of state sovereignty". [111] [112] Its role is to deliberate and decide the work on defense building of the State, including major policies of the State and to carry out the directions of the Chairman of the commission, Kim Jong-Un.

Legislative power is held by the unicameral Supreme People's Assembly (SPA). Its 687 members are elected every five years by universal suffrage, [113] though the elections have been described by outside observers as sham elections. [114] [115] Supreme People's Assembly sessions are convened by the SPA Presidium, whose Chairman (Choe Ryong-hae since 2019) represents the state in relations with foreign countries. Deputies formally elect the Chairman, the vice-chairmen and members of the Presidium and take part in the constitutionally appointed activities of the legislature: pass laws, establish domestic and foreign policies, appoint members of the cabinet, review and approve the state economic plan, among others. [116] The SPA itself cannot initiate any legislation independently of party or state organs. It is unknown whether it has ever criticized or amended bills placed before it, and the elections are based around a single list of WPK-approved candidates who stand without opposition. [117]

Executive power is vested in the Cabinet of North Korea, which has been headed by Premier Kim Dok-hun since 14 August 2020. [118] The Premier represents the government and functions independently. His authority extends over two vice-premiers, 30 ministers, two cabinet commission chairmen, the cabinet chief secretary, the president of the Central Bank, the director of the Central Bureau of Statistics and the president of the Academy of Sciences. A 31st ministry, the Ministry of People's Armed Forces, is under the jurisdiction of the State Affairs Commission. [119]

North Korea, like its southern counterpart, claims to be the legitimate government of the entire Korean peninsula and adjacent islands. [120] Despite its official title as the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea", some observers have described North Korea's political system as an absolute monarchy [121] [122] [123] or a "hereditary dictatorship". [124] It has also been described as a Stalinist dictatorship. [125] [126] [127] [128]

Political ideology

The Juche ideology is the cornerstone of party works and government operations. It is viewed by the official North Korean line as an embodiment of Kim Il-sung's wisdom, an expression of his leadership, and an idea which provides "a complete answer to any question that arises in the struggle for national liberation". [129] Juche was pronounced in December 1955 in a speech called On Eliminating Dogmatism and Formalism and Establishing Juche in Ideological Work in order to emphasize a Korea-centered revolution. [129] Its core tenets are economic self-sufficiency, military self-reliance and an independent foreign policy. The roots of Juche were made up of a complex mixture of factors, including the cult of personality centered on Kim Il-sung, the conflict with pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese dissenters, and Korea's centuries-long struggle for independence. [130] Juche was introduced into the constitution in 1972. [131] [132]

Juche was initially promoted as a "creative application" of Marxism–Leninism, but in the mid-1970s, it was described by state propaganda as "the only scientific thought. and most effective revolutionary theoretical structure that leads to the future of communist society". Juche eventually replaced Marxism–Leninism entirely by the 1980s, [133] and in 1992 references to the latter were omitted from the constitution. [134] The 2009 constitution dropped references to communism and elevated the Songun military-first policy while explicitly confirming the position of Kim Jong-il. [135] However, the constitution retains references to socialism. [136] Juche ' s concepts of self-reliance have evolved with time and circumstances, but still provide the groundwork for the spartan austerity, sacrifice and discipline demanded by the party. [137] Scholar Brian Reynolds Myers views North Korea's actual ideology as a Korean ethnic nationalism similar to statism in Shōwa Japan and European fascism. [138] [139] [140]

Kim dynasty

North Korea is ruled by the Kim dynasty, which in North Korea is referred to as the Mount Paektu Bloodline. It is a three-generation lineage descending from the country's first leader, Kim Il-sung. Kim developed a cult of personality closely tied to the state philosophy of Juche, which was later passed on to his successors: his son Kim Jong-il and grandson Kim Jong-un. In 2013, this lineage was made explicit when Clause 2 of Article 10 of the newly edited Ten Fundamental Principles of the Korean Workers' Party stated that the party and revolution must be carried "eternally" by the "Mount Paektu Bloodline". [141]

According to New Focus International, the cult of personality, particularly surrounding Kim Il-sung, has been crucial for legitimizing the family's hereditary succession. [142] The control the North Korean government exercises over many aspects of the nation's culture is used to perpetuate the cult of personality surrounding Kim Il-sung, [143] and Kim Jong-il. [144] While visiting North Korea in 1979, journalist Bradley Martin wrote that nearly all music, art, and sculpture that he observed glorified "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung, whose personality cult was then being extended to his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il. [145]

Claims that the dynasty has been deified are contested by North Korea researcher B. R. Myers: "Divine powers have never been attributed to either of the two Kims. In fact, the propaganda apparatus in Pyongyang has generally been careful not to make claims that run directly counter to citizens' experience or common sense." [146] He further explains that the state propaganda painted Kim Jong-il as someone whose expertise lay in military matters and that the famine of the 1990s was partially caused by natural disasters out of Kim Jong-il's control. [147]

The song "No Motherland Without You", sung by the North Korean army choir, was created especially for Kim Jong-il and is one of the most popular tunes in the country. Kim Il-sung is still officially revered as the nation's "Eternal President". Several landmarks in North Korea are named for Kim Il-sung, including Kim Il-sung University, Kim Il-sung Stadium, and Kim Il-sung Square. Defectors have been quoted as saying that North Korean schools deify both father and son. [148] Kim Il-sung rejected the notion that he had created a cult around himself, and accused those who suggested this of "factionalism". [149] Following the death of Kim Il-sung, North Koreans were prostrating and weeping to a bronze statue of him in an organized event [150] similar scenes were broadcast by state television following the death of Kim Jong-il. [151]

Critics maintain that Kim Jong-il's personality cult was inherited from his father. Kim Jong-il was often the center of attention throughout ordinary life. His birthday is one of the most important public holidays in the country. On his 60th birthday (based on his official date of birth), mass celebrations occurred throughout the country. [152] Kim Jong-il's personality cult, although significant, was not as extensive as his father's. One point of view is that Kim Jong-il's cult of personality was solely out of respect for Kim Il-sung or out of fear of punishment for failure to pay homage, [153] while North Korean government sources consider it genuine hero worship. [154]

The extent of the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung was illustrated on 11 June 2012 when a 14-year-old North Korean schoolgirl drowned while attempting to rescue portraits of the two from a flood. [155]

On 10 January 2021, Kim Jong-un was formally elected as the General Secretary in 8th Congress of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, inheriting the title from his late father Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011. [156]

Foreign relations

As a result of its isolation, North Korea is sometimes known as the "hermit kingdom", a term that originally referred to the isolationism in the latter part of the Joseon Dynasty. [157] Initially, North Korea had diplomatic ties only with other communist countries, and even today, most of the foreign embassies accredited to North Korea are located in Beijing rather than in Pyongyang. [158] In the 1960s and 1970s, it pursued an independent foreign policy, established relations with many developing countries, and joined the Non-Aligned Movement. In the late 1980s and the 1990s its foreign policy was thrown into turmoil with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Suffering an economic crisis, it closed a number of its embassies. At the same time, North Korea sought to build relations with developed free market countries. [159]

North Korea joined the United Nations in 1991 together with South Korea. North Korea is also a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, G77 and the ASEAN Regional Forum. [160]

North Korea enjoys a close relationship with China which is often called North Korea's closest ally. [161] [162] The relations were strained in the last few years because of China's concerns about North Korea's nuclear program. However, the relations have started to improve again and been increasingly close especially after Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party visited North Korea in April 2019. [163]

As of 2015 [update] , North Korea had diplomatic relations with 166 countries and embassies in 47 countries. [159] However, owing to the human rights and political situation, North Korea does not have diplomatic relations with Argentina, Botswana, [164] Estonia, France, [165] Iraq, Israel, Japan, Taiwan, [166] and the United States. [f] [167] [168] As of September 2017, France and Estonia are the last two European countries that do not have an official relationship with North Korea. [169] North Korea continues to have strong ties with its socialist southeast Asian allies in Vietnam and Laos, as well as with Cambodia. [170]

North Korea was previously designated a state sponsor of terrorism [171] because of its alleged involvement in the 1983 Rangoon bombing and the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner. [172] On 11 October 2008, the United States removed North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism after Pyongyang agreed to cooperate on issues related to its nuclear program. [173] North Korea was re-designated a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. under the Trump administration on 20 November 2017. [174] The kidnapping of at least 13 Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and the 1980s has affected North Korea's relationship with Japan. [175]

US President Donald Trump met with Kim in Singapore on 12 June 2018. An agreement was signed between the two countries endorsing the 2017 Panmunjom Declaration signed by North and South Korea, pledging to work towards denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. [176] They met in Hanoi from 27 to 28 February 2019, but failed to achieve an agreement. [177] On 30 June 2019, Trump met with Kim along with Moon Jae-in at the Korean DMZ. [178]

Inter-Korean relations

The Korean Demilitarized Zone with South Korea remains the most heavily fortified border in the world. [179] Inter-Korean relations are at the core of North Korean diplomacy and have seen numerous shifts in the last few decades. North Korea's policy is to seek reunification without what it sees as outside interference, through a federal structure retaining each side's leadership and systems. In 1972, the two Koreas agreed in principle to achieve reunification through peaceful means and without foreign interference. [180] On 10 October 1980, then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung proposed a federation between North and South Korea named the Democratic Federal Republic of Korea in which the respective political systems would initially remain. [181] However, relations remained cool well until the early 1990s, with a brief period in the early 1980s when North Korea offered to provide flood relief to its southern neighbor. [182] Although the offer was initially welcomed, talks over how to deliver the relief goods broke down and none of the promised aid ever crossed the border. [183] The two countries also organized a reunion of 92 separated families. [184]

