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North Korea faced further international economic isolation after it confessed to having a nuclear bomb program and took steps in December 2002 to reactivate a mothballed nuclear facility capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. The moves touched off fresh fears of a nuclear arms race in East Asia and of conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
Pyongyang's brinkmanship was widely viewed as the Stalinist regime's latest attempt to use its long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs as bargaining chips to gain diplomatic recognition and increased aid from the United States. Washington, though, demanded that Pyongyang unilaterally promise to end its uranium-enrichment program before talks could be held on aid and other issues.
Regardless of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's motives, the crisis will likely make it harder for his impoverished country to gain the international support that it needs to revive its moribund economy. North Korea began lifting some price controls in 2002, but these and other limited free-market reforms will have to be buttressed by foreign aid, advice, and investment in order to have any deep-rooted impact.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula in 1948, three years after the United States occupied the south of the peninsula--and Soviet forces, the north--following Japan's defeat in World War II. At independence, North Korea's uncontested ruler was Kim Il-sung, a former Soviet army officer who claimed to be a guerrilla hero in the struggle against Japanese colonial rule over Korea, which began in 1910. North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 in an attempt to reunify the peninsula under Communist rule. Drawing in the United States and China, the ensuing three-year conflict killed up to two million people and ended with a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty. Since then, the two Koreas have been on continuous war footing.
Kim Il-sung solidified his power base during the Cold War, purging rivals, throwing thousands of political prisoners into gulags, and fostering a Stalinist-style personality cult promoting him as North Korea's "Dear Leader." The end of the Cold War, however, brought North Korea's command economy to the brink of collapse, as Pyongyang lost crucial Soviet and East Bloc subsidies and preferential trade deals. North Korea's economy shrank an estimated 30 percent between 1991 and 1996, according to UN figures.
With the regime's survival already in doubt, Kim's death in 1994 ushered in even more uncertainty. Under his son and appointed successor, the reclusive Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang has carried out limited economic reforms and made sporadic efforts to improve relations with the United States, Japan, and South Korea in the hopes of gaining increased aid. The moves are widely seen as last-ditch attempts to save the country from economic implosion. Famine killed "an estimated several hundreds of thousands to two million persons" in the 1990s, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002.
On top of continued food shortages, North Korea is facing an acute health care crisis. Foreign press reports suggest that the state-run health system has all but collapsed, hospitals lack adequate medicine and equipment, and clean water is in short supply because of electricity and chlorine shortages. Some 63 percent of North Korean children are stunted because of chronic undernourishment, according to a 1998 UNICEF survey.
The modest reforms introduced in 2002 could help boost economic output. The government during the year began paying farmers more for their goods and easing price controls on food, housing, and other necessities. It also raised salaries to offset the higher prices. The regime recently has also allowed farmers to set up small markets in the cities, something it has quietly tolerated for decades in the countryside. Prospects appear dim, though, for more far-reaching market reforms, given that the regime fears that loosening its control over the economy will undermine its tight grip on power.
However, the outside help that North Korea needs for the reforms to work seemed further away than ever after Pyongyang touched off the latest crisis over its nuclear bomb program. The crisis began after Washington said in October that Pyongyang had confessed to having a program to produce enriched uranium, a component in nuclear bombs. This violated a 1994 deal under which North Korea pledged to abandon its plutonium nuclear program, including shuttering the plutonium facility at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, that it now vows to reopen. In return, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan agreed under the 1994 deal to provide North Korea with two light water nuclear reactors, which, unlike the Yongbyon facility, cannot be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. They also agreed to provide fuel oil until the new reactors are built.
After North Korea's October admission, the U.S. and its allies decided to suspend the fuel oil shipments. In December, North Korea upped the ante by throwing out international inspectors monitoring the Yongbyon reactor and began delivering fuel rods to the plant.
North Korea is one of the most tightly controlled countries in the world. The regime denies North Koreans even the most basic rights, holds tens of thousands of political prisoners, and controls nearly all aspects of social, political, and economic life.
Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, and a handful of elites from the Korean Worker's Party (KWP) rule by decree, although little is known about the regime's inner workings. Kim formally is general secretary of the KWP, supreme military commander, and chairman of the National Defense Commission. The latter post officially is the "highest office of state," following the 1998 abolition of the presidency. Vice Marshall Jo Myong-rok, first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, is believed to be Kim's second-in-command.
