The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (조선민주주의인민공화국 — Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin), or North Korea, occupies the northern portion of the Korean Peninsula, lying between latitudes 37° and 43°N, and longitudes 124° and 131°E. It covers an area of 46,541 square miles (120,540 square kilometers). North Korea shares land borders with China and Russia along the Amnok (known as the Yalu in China) and Tumen rivers to the north and northwest, and borders South Korea along the heavily fortified Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). To its west are the Yellow Sea and Korea Bay, and to its east lies Japan across the Sea of Japan (East Sea of Korea). Pyongyang is both the nation’s capital as well as its largest city.
North Korea officially describes itself as a self-reliant socialist state and formally holds elections. Critics regard it as a totalitarian dictatorship. Various outlets have called it Stalinist, particularly noting the elaborate cult of personality around Kim Il-sung and his family. International organizations have assessed human rights violations in North Korea as belonging to a category of their own, with no parallel in the contemporary world. The Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), led by a member of the ruling family, holds power in the state and leads the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland of which all political officers are required to be members.
Over time North Korea has gradually distanced itself away from the world communist movement. Juche, an ideology of national self-reliance, was introduced into the constitution as a “creative application of Marxism–Leninism” in 1972. The means of production are owned by the state through state-run enterprises and collectivized farms. Most services such as healthcare, education, housing and food production are subsidized or state-funded. From 1994 to 1998, North Korea suffered from a famine that resulted in the deaths of between 0.24 and 3.5 million people, and the country continues to struggle with food production. North Korea follows Songun, or “military-first” policy. It is the country with the highest number of military and paramilitary personnel, with a total of 9,495,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel. Its active duty army of 1.21 million is the fourth largest in the world, after China, the United States, and India. It possesses nuclear weapons. North Korea is an atheist state with no official religion and where public religion is discouraged.
The name Korea derives from the name Goryeo (also spelled Koryŏ). The name Goryeo itself was first used by the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo (Koguryŏ) in the fifth century as a shortened form of its name. The modern spelling of Korea first appeared in the late seventeenth century in the travel writings of the Dutch East India Company’s Hendrick Hamel.
After the division of the country into North and South Korea, the two sides used different terms to refer to Korea: Chosun or Joseon (조선) in North Korea, and Hanguk (한국) in South Korea. In 1948, North Korea adopted Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (조선민주주의인민공화국/朝鮮民主主義人民共和國) as its new legal name. In the wider world, because the government controlled the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, it is commonly called North Korea to distinguish it from South Korea, which is officially called the Republic of Korea.
After the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, Korea was occupied by Japan from 1910 until the end of the Second World War in 1945. Japan tried to suppress Korean traditions and culture and ran the economy primarily for its own benefit. Korean resistance groups known as Dongnipgun (Liberation Army) operated along the Sino-Korean border, fighting guerrilla warfare against Japanese forces. Some of them took part in allied action in China and parts of South East Asia. One of the guerrilla leaders was the communist Kim Il-sung, who later became the leader of North Korea.
At the end of World War II in 1945, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two zones along the 38th parallel, with the northern half of the peninsula occupied by the Soviet Union and the southern half by the United States. Initial hopes for a unified, independent Korea evaporated as the politics of the Cold War resulted in the establishment of two separate states with diametrically opposed political, economic, and social systems.
Soviet general Terentii Shtykov recommended the establishment of the Soviet Civil Authority in October 1945, and supported Kim Il-sung as chairman of the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea, established in February 1946. During the provisional government, Shtykov’s chief accomplishment was a sweeping land reform program that broke North Korea’s stratified class system. Landlords and Japanese collaborators fled to the South, where there was no land reform and sporadic unrest. Shtykov nationalized key industries and led the Soviet delegation to talks on the future of Korea in Moscow and Seoul.
In September 1946, South Korean citizens had risen up against the Allied Military Government. In April 1948, an uprising of the Jeju islanders was violently crushed. The South declared its statehood in May 1948 and two months later the ardent anti-communist Syngman Rhee became its ruler. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in the North on September 9, 1948. Shtykov served as the first Soviet ambassador, while Kim Il-sung became premier.