The Sunshine Policy instituted by South Korean president Kim Dae-jung in 1998 was a watershed in inter-Korean relations. It encouraged other countries to engage with the North, which allowed Pyongyang to normalize relations with a number of European Union states and contributed to the establishment of joint North-South economic projects. The culmination of the Sunshine Policy was the 2000 Inter-Korean summit, when Kim Dae-jung visited Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. [185] Both North and South Korea signed the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration, in which both sides promised to seek peaceful reunification. [186] On 4 October 2007, South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il signed an eight-point peace agreement. [187] However, relations worsened when South Korean president Lee Myung-bak adopted a more hard-line approach and suspended aid deliveries pending the de-nuclearization of the North. In 2009, North Korea responded by ending all of its previous agreements with the South. [188] It deployed additional ballistic missiles [189] and placed its military on full combat alert after South Korea, Japan and the United States threatened to intercept a Unha-2 space launch vehicle. [190] The next few years witnessed a string of hostilities, including the alleged North Korean involvement in the sinking of South Korean warship Cheonan, [86] mutual ending of diplomatic ties, [191] a North Korean artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, [192] and growing international concern over North Korea's nuclear program. [193]

In May 2017, Moon Jae-in was elected President of South Korea with a promise to return to the Sunshine Policy. [194] In February 2018, a détente developed at the Winter Olympics held in South Korea. [93] In April, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un met at the DMZ, and, in the Panmunjom Declaration, pledged to work for peace and nuclear disarmament. [195] In September, at a joint news conference in Pyongyang, Moon and Kim agreed upon turning the Korean Peninsula into a "land of peace without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats". [196]

Law enforcement and internal security

North Korea has a civil law system based on the Prussian model and influenced by Japanese traditions and communist legal theory. [197] Judiciary procedures are handled by the Supreme Court (the highest court of appeal), provincial or special city-level courts, people's courts and special courts. People's courts are at the lowest level of the system and operate in cities, counties and urban districts, while different kinds of special courts handle cases related to military, railroad or maritime matters. [198]

Judges are theoretically elected by their respective local people's assemblies, but in practice they are appointed by the Workers' Party of Korea. The penal code is based on the principle of nullum crimen sine lege (no crime without a law), but remains a tool for political control despite several amendments reducing ideological influence. [198] Courts carry out legal procedures related to not only criminal and civil matters, but also political cases as well. [199] Political prisoners are sent to labor camps, while criminal offenders are incarcerated in a separate system. [200]

The Ministry of People's Security (MPS) maintains most law enforcement activities. It is one of the most powerful state institutions in North Korea and oversees the national police force, investigates criminal cases and manages non-political correctional facilities. [201] It handles other aspects of domestic security like civil registration, traffic control, fire departments and railroad security. [202] The State Security Department was separated from the MPS in 1973 to conduct domestic and foreign intelligence, counterintelligence and manage the political prison system. Political camps can be short-term reeducation zones or "kwalliso" (total control zones) for lifetime detention. [203] Camp 15 in Yodok [204] and Camp 18 in Bukchang [205] have been described in detailed testimonies. [206]

The security apparatus is very extensive, [207] exerting strict control over residence, travel, employment, clothing, food and family life. [208] Security forces employ mass surveillance. It is believed they tightly monitor cellular and digital communications. [209]

Human rights

North Korea is widely accused of having perhaps the worst human rights record in the world. [20] A 2014 UN inquiry into human rights in North Korea concluded that, "The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world". [21] North Koreans have been referred to as "some of the world's most brutalized people" by Human Rights Watch, because of the severe restrictions placed on their political and economic freedoms. [22] [23] The North Korean population is strictly managed by the state and all aspects of daily life are subordinated to party and state planning. Employment is managed by the party on the basis of political reliability, and travel is tightly controlled by the Ministry of People's Security. [211]

Amnesty International reports of severe restrictions on the freedom of association, expression and movement, arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment resulting in death, and executions. [212]

The State Security Department extrajudicially apprehends and imprisons those accused of political crimes without due process. [213] People perceived as hostile to the government, such as Christians or critics of the leadership, [214] are deported to labor camps without trial, [215] often with their whole family and mostly without any chance of being released. [216]

Based on satellite images and defector testimonies, Amnesty International estimates that around 200,000 prisoners are held in six large political prison camps, [214] [217] where they are forced to work in conditions approaching slavery. [218] Supporters of the government who deviate from the government line are subject to reeducation in sections of labor camps set aside for that purpose. Those who are deemed politically rehabilitated may reassume responsible government positions on their release. [219]

North Korean defectors [220] have provided detailed testimonies on the existence of the total control zones where abuses such as torture, starvation, rape, murder, medical experimentation, forced labor, and forced abortions have been reported. [206] On the basis of these abuses, as well as persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearance of persons and forced starvation, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry has accused North Korea of crimes against humanity. [221] [222] [223] The International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK) estimates that over 10,000 people die in North Korean prison camps every year. [224]

According to Human Rights Watch, which cites interviews with defectors, North Korean women are routinely subjected to sexual violence, unwanted sexual contact, and rape. Men in positions of power, including police, high-ranking officials, market supervisors, and guards can abuse women at will and are not prosecuted for it. It happens so often that it is accepted as a routine part of life. Women assume they can not do anything about it. The only ones with protection are those whose husbands or fathers are themselves in positions of power. [225]

The North Korean government rejects the human rights abuse claims, calling them "a smear campaign" and a "human rights racket" aimed at government change. [226] [227] [228] In a 2014 report to the UN, North Korea dismissed accusations of atrocities as "wild rumors". [24] The official state media, KCNA, responded with an article that included homophobic insults against the author of the human rights report, Michael Kirby, calling him "a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality . This practice can never be found in the DPRK boasting of the sound mentality and good morals . In fact, it is ridiculous for such gay [sic] to sponsor dealing with others' human rights issue." [25] [26] The government, however, admitted some human rights issues related to living conditions and stated that it is working to improve them. [228]

According to Amnesty International, citizens in North Korea are denied freedom of movement including the right to leave the country [229] at will and its government denies access to international human rights observers. [230]

While there is consensus in regards to human human rights abuses being committed in North Korea it is extremely difficult to gauge the full extent due to many defectors testimonies falling apart and the fact that defectors are incentivized through cash payments in return for interviews. Depending on the quality of the information the payments range from $50–500. [231]

The Korean People's Army (KPA) has 1,106,000 active and 8,389,000 reserve and paramilitary troops, making it the largest military institution in the world. [232] With an active duty army of 1.21 million, consisting of 4.7% of its population, the KPA is the fourth largest military force in the world after China, the United States and India. [233] About 20 percent of men aged 17–54 serve in the regular armed forces, [233] and approximately one in every 25 citizens is an enlisted soldier. [234] [235] The KPA has five branches: Ground Force, Navy, Air Force, Special Operations Force, and Rocket Force. Command of the Korean People's Army lies in both the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea and the independent State Affairs Commission. The Ministry of People's Armed Forces is subordinated to the latter. [236]

Of all KPA branches, the Ground Force is the largest. It has approximately one million personnel divided into 80 infantry divisions, 30 artillery brigades, 25 special warfare brigades, 20 mechanized brigades, 10 tank brigades and seven tank regiments. [237] They are equipped with 3,700 tanks, 2,100 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, [238] 17,900 artillery pieces, 11,000 anti-aircraft guns [239] and some 10,000 MANPADS and anti-tank guided missiles. [240] Other equipment includes 1,600 aircraft in the Air Force and 1,000 vessels in the Navy. [241] North Korea has the largest special forces and the largest submarine fleet in the world. [242]

North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, [234] [243] but the strength of its arsenal is uncertain. In January 2018, estimates of North Korea's nuclear arsenal ranged between 15 and 60 bombs, probably including hydrogen bombs. [90] Delivery capabilities [244] are provided by the Rocket Force, which has some 1,000 ballistic missiles with a range of up to 11,900 km (7,400 mi). [245]

According to a 2004 South Korean assessment, North Korea possesses a stockpile of chemical weapons estimated to amount to 2,500–5,000 tons, including nerve, blister, blood, and vomiting agents, as well as the ability to cultivate and produce biological weapons including anthrax, smallpox, and cholera. [246] [247] Because of its nuclear and missile tests, North Korea has been sanctioned under United Nations Security Council resolutions 1695 of July 2006, 1718 of October 2006, 1874 of June 2009, 2087 of January 2013, [248] and 2397 in December 2017.

The military faces some issues limiting its conventional capabilities, including obsolete equipment, insufficient fuel supplies and a shortage of digital command and control assets due to other countries being banned from selling weapons to it by the UN sanctions. To compensate for these deficiencies, the KPA has deployed a wide range of asymmetric warfare technologies like anti-personnel blinding lasers, [249] GPS jammers, [250] [251] midget submarines and human torpedoes, [252] stealth paint, [253] and cyberwarfare units. [254] In 2015, North Korea was estimated as having 6,000 sophisticated computer security personnel. [255] KPA units have allegedly attempted to jam South Korean military satellites. [256]

Much of the equipment is engineered and produced by a domestic defense industry. Weapons are manufactured in roughly 1,800 underground defense industry plants scattered throughout the country, most of them located in Chagang Province. [257] The defense industry is capable of producing a full range of individual and crew-served weapons, artillery, armored vehicles, tanks, missiles, helicopters, surface combatants, submarines, landing and infiltration craft, Yak-18 trainers and possibly co-production of jet aircraft. [207] According to official North Korean media, military expenditures for 2010 amount to 15.8 percent of the state budget. [258] The U.S. State Department has estimated that North Korea's military spending averaged 23% of its GDP from 2004 to 2014, the highest level in the world. [259]

According to Military Watch Magazine's military strength list, DPR Korea has the sixth most powerful military, placing it in the "Tier 2" military powers group. [260]


With the exception of a small Chinese community and a few ethnic Japanese, North Korea's 25,549,604 [8] [9] people are ethnically homogeneous. [261] Demographic experts in the 20th century estimated that the population would grow to 25.5 million by 2000 and 28 million by 2010, but this increase never occurred due to the North Korean famine. [262] It began in 1995, lasted for three years and resulted in the deaths of between 240,000 and 420,000 North Koreans. [79]

