Facts and History of North Korea

Statue of Kim Il-Sung, North Korea

Keren Su/The Image Bank/ Getty Images

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, commonly known as North Korea, is one of the most talked-about yet least understood nations on Earth.

It is a reclusive country, cut off even from its nearest neighbors by ideological differences and the paranoia of its top leadership. It developed nuclear weapons in 2006.

Severed from the southern half of the peninsula more than six decades ago, North Korea has evolved into a strange Stalinist state. The ruling Kim family exercises control through fear and personality cults.

Can the two halves of Korea ever be put back together again? Only time will tell.

Capital and Major Cities

  • Capital: Pyongyang, population 3,255,000
  • Hamhung, population 769,000
  • Chongjin, population 668,000
  • Nampo, population 367,000
  • Wonsan, population 363,000

North Korea's Government

North Korea, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is a highly centralized communist country under the leadership of Kim Jong-Un. His official title is Chairman of the National Defense Commission. The President of the Supreme People's Assembly Presidium is Kim Yong Nam.

The 687-seat Supreme People's Assembly is the legislative branch. All members belong to the Korean Workers' Party. The judicial branch consists of a Central Court, as well as provincial, county, city and military courts.

All citizens are free to vote for the Korean Workers' Party at the age of 17.

The Population of North Korea

North Korea has an estimated 24 million citizens as of the 2011 census. About 63% of North Koreans live in urban centers.

Nearly all of the population is ethnically Korean, with very small minorities of ethnic Chinese and Japanese.


The official language of North Korea is Korean. Written Korean has its own alphabet, called Hangul. Over the past several decades, the government of North Korea has attempted to purge borrowed vocabulary from the lexicon. Meanwhile, South Koreans have adopted words such as "PC" for personal computer, "handufone" for mobile phone, etc. While the northern and southern dialects are still mutually intelligible, they are diverging from one another after 60+ years of separation.

Religion in North Korea

As a communist nation, North Korea is officially non-religious. Prior to the partition of Korea, however, Koreans in the north were Buddhist, Shamanist, Cheondogyo, Christian, and Confucianist. To what extent these belief systems persist today is difficult to judge from outside the country.

North Korean Geography

North Korea occupies the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. It shares a long north-western border with China, a short border with Russia, and a highly-fortified border with South Korea (the DMZ or "demilitarized zone"). The country covers an area of 120,538 km sq.

North Korea is a mountainous land; about 80% of the country is made up of steep mountains and narrow valleys. The remainder is arable plains, but these are small in size and distributed across the country. The highest point is Baektusan, at 2,744 meters. The lowest point is sea level.

The Climate of North Korea

North Korea's climate is influenced both by the monsoon cycle and by continental air masses from Siberia. Thus, it was extremely cold with dry winters and hot, rainy summers. North Korea suffers from frequent droughts and massive summer flooding, as well as the occasional typhoon.


North Korea's GDP (PPP) for 2014 is estimated at $40 billion US. The GDP (official exchange rate) is $28 billion (2013 estimate). The per capita GDP is $1,800.

Official exports include military products, minerals, clothing, wood products, vegetables, and metals. Suspected unofficial exports include missiles, narcotics, and trafficked persons.

North Korea imports minerals, petroleum, machinery, food, chemicals, and plastics.

History of North Korea

When Japan lost World War II in 1945, it also lost Korea, annexed to the Japanese Empire in 1910.

The U.N. divided administration of the peninsula between two of the victorious Allied powers. Above the 38th parallel, the USSR took control, while the US moved in to administer the southern half.

The USSR fostered a pro-Soviet communist government based in Pyongyang, then withdrew in 1948. North Korea's military leader, Kim Il-sung, wanted to invade South Korea at that point and unite the country under a communist banner, but Joseph Stalin refused to support the idea.

By 1950, the regional situation had changed. China's civil war had ended with a victory for Mao Zedong's Red Army, and Mao agreed to send military support to North Korea if it invaded the capitalist South. The Soviets gave Kim Il-sung a green light for invasion.

The Korean War

On June 25, 1950, North Korea launched a ferocious artillery barrage across the border into South Korea, followed hours later by some 230,000 troops. The North Koreans quickly took the southern capital at Seoul and began to push southwards.

Two days after the war began, US President Truman ordered American armed forces to come to the aid of the South Korean military. The U.N. Security Council approved member-state assistance to the South over the objection of the Soviet representative; in the end, twelve more nations joined the US and South Korea in the U.N. coalition.

Despite this aid to the South, the war went very well for the North at first. In fact, the communist forces captured nearly the entire peninsula within the first two months of fighting; by August, the defenders were hemmed in at the city of Busan, on the southeastern tip of South Korea.

The North Korean army was not able to break through the Busan Perimeter, however, even after a solid month of battle. Slowly, the tide began to turn against the North.

In September and October of 1950, South Korean and U.N. forces pushed the North Koreans all of the way back across the 38th Parallel, and north to the Chinese border. This was too much for Mao, who ordered his troops into battle on North Korea's side.

After three years of bitter fighting, and some 4 million soldiers and civilians killed, the Korean War ended in a stalemate with the July 27, 1953, cease-fire agreement. The two sides have never signed a peace treaty; they remain separated by a 2.5-mile wide demilitarized zone (DMZ).

The Post-War North

After the war, North Korea's government focused on industrialization as it rebuilt the battle-torn country. As president, Kim Il-sung preached the idea of Juche, or "self-reliance." North Korea would become strong by producing all of its own food, technology, and domestic needs, rather than importing goods from abroad.

During the 1960s, North Korea was caught in the middle of the Sino-Soviet split. Although Kim Il-sung hoped to remain neutral and play the two larger powers off of one another, the Soviets concluded that he favored the Chinese. They cut off help to North Korea.

During the 1970s, North Korea's economy began to fail. It has no oil reserves, and the spiking price of oil left it massively in debt. North Korea defaulted on its debt in 1980.

Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-il. Between 1996 and 1999, the country suffered from a famine that killed between 600,000 and 900,000 people.

Today, North Korea relied on international food aid through 2009, even as it poured scarce resources into the military. The agricultural output has improved since 2009 but malnutrition and poor living conditions continue.

North Korea evidently tested its first nuclear weapon on October 9, 2006. It continues to develop its nuclear arsenal and conducted tests in 2013 and 2016. 

On December 17, 2011, Kim Jong-il died and was succeeded by his third son, Kim Jong-un.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Facts and History of North Korea." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/north-korea-facts-and-history-195638. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Facts and History of North Korea. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/north-korea-facts-and-history-195638 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Facts and History of North Korea." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/north-korea-facts-and-history-195638 (accessed June 9, 2023).