Soviet forces withdrew from the North in 1948 and most American forces withdrew from the South in 1949. Ambassador Shtykov suspected Rhee was planning to invade the North, and was sympathetic to Kim’s goal of Korean unification under socialism. The two successfully lobbied Joseph Stalin to support a short blitzkrieg of the South, which culminated in the outbreak of the Korean War.
The military of North Korea invaded the South on June 25, 1950, and swiftly overran most of the country. A United Nations force, led by the United States, intervened to defend the South, and rapidly advanced into North Korea. As they neared the border with China, Chinese forces intervened on behalf of North Korea, shifting the balance of the war again. Fighting ended on July 27, 1953, with an armistice that approximately restored the original boundaries between North and South Korea. More than one million civilians and soldiers were killed in the war. As a result of the war, almost every substantial building in North Korea was destroyed.
Some have referred to the conflict as a civil war, with other factors involved. The Korean War was the first armed confrontation of the Cold War and set the standard for many later conflicts. It is often viewed as an example of the proxy war, where the two superpowers would fight in another country, forcing the people in that country to suffer most of the destruction and death involved in a war between such large nations. The superpowers avoided descending into an all-out war against one another, as well as the mutual use of nuclear weapons. It expanded the Cold War, which to that point had mostly been concerned with Europe.
A heavily guarded demilitarized zone (DMZ) still divides the peninsula, and an anti-communist and anti-North Korea sentiment remains in South Korea. Since the war, the United States has maintained a strong military presence in the South which is depicted by the North Korean government as an imperialist occupation force.
The relative peace between the South and the North following the armistice was interrupted by border skirmishes, celebrity abductions, and assassination attempts. The North failed in several assassination attempts on South Korean leaders, such as in 1968, 1974 and the Rangoon bombing in 1983; tunnels were found under the DMZ and war nearly broke out over the axe murder incident at Panmunjom in 1976. For almost two decades after the war, the two states did not seek to negotiate with one another. In 1971, secret, high-level contacts began to be conducted culminating in the 1972 July 4th North-South Joint Statement that established principles of working toward peaceful reunification. The talks ultimately failed because in 1973, South Korea declared its preference that the two Koreas should seek separate memberships in international organizations.
During the 1956 August Faction Incident, Kim Il-sung successfully resisted efforts by the Soviet Union and China to depose him in favor of Soviet Koreans or the pro-Chinese Yan’an faction. The last Chinese troops withdrew from the country in October 1958, which is the consensus as the latest date when North Korea became effectively independent. Some scholars believe that the 1956 August incident demonstrated independence. North Korea remained closely aligned to China and the Soviet Union, and the Sino-Soviet split allowed Kim to play the powers off each other. North Korea sought to become a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, and emphasized the ideology of Juche to distinguish it from both the Soviet Union and China.
The Juche ideology is the cornerstone of party works and government operations. It is viewed by the official North Korean line as an embodiment of Kim Il-sung’s wisdom, an expression of his leadership, and an idea which provides “a complete answer to any question that arises in the struggle for national liberation”. Juche was pronounced in December 1955 in order to emphasize a Korea-centered revolution. Its core tenets are economic self-sufficiency, military self-reliance and an independent foreign policy. The roots of Juche were made up of a complex mixture of factors, including the cult of personality centered on Kim Il-sung, the conflict with pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese dissenters, and Korea’s centuries-long struggle for independence.
Juche was initially promoted as a “creative application” of Marxism–Leninism, but in the mid-1970s, it was described by state propaganda as “the only scientific thought… and most effective revolutionary theoretical structure that leads to the future of communist society”. Juche eventually replaced Marxism–Leninism entirely by the 1980s, and in 1992 references to the latter were omitted from the constitution. The 2009 constitution dropped references to communism, but retained references to socialism. Juche‘s concepts of self-reliance have evolved with time and circumstances, but still provide the groundwork for the spartan austerity, sacrifice and discipline demanded by the party.
Recovery from the war was quick — by 1957, industrial production reached 1949 levels. In 1959, relations with Japan had improved somewhat, and North Korea began allowing the repatriation of Japanese citizens in the country. The same year, North Korea revalued the North Korean won, which held greater value than its South Korean counterpart. Until the 1960s, economic growth was higher than in South Korea, and North Korean GDP per capita was equal to that of its southern neighbor as late as 1976.