International donors led by the United States initiated shipments of food through the World Food Program in 1997 to combat the famine. [263] Despite a drastic reduction of aid under the George W. Bush administration, [264] the situation gradually improved: the number of malnourished children declined from 60% in 1998 [265] to 37% in 2006 [266] and 28% in 2013. [267] Domestic food production almost recovered to the recommended annual level of 5.37 million tons of cereal equivalent in 2013, [268] but the World Food Program reported a continuing lack of dietary diversity and access to fats and proteins. [269] By the mid-2010s national levels of severe wasting an indication of famine-like conditions were lower than in other low-income countries and about on par with developing nations in the Pacific and East Asia. Children’s health and nutrition is significantly better on a number of indicators than in many other Asian countries. [270]

The famine had a significant impact on the population growth rate, which declined to 0.9% annually in 2002. [262] It was 0.5% in 2014. [271] Late marriages after military service, limited housing space and long hours of work or political studies further exhaust the population and reduce growth. [262] The national birth rate is 14.5 births per year per 1,000 population. [272] Two-thirds of households consist of extended families mostly living in two-room units. Marriage is virtually universal and divorce is extremely rare. [273]


North Korea has a life expectancy of 72.3 years in 2019, according to HDR 2020. [274] While North Korea is classified as a low-income country, the structure of North Korea's causes of death (2013) is unlike that of other low-income countries. [275] Instead, it is closer to worldwide averages, with non-communicable diseases—such as cardiovascular disease and cancers—accounting for 84 percent of the total deaths in 2016. [276]

According to the World Bank report of 2016 (based on WHO's estimate), only 9.5% of the total deaths recorded in North Korea are attributed to communicable diseases and maternal, prenatal and nutrition conditions, a figure which is slightly lower than that of South Korea (10.1%) and one fifth of other low-income countries (50.1%) but higher than that of high income countries (6.7%). [277] Only one out of ten leading causes of overall deaths in North Korea is attributed to communicable diseases (lower respiratory infection), a disease which is reported to have declined by six percent since 2007. [278]

In 2013, cardiovascular disease as a single disease group was reported as the largest cause of death in North Korea. [275] The three major causes of death in North Korea are stroke, COPD and Ischaemic heart disease. [278] Non-communicable diseases risk factors in North Korea include high rates of urbanization, an aging society, and high rates of smoking and alcohol consumption amongst men. [275]

Maternal mortality is lower than other low-income countries, but significantly higher than South Korea and other high income countries, at 89 per 100,000 live births. [279] In 2008 child mortality was estimated to be 45 per 1,000 this is much better than other economically comparable countries, Chad for example had a child mortality rate of 120 per 1,000, this is despite the fact that Chad was most likely wealthier than North Korea at the time. [73]

Healthcare Access and Quality Index, calculated by IHME, was reported to stand at 62.3, much lower than that of South Korea. [280]

According to a 2003 report by the United States Department of State, almost 100% of the population has access to water and sanitation. [281] 80% of the population had access to improved sanitation facilities in 2015. [282]

North Korea has the highest number of doctors per capita amongst low-income countries, with 3.7 physicians per 1,000 people, a figure which is also significantly higher than that of South Korea, according to WHO's data. [283]

Conflicting reports between Amnesty and WHO have emerged where the Amnesty report claimed that North Korea had an inadequate health care system. On the contrary, the Director of the World Health Organization claimed that North Korea's healthcare system was considered the envy of the developing world and had "no lack of doctors and nurses". [284]

A free universal insurance system is in place. [285] Quality of medical care varies significantly by region [286] and is often low, with severe shortages of equipment, drugs and anesthetics. [287] According to WHO, expenditure on health per capita is one of the lowest in the world. [287] Preventive medicine is emphasized through physical exercise and sports, nationwide monthly checkups and routine spraying of public places against disease. Every individual has a lifetime health card which contains a full medical record. [288]


The 2008 census listed the entire population as literate. [273] An 11-year free, compulsory cycle of primary and secondary education is provided in more than 27,000 nursery schools, 14,000 kindergartens, 4,800 four-year primary and 4,700 six-year secondary schools. [265] 77% of males and 79% of females aged 30–34 have finished secondary school. [273] An additional 300 universities and colleges offer higher education. [265]

Most graduates from the compulsory program do not attend university but begin their obligatory military service or proceed to work in farms or factories instead. The main deficiencies of higher education are the heavy presence of ideological subjects, which comprise 50% of courses in social studies and 20% in sciences, [289] and the imbalances in curriculum. The study of natural sciences is greatly emphasized while social sciences are neglected. [290] Heuristics is actively applied to develop the independence and creativity of students throughout the system. [291] The study of Russian and English was made compulsory in upper middle schools in 1978. [292]


North Korea shares the Korean language with South Korea, although some dialectal differences exist within both Koreas. [265] North Koreans refer to their Pyongyang dialect as munhwaŏ ("cultured language") as opposed to the dialects of South Korea, especially the Seoul dialect or p'yojun'ŏ ("standard language"), which are viewed as decadent because of its use of loanwords from Chinese and European languages (particularly English). [293] Words of Chinese, Manchu or Western origin have been eliminated from munhwa along with the usage of Chinese hancha characters. [293] Written language uses only the chosŏn'gŭl (Hangul) phonetic alphabet, developed under Sejong the Great (1418–1450). [294]


Officially, North Korea is an atheist state. [295] [296] There are no known official statistics of religions in North Korea. According to Religious Intelligence in 2007, 64% of the population are irreligious, 16% practice Korean shamanism, 14% practice Chondoism, 4% are Buddhist, and 2% are Christian. [297] Freedom of religion and the right to religious ceremonies are constitutionally guaranteed, but religions are restricted by the government. [298] [299] Amnesty International has expressed concerns about religious persecution in North Korea. [229]

Buddhism and Confucianism still influence spirituality. [300] Chondoism ("Heavenly Way") is an indigenous syncretic belief combining elements of Korean shamanism, Buddhism, Taoism and Catholicism that is officially represented by the WPK-controlled Chondoist Chongu Party. [301]

The Open Doors mission, a Protestant-group based in the United States and founded during the Cold War-era, claims the most severe persecution of Christians in the world occurs in North Korea. [302] Four state-sanctioned churches exist, but critics claim these are showcases for foreigners. [303] [304]

Formal ranking of citizens' loyalty

According to North Korean documents and refugee testimonies, [305] all North Koreans are sorted into groups according to their Songbun, an ascribed status system based on a citizen's assessed loyalty to the government. Based on their own behavior and the political, social, and economic background of their family for three generations as well as behavior by relatives within that range, Songbun is allegedly used to determine whether an individual is trusted with responsibility, given opportunities, [306] or even receives adequate food. [305] [307]

Songbun allegedly affects access to educational and employment opportunities and particularly whether a person is eligible to join North Korea's ruling party. [306] There are 3 main classifications and about 50 sub-classifications. According to Kim Il-sung, speaking in 1958, the loyal "core class" constituted 25% of the North Korean population, the "wavering class" 55%, and the "hostile class" 20%. [305] The highest status is accorded to individuals descended from those who participated with Kim Il-sung in the resistance against Japanese occupation before and during World War II and to those who were factory workers, laborers, or peasants in 1950. [308]

While some analysts believe private commerce recently changed the Songbun system to some extent, [309] most North Korean refugees say it remains a commanding presence in everyday life. [305] The North Korean government claims all citizens are equal and denies any discrimination on the basis of family background. [310]

North Korea has maintained one of the most closed and centralized economies in the world since the 1940s. [311] For several decades, it followed the Soviet pattern of five-year plans with the ultimate goal of achieving self-sufficiency. Extensive Soviet and Chinese support allowed North Korea to rapidly recover from the Korean War and register very high growth rates. Systematic inefficiency began to arise around 1960, when the economy shifted from the extensive to the intensive development stage. The shortage of skilled labor, energy, arable land and transportation significantly impeded long-term growth and resulted in consistent failure to meet planning objectives. [312] The major slowdown of the economy contrasted with South Korea, which surpassed the North in terms of absolute GDP and per capita income by the 1980s. [313] North Korea declared the last seven-year plan unsuccessful in December 1993 and thereafter stopped announcing plans. [314]

The loss of Eastern Bloc trading partners and a series of natural disasters throughout the 1990s caused severe hardships, including widespread famine. By 2000, the situation improved owing to a massive international food assistance effort, but the economy continues to suffer from food shortages, dilapidated infrastructure and a critically low energy supply. [315] In an attempt to recover from the collapse, the government began structural reforms in 1998 that formally legalized private ownership of assets and decentralized control over production. [316] A second round of reforms in 2002 led to an expansion of market activities, partial monetization, flexible prices and salaries, and the introduction of incentives and accountability techniques. [317] Despite these changes, North Korea remains a command economy where the state owns almost all means of production and development priorities are defined by the government. [315]

North Korea has the structural profile of a relatively industrialized country [318] where nearly half of the Gross Domestic Product is generated by industry [319] and human development is at medium levels. [320] Purchasing power parity (PPP) GDP is estimated at $40 billion, [11] with a very low per capita value of $1,800. [12] In 2012, Gross national income per capita was $1,523, compared to $28,430 in South Korea. [321] The North Korean won is the national currency, issued by the Central Bank of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. [322] The economy has been developing dramatically in recent years despite sanctions. According to the Sejong Institute these changes have been "astonishing". [323]

The economy is heavily nationalized. [324] Food and housing are extensively subsidized by the state education and healthcare are free [285] and the payment of taxes was officially abolished in 1974. [325] A variety of goods are available in department stores and supermarkets in Pyongyang, [326] though most of the population relies on small-scale jangmadang markets. [327] [328] In 2009, the government attempted to stem the expanding free market by banning jangmadang and the use of foreign currency, [315] heavily devaluing the won and restricting the convertibility of savings in the old currency, [287] but the resulting inflation spike and rare public protests caused a reversal of these policies. [329] Private trade is dominated by women because most men are required to be present at their workplace, even though many state-owned enterprises are non-operational. [330]

