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North Korea

North Korea

Country profile - North Korea

Where is North Korea? A good batch of kimchee produces a definite endorphin rush. This spicy pickled cabbage accompanies all but the hastiest of Korean meals. For more than 600 years, villagers have gathered in late autumn, piled together their cabbages and other vegetables, salting, pickling, then burying them under the icy ground in earthenware pots for preservation. This art of kimchung has provided Koreans with a strong sense that even long cold winters can be endured and that patience is rewarded with a bountiful spring.

But recently North Koreans have had no spring. Two years of flooding have washed away 40 per cent of farms. If this year sees yet another crop failure then economic collapse will follow hard on the heels of widespread starvation. Dwindling reserves mean each person is allowed just 400 low-protein grams per day, with clothing and energy also rationed.

Given this general hardship Kim Jong Il was perhaps wise not to show up for his own birthday party last February. But his absence didn’t stop 10,000 teenage gymnasts performing before a vast mural of the 55-year-old leader. Nor did it inhibit the state-run paper Rodong Shinmun from calling Kim a ‘god’ – somewhat ironic in one of the world’s last communist states. Kim is expected to assume the twin titles of President and Secretary-General of the Korean Workers’ Party in June, when the three years of official mourning for his father, Kim Il Sung, come to an end.

Country and city people are increasingly critical of the regime. The sacrifice, austerity and unity demanded of them, they say, are wearing thin. Mass support is commanded; personal commitment cannot be.

But few will express their feelings too loudly. North Korean society is stratified according to party loyalty; your level of commitment determines your job prospects, education, housing and access to medical facilities. The cost of complaining is considerable. Citizens can be detained arbitrarily and there are an estimated 150,000 political prisoners. Listening to foreign radio broadcasts is punishable by death (radios are adjusted to receive internal broadcasts only). There is no press freedom. Letters and phone calls are monitored. Religion (apart from leader worship) is officially suppressed.

Korea has had its own central government for most of the past 1,300 years – a hierarchy with the king at the top. The theoretical absolute power of the Confucian king reinforces the present authoritarianism found in both Koreas.

In this century the whole peninsula has often been the arena of war – against Manchuria, Mongolia, Japan and the US. Foreign domination has always led to exploitation. After Japan’s defeat in World War Two, Korea’s hope for a united independent country seemed possible. But competing foreign interests saw the country divided in 1948 into Soviet-supported North and US-backed South. The 1950-53 war which followed claimed four million lives, neither superpower being prepared to give up their toe-hold in this strategically vital area. One of the many legacies of this war is that North Korea diverts a quarter of its GNP to the military; another is that reunification, still a long-term goal on both sides of the border, remains a paradise many times postponed.

These days North Korea only makes the world’s agenda via the nuclear issue: in 1993 the Government refused to let international inspectors examine sites suspected of nuclear-weapons production. The incident placed the peninsula on the brink, the North threatening war on the South if the UN imposed sanctions. The issue remains unresolved.

North Korea’s last few years have been full of erratic, potentially dangerous swings. But the people don’t just hope for stability. They dream of spring.

Myonghee Lim


LEADER: President designate Kim Jong Il

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $970 (South Korea $8,260, Japan $34,630)
Monetary unit: Won
Main exports: Machinery, equipment, non-ferrous metals, rolled steel – a legacy of a Stalinist emphasis on heavy industry.
Main imports: Oil, coke, crude rubber, alloying elements, sulphur.
North Korea’s is now the most centralized, planned economy in the world. There is some attempt to switch away from heavy industry towards consumer goods. Real tax rates are close to 100 per cent, and private ownership is banned. There is an immense black market.

PEOPLE: 23.9 million.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 23 per 1,000 live births (Australia 7 per 1,000). Child immunization rates are high but other health statistics are not made available.

CULTURE: Koreans (both North and South) are unusually homogeneous in ethnic and cultural terms. There are no distinct minorities.
Religion: Officially suppressed, but active Buddhist, Confucian and, increasingly, Christian practice remain.
Language: Korean

Sources The World: A Third World Guide 1997/98; State of the World’s Children 1997, UNICEF; Asia & Pacific Review 1996.

Previously profiled April 1986



[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Reasonable equity within urban areas, depending on party allegiance, but large disparity between city and country.
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[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Estimated as fair, though North Korea never submits its literacy rates to the UN.
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[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The end of Soviet support was a huge blow. But North Korea's insistence on going it alone means people suffer.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown]
No freedom of association; no non-government unions; tightly controlled media. The penal code is draconian, with reports of torture not uncommon.
1986[image, unknown]
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Officially enjoying equal status, in practice women are under-represented in senior positions.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
72 years (South Korea 72, Japan 80)
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[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown]
The ruling KWP has failed to deliver reasonable standards in education, health, workers' rights and development. While fiercely independent, it has given greater energy to worshipping its leaders than to pursuing any democratic reforms. It has also created one of the world's most repressive states.


NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 290 magazine cover This article is from the May 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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