In the early 1970s, China began normalizing its relations with the West, particularly the United States, and reevaluating its relations with North Korea. The diplomatic problems culminated in 1976 with the death of Mao Zedong. In response, Kim Il-sung began severing ties with China and reemphasizing national and economic self-reliance enshrined in his Juche Idea, which promoted producing everything within the country.
By the 1980s, the economy had begun to stagnate, started its long decline in 1987, and almost completely collapsed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 when all Russian aid was suddenly halted. The North began reestablishing trade relations with China shortly thereafter, but the Chinese could not afford to provide enough food aid to meet demand.
In 1992, as Kim Il-sung’s health began deteriorating, Kim Jong-il slowly began taking over various state tasks. Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack in 1994, in the midst of a standoff with the United States over North Korean nuclear weapon development. Kim declared a three-year period of national mourning before officially announcing his position as the new leader.
North Korean efforts to build nuclear weapons were halted by the Agreed Framework, negotiations with U.S. president Bill Clinton. Kim Jong-il instituted a policy called Songun, or “military first”. There is much speculation about this policy being used as a strategy to strengthen the military while discouraging coup attempts. Restrictions on travel were tightened and the state security apparatus was strengthened.
Flooding in the mid-1990s exacerbated the economic crisis, severely damaging crops and infrastructure and led to widespread famine which the government proved incapable of curtailing. In 1996, the government accepted United Nations food aid. Since the outbreak of the famine, the government has reluctantly tolerated illegal black markets while officially maintaining a state socialist economy. Corruption flourished and disillusionment with the regime spread.
In the late 1990s, North Korea began making attempts at normalizing relations with the West and continuously renegotiating disarmament deals with U.S. officials in exchange for economic aid. At the same time, building on Nordpolitik, South Korea began to engage with the North as part of its Sunshine Policy.
The international environment changed with the election of U.S. President George W. Bush in 2001. His administration rejected South Korea’s Sunshine Policy and the Agreed Framework. The U.S. government treated North Korea as a rogue state, while North Korea redoubled its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons to avoid the fate of Iraq. On October 9, 2006, North Korea announced it had conducted its first nuclear weapons test.
In August 2009, former U.S. President Bill Clinton met with Kim Jong-il to secure the release of two American journalists who had been sentenced for entering the country illegally. U.S. President Barack Obama’s position towards North Korea was to resist making deals with North Korea for the sake of defusing tension, a policy known as “strategic patience.” Tensions with South Korea and the United States increased in 2010 with the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
On December 17, 2011, the supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il died from a heart attack. His youngest son Kim Jong-un was announced as his successor. Over the following years, North Korea continued to develop its nuclear arsenal despite international condemnation. Notable tests were performed in 2013 and 2016.
In 2017, diplomatic relations with Malaysia soured as a result of the assassination of Kim Jong Nam.
The North Korean government exercises control over many aspects of the nation’s culture, and this control is used to perpetuate a cult of personality surrounding Kim Il-sung, and Kim Jong-il. While visiting North Korea in 1979, journalist Bradley Martin wrote that nearly all music, art, and sculpture that he observed glorified “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, whose personality cult was then being extended to his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il. Martin reported that there is even widespread belief that Kim Il-sung “created the world”, and Kim Jong-il could “control the weather”.
Such reports are contested by North Korea researcher B. R. Myers: “Divine powers have never been attributed to either of the two Kims. In fact, the propaganda apparatus in Pyongyang has generally been careful not to make claims that run directly counter to citizens’ experience or common sense.” He further explains that the state propaganda painted Kim Jong-il as someone whose expertise lay in military matters and that the famine of the 1990s was partially caused by natural disasters out of Kim Jong-il’s control.
The song “No Motherland Without You”, sung by the North Korean army choir, was created especially for Kim Jong-il and is one of the most popular tunes in the country. Kim Il-sung is still officially revered as the nation’s “Eternal President”. Several landmarks in North Korea are named for Kim Il-sung, including Kim Il-sung University, Kim Il-sung Stadium, and Kim Il-sung Square. Defectors have been quoted as saying that North Korean schools deify both father and son. Kim Il-sung rejected the notion that he had created a cult around himself, and accused those who suggested this of “factionalism”. Following the death of Kim Il-sung, North Koreans were prostrating and weeping to a bronze statue of him in an organized event; similar scenes were broadcast by state television following the death of Kim Jong-il.