Industry and services employ 65% [331] of North Korea's 12.6 million labor force. [332] Major industries include machine building, military equipment, chemicals, mining, metallurgy, textiles, food processing and tourism. [333] Iron ore and coal production are among the few sectors where North Korea performs significantly better than its southern neighbor—it produces about 10 times larger amounts of each resource. [334] Using ex-Romanian drilling rigs, several oil exploration companies have confirmed significant oil reserves in the North Korean shelf of the Sea of Japan, and in areas south of Pyongyang. [ citation needed ] The agricultural sector was shattered by the natural disasters of the 1990s. [335] Its 3,500 cooperatives and state farms [336] were moderately successful until the mid-1990s [337] but now experience chronic fertilizer and equipment shortages. Rice, corn, soybeans and potatoes are some of the primary crops. [315] A significant contribution to the food supply comes from commercial fishing and aquaculture. [315] Tourism has been a growing sector for the past decade. [338] North Korea has been aiming to increase the number of foreign visitors through projects like the Masikryong Ski Resort. [339]

Foreign trade surpassed pre-crisis levels in 2005 and continues to expand. [340] [341] North Korea has a number of special economic zones (SEZs) and Special Administrative Regions where foreign companies can operate with tax and tariff incentives while North Korean establishments gain access to improved technology. [342] Initially four such zones existed, but they yielded little overall success. [343] The SEZ system was overhauled in 2013 when 14 new zones were opened and the Rason Special Economic Zone was reformed as a joint Chinese-North Korean project. [344] The Kaesong Industrial Region is a special economic zone where more than 100 South Korean companies employ some 52,000 North Korean workers. [345] As of August 2017 [update] , China is the biggest trading partner of North Korea outside inter-Korean trade, accounting for more than 84% of the total external trade ($5.3 billion) followed by India at 3.3% share ($205 million). [346] In 2014, Russia wrote off 90% of North Korea's debt and the two countries agreed to conduct all transactions in rubles. [347] Overall, external trade in 2013 reached a total of $7.3 billion (the highest amount since 1990 [348] ), while inter-Korean trade dropped to an eight-year low of $1.1 billion. [349]

Infrastructure and Transport

North Korea's energy infrastructure is obsolete and in disrepair. Power shortages are chronic and would not be alleviated even by electricity imports because the poorly maintained grid causes significant losses during transmission. [351] [352] Coal accounts for 70% of primary energy production, followed by hydroelectric power with 17%. [353] The government under Kim Jong-un has increased emphasis on renewable energy projects like wind farms, solar parks, solar heating and biomass. [354] A set of legal regulations adopted in 2014 stressed the development of geothermal, wind and solar energy along with recycling and environmental conservation. [354] [355] North Korea's long-term objective is to curb fossil fuel usage and reach an output of 5 million kilowatts from renewable sources by 2044, up from its current total of 430,000 kilowatts from all sources. Wind power is projected to satisfy 15% of the country's total energy demand under this strategy. [356]

North Korea also strives to develop its own civilian nuclear program. These efforts are under much international dispute due to their military applications and concerns about safety. [357]

Transport infrastructure includes railways, highways, water and air routes, but rail transport is by far the most widespread. North Korea has some 5,200 kilometers of railways mostly in standard gauge which carry 80% of annual passenger traffic and 86% of freight, but electricity shortages undermine their efficiency. [353] Construction of a high-speed railway connecting Kaesong, Pyongyang and Sinuiju with speeds exceeding 200 km/h was approved in 2013. [358] North Korea connects with the Trans-Siberian Railway through Rajin. [358]

Road transport is very limited—only 724 kilometers of the 25,554 kilometer road network are paved, [359] and maintenance on most roads is poor. [360] Only 2% of the freight capacity is supported by river and sea transport, and air traffic is negligible. [353] All port facilities are ice-free and host a merchant fleet of 158 vessels. [361] Eighty-two airports [362] and 23 helipads [363] are operational and the largest serve the state-run airline, Air Koryo. [353] Cars are relatively rare, [364] but bicycles are common. [365] [366] There is only one international airport—Pyongyang International Airport—serviced by Russia and China (see List of Public Airports in North Korea)

Science and technology

R&D efforts are concentrated at the State Academy of Sciences, which runs 40 research institutes, 200 smaller research centers, a scientific equipment factory and six publishing houses. [367] The government considers science and technology to be directly linked to economic development. [368] [369] A five-year scientific plan emphasizing IT, biotechnology, nanotechnology, marine and plasma research was carried out in the early 2000s. [368] A 2010 report by the South Korean Science and Technology Policy Institute identified polymer chemistry, single carbon materials, nanoscience, mathematics, software, nuclear technology and rocketry as potential areas of inter-Korean scientific cooperation. North Korean institutes are strong in these fields of research, although their engineers require additional training and laboratories need equipment upgrades. [370]

Under its "constructing a powerful knowledge economy" slogan, the state has launched a project to concentrate education, scientific research and production into a number of "high-tech development zones". International sanctions remain a significant obstacle to their development. [371] The Miraewon network of electronic libraries was established in 2014 under similar slogans. [372]

Significant resources have been allocated to the national space program, which is managed by the National Aerospace Development Administration (formerly managed by the Korean Committee of Space Technology until April 2013) [373] [374] Domestically produced launch vehicles and the Kwangmyŏngsŏng satellite class are launched from two spaceports, the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground and the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. After four failed attempts, North Korea became the tenth spacefaring nation with the launch of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 in December 2012, which successfully reached orbit but was believed to be crippled and non-operational. [375] [376] It joined the Outer Space Treaty in 2009 [377] and has stated its intentions to undertake crewed and Moon missions. [374] The government insists the space program is for peaceful purposes, but the United States, Japan, South Korea and other countries maintain that it serves to advance military ballistic missile programs. [378]

On 7 February 2016, North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket, supposedly to place a satellite into orbit. Critics believe that the real purpose of the launch was to test a ballistic missile. The launch was strongly condemned by the UN Security Council. [379] [380] [381] A statement broadcast on Korean Central Television said that a new Earth observation satellite, Kwangmyongsong-4, had successfully been put into orbit less than 10 minutes after lift-off from the Sohae space center in North Phyongan province. [379]

Usage of communication technology is controlled by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications. An adequate nationwide fiber-optic telephone system with 1.18 million fixed lines [382] and expanding mobile coverage is in place. [16] Most phones are installed for senior government officials and installation requires written explanation why the user needs a telephone and how it will be paid for. [383] Cellular coverage is available with a 3G network operated by Koryolink, a joint venture with Orascom Telecom Holding. [384] The number of subscribers has increased from 3,000 in 2002 [385] to almost two million in 2013. [384] International calls through either fixed or cellular service are restricted, and mobile Internet is not available. [384]

Internet access itself is limited to a handful of elite users and scientists. Instead, North Korea has a walled garden intranet system called Kwangmyong, [386] which is maintained and monitored by the Korea Computer Center. [387] Its content is limited to state media, chat services, message boards, [386] an e-mail service and an estimated 1,000–5,500 websites. [388] Computers employ the Red Star OS, an operating system derived from Linux, with a user shell visually similar to that of OS X. [388] On 19 September 2016, a TLDR project noticed the North Korean Internet DNS data and top-level domain was left open which allowed global DNS zone transfers. A dump of the data discovered was shared on GitHub. [17] [389]

On 8 July 2020, the CNN reported that satellite imagery showed activity at a North Korean facility, which was suspected by researchers of being utilized for building nuclear warheads. The images were captured by Planet Labs and analyzed by experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. [390]

Room 39 and the "Royal Court" economy

According to high-level North Korean defectors, since the 1970s, revenue accumulated through foreign currency, revenue which is wholly separate from the official economic organs of the state, is of economic significance. The scale of its significance remains unknown and is a closely guarded secret, however. More recently, this foreign currency is said to have been also derived from the over 100,000 North Korean migrant workers sent around the world, and who contribute the lionshare of their income to this "Royal Court" fund. Other banking, trade and financial ventures (many of which are illicit) are also said to be significant contributors. The fund is reported to be primarily tasked with providing the capital needed to develop the country's military technology (above all else, its nuclear weapons program), as well as contributing to a system of "gift giving" for the country's political, military and business elite. [391]

Despite a historically strong Chinese influence, Korean culture has shaped its own unique identity. [392] It came under attack during the Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, when Japan enforced a cultural assimilation policy. Koreans were forced to learn and speak Japanese, adopt the Japanese family name system and Shinto religion, and were forbidden to write or speak the Korean language in schools, businesses, or public places. [393]

After the peninsula was divided in 1945, two distinct cultures formed out of the common Korean heritage. North Koreans have little exposure to foreign influence. [394] The revolutionary struggle and the brilliance of the leadership are some of the main themes in art. "Reactionary" elements from traditional culture have been discarded and cultural forms with a "folk" spirit have been reintroduced. [394]

Korean heritage is protected and maintained by the state. [395] Over 190 historical sites and objects of national significance are cataloged as National Treasures of North Korea, while some 1,800 less valuable artifacts are included in a list of Cultural Assets. The Historic Sites and Monuments in Kaesong and the Complex of Koguryo Tombs are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. [396]

Visual arts are generally produced in the esthetics of Socialist realism. [397] North Korean painting combines the influence of Soviet and Japanese visual expression to instill a sentimental loyalty to the system. [398] All artists in North Korea are required to join the Artists' Union, and the best among them can receive an official license to portray the leaders. Portraits and sculptures depicting Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un are classed as "Number One works". [397]

