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Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea)

Flag of Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea)

Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) country brief


The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) is a highly centralised totalitarian state. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, it maintains one of the largest militaries and devotes significant resources to its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development programs. These programs pose a serious threat to international peace and security and a major challenge to global non-proliferation objectives.

Australia continues to work closely with the United States, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Japan and other countries to support the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of the DPRK, as required by United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions. We commend the United States and the ROK, in particular, for their commitment to talks with the DPRK. Until the DPRK takes clear steps towards denuclearisation, Australia is committed to enforcing strictly sanctions against the DPRK adopted by the UN Security Council. We have also supplemented those sanctions with our own autonomous sanctions against the DPRK.

Australia maintains only limited diplomatic relations with the DPRK. The relationship continues to be severely constrained by Australia's deep concerns over the DPRK's nuclear, other weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. Australia has consistently condemned the DPRK's nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches over more than a decade, all of which have destabilised the region and contravened the multiple resolutions on the DPRK adopted by the UN Security Council since 2006. In 2019, the DPRK launched ballistic missiles on 13 occasions from 4 May to 28 November, involving 24 short range ballistic missiles and one medium range underwater launched ballistic missile. The launch on 4 May 2019 was the DPRK's first of a ballistic missile since November 2017. The launch on 2 October 2019 was the DPRK's first of a submarine-launched ballistic missile since August 2016.

Australia has called on the DPRK to cease its provocative actions and make a sustained commitment to dialogue. Australia's limited bilateral aid program to the DPRK was suspended in 2002 due to concerns about the DPRK's nuclear weapons program. Separately, Australia suspended payments to the UN World Food Program's (WFP) operations in DPRK in October 2017 after the DPRK refused several requests by Australian officials to visit, rendering us unable to determine whether our funds were being used as intended. Australia continues to raise its concerns over social conditions and human rights violations and assess the humanitarian situation in the DPRK.


The Korean Peninsula was first unified as a sovereign state in 918 under the Goryeo Dynasty (the source of the English name "Korea"). In 1392, the Joseon Dynasty took power, and ruled until the Korean Empire replaced it in 1897. From 1910 to 1945, the Korean Peninsula was subject to colonial rule by Japan. Following Japan's defeat in World War II, Korea was temporarily divided into two occupied zones along the 38th parallel, with the United States administering the southern half and the Soviet Union administering the northern half. Initial plans to unify the Peninsula quickly dissolved due to domestic opposition and the politics of the Cold War. In 1948, new governments were established in the two occupied zones – the ROK and the DPRK.

Reflecting the policies of the two temporarily occupying powers, the United States and the (then) Soviet Union, the ROK and DPRK operated under vastly different political, economic and social systems. The DPRK invasion of the ROK led to the Korean War from 1950-53. Australia committed more than 17,000 troops to serve as part of UN forces in support of the ROK. Three hundred and forty Australians died in the war and over 1,200 were wounded. The 1953 armistice ended the conflict, though a more comprehensive peace agreement has not been negotiated. Since then, relations between the DPRK and the ROK have fluctuated between periods of heightened cooperation and tension.


North Korea is located in North-East Asia on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula and has an area of 120,538 km². It has 1,671.5 kilometres of land boundaries; of these, 1,416 kilometres are with China, 238 kilometres with South Korea, and 17.5 kilometres with Russia. These borders run along the Yalu River (China), the Tumen River (China and Russia), and the Demilitarized Zone (Republic of Korea). The Yellow Sea and Korea Bay (an extension of the Yellow Sea) lie off the west coast and the Sea of Japan lies off the east coast.

The terrain consists mostly of medium-sized mountain ranges and large hills, separated by deep, narrow valleys. The highest peak on the Peninsula, Mount Paekdu, is located on its northern border with China, and rises to 2,744 m. It is an active volcano and with a caldera lake, which many Koreans consider to be their countries' spiritual home. The west coast has wide coastal plains, while along the eastern coastline, narrow plains rise into mountains. As with the Republic of Korea, dozens of small islands dot the western coastline.

