Frontline World

NORTH KOREA - Suspicious Minds, January 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Suspicious Minds"

Short History: U.S.-North Korea Conflict

Versions of the Truth

Learn More about North Korea

Nuclear Weapons, Military History, Humanitarian Issues




Images of North Korean landscapes, people and culture (images copyright BBC, 2003)
Facts & Stats

• General Background
• Government
• Military
• Economy
• Health/Humanitarian Crisis

General Background

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) spans roughly 120,000 square miles, making it slightly smaller than the state of Mississippi. Its capital is Pyongyang.

The Communist country is located on the Korean peninsula between northeast China and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

The most important national holiday in North Korea falls on September 9. On that date in 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was founded.

North Korea has a population of roughly 22 million and an average life expectancy of 64 years for men and 68 years for women.

North Korea's literacy rate is close to 100 percent.

In addition to Marxism, a philosophy that has prevailed for decades in North Korea is juche, self-reliance, or the idea that human beings are the makers of their own destiny.

Juche, promulgated by North Korea's leaders, spelled out an ideological rationale for lessening the country's dependence on the Soviet Union from the 1950s on.

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There is only one political party in North Korea, the Korean Worker's Party. The official legislature is the Supreme People's Assembly.

Kim Jong-il, as Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army and General Secretary of the Korean Worker's Party, is the autocratic head of North Korea. He is referred to as "the Dear Leader."

Kim Jong-il's father, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994 after 46 years in power, is referred to as "the Great Leader" in North Korea.

After an official three-year period of mourning in the wake of Kim Il-sung's death, Kim Jong-il was elected leader of the Korean Worker's Party in October 1997.

In 1998, a North Korean constitutional amendment designated Kim Il-sung "Eternal President" and expanded the powers of his son, Kim Jong-il, effectively making him head of state.

Kim Jong-il is credited in North Korea with writing six operas in two years, authoring books on topics ranging from journalism to cinematography and personally designing a monument in honor of juche that was erected in downtown Pyongyang.

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North Korea has the world's fifth-largest military, with more than 1 million active-duty personnel.

There are two branches of the military in North Korea: the Korean People's Army, which consists of the navy, the army and the air force, and the Civil Security Forces.

Roughly 30 percent of North Korean men and women between the ages of 15 and 60 serve in reserve units. One such unit, the Worker-Peasant Militia, contains more than 4 million members.

In 2001, North Korea spent more than $5 billion on its military, more than 30 percent of the country's GDP.

North Korea's nuclear weapons program got under way during the 1980s, with the construction of a 200-megawatt-electric nuclear reactor in Taechon and a nuclear reprocessing plant in Yongbyon.

In 1985, United States intelligence sources revealed for the first time the construction of a secret nuclear reactor 90 kilometers north of the capital, Pyongyang.

North Korea is believed to possess enough weapons-grade plutonium for the construction of at least one, possibly two, nuclear weapons.

North Korea has several nuclear facilities, including one atomic reactor that is capable of yielding enough uranium fuel to manufacture one atomic bomb per year.

The country's military could deploy an intercontinental missile capable of striking Alaska, Hawaii and the American West Coast, according to United States intelligence sources.

North Korea has an estimated 5,000 tons of biological and chemical weapons.

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North Korea has a per capita GDP of $1,000. (South Korea's per capita GDP, by contrast, is $18,000.)

Its currency is the won.

The country's largest trading partners are China, Japan and South Korea.

South Korea accounted for nearly a quarter of North Korea's export trade in 2000.

North Korea's chief export commodities are minerals, metallurgical products, armaments, and agricultural and fishery products.

In 2000, the country brought in roughly $700 million for its exports while spending nearly $1.7 billion on imported goods.

Chief North Korean imports are petroleum, grain, machinery and consumer goods.

Agriculture accounts for roughly 25 percent of the country's GNP.

The country opened a special economic zone in the city of Sinuiju in September 2002 as part of an effort to draw foreign investment into North Korea and to provide an opportunity to experiment with a free-market economy.

The city of Sinuiju has less than half a million people and is located along the border with China. It has food, metal and chemical factories.

In July 2002, the government introduced limited free-market economic reforms, including raising wages, devaluing the currency relative to the dollar, and raising the costs of goods and services such as electricity and housing to match supply.

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Health/Humanitarian Crisis

North Korea had an infant mortality rate of 2 percent in 2000. (South Korea's infant mortality rate for that same year, by contrast, was 0.5 percent.)

More than 13 million North Koreans suffer from malnutrition, including 60 percent of all children -- the worst rate among 110 developing nations surveyed by the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

A famine lasting more than three years began in 1995 after a series of severe floods.

At a UNICEF conference in Beijing in May 2001, a North Korean official, Choe Su-hon, disclosed that 220,000 people had died of famine from 1995 to 1998. Western sources put famine casualties during the same period much higher, from 270,000 to 2 million.

Choe Su-hon also announced that during the height of the famine the average life expectancy fell by more than six years and the infant mortality rate climbed.

The effects of the famine were intensified by bad weather, a mismanaged agricultural sector and an economy crippled by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Economic sanctions were also a factor.

Roughly a third of North Koreans receive food aid, according to the United Nations.

The largest international aid agency operating in North Korea is the U.N.'s World Food Program. Since 1995, the WFP has delivered 2 million tons of food, worth $500 million.

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Sources: United Nations' World Food Program; "N. Korea Reveals Famine Statistics," "North Korean Military Parade Marks 55th Anniversary of Ruling Party" and "U.S.: North Korea Admits Nuke Program"; Asia Times Online ; UNICEF and UNICEF Statistics; The Sacramento Bee "Entrepreneur Named to Head North Korea's New Capitalist Enclave"; U.S. Department of State, North Korea Profile ; "Chemical Weapons Program," "Korean People's Army" and "Nuclear Weapons Program"; CIA Worldfactbook (2002) Country Profile: North Korea; BBC News Online "North Korea Slow to Change" and "Profile: Kim Jong-il; World Health Organization