Most aspects of art have been dominated by Mansudae Art Studio since its establishment in 1959. It employs around 1,000 artists in what is likely the biggest art factory in the world where paintings, murals, posters and monuments are designed and produced. [399] The studio has commercialized its activity and sells its works to collectors in a variety of countries including China, where it is in high demand. [398] Mansudae Overseas Projects is a subdivision of Mansudae Art Studio that carries out construction of large-scale monuments for international customers. [399] Some of the projects include the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal, [400] and the Heroes' Acre in Namibia. [401]

World Heritage

In the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Goguryeo tumulus is registered on the World Heritage list of UNESCO. These remains were registered as the first World Heritage property of North Korea in the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) in July 2004. There are 63 burial mounds in the tomb group, with clear murals preserved. The burial customs of the Goguryeo culture have influenced Asian civilizations beyond Korea, including Japan. [402]


The government emphasized optimistic folk-based tunes and revolutionary music throughout most of the 20th century. [394] Ideological messages are conveyed through massive orchestral pieces like the "Five Great Revolutionary Operas" based on traditional Korean ch'angguk. [403] Revolutionary operas differ from their Western counterparts by adding traditional instruments to the orchestra and avoiding recitative segments. [404] Sea of Blood is the most widely performed of the Five Great Operas: since its premiere in 1971, it has been played over 1,500 times, [405] and its 2010 tour in China was a major success. [404] Western classical music by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and other composers is performed both by the State Symphony Orchestra and student orchestras. [406]

Pop music appeared in the 1980s with the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble and Wangjaesan Light Music Band. [407] Improved relations with South Korea following the 2000 inter-Korean summit caused a decline in direct ideological messages in pop songs, but themes like comradeship, nostalgia and the construction of a powerful country remained. [408] In 2014, the all-girl Moranbong Band was described as the most popular group in the country. [409] North Koreans also listen to K-pop which spreads through illegal markets. [410] [411]


All publishing houses are owned by the government or the WPK because they are considered an important tool for propaganda and agitation. [412] The Workers' Party of Korea Publishing House is the most authoritative among them and publishes all works of Kim Il-sung, ideological education materials and party policy documents. [413] The availability of foreign literature is limited, examples being North Korean editions of Indian, German, Chinese and Russian fairy tales, Tales from Shakespeare, some works of Bertolt Brecht and Erich Kästner, [398] and the Harry Potter series. [414]

Kim Il-sung's personal works are considered "classical masterpieces" while the ones created under his instruction are labeled "models of Juche literature". These include The Fate of a Self-Defense Corps Man, The Song of Korea and Immortal History, a series of historical novels depicting the suffering of Koreans under Japanese occupation. [394] [403] More than four million literary works were published between the 1980s and the early 2000s, but almost all of them belong to a narrow variety of political genres like "army-first revolutionary literature". [415]

Science fiction is considered a secondary genre because it somewhat departs from the traditional standards of detailed descriptions and metaphors of the leader. The exotic settings of the stories give authors more freedom to depict cyberwarfare, violence, sexual abuse and crime, which are absent in other genres. Sci-fi works glorify technology and promote the Juche concept of anthropocentric existence through depictions of robotics, space exploration and immortality. [416]


Government policies towards film are no different from those applied to other arts—motion pictures serve to fulfill the targets of "social education". Some of the most influential films are based on historic events (An Jung-geun shoots Itō Hirobumi) or folk tales (Hong Gildong). [403] Most movies have predictable propaganda story lines which make cinema an unpopular entertainment viewers only see films that feature their favorite actors. [417] Western productions are only available at private showings to high-ranking Party members, [418] although the 1997 film Titanic is frequently shown to university students as an example of Western culture. [419] Access to foreign media products is available through smuggled DVDs and television or radio broadcasts in border areas. [420] Western films like The Interview, Titanic, and Charlie's Angels are just a few films that have been smuggled across the borders of North Korea, allowing for access to the North Korean citizens. [421] [422]

North Korean media are under some of the strictest government control in the world. The censorship in North Korea encompasses all the information produced by the media. Monitored heavily by government officials, the media is strictly used to reinforce ideals approved by the government. [423] There is no freedom of press in North Korea as all the media is controlled and filtered through governmental censors. [423] Freedom of the press in 2017 was 180th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' annual Press Freedom Index. [424] According to Freedom House, all media outlets serve as government mouthpieces, all journalists are party members and listening to foreign broadcasts carries the threat of a death penalty. [425] The main news provider is the Korean Central News Agency. All 12 major newspapers and 20 periodicals, including Rodong Sinmun, are published in the capital. [426]

There are three state-owned TV stations. Two of them broadcast only on weekends and the Korean Central Television is on air every day in the evenings. [427] Uriminzokkiri and its associated YouTube and Twitter accounts distribute imagery, news and video issued by government media. [428] The Associated Press opened the first Western all-format, full-time bureau in Pyongyang in 2012. [429]

Media coverage of North Korea has often been inadequate as a result of the country's isolation. Stories like Kim Jong-un undergoing surgery to look like his grandfather, executing his ex-girlfriend or feeding his uncle to a pack of hungry dogs have been circulated by foreign media as truth despite the lack of a credible source. [430] Many of the claims originate from the South Korean right-wing newspaper The Chosun Ilbo. [431] Max Fisher of The Washington Post has written that "almost any story [on North Korea] is treated as broadly credible, no matter how outlandish or thinly sourced". [432] Occasional deliberate disinformation on the part of North Korean establishments further complicates the issue. [430]


Korean cuisine has evolved through centuries of social and political change. Originating from ancient agricultural and nomadic traditions in southern Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula, it has gone through a complex interaction of the natural environment and different cultural trends. [433] Rice dishes and kimchi are staple Korean food. In a traditional meal, they accompany both side dishes (panch'an) and main courses like juk, pulgogi or noodles. Soju liquor is the best-known traditional Korean spirit. [434]

North Korea's most famous restaurant, Okryu-gwan, located in Pyongyang, is known for its raengmyeon cold noodles. [435] Other dishes served there include gray mullet soup with boiled rice, beef rib soup, green bean pancake, sinsollo and dishes made from terrapin. [436] [437] Okryu-gwan sends research teams into the countryside to collect data on Korean cuisine and introduce new recipes. [435] Some Asian cities host branches of the Pyongyang restaurant chain where waitresses perform music and dance. [438]


Most schools have daily practice in association football, basketball, table tennis, gymnastics, boxing and others. The DPR Korea League is popular inside the country and its games are often televised. [417] The national football team, Chollima, competed in the FIFA World Cup in 2010, when it lost all three matches against Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast. [439] Its 1966 appearance was much more successful, seeing a surprise 1–0 victory over Italy and a quarter final loss to Portugal by 3–5. [440] A national team represents the nation in international basketball competitions as well. In December 2013, former American basketball professional Dennis Rodman visited North Korea to help train the national team after he developed a friendship with Kim Jong-un. [441]

North Korea's first appearance in the Olympics came in 1964. The 1972 Olympics saw its summer games debut and five medals, including one gold. With the exception of the boycotted Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics, North Korean athletes have won medals in all summer games since then. [442] Weightlifter Kim Un-guk broke the world record of the Men's 62 kg category at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. [443] Successful Olympians receive luxury apartments from the state in recognition for their achievements. [444]

The Arirang Festival has been recognized by the Guinness World Records as the biggest choreographic event in the world. [445] Some 100,000 athletes perform rhythmic gymnastics and dances while another 40,000 participants create a vast animated screen in the background. The event is an artistic representation of the country's history and pays homage to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. [445] [446] Rungrado 1st of May Stadium, the largest stadium in the world with its capacity of 150,000, hosts the Festival. [446] [447] The Pyongyang Marathon is another notable sports event. It is an IAAF Bronze Label Race where amateur runners from around the world can participate. [448]

Between 2010 and 2019, North Korea has imported 138 purebred horses from Russia at cost of over $584,000. [449]

U.S. Relations With North Korea

The United States and Korea’s Joseon Dynasty established diplomatic relations under the 1882 Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, and the first U.S. diplomatic envoy arrived in Korea in 1883. U.S.-Korea relations continued until 1905, when Japan assumed direction over Korean foreign affairs. In 1910, Japan began a 35-year period of colonial rule over Korea. Following Japan’s surrender in 1945 at the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel into two occupation zones, with the United States in the South and the Soviet Union in the North. Initial hopes for a unified, independent Korea were not realized, and in 1948 two separate nations were established — the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the North.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. Led by the United States, a United Nations coalition of 16 countries undertook the defense of South Korea. Following China’s entry into the war on behalf of North Korea later that year, a stalemate ensued for the final two years of the conflict until an armistice was concluded on July 27, 1953. A peace treaty has never been signed. North and South Korea have had a difficult and, at times, bitter relationship since the Korean War. The two countries are separated by a demilitarized zone. 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. North Korea has been ruled by successive generations of Kim Il Sung’s family, and its political and economic structure is centrally controlled.

The United States supports the peaceful reunification of Korea 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 United States believes that a constructive and serious dialogue between North and South Korea is necessary to improve inter-Korean relations and to resolve outstanding problems.

The United States has engaged in several rounds of diplomacy to remove the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. In 1994, the United States and North Korea reached agreement on a roadmap for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In 2003, the United States proposed multilateral talks on the North Korean nuclear issue. Several rounds of Six-Party Talks were held, with the last round occurring in 2009. Although North Korea has at times said it will take steps toward denuclearization, it has continued to conduct tests in violation of international law, including ballistic missile launches, including three intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and its largest ever nuclear test in 2017 alone. The United States has called on North Korea to take concrete, irreversible denuclearization steps toward fulfillment of the 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks, comply with international law including United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013), 2270 (2016), 2371 (2017), 2375 (2017), and 2397 (2017) and cease provocative behaviors.