North Korea's parliament, known as the Supreme People's Assembly, has little independent power. It meets only a few days each year to rubber-stamp the ruling elite's decisions. In an effort to provide a veneer of democracy, the government occasionally holds show elections for the assembly and provincial, county, and city bodies. All of the candidates belong to either the KWP or one of several small, pro-government "minority parties." The last assembly elections were in 1998.
Defectors and refugees have in recent years reported that the regime regularly executes political prisoners, repatriated defectors, military officers accused of spying or other antigovernment offenses, and other suspected dissidents, according to the U.S. State Department report. Ordinary North Koreans reportedly have been executed merely for criticizing the regime, the report added.
North Korean authorities have also executed some North Koreans who were sent back by Chinese officials after they fled across the border, according to the U.S. State Department report. An estimated 300,000 North Koreans have fled to China in recent years to escape food shortages and other hardships.
North Korea runs a network of jails and prison camps that are notorious for their brutal treatment of inmates. The UN Human Rights Committee in 2001 called on Pyongyang to allow international human rights groups into the country to verify the "many allegations of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and conditions and of inadequate medical care in reform institutions, prisons, and prison camps." South Korean media have reported that North Korean officials subject camp inmates to forced labor, beating, torture, and public execution.
Defectors say that the regime holds some 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners in maximum security camps, while the South Korean government puts the number of political prisoners at 200,000. The number of ordinary prisoners is not known.
The regime has also forcibly relocated "many tens of thousands" of North Koreans to the countryside from Pyongyang, particularly people considered politically unreliable, according to the U.S. State Department report. Officials also continue to restrict travel into Pyongyang, normally granting permission only for governmental business. At the same time, the regime has recently made it easier for North Koreans to travel outside of their home villages.
The state spies extensively on the population, using a network of informers and surprise security checks on homes and even entire communities. Pyongyang also assigns to each North Korean a security rating that partly determines access to education, employment, and health services as well as place of residence. By some foreign estimates, nearly half the population is considered either "wavering" or "hostile," with the rest rated "core."
Religious freedom is virtually nonexistent. The government requires all prayer and religious study to be supervised by the state and severely punishes North Koreans for worshipping independently in underground churches. Officials have killed, beaten, arrested, or detained in
prison camps many members of underground churches, foreign religious and human rights groups say.
The regime controls all trade unions and uses them to monitor workers, mobilize them to meet production targets, and provide them with health care, schooling, and welfare services. Strikes, collective bargaining, and other basic organized-labor activities are illegal. Many work sites are dangerous, and the rate of industrial accidents reportedly is high.
In classic totalitarian fashion, officials subject the masses to intensive political and ideological indoctrination through the media, schools, and work and neighborhood associations. Ordinary North Koreans face a steady onslaught of propaganda from radios and televisions that are pretuned to receive only government stations. Foreign visitors and academics say that children receive mandatory military training and indoctrination at their schools. The regime also routinely orchestrates rallies, mass marches, and performances involving thousands of people which glorify the two Kims and the state.
The regime uses a vague guiding philosophy of juche, or "I myself," to justify its dictatorship and rabid efforts to root out dissent. Credited to former president Kim Il-sung, juche emphasizes national self-reliance and stresses that the collective will of the people is embodied in a supreme leader. Opposing the leader, therefore, means opposing the national interest. Taking this to the extreme, officials have punished people for offenses as trivial as accidentally defacing photographs of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il, according to the U.S. State Department report.
Few women have reached the top ranks of the ruling KWP or the government. Little is known about how problems such as domestic violence or workplace discrimination may affect North Korean women.
North Korea's economy remains centrally planned even after the recent market reforms. The government prohibits private property, assigns all jobs, and directs and controls nearly all economic activity, with the exception of crops grown in small private gardens. Even the small farmers' markets now allowed in the cities are tightly run. Prior to the economic collapse that began in the early 1990s, the government provided all North Koreans with free food, housing, clothing, and medical care. Today, it barely provides these essentials.
The economy is hobbled not only by rigid state control but also by creaking infrastructure and an inability to borrow on world markets and from the World Bank and other multilateral agencies because of sanctions and a past foreign debt default. Spending on the country's million-man army and other military programs very likely consumes at least one-quarter of economic output, according to the U.S. State Department report.