North Korea is a country with a population of some 25 million people, located on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula between the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and the Yellow Sea. Formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, it was founded in 1948 when the United States and the Soviet Union divided control of the peninsula after World War II. North Korea is a highly secretive communist state that remains isolated from much of the rest of the world. In recent years, leader Kim Jong Un and his aggressive nuclear program have posed a growing threat to international stability.

38th Parallel

In 1910, Japan formally annexed the Korean Peninsula, which it had occupied five years earlier following the Russo-Japanese War. Over the next 35 years of colonial rule, the country modernized and industrialized significantly, but many Koreans suffered brutal repression at the hands of Japan’s military regime.

During World War II, Japan sent many Korean men to the front as soldiers or forced them to work in wartime factories, while thousands of young Korean women became “comfort women,” providing sexual services to Japanese soldiers.

Upon Japan’s defeat in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union divided the peninsula into two zones of influence along the 38th parallel, or 38 degrees north latitude. In 1948, the pro-U.S. Republic of Korea (or South Korea) was established in Seoul, led by the strongly anti-communist Syngman Rhee.

In the northern industrial center of Pyongyang, the Soviets installed the dynamic young communist guerrilla Kim Il Sung, who became the first premier of the DPRK.

Korean War

With both leaders claiming jurisdiction over the entire Korean Peninsula, tensions soon reached a breaking point. In 1950, with the backing of the Soviet Union and China, North Korean forces invaded South Korea, setting off the Korean War.

The United States came to the South’s aid, leading an army of some 340,000 United Nations troops in opposing the invasion. After three years of bitter fighting and more than 2.5 million military and civilian casualties, both sides signed an armistice in the Korean War in July 1953.

The agreement left the borders of North and South Korea essentially unchanged, with a heavily guarded demilitarized zone about 2.5 miles wide running roughly along the 38th parallel. A formal peace treaty, however, was never signed.

Kim Il Sung

After the Korean War, Kim Il Sung shaped his country according to the nationalist ideology of “Juche” (self-reliance). The state assumed tight control over the economy, collectivized agricultural land and effectively asserted ownership over all private property.

State-controlled media and restrictions on all travel into or out of the country helped preserve the veil of secrecy around North Korea’s political and economic operations and maintain its isolation from most of the international community. The country’s population would remain almost entirely Korean, except for a small number of Chinese transplants.

Thanks to investment in mining, steel production and other heavy industries, North Korea’s civilian and military economy initially outpaced its southern rival. With Soviet backing, Kim built his military into one of the world’s strongest, even as many ordinary civilians grew poorer. By the 1980s, however, South Korea’s economy boomed, while growth in the north stagnated.

Kim Jong Il

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc hurt North Korea’s economy and left the Kim regime with China as its only remaining ally. In 1994, Kim Il Sung died of a heart attack and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il.

The new leader instituted a new policy of “Songun Chong’chi,” or military first, establishing the Korean People’s Army as the leading political and economic force in the nation. The new emphasis widened existing inequalities between the military and elite classes and the vast majority of ordinary North Korean citizens.

Over the course of the 1990s, widespread flooding, poor agricultural policies and economic mismanagement led to a period of extended famine, with hundreds of thousands of people dying of starvation and many more crippled by malnutrition. The emergence of a robust black market to meet such shortages would force the government to take measures to liberalize the state-run economy.

North Korea Nuclear Test

North Korea’s economic woes let up a bit due to improved relations with South Korea, which adopted a “sunshine policy” of unconditional aid towards its northern neighbor in the early 2000s.

Around the same time, North Korea came closer than ever before to forging peace with the United States, even hosting U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang in 2000.

But relations between the two Koreas, and between North Korea and the West, soon deteriorated, due to North Korea’s aggressive efforts to become a nuclear power. Though Kim Jong Il had pledged to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed in 1995, in the early 2000s reports began to surface of underground nuclear facilities and ongoing research into the production of highly enriched uranium.

By 2003, North Korea had withdrawn from the NPT, expelled international weapons inspectors and resumed nuclear research at a facility in Yongbyon. Three years later, Kim’s government announced it had carried out its first underground nuclear test.

Kim Jong Un

After Kim Jong Il died after a heart attack in December 2011, the job of supreme leader went to the second youngest of his seven children, then-27-year-old Kim Jong Un.

Fashioning himself as a modern version of his legendary grandfather, Kim Jong Un took steps to consolidate power, ordering the execution of his own uncle and other political and military rivals.

Kim’s government also continued to work on its nuclear arsenal, further damaging his nation’s relations with the West. In 2013, a third nuclear test resulted in trade and travel sanctions from the UN Security Council, as well as a formal protest from North Korea’s only major ally and main trading partner, China.

War With North Korea?

Over the course of 2017, tensions between North Korea and the United States reached an unprecedented level.

North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile with the strength to reach the mainland United States, threatened to launch missiles near the U.S. territory of Guam and tested a bomb seven times the size of those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Such actions prompted even harsher sanctions by the UN Security Council and an aggressive response from U.S. President Donald Trump, leaving the global community fearing the possibility of nuclear war.


North Korea.The World Factbook, CIA.
Korea, Asia for Educators. Columbia University.
North Korea country profile. BBC News.
Evan Osnos, “The Risk of Nuclear War With North Korea.” The New Yorker, September 18, 2017.