The mountain ranges in the northern and eastern parts of North Korea form the watershed for most of its rivers, which run in a westerly direction and empty into the Yellow Sea and Korea Bay. North Korea's longest river is the Yalu. Other large rivers include the Tumen, Daedong and Imjin. The Daedong River, flows through the capital, Pyongyang.

Political Overview

The Kims

The DPRK's political leadership since the 1980s can be described as the suryong (leader) system. This system serves to perpetuate the guidance of the leader through the hereditary succession of power. While it draws some influence from Leninism, it is primarily based on juche (self-reliance) ideology, and the political leadership of the suryong has been elevated above that of the governing Workers' Party of Korea (WPK). This system requires unconditional and absolute obedience to the “guidance” of the suryong as the supreme leader of society and the WPK conveys this guidance to the people.

The DPRK's first leader was Kim Il Sung, revered in the DPRK as the 'Great Leader'. Although evidence is scant, the DPRK claims Kim Il Sung fought with Chinese communists in the 1930s against the Japanese occupation, before moving to the Soviet Union in 1940, where he received training and backing. Following Japan's defeat in 1945, Kim Il Sung was installed by the Soviets as head of the Provincial People's Committee and, in 1948, on the proclamation of the DPRK, became its Premier. Kim Il Sung held all key party positions including WPK General-Secretary, Member of the Presidium of the Politburo and Chairman of the Central Military Commission until his death in 1994, when he was designated "Eternal President". Kim Il Sung's oldest son, Kim Jong Il, was appointed General-Secretary of the WPK in 1997. From 1994, Kim Jong Il was the DPRK's de facto leader, exercising executive power as Chairman of the National Defence Commission (now the State Affairs Commission, or SAC), as well as General-Secretary of the WPK and Supreme Commander of the People's Armed Forces.

Following Kim Jong Il's death in December 2011, his third son Kim Jong Un was quickly declared the Great Successor and Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army. In April 2012, Kim Jong Un assumed his father's positions as head of the ruling WPK (as General-Secretary) and Chairman of the National Defence Commission. On 9 May 2016, Kim Jong Un was elected Chairman of the WPK following the first WPK Congress in 36 years. In October 2017, Kim's younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was elected to the Central Committee Politburo. In 2020, Kim Yo Jong was promoted to Vice Director of the Organization and Guidance Department, which effectively ranks first in the WPK hierarchy, above the Propaganda and Agitation Department.

Today, the DPRK has a centralised government strictly controlled by the WPK in which Kim Jong Un wields the greatest authority. In May 2016, the WPK held its 7th Workers' Party Congress, the first since 1980, during which Kim Jong Un was elected Chairman. On 11 July 2019, the DPRK released an updated version of the DPRK Constitution, which contained several amendments. The amendments formally elevated Kim Jong Un to the level of head of state, a position that had previously been held only by the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA, the Parliament). The amendments also removed references to songun (military first) policy that was strictly enforced by his predecessors, signalling a reduction in the priority given to the military. Under Kim Jong Un, the focus of songun has been overshadowed by his signature policy byungjin (parallel development of the economy and the nuclear program).

Party members or officials hold important positions in the government, economy and the military, and WPK Secretaries generally exercise greater authority over policy and administrative issues than government ministers. Although open to mass membership, access to the WPK is denied to those without a 'reliable' class background. Official party membership is estimated at over three million. Under the DPRK Constitution, which has been amended many times, the SPA is the DPRK's highest legislative body. In theory, the SPA appoints the President, approves the national budget, enacts laws, sets forth the country's basic policies, including foreign, and defence policy. In reality, the SPA serves to ratify WPK decisions.

While all are in practice subservient to the direction of Kim Jong Un, three key entities notionally control the DPRK government: the Cabinet oversees government ministries and is the dominant administrative and executive agency; the Politburo of the Central Committee is the top decision-making body of the WPK and is responsible for directing Party affairs on a day-to-day basis; and the SAC is the DPRK's highest office of state and is responsible for a range of national policy areas, including external and internal security, and foreign and inter-Korean policies.

