Background Notes: North Korea

Contributed By RealAdventures

The Korean peninsula was first populated by peoples of a Tungusic branch of the Ural-Altaic language family who migrated from the northwestern regions of Asia. Some of these peoples also populated parts of northeast China (Manchuria); Koreans and Manchurians still show physical similarities.

Koreans are racially and linguistically homogeneous. Although there are no indigenous minorities in North Korea, there is a small Chinese community (about 50,000) and some 1,800 Japanese wives who accompanied the roughly 93,000 Koreans returning to the North from Japan during 1959-62.

Korean is a Ural-Altaic language and is related to Japanese and remotely related to Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, and Mongolian. Although dialects exist, the Korean spoken throughout the peninsula is mutually comprehensible. In North Korea, the Korea alphabet (hangul) is used exclusively, unlike in South Korea, where a combination of hangul and Chinese characters is used as the written language.

Korea's traditional religions are Buddhism and Shamanism. Christian missionaries arrived as early as the 16th century, but it was not until the 19th century that they founded schools, hospitals, and other modern institutions throughout Korea. Major centers of 19th-century missionary activity included Seoul and Pyongyang, and there was a relatively large Christian population in the north before 1945. Although religious groups exist in North Korea, most available evidence suggests that the government severely restricts religious activity.

According to legend, the god-king Tangun founded the Korean nation in 2333 BC. By the first century AD, the Korean peninsula was divided into the kingdoms of Silla, Koguryo, and Paekche. In 668 AD, the Silla kingdom unified the peninsula. The Koryo dynasty--from which Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century derived the Western name "Korea"--succeeded the Silla kingdom in 935. The Choson dynasty, ruled by members of the Yi clan, supplanted Koryo in 1392 and lasted until the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910.

Throughout most of its history, Korea has been invaded, influenced, and fought over by its larger neighbors. Korea was under Mongolian occupation from 1231 until the early 14th century and was plundered by Japanese pirates in 1359 and 1361. The unifier of Japan, Hideyoshi, launched major invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597. When Western powers focused "gunboat" diplomacy on Korea in the mid-19th century, Korea's rulers adopted a closed-door policy, earning Korea the title of "Hermit Kingdom."

Though the Choson dynasty paid fealty to the Chinese court and recognized China's hegemony in East Asia, Korea was independent until the late 19th century. At that time, China sought to block growing Japanese influence on the Korean peninsula and Russian pressure for commercial gains there. This competition produced the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Japan emerged victorious from both wars and in 1910 annexed Korea as part of the growing Japanese empire.

Japanese colonial administration was characterized by tight control from Tokyo and ruthless efforts to supplant Korean language and culture. Organized Korean resistance during the colonial era--such as the March 1, 1919, Independence Movement--was unsuccessful, and Japan remained firmly in control until the end of World War II in 1945.

Japan surrendered in August 1945, and Korea was liberated. However, the unexpectedly early surrender of Japan led to the immediate division of Korea into two occupation zones, with the U.S. administering the southern half of the peninsula and the U.S.S.R taking over the area to the north of the 38th parallel. This division was meant to be temporary and to facilitate the Japanese surrender until the U.S., U.K., Soviet Union, and China could arrange a trusteeship administration.

At a meeting in Cairo, it was agreed that Korea would be free "in due course;" at a later meeting in Yalta, it was agreed to establish a four-power trusteeship over Korea. In December 1945, a conference convened in Moscow to discuss the future of Korea. A five-year trusteeship was discussed, and a joint Soviet-American commission was established. The commission met intermittently in Seoul but deadlocked over the issue of establishing a national government. In September 1947, with no solution in sight, the United States submitted the Korean question to the UN General Assembly.

Initial hopes for a unified, independent Korea quickly evaporated as the politics of the Cold War and domestic opposition to the trusteeship plan resulted in the 1948 establishment of two separate nations with diametrically opposed political, economic, and social systems and the outbreak of war in 1950 (see, under Foreign Relations, Korean War of 1950-53).