In 2017, the United States initiated an international economic and diplomatic pressure campaign on the DPRK to bring them into negotiations on denuclearization. International focus led to new international diplomatic engagement with DPRK leader Kim Jong Un, including summits with South Korea, China and the United States. On June 12, 2018, President Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to meet with the leader of the DPRK when he met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. The two leaders signed a joint statement that agreed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, security guarantees for the DPRK, working toward a peace regime, and the recovery and immediate repatriation of POW/MIA remains.

U.S. Assistance to North Korea

In the past, the United States has provided food and other emergency aid to North Korea during times of famine and natural disasters, upon request by North Korea. The United States does not currently provide any direct aid to North Korea. Currently, there are a number of U.S. NGOs who travel to the DPRK, through private and faith-based donor support, to provide aid to fight infectious diseases such as multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis and to improve farming practices and agricultural output in rural areas.

Bilateral Economic Relations

The United States imposed a near total economic embargo on North Korea in 1950 when North Korea attacked the South. Over the following years, some U.S. sanctions were eased, but others were imposed. Most recently, Executive Order 13810 was signed by the President on September 21, 2017, in the wake of the DPRK’s September 2017 nuclear test and multiple ICBM tests. Combined with previous executive orders and other restrictions on the DPRK, these constitute the most restrictive sanctions on North Korea to date.

North Korea’s Membership in International Organizations

North Korea and the United States belong to some of the same international organizations, including the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum.

Bilateral Representation

The United States and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations. The Swedish Embassy in North Korea is the U.S. protecting power and provides limited consular services to U.S. citizens.

North Korea has no embassy in Washington, DC, but it is represented in the United States through its mission to the United Nations in New York.

More information about North Korea is available from the Department of State and other sources, some of which are listed here:


The battle of the Kŭmsong salient ended the shooting war. On May 25 the P’anmunjŏm negotiators had worked out the details of the POW exchange, making provisions for “neutral nation” management of the repatriation process. They began to plan for an armistice signing. Then, on June 18–19, Syngman Rhee arranged for his military police to allow 27,000 Korean internees in their custody to “escape.” Enraged, the Chinese ordered further attacks on the ROKA. The Americans shared their fury but, in the interest of compromise, convinced Rhee that the United States would meet all his preconditions for an armistice. On July 9 Rhee agreed to accept the armistice, though no representative of the ROK ever signed it. On July 27 Mark W. Clark for the UNC, Peng Dehuai for the Chinese, and Kim Il-sung for the North Koreans signed the agreement. That same day the shooting stopped (more or less), and the armies began the awkward process of disengagement across what became a 4-km- (2.5-mile-) wide DMZ.

Supervision of the armistice actions fell to a Military Armistice Commission (10 officers representing the belligerents), a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, and Czechoslovakia), and a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (the same four states, plus India as the custodian of the POWs). From August 5 to September 6, a total of 75,823 communist soldiers and civilians (all but 5,640 of them Koreans) returned to their most-favoured regime, and 7,862 ROK soldiers, 3,597 U.S. servicemen, and 1,377 persons of other nationalities (including some civilians) returned to UNC control. The swap became a media event of potent possibilities: the communist POWs stripped off their hated capitalist prison uniforms and marched off singing party-approved songs.

The handling of those who refused repatriation turned into a nightmare, as agents among the communist POWs and interrogators made life miserable for the Indians. By the time the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission gave up the screening process in February 1954, only 628 Chinese and Koreans had changed their minds and gone north, and 21,839 had returned to UNC control. Most of the nonrepatriates were eventually settled in South Korea and Taiwan.

As provided for in the armistice agreement, the United States organized an international conference in Geneva for all the belligerents to discuss the political future of Korea. The actual meetings produced no agreement. The Korean peninsula would continue to be caught in the coils of Cold War rivalry, but the survival of the Republic of Korea kept alive the hope of civil liberties, democracy, economic development, and eventual unification—even if their fulfillment might require another 50 years or more.

The Rapid Return of Sino-DPRK Friendship

Shortly after declaring that the DPRK had accomplished &ldquothe historic cause of completing the state nuclear force,&rdquo Kim Jong Un announced that he now intended to ease tensions on the Peninsula and prioritize economic development.68 Not long thereafter, North Korea reached an agreement with the South to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, and began planning for a summit meeting between Kim and Donald Trump. Similarly, North Korean relations with China quickly changed course. Like his father, Kim Jong Un did not meet with his Chinese counterpart for his first six years in power also like his father, when the younger Kim decided that the time was ripe for outreach to South Korea and the United States, ties with China quickly began to mend, as well.69

In March 2018, Kim Jong Un made his first visit to Beijing as North Korea&rsquos leader. Meeting with Xi Jinping, Kim exhorted &ldquothe preciousness of the DPRK-PRC friendship, a priceless legacy left by the preceding leaders of the two countries and a treasure common to the two peoples.&rdquo70 North Korea&rsquos flurry of diplomatic outreach to Seoul and Washington had provided a new impetus for both Pyongyang and Beijing to quickly repair their relationship. For North Korea, healing the rift with China would provide leverage and ease pressure as it prepared for talks with the U.S. for China, embracing Kim Jong Un would help to ensure that the negotiating process would advance Beijing&rsquos interests. (China&rsquos leadership may have also wanted to guard against the possibility, however remote, of a North Korean strategic realignment with Washington against Beijing.71)

Beijing&rsquos willingness to put genuine pressure on North Korea in 2017 had been in support of achieving modest goals. Chinese officials had continually called for the U.S. and North Korea to return to dialogue and, in July 2017, had advanced a &ldquofreeze-for-freeze&rdquo proposal under which North Korea would halt missile and nuclear tests in exchange for the suspension of U.S. joint military exercises with South Korea. 72 North Korea&rsquos unilateral announcement of a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests and its apparent willingness to negotiate over &ldquothe denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula&rdquo in exchange for security guarantees signaled that Pyongyang was willing to meet its half of Beijing&rsquos equation. Donald Trump&rsquos subsequent pledge during his summit meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore to end &ldquowar games&rdquo with South Korea advanced the other half.

As North Korean talks with South Korea and the U.S. progressed over the next year, Kim made three additional visits to China, meeting with Xi before and after the Singapore summit as well as a month prior to the second U.S.-DPRK summit in Hanoi. The rekindled China-North Korea friendship also went beyond leadership-level meetings. In May 2018, shortly after Kim Jong Un announced that economic development would now be the country&rsquos top priority, Pyongyang sent a large delegation of top officials to China to tour industrial sites. Chinese state media (though notably, not North Korean media) described the delegation&rsquos mission as &ldquolearning from China's experience in economic development and reform and opening up.&rdquo73 The following January, Xi Jinping attended a performance by a North Korean arts troupe in Beijing, a more successful follow-up to the botched cultural diplomacy that had accompanied the Moranbong Band&rsquos visit three years previously.74

These strengthened ties were also accompanied by a weakening Chinese commitment to sanctions enforcement. Wide-ranging sanctions have remained on the books, and reported Chinese imports from North Korea since the start of 2018 have been less than a tenth of the value reported only a few years previously. Yet smuggling and informal trade along the border appear to have largely resumed, and many of the ship-to-ship transfers of refined fuel or other sanctioned goods to or from North Korea have involved Chinese intermediaries or passed through Chinese territorial waters. While Beijing is not necessarily green-lighting such activities, it is not proactively stopping them either.75 Since mid-2018, there has also been a surge of Chinese tourism to North Korea, providing the DPRK with a steady stream of revenue from a sector not directly prohibited by UN sanctions.76

Accordingly, key indicators of the DPRK&rsquos macroeconomic health &ndash the market exchange rate for the North Korean Won, and prices for food and fuel &ndash have remained relatively stable, and consumer goods for Pyongyang&rsquos elite have remained readily available. China, in tandem with Russia, has also expressed its support for the early easing of UN sanctions against North Korea in conjunction with diplomacy over its nuclear program, and has denounced U.S. &ldquounilateral&rdquo sanctions targeting North Korea&rsquos foreign trade partners.77

Deterioration of Soviet-American relations in Europe meant that neither side was willing to acquiesce in any agreement in Korea that might strengthen its adversary.

US military occupation of southern Korea began on September 8, 1945. With very little preparation, Washing- ton redeployed the XXIV Corps under the command of Lieutenant General John R. Hodge from Okinawa to Korea. US occupation officials, ignorant of Korea’s history and culture, quickly had trouble maintaining order because al- most all Koreans wanted immediate in- dependence. It did not help that they followed the Japanese model in establishing an authoritarian US military government. Also, American occupation officials relied on wealthy land- lords and businessmen who could speak English for advice. Many of these citizens were former Japanese collaborators and had little interest in ordinary Koreans’ reform demands. Meanwhile, Soviet military forces in northern Korea, after initial acts of rape, looting, and petty crime, implemented policies to win popular support. Working with local people’s committees and indigenous Communists, Soviet officials enacted sweeping political, social, and economic changes. They also expropriated and punished landlords and collaborators, who fled southward and added to rising distress in the US zone. Simultaneously, the Soviets ignored US requests to coordinate occupation policies and allow free traffic across the parallel.

Deterioration of Soviet-American relations in Europe meant that neither side was willing to acquiesce in any agreement in Korea that might strengthen its adversary. This became clear when the US and the Soviet Union tried to implement a revived trusteeship plan after the Moscow Conference in December 1945. Eighteen months of intermittent bilateral negotiations in Korea failed to reach agreement on a representative group of Koreans to form a provisional government, primarily because Moscow refused to consult with anti-Communist politicians opposed to trustee- ship. Meanwhile, political instability and economic deterioration in southern Korea persisted, causing Hodge to urge withdrawal. Postwar US demobilization that brought steady reductions in defense spending fueled pressure for disengagement. In September 1947, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) added weight to the withdrawal argument when they advised that Korea held no strategic significance. With Communist power growing in China, however, the Truman administration was unwilling to abandon southern Korea precipitously, fearing domestic criticism from Republicans and damage to US credibility abroad.