Critics maintain this Kim Jong-il personality cult was inherited from his father. Kim Jong-il was often the center of attention throughout ordinary life. His birthday is one of the most important public holidays in the country. On his 60th birthday (based on his official date of birth), mass celebrations occurred throughout the country. Kim Jong-il’s personality cult, although significant, was not as extensive as his father’s. One point of view is that Kim Jong-il’s cult of personality was solely out of respect for Kim Il-sung or out of fear of punishment for failure to pay homage. Media and government sources from outside of North Korea generally support this view, while North Korean government sources say that it is genuine hero worship.
The extent of the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung was illustrated on June 11, 2012, when a 14-year-old North Korean schoolgirl drowned while attempting to rescue portraits of the two from a flood.
According to North Korean documents and refugee testimonies, all North Koreans are sorted into groups according to their Songbun, an ascribed status system based on a citizen’s assessed loyalty to the regime. Based on their own behavior and the political, social, and economic background of their family for three generations as well as behavior by relatives within that range, Songbun is allegedly used to determine whether an individual is trusted with responsibility, given opportunities, or even receives adequate food. Songbun allegedly affects access to educational and employment opportunities and particularly whether a person is eligible to join North Korea’s ruling party. There are three main classifications and about 50 sub-classifications.
According to Kim Il-sung, speaking in 1958, the loyal “core class” constituted 25% of the North Korean population, the “wavering class” 55%, and the “hostile class” 20%. The highest status is accorded to individuals descended from those who participated with Kim Il-sung in the resistance against Japanese occupation during and before World War II and to those who were factory workers, laborers, or peasants in 1950.
While some analysts believe private commerce recently changed the Songbun system to some extent, most North Korean refugees say it remains a commanding presence in everyday life. The North Korean government claims all citizens are equal and denies any discrimination on the basis of family background.
The North Korean Postal Service (조선의 체신체계) or Korean Post (조선 우편) is operated by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications and Communication Maintenance Bureau, which oversees postal communications, telegrams, phone service, TV broadcasts, newspapers and other related materials.
Each province has a branch of the MPT and each “Ri” (village) has a postal service office to deliver letters, packages and telegrams. Agents of the State Security Department are stationed at the Ministry’s offices to open, read and generally watch citizens to ensure their loyalty to the state.
Postal service between North and South Korea does not exist. North Korea is under multiple United Nations sanctions and additional sanctions from other countries which severely limit what can legally be sent to the country. In the United States, any mail is regulated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control and limits mail to first-class letters/postcards and matter for the blind. All merchandise, currency, precious metals, jewelry, chemical/biological/radioactive materials and others are prohibited.
Prior to the famine in the 1990s, telegram service usually took less than a week and the government provided bicycles to the offices to ensure delivery. However, during the famine (also called the “Arduous March”), postal delivery became more and more sporadic due to food, electricity and fuel shortages. In some cases, it may have taken over a month for a letter to be sent from the north of the country to Pyongyang, which is only a few hundred kilometers away and, at times, it is rumored, the postal train employees would burn the letters in order to keep warm.
In 1992, the Ministry’s minister and all higher-level officials were fired, with the minister and vice-minister and their families being arrested and set to prison camps for having “wasted national finances”.
Despite having a postal system and other state-run communications organizations, word of mouth remains the most common way information is spread throughout the country.
Postage stamps are issued by the Stamp Bureau of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and tend to portray patriotic and nationalist themes and are used as a form of propaganda. The first stamps of North Korea were issued on March 12, 1946. Stamps prior to 1974 dealt primarily with subjects relating specifically to North Korea, its foundation, Kim Il-sung and other patriotic themes. After 1974, in a bid to bring more hard currency into the country, North Korea began issuing stamps with wide-ranging themes (such as Joan of Arc, airships, sports and wildlife) and using English descriptions. Wording on the stamps is mostly in Korean. The term “DPR Korea” is written in English. Since the 1970s North Korea has outproduced South Korea in terms of stamp issuance.
Scott #1066 was released on November 2, 1972, as part of a set of three stamps based on the Three Major Goals of the Technical Revolution. The 10-chon photogravure stamp portrays agricultural mechanization.