North Korea has a centralized government under the rigid control of the communist Korean Worker's Party (KWP), which all government officials belong to. A few minor political parties are allowed to exist in name only, presumably to present a facade of representative government to the outside world. Kim Il Sung, commonly referred to as "Great Leader," dominated the government from 1948 until his death in July 1994. Kim served both as Secretary General of the KWP and as President of North Korea.

Little is known about the actual lines of power and authority in the North Korean Government despite the formal structure set forth in the constitution. Following the death of Kim Il Sung, his son--Kim Jong Il--appears to have inherited supreme power. However, 11/2 years after his father's death, Kim Jong Il has not formally assumed Kim Il Sung's two main titles: North Korean President and Secretary General of the KWP.

An inner core of ranking members of the Korean Workers' Party, including an increasing number of Kim Jong Il's followers, dominates the political system and the economy through an elaborate party structure and through the civilian and military bureaucracies. A pervasive personality cult has developed around Kim Jong Il, who was groomed for many years to succeed his father. Kim's continuing media buildup suggests that he eventually will succeed his father in one or both of his positions.

North Korea's 1972 constitution was reportedly amended in late 1992, but the D.P.R.K. has never publicized the changes. The government is led by the president and, in theory, a super-cabinet called the Central People's Committee (CPC).

The constitution designates the CPC as the government's top policymaking body. It is headed by the president, who also nominates the other committee members. The CPC makes policy decisions and supervises the cabinet, or State Administration Council (SAC). The SAC is headed by a premier and is the dominant administrative and executive agency.

Officially, the legislature, the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), is the highest organ of state power. Its members are elected every four years. Usually only two meetings are held annually, each lasting a few days. A standing committee elected by the SPA performs legislative functions when the Assembly is not in session. In reality, the Assembly serves only to ratify decisions made by the ruling KWP.

North Korea's judiciary is "accountable" to the SPA and the president. The SPA's standing committee also appoints judges to the highest court for four-year terms that are concurrent with those of the Assembly.

Administratively, North Korea is divided into nine provinces and four provincial-level municipalities--Pyongyang, Chongjin, Nampo, and Kaesong. It also appears to be divided into nine military districts.

Kim Jong Il--KWP Politburo Standing Committee member; KWP Secretary; Supreme Commander of the People's Armed Forces; Chairman of the National Defense Commission; son of Kim Il Sung and de facto heir.
Kang Song San--SAC Premier; KWP Politburo member
Kim Yong Nam--Foreign Minister; SAC Vice Premier; KWP Politburo member
Kim Hyong U--Ambassador to the UN

North Korea's faltering economy and the breakdown of trade relations with the countries of the former socialist bloc--especially following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union--have confronted Pyongyang with difficult policy choices. Other centrally planned economies in similar difficulties have opted for domestic economic reform and liberalization of trade and investment. Despite its recent moves toward limited economic opening, North Korea's leadership seems determined to maintain tight political and ideological control.

About 80% of North Korea's terrain consists of moderately high mountain ranges and partially forested mountains and hills separated by deep, narrow valleys and small, cultivated plains. The most rugged areas are the north and east coasts. Good harbors are found on the eastern coast. Pyongyang, the capital, near the country's west coast, is located on the Taedong River.

Although most North Korean citizens live in cities and work in factories, agriculture remains a rather high 30% of total GNP, although output has recently been falling. While trade with the South has expanded since 1988, no physical links between the two remain, and the infrastructure of the North is generally poor and outdated.

North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages, which were exacerbated by record floods in the summer of 1995. In response to international appeals, the United States, from September 1995 through June 1996, has provided four tranches of humanitarian aid totaling $8.5 million for international agencies' relief activities in the D.P.R.K.

North Korea's relationship with the South has informed much of its post-World War II history and still drives much of its foreign policy. North and South Korea have had a difficult and acrimonious relationship in the four decades since the Korean war.

North Korea occupies the northern portion of a mountainous peninsula projecting southeast from China, between the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea. Japan lies east of the peninsula across the Sea of Japan. North Korea shares borders with the People's Republic of China along the Yalu River and with China and Russia along the Tumen River.