Seeking an answer to its dilemma, the US referred the Korean dispute to the United Nations, which passed a resolution late in 1947 calling for internationally supervised elections for a government to rule a united Korea. Truman and his advisors knew the Soviets would refuse to cooper- ate. Discarding all hope for early reunification, US policy by then had shifted to creating a separate South Korea, able to defend itself. Bowing to US pressure, the United Nations supervised and certified as valid obviously undemocratic elections in the south alone in May 1948, which resulted in formation of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in August. The Soviet Union responded in kind, sponsoring the creation of the Democratic People’s Re- public of Korea (DPRK) in September. There now were two Koreas, with President Syngman Rhee installing a repressive, dictatorial, and anti-Communist regime in the south, while wartime guerrilla leader Kim Il Sung imposed the totalitarian Stalinist model for political, economic, and social development on the north. A UN resolution then called for Soviet-American withdrawal. In December 1948, the Soviet Union, in response to the DPRK’s request, removed its forces from North Korea.

South Korea’s new government immediately faced violent opposition, climaxing in October 1948 with the Yosu-Sunchon Rebellion. Despite plans to leave the south by the end of 1948, Truman delayed military withdrawal until June 29, 1949. By then, he had approved National Security Council (NSC) Paper 8/2, undertaking a commitment to train, equip, and supply an ROK security force capable of maintaining internal order and deterring a DPRK attack. In spring 1949, US military advisors supervised a dramatic improvement in ROK army fighting abilities. They were so successful that militant South Korean officers began to initiate assaults northward across the thirty-eighth parallel that summer. These attacks ignited major border clashes with North Korean forces. A kind of war was already underway on the peninsula when the conventional phase of Korea’s conflict began on June 25, 1950. Fears that Rhee might initiate an offensive to achieve reunification explain why the Truman administration limited ROK military capabilities, withholding tanks, heavy artillery, and warplanes.

Pursuing qualified containment in Korea, Truman asked Congress for three-year funding of economic aid to the ROK in June 1949. To build sup- port for its approval, on January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean G. Ache- son’s speech to the National Press Club depicted an optimistic future for South Korea. Six months later, critics charged that his exclusion of the ROK from the US “defensive perimeter” gave the Communists a “green light” to launch an invasion. However, Soviet documents have established that Acheson’s words had almost no impact on Communist invasion planning. Moreover, by June 1950, the US policy of containment in Korea through economic means appeared to be experiencing marked success. The ROK had acted vigorously to control spiraling inflation, and Rhee’s opponents won legislative control in May elections. As important, the ROK army virtually eliminated guerrilla activities, threatening internal order in South Korea, causing the Truman administration to propose a sizeable military aid increase. Now optimistic about the ROK’s prospects for survival, Washington wanted to deter a conventional attack from the north.

Stalin worried about South Korea’s threat to North Korea’s survival. Throughout 1949, he consistently refused to approve Kim Il Sung’s persistent requests to authorize an attack on the ROK. Communist victory in China in fall 1949 pressured Stalin to show his support for a similar Korean outcome. In January 1950, he and Kim discussed plans for an invasion in Moscow, but the Soviet dictator was not ready to give final consent. How- ever, he did authorize a major expansion of the DPRK’s military capabilities. At an April meeting, Kim Il Sung persuaded Stalin that a military victory would be quick and easy because of southern guerilla support and an anticipated popular uprising against Rhee’s regime. Still fearing US military intervention, Stalin informed Kim that he could invade only if Mao Zedong approved. During May, Kim Il Sung went to Beijing to gain the consent of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Significantly, Mao also voiced concern that the Americans would defend the ROK but gave his reluctant approval as well. Kim Il Sung’s patrons had joined in approving his reckless decision for war.

On the morning of June 25, 1950, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) launched its military offensive to conquer South Korea. Rather than immediately committing ground troops, Truman’s first action was to approve referral of the matter to the UN Security Council because he hoped the ROK military could defend itself with primarily indirect US assistance. The UN Security Council’s first resolution called on North Korea to accept a cease- fire and withdraw, but the KPA continued its advance. On June 27, a second resolution requested that member nations provide support for the ROK’s defense. Two days later, Truman, still optimistic that a total commitment was avoidable, agreed in a press conference with a newsman’s description of the conflict as a “police action.” His actions reflected an existing policy that sought to block Communist expansion in Asia without using US military power, thereby avoiding increases in defense spending. But early on June 30, he reluctantly sent US ground troops to Korea after General Douglas MacArthur, US Occupation commander in Japan, advised that failure to do so meant certain Communist destruction of the ROK.

A Horrifying and Believable Path to Nuclear War with North Korea

Many of us believe that if nuclear missiles were to strike the United States, they would most likely come from North Korea. However, it is hard to dramatize this possibility or to make a convincing case for the exact pathway to a war. Jeffrey Lewis, a respected nuclear analyst, sets this as his task in what he calls a “speculative novel,” The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. This way of explaining events that have not yet happened is, of course, not a new invention. British writers used it to warn of invasions from the continent in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the menace coming first from France and then from Germany, and Lawrence Freedman recently outlined how future wars have been seen in numerous contexts. It also follows in the tradition of the Cold War movies Fail Safe, The Bedford Incident, and the unforgettable Dr. Strangelove, which got deterrence theory right because Thomas Schelling was an adviser on the film.

The main purpose of these imagined histories is to generate a self-denying prophecy by alarming readers. By showing what could happen, these books seek to energize people to make the effort necessary for it to not happen. This seems to be Lewis’ motive. I infer that he believes that if the United States stays on its current trajectory (or rather the trajectory it was on when he wrote the book, which was when tensions were particularly high following the North Korean nuclear and missile tests and President Donald Trump’s belligerent reaction to them), the likelihood of war will remain dangerously high. This does not tell us what should be done, however, since multiple alternative policies are possible. British authors in the early 20th century were urging more vigilance against Germany and what we would now call a more vigorous containment strategy. Readers of Lewis’ book will take different lessons from it. Some could perhaps be persuaded to support a preemptive strike. I assume this is not Lewis’ intent. His main thrust is toward policies, presumably more conciliatory ones, based on a better understanding of Kim Jong Un’s hopes and fears. He also hints at the virtues of, or at least the necessity for, abolishing nuclear weapons.

Imaginary histories strike a chord when they involve outcomes that we really don’t think will come about but still recognize as possible. Without the former condition these stories are redundant. Without the latter, they are just science fiction. A nuclear war with Korea is comfortably — or uncomfortably — in this middle range of being neither certain nor impossible. Part of the reason for this lies in the nature of conflict between two nuclear-armed countries, which resembles a game of chicken. Any war between them that is less than fully contained would be worse for each side than any conceivable political settlement, even a defeat. This very fact means that the danger of all-out war can be used by either country as a bargaining lever against the other. The leverage is effective, however, only if it implies some danger that a war will occur. The fact that both sides need to avoid a collision makes it hard for us to see how one might occur. The coercive bargaining tactics that each side can use — and feel they must use — make us realize that the war could happen.

Lewis’ task then is to lay out a succession of steps that lead to war, each one being plausible but leading to a destination that both sides abominate. Almost by definition, this must involve misperceptions and miscalculations on one and probably both sides. Mira Rapp-Hooper and I sketched out such a possibility last spring, but Lewis has the much harder task of developing the scenario in detail. The problem is that unless he relies on crazy generals or malfunctioning equipment, he has to show Kim and Trump taking reasonable steps that take them to their destruction. In this novel, Lewis accomplishes that brilliantly.

Lewis draws upon Cold War incidents like the 1983 shooting down of a Korean airliner by Soviet forces, President Ronald Reagan’s probing of Soviet peripheries with aircraft and naval forces, and what we now know of Saddam Hussein’s thinking about dealing with the conspiracies arrayed against him to detail a story that few of us could have thought of beforehand. And it is horrifyingly plausible. Many of the events involve bizarre coincidences and gross misperceptions, but they are precisely those kinds of things that have occurred in the past, could readily recur, and, given a very high level of hostility between the United States and North Korea, could lead to a war that no one wants.

As Lewis starts his story in March 2020, the thaw in relations between the United States and North Korea that began with the 2018 Winter Olympics has ended. Trump has stepped up pressure, ordering overt military exercises and covert runs by bombers that veer away from North Korean territory only at the last minute, mimicking the tactics that American officials believed had brought success against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Against this tense background, North Korean air defense officials, like their Soviet counterparts in 1983, mistake a straying South Korean airliner filled with school children for an American bomber and shoot it down. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, personally outraged and under domestic pressure, responds with a limited missile strike against one of Kim’s palaces and the North Korean air defense headquarters. He does this without informing the American authorities because he believes they would try to stop him.

All this takes place in the midst of a large South Korean-American war game. Kim, believing that Moon attacked on Washington’s orders, and that this is the first step in an American plot to kill him and take over his country, orders a nuclear attack on South Korea and Japan designed to thwart the coming invasion and to send a signal to Trump: Back off or the ICBMs will fly. The United States, undeterred but not wanting to use nuclear weapons, responds with a conventional air attack, trying to destroy North Korean missiles and kill Kim. The attack fails and the ICBMs fly as promised, destroying New York, northern Virginia (the target was the District of Columbia), and the area around Mar-a-Lago.

At each point, Kim, Moon, Trump, and their subordinates might have made different choices and avoided war. But the choices that Lewis has them make are not implausible. Indeed, most of them conform to standard theories of effective coercion. The triggering event is of a different nature, but also is plausible. The concatenation of events leading to the shooting down of the South Korean airliner involves accidents and coincidences that, by their nature, are unlikely. Given the large number of airline flights and the way people react to ambiguous information under great pressure, however, this could indeed happen, and did with the Korean airliner in 1983 and arguably with the shooting down of a U-2 at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That this occurs during a large war game is yet another coincidence.