Economic overview

The DPRK has a centrally planned economy that, for the most part, operates outside of the formal international economic, banking and trade systems. The allocation of food rations, housing, healthcare and education is privately controlled by the state. Taxes were abolished in 1974 although mandatory contributions of food and labour remain a fact of life. Since coming to power, Kim Jong Un has eased restrictions on foreign currency and private enterprise. There are regular reports of greater use of private markets and ‘kitchen gardens' to supplement insufficient government rations. The DPRK is one of the poorest countries in the world, and has fallen far behind the ROK in economic development and living standards. Out-dated infrastructure and poor energy supply remain serious obstacles to economic growth.

The DPRK stopped publishing economic statistics (Net Material Product tables) in 1965, and no state budget numbers have been announced since the 2001 financial year. Consequently, accurate economic statistics for the DPRK are difficult to obtain, vary widely and are impossible to verify due to the closed nature of its society. The Bank of Korea estimated the DPRK's 2018 GDP at US$ 25.4 billion, a decrease by 4.1%, which is the lowest growth rate since 1997. The DPRK has expanded international trade over the last decade, but the total value remains low, estimated at US$2.1 billion in 2018. China is the DPRK's principal trading partner. UN Security Council resolutions adopted in 2016 and 2017 have placed restrictions on over 90 per cent of the DPRK's publicly reported 2016 exports.

Contributing to the DPRK's poor economic performance is the disproportionately large share of GDP assigned to the military, including its nuclear, other weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. The DPRK has placed a high priority on maintaining a strong defence capability, with most aspects of the economy and society revolving around defence-related programs. For many years, Pyongyang has mounted an extensive effort to prepare the population for war and has consistently proclaimed its overriding objective of reunifying the Korean Peninsula. The DPRK maintains an active-duty military force of up to 1.2 million personnel, and possibly 4.5 million reservists, one of the largest in the world.

Before the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC, the ROK accounted for around 2 per cent of the DPRK's total trade in 2014. The KIC, where the majority of inter-Korean commercial cooperation took place, was a special economic zone established by the DPRK and the ROK in 2004 close to the demilitarized zone that separates the DPRK and the ROK. The ROK cancelled cooperation with the DPRK at the KIC in February 2016, arguing that the income from it had been used by Pyongyang to finance its nuclear and missile programs. The DPRK in turn froze all assets at the complex, expelling all South Koreans and declaring it a military security area. As part of current efforts to promote inter-Korean engagement, the ROK has proposed reopening the KIC.

In a speech in December 2019, Kim Jong Un acknowledged shortcomings in the country's economic structure and urged the need for change. The speech outlined the future direction of the economy and emphasised the regime's intent to pursue economic development regardless of the sanctions currently imposed upon it, calling on the Party and North Korean people to get behind the effort to “foil the enemies' sanctions and blockade by dint of self-reliance”.

Humanitarian Situation

The DPRK faces regular natural disasters and has experienced humanitarian emergencies, including food shortages. In 1995, record floods and fallout from the collapse of the communist bloc subsidised trading system caused severe food shortages which some sources estimate resulted in up to two million DPRK citizens dying from starvation and hunger-related illnesses. Resource shortages and inadequate sanitation facilities have led to serious public health concerns, including the re-emergence of diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria. Existing health services are unable to tackle increasing health problems and the prevalence of acute malnutrition.

A rapid food security assessment issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in May 2019 suggested that the DPRK experienced its worst harvest in ten years in 2018-19, leaving 10.1 million people suffering from severe food shortages. However, Kim Jong Un boasted in December 2019 that the country had enjoyed its ‘best ever harvest’. Food prices have also been low.