The military demarcation line (MDL) of separation between the belligerent sides at the close of the Korean war forms North Korea's boundary with South Korea. A demilitarized zone (DMZ) extends for 2,000 meters (just over one mile) on either side of the MDL. Both the North and South Korean Governments hold that the MDL is only a temporary administrative line, not a permanent border.

During the postwar period, both Korean Governments have repeatedly affirmed their desire to reunify the Korean peninsula, but until 1971, the two governments had no direct, official communications or other contact. They have yet to have a presidential-level summit. During former U.S. President Carter's 1994 visit, Kim Il Sung agreed to a first-ever North-South summit. The two sides went ahead with plans for a meeting in July but had to shelve it because of Kim's death.

The Perry Process
On November 12, 1998, President Clinton named former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry to conduct a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. The President's decision rose out of North Korea's August 31, 1998 launching of a "Taepodong-1" ballistic missile, which was widely perceived as a destabilizing act.

The U.S. seeks progress from North Korea in the following areas as being necessary for improved bilateral relations: credible condemnation and forswearing of terrorism, continued dialogue between North and South Korea on the future and possible reunification of the Korean Peninsula, nuclear matters, restraints on the development of long-range missiles, return of the remains of U.S. military personnel missing in action during the Korean war, and greater respect for human rights. The U.S. also has expressed concern about North Korea's export of ballistic missiles and related technology and the North Korean conventional military threat.

After a comprehensive review of U.S. policy, a May 25-28, 1999 trip to Pyongyang, and extensive international coordination, especially with the Governments of South Korea and Japan, Dr. Perry issued his report, "Review of United States Policy Toward North Korea: Findings and Recommendations" on October 12, 1999. The report recommended a two-path strategy. If North Korea would address areas of concern, the U.S. (and U.S. allies) would "in a step-by-step and reciprocal fashion, move to reduce pressures on the D.P.R.K. that it perceives as threatening.... If the D.P.R.K. moved to eliminate its nuclear and long-range missile threats, the United States would normalize relations with the D.P.R.K., relax sanctions that have long constrained trade with the D.P.R.K. and take other positive steps..."If, however, North Korea refused to go down this 'positive path,' "the United States and its allies would have to take other steps to assure their security and contain the threat."

As part of the process begun by Dr. Perry, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan established a high-level Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) to coordinate North Korea policy. The TCOG's creation was announced jointly by representatives of the three governments on April 25, 1999, after a meeting in Hawaii. There were six TCOG meetings in 1999, including a summit in Auckland on September 12 and a ministerial level meeting in Singapore on July 27. A 12th TCOG meeting was held on October 7, 2000, in Washington.

On September 25, 2000, the State Department announced that Dr. William Perry was stepping down from his duties as North Korea Policy Coordinator. Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, the Counselor of the Department, succeeded Dr. Perry as North Korea Policy Coordinator and Special Adviser to the President and the Secretary of State.

From October 8-12, 2000, North Korean Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, the First Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission, visited the U.S. as the Special Envoy of Chairman Kim Jong Il. At the conclusion of his visit, the two countries issued a Joint Communique in which the two sides stated that neither government would have hostile intent toward the other and confirmed the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity. Among other issues, the communique mentioned missile issues and the Agreed Framework, and it noted that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would visit the D.P.R.K. "to convey the views of U.S. President William Clinton directly to Chairman Kim Jong Il... and to prepare for a possible visit by the President of the United States."

The United States does not maintain any diplomatic, consular, or trade relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K., or North Korea). Negotiations are ongoing to implement a provision of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the U.S. and D.P.R.K. for an exchange of diplomatic missions at the liaison office level.

On September 20, 1995, a consular protecting power arrangement was implemented, allowing for consular protection by the Swedish Embassy of U.S. citizens traveling in North Korea. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang is not authorized to issue U.S. visas. U.S. citizens and residents wishing to travel to North Korea must obtain visas in third countries.

There are no U.S. Government restrictions on travel by private U.S. citizens to North Korea. However, they may spend money in North Korea only to purchase items related to travel, e.g. plane and train tickets, accommodations, meals, guide and admission fees. In addition, $100 worth of merchandise for personal use may be brought back into the United States as unaccompanied baggage. (Also see Travel and Business Information.)

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