Political scientists do not like coincidences because they resist theorizing, but this does not make them any less important. But it is even more consequential when leaders try to shove coincidences aside. They have a propensity to doubt the likelihood of coincidence and see events as following their adversary’s malign plan. Lewis is well aware of this perceptual tendency. Kim is unable to use his cellphone after the South Korean attack because the telecommunications system was overloaded. In Lewis’ book, one of Kim’s aides later says, “We assumed it was an American cyber-attack. Wouldn’t you?”

The next crucial link is Moon’s decision to launch a limited retaliatory strike. This is perhaps the least plausible step in the novel. South Korea has never responded forcefully to any North Korean provocation, of which there have been many over the years. Seoul has always consulted with Washington. For this very reason, however, it is not unthinkable that Moon would believe that he had to break the pattern. Lewis gives Moon reasoning that fits with standard coercion theory: “A small strike would shake Kim’s confidence, while the possibility of a larger strike to follow would box him in.” The latter point is crucial and well-understood by Lewis’ South Koreans. The strike was designed to be harsh enough to exact punishment and constitute a warning that the South would be willing to take dangerous actions while simultaneously indicating a desire to keep the conflict limited. It is the targets not yet struck that provide coercive leverage, and the fact that they are left untouched shows the state’s willingness to be restrained. The disastrous consequences of this decision were clear in retrospect, but at the time the decision was reasonable, although risky.

But Moon did not anticipate something that perhaps he should have. When Trump was told that North Korea had destroyed the airliner, he tweeted, “Little Rocket Man won’t be bothering us much longer!” Kim was told of this tweet when he was deciding how to respond, and it contributed to his paranoia. He would not — indeed could not — believe that Moon had acted on his own (perceptions of greater coordination than actually existed, again), thought that the objective had been to kill him, and, because of the ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises, concluded that an invasion was on its way. The attack on one of his palaces was an early reminder of the opening of the Iraq War when the U.S. military sent stealth bombers to Dora Farm in the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein was there. To Kim, the only actions he can take to save his life and his regime are preemptive nuclear strikes against South Korea and Japan that would disrupt the coming invasion and show his resolve. Like Moon, he wants to avoid all-out war and so withholds his ICBMs. Trump, he reasons, will understand this, and faced by Kim’s combination of resolve and restraint would call off the invasion to save the American homeland. In Lewis’ account, Kim is not impulsive or irrational. In fact his understanding of what makes for a good coercion strategy is quite adequate. But his policy fails because of the deep flaws in his understanding of what has happened, American motives, and what the United States is planning. He also fails to realize that, despite the briefings he has received, Trump is not completely convinced that Kim has workable ICBMs and has unwarranted faith in U.S. missile defenses.

From the American perspective, the horrendous nuclear strikes in the region mean that they must eliminate Kim and his ICBMs as quickly as possible. Although Lewis gives little detail here, he makes clear that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and lower-level military officials are not confident they can act quickly enough to stop a barrage of ICBMs, but they see no alternative. Since Kim responded to a sharply limited South Korean reprisal by destroying Seoul, Tokyo, and other cities in those countries, it is hard to believe that he could be contained or bargained with.

The final play of the game also makes sense. Once Kim receives confirmation that the United States is seeking to overthrow the regime and kill him, he launches his ICBMs, including one aimed at Mar-a-Lago, where Trump is staying.

Could this really happen? The fact that much of the behavior that Lewis portrays fits with standard coercion theory denies international relations theorists an easy way of discrediting his scenario on the grounds that his leaders are behaving not only foolishly, but contrary to what it would be reasonable to expect them to do. At one point, however, both Kim and Trump do go off script. Both launch decapitation strikes, trying to kill the other and disable the regime’s ability to fight the war. While on one level this makes sense both for revenge and for reducing the other’s military capability, it was a truism in the Cold War that to do so would be to risk all-out retaliation and make it much more difficult to bring the war to an end. Lewis does not have his players think through the likely consequences of their behavior. Perhaps at this stage of the conflict they would not have the intellectual or emotional forces to do so.

Having written a great deal about misperception and miscalculation, this is where I think the explanatory focus should be. And, indeed, even though The 2020 Commission Report is more descriptive, Lewis’ explanation shines through. I would group the main phenomenon he sees at work under five categories.

First, like the rest of us, leaders are prone to see what they expect. As many psychologists have argued, the world is so complex and our brains are so limited that we have to be theory-driven in our understanding of the world. Once we have a belief about how international politics works, an image of the other, and an expectation of how events are likely to unfold (and we establish these views relatively quickly on the basis of whatever material is at hand), all but the most obviously discrepant new information will be assimilated to what we already believe. In Lewis’ story, this was most glaringly true of Kim, who jumped to the conclusion that Washington was behind Moon’s strike and that a full-scale assault was on its way. But American officials were similarly trapped by their mindsets. Although they knew that Kim would respond to Moon’s attack and picked up the unusual volume and pattern of encrypted signals traffic in its wake, they interpreted the activity as preparations for the long-feared North Korean staging of a nuclear test in the atmosphere, not the attack that actually ensued.

Second, each side found it impossible to place itself in the other’s shoes and see the world and themselves as the other did. International politics resembles chess or poker less than it does the Japanese short story and classic movie Rashomon in which each participant sees the events very differently and fails to understand that this is the case. At every stage, each participant had very different interpretations of what was happening and what the other’s intentions and motives were. To make things worse, neither side made a serious attempt at empathy, but rather assumed that the other side shared their own understanding of the situation. Not only Trump, but more thoughtful American leaders failed to appreciate that American pressure, the war games underway, and the memories of the American overthrow of Saddam primed Kim to see an imminent American invasion. Kim similarly could not imagine how Moon could believe that his strike was a carefully calibrated limited one. They lived in different perceptual worlds, but didn’t know it.

Third, and related, it is particularly difficult for leaders to seriously entertain the possibility that others think they have malign plans when in fact they do not. Trump and his colleagues knew that they were not about to invade North Korea and so did not pause to ask themselves how Kim might interpret Trump’s tweet or what he might do if he did hold this mistaken belief. Kim launched his nuclear attacks against South Korea and Japan in the hope that the United States would realize that he was holding back his ICBMs and seeking to contain the war. For the Americans, this appeared to be a prelude to an attack on their homeland, not as North Korea’s attempt to end the fighting without having to undertake such an attack.

Fourth, as I noted, decision-makers rarely credit accidents and coincidences, but instead fit everything that is happening into an image of the adversary’s unfolding designs. The apocryphal story of the Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich reacting to the death of the Russian ambassador at the Congress of Vienna by asking “I wonder why he did that?” is funny only because it is an exaggeration of a real perceptual propensity.

Finally, in many cases crucial considerations never occurred to the decision-makers. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s talk of “unknown unknowns” was widely ridiculed, but it was a perceptive observation. It is often things that were never thought of that can derail plans and policies. It never occurred to Moon, for example, that in the confused wake of his strike the North Koreans would believe that they had been attacked by many more than the six missiles South Korean forces launched. Even the American officials who deplored their president’s tweets did not consider how they might lead Kim to believe that he would soon be attacked.

One thing that is absent from the story is diplomacy, aside from one inconsequential meeting with the North Korean delegation to the United Nations. Part of the reason is that this crisis unfolds with unprecedented speed: Only about 36 hours elapse between the shooting down of the South Korean airliner and the thermonuclear explosions in the United States. This pace is not impossible, but I do find it unlikely. This is not to say that diplomacy would necessarily have been effective given each side’s belligerence and lack of trust, but even a confirmed realist knows that diplomacy often prevents disasters.

Similarly, while Lewis does portray some role for failures of communication within each side’s government, these played a smaller role than I had expected. To develop them more might have complicated the story and led some readers to discredit it on the grounds that modern governments are more competent than that, but I think it would not have given pause to those who have seen the machinery at work.

Finally, it is interesting that while Trump is portrayed as inattentive and showing signs of dementia, and his one tweet was consequential, the progress of the situation from dangerous to disaster does not turn on his idiosyncrasies. Lewis’ important point, I believe, is that even with more thoughtful leadership unwanted wars can occur. And in a humanizing touch, Lewis’ Trump is devastated by his wife’s death when New York is obliterated.

Of course, to argue that a war could start in this way is not to claim that this is the only or even the most likely path to war. Since we now seem to be heading back to the face-off as it was before the June 2018 thaw, a somewhat more calculated sequence of events is at least as possible. Attempts to restart talks might fail, perhaps after an additional summit meeting that leaves Kim and Trump far apart and leads each to think that the other had misled him. The United States and South Korea could restart military exercises, as Mattis has recently suggested. Kim could respond by resuming missile tests, enraging Trump and worrying American officials that a showdown cannot be long avoided (unless the United States is willing to accept North Korea as a nuclear power, which many defense analysts outside the government would be willing to do). After an exchange of harsh words and some unpredictable incidents, Washington could turn to a “bloody nose” strategy and launch a limited attack against North Korean missile launch sites, production facilities, and perhaps the locations where it believes missiles are stored.

There is precedent for such thinking. President Dwight Eisenhower believed that the limited use of force could show Chinese leaders that they had underestimated American resolve in the 1958 offshore islands crisis and should retreat. The crisis ended peacefully (reminding us that even seemingly desperate situations usually conclude without a major war) and so we do not know what would have happened had the United States put this theory to the test. In the Korean case, perhaps Kim would realize that he had dangerously misread Trump and that he had no choice but to curb if not end his nuclear program. Much less pleasant possibilities immediately come to mind, however, that I believe are more likely. Without positing that Kim would act as he did in Lewis’ account, some major retaliation would seem probable. How to limit the violence and bring the war to a halt would be a major challenge. Fighting a limited war is extremely difficult and planning for how this might be done has gone out of fashion, at least in the United States.

This scenario is a bit different from Lewis’, but even if I find it more plausible at this point in time than his, the fact remains that while I’ve read better novels, I have only read a few more convincing accounts of how events can spiral out of control than what you can and should read in The 2020 Commission Report.

Robert Jervis is Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University and author most recently of How Statesmen Think.