The DPRK was heavily reliant on international humanitarian assistance, but this has declined since 2008, when the United States suspended humanitarian aid in response to concerns over the DPRK's nuclear and proliferation activities. Australia does not currently provide humanitarian assistance to the DPRK. Australia suspended bilateral development assistance to the DPRK in late 2002 due to concerns about the nuclear and missile programs. Separately, Australia suspended payments to the WFP in October 2017 over concerns that the operating environment for international organisations made it difficult to mitigate the risk of the DPRK regime diverting aid away from those in need. Between 1994 and 2016, Australia provided over $90 million in humanitarian assistance, the majority through the WFP, with a focus on food and nutritional supplementation targeting vulnerable groups.

Social Conditions and Human Rights

Australia continues to raise its concerns over serious human rights violations in the DPRK. Violations extend to the systematic and daily denial of basic freedoms, including freedoms of expression, religion and association; extensive torture; public executions; collective punishment; and the extensive use of forced labour camps with oppressive conditions.

The DPRK Government subjects its citizens to a pervasive program of indoctrination and close surveillance. Radio and television is restricted to government broadcasts. Access to foreign media carries heavy penalties. Internet access is strictly prohibited, although people do have access to a government-controlled intranet. A travel pass is required for any movement outside one's hometown. Permission is required in order to enter or reside in Pyongyang. Tourism by North Koreans, even to other communist countries and among the elite, is almost non-existent. Tourism by foreigners to the DPRK is permitted although strictly restricted to state controlled official tours.

In March 2013, the UN Human Rights Council mandated a Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in the DPRK. The Commission, chaired by former Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby, released its report on 17 February 2014. The report gives a detailed account of widespread and systematic human rights violations, and contains a number of recommendations for the DPRK, other states, and the international community. The Inquiry concluded that in many instances, the violations of human rights found by the Commission constitute crimes against humanity. Australia urges the DPRK to adopt the recommendations of this report and to cooperate with efforts to hold to account those responsible for grave human rights violations.

Australia has joined the international community in continuing to press the DPRK Government to engage with UN human rights mechanisms, including during our term on the UN Human Rights Council from 2018 to 2020. The UN Security Council considered ‘the situation in the DPRK’ on 22 December 2014 and reviewed human rights issues. The UN Security Council again discussed the item on 10 December 2015, 9 December 2016 and 11 December 2017. On 18 December 2019, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning human rights abuses in the DPRK for the 15th consecutive year. On 23 March 2019, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution emphasising the need to develop mechanisms to ensure that DPRK officials responsible for crimes against humanity are held to accountable.

The DPRK has acknowledged that in the 1970s and 1980s, it abducted a number of Japanese citizens who were forced to teach Japanese language skills to DPRK military and government officials. While some of the victims have been returned to Japan, the two countries are yet to agree on the number of people affected. The Australian Government supports Japan's calls for the DPRK to engage with Japan to resolve this issue.

The DPRK Nuclear Issue

It has been reported that the DPRK first began to pursue nuclear technology as early as 1956. The DPRK has completed two nuclear reactors, both located at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centre. It has conducted six nuclear tests, the most recent on 3 September 2017.

Under Kim Jong Un, the pace of nuclear and ballistic missile development has increased. In 2016, the DPRK conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 ballistic missile launches. In 2017, the DPRK conducted over 21 ballistic missile launches, including three launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and two launches of intermediate range ballistic missiles that flew over Japan. In 2019, the DPRK launched ballistic missiles on 13 occasions from 4 May to 28 November, involving 24 short range ballistic missiles and one medium range underwater launched ballistic missile, the most in any year under Kim Jong Un's leadership.

The DPRK's international relations deteriorated in 2017, in particular, due to its ongoing, illegal development of nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. The UN Security Council agreed on greatly expanded sanctions against the DPRK in resolutions 2270 and 2321 of 2016 (adopted 2 March and 30 November respectively) and 2371 (5 August) and 2375 (11 September) of 2017. Many countries downgraded their diplomatic relations or cooperation with the DPRK. However, a number of countries still maintain diplomatic representation in Pyongyang or host DPRK embassies. The DPRK has continued commitment to its nuclear and missile programs has put a severe strain on many of its international relations.

The DPRK has not conducted a nuclear test of launched an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 under a self-imposed moratorium, announced in April 2018 in the lead-up to Kim Jong Un's first summit with US President Trump in Singapore in June of that year. Kim Jong Un told a meeting of the WPK Central Committee on 31 December 2019 that the DPRK no longer felt bound by its moratorium.

In addition to UN Security Council resolutions, the DPRK nuclear and missile programs also violate a number of commitments and agreements made by the DPRK. In 1985, the DPRK joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state, only to declare its withdrawal in 2003. In 1992, the DPRK and the ROK agreed the Joint Declaration for a Non-Nuclear Korean Peninsula and, in 1994, the DPRK and the United States signed an Agreed Framework aimed at ending the DPRK's nuclear weapons programs. The DPRK has also reneged on commitments made during the Six Party Talks process (which was initiated by China in August 2003 between the DPRK, the ROK, China, the United States, Japan and Russia) and in the “Leap Day Agreement”, made between the US and the DPRK on 29 February 2012.

Inter-Korean Relations

Relations between the ROK and the DPRK fluctuate between periods of heightened cooperation and tensions. The Lee Myeong-bak (2008-2013) and the Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) administrations saw a reduction in inter-Korean cooperation, while ROK inter-Korean policy under the Kim Dae-jung administration (1998–2003) emphasised a 'sunshine policy' of engagement with the DPRK. President Kim's overriding objective was to secure regional peace and stability, and build a firm foundation for reconciliation with the North and the eventual reunification of the Peninsula. This approach was continued by the succeeding Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003–2008). These periods saw increased trade, humanitarian aid, tourism and family reunions between the two countries. The current Moon Jae-in administration (inaugurated on 10 May 2017) also favours negotiation and engagement with the DPRK where possible.

The year 2018 was significant for inter-Korean relations. The ROK and the DPRK reopened direct communication after almost two years, with talks in Panmunjom on 9 January 2018. Subsequently, the DPRK’s de facto head of state (at the time), Kim Yong Nam, led a delegation accompanied by Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, to attend the opening of the Winter Olympics hosted by the ROK in Pyeongchang. Olympians from both Koreas marched under one flag. Kim Jong Un met with ROK President Moon Jae-in on 27 April 2018 in an historic inter-Korean summit. They held two other summits that year on 26 May and 18-20 September. Outcomes of the summits included the Panmunjom Declaration, the Pyongyang Joint Declaration and the Comprehensive Military Agreement. Since the third inter-Korean summit in September 2018, the DPRK has disengaged with the ROK.

Australia-DPRK Bilateral Relations

Australia and the DPRK established diplomatic relations in 1974. The DPRK opened an Embassy in Canberra in December 1974, and Australia opened an Embassy in Pyongyang in April 1975. Diplomatic relations were interrupted in November 1975, when the DPRK withdrew its Embassy from Canberra and expelled Australian Embassy staff from Pyongyang.

In the period after 1975, Australia maintained limited contact with the DPRK. All contact ceased during the 1993-1994 nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, but resumed with a number of unofficial and privately sponsored bilateral visits in the late 1990s. In May 2000, Australia resumed diplomatic relations through the Australian Embassy in Beijing. The DPRK re-opened an Embassy in Canberra in May 2002, but closed it in January 2008. Diplomatic relations are now conducted via the DPRK's Embassy in Jakarta and Australia's Embassy in Seoul.

Commercial Links and Sanctions

Before initiating business dealings, Australian companies are advised to conduct thorough due diligence and seek appropriate independent legal advice to determine if the proposed dealings will violate the comprehensive sanctions Australia imposes against the DPRK. Australian companies should also be aware of the poor payment record of many DPRK agencies in past commercial ventures. Information concerning Australia's sanctions on the DPRK can be found at DFAT's sanctions webpage.

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