North Korea Country Overview


North Korea occupies part of the East Asian mainland and the north of the Korean peninsula (Korea). Several mountain ranges run through the country. The Hamgyeong Mountains (up to 2541 m) in the northeast drop steeply to the Sea of ​​Japan. In the Changbai Mountains on the Manchurian borderlies with the volcano Paektusan (2750 m) the highest point in the country. The two longest rivers, Yalu and Tumen, have their source there. Both form the border with China for long stretches. The Nangnim Mountains run through almost the entire country from north to south. This is where the Taedonggang, the third longest river in North Korea, has its source. It flows to the southwest, crosses the capital Pyongyang and flows into the Yellow Sea in a wide funnel. Coastal plains and valleys occupy the southwest. The Taebaek Mountains with the Diamond Mountains (up to 1638 m) on the east coast extend to South Korea.

The winter in North Korea is long, severe and dry. In January the average temperatures are between –8 ° C in the southwest and –20 ° C in the north. Spring and autumn are relatively dry and mild. Most of the annual precipitation falls in the short, hot summers with often over 30 ° C. Typhoons also hit North Korea in summer and early autumn. Larger forest areas have only survived in the mountains and in the sparsely populated highlands. The Changbai Mountains are a retreat for many species of birds and large mammals.

Due to the lack of energy, around half of the forests were cut down in order to heat with the wood and to use the cleared areas for agriculture. At higher altitudes, deforestation led to soil erosion.

Population and Religion

According to, North Korea has 25.5 million residents, almost exclusively Koreans. However, the number is only an estimate because there is no reliable information. The urban population has doubled to more than 60% since 1950, but it is still significantly lower than in South Korea. Around 4 million people live in the capital region of Pyongyang. The life of the population is strictly controlled. Their political reliability is checked regularly. A permit is required for travel within the country. Immigration to the capital is restricted. There are only very limited private contacts with South Korea.

Two thirds of North Koreans do not belong to any religious community. The devotion to the founder of the state Kim Il Sung (1912–1994) and the »Juche« doctrine that he developed play a major role as a »substitute religion«. She emphasizes the independence of North Korea and considers the Korean people and their culture to be chosen. People are strongly integrated into collectives at home, at school and at work. In addition, society is shaped by the traditions of Confucianism and Buddhism. Goods and fashions from abroad, especially China, also spread through free markets. A small segment of the population has access to foreign currency and can also afford luxury goods.

Politics and law

North Korea is a dictatorship headed by the »Supreme Leader« (from 2011) Kim Jong Un (* 1984). His power rests on the chairmanship of the State Affairs Commission, the Communist Labor Party of Korea (PdAK) and the military supreme command of the armed forces. With almost 1.3 million soldiers, the army is one of the largest in the world. It also has missile weapons with nuclear warheads (nuclear weapons). In addition, a large part of the population capable of military service, including women up to 30 years of age, is included in PdAK combat troops.

The government under a Prime Minister is just an administrative body. Legislation lies formally with Parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly. It only meets once or twice a year to adopt bills. Its 687 MPs are elected according to a single list. The chairman of the People’s Assembly performs the function of the head of state. The “Eternal” President is the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994.


The media spread almost exclusively nationalist propaganda. There is no free reporting, the use of foreign news sources is officially punished. However, mobile phone usage is increasing and a small part of the population has access to international information. From the age of 6, there is compulsory schooling for twelve years.


The economy is controlled by a central planning authority. North Korea has not published any economic figures since the mid-1960s, so the information is based on estimates.

North Korea’s economic system was regarded as a highly industrialized planned economy until 1989, it was dependent on aid from the Soviet Union and China. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the country fell into an economic and supply crisis. People began to fetch forests, used the wood for heating and the cleared areas for private agriculture. In the 1990s, illegal but tolerated markets arose where farmers were allowed to sell their products. Today, consumer goods from abroad can also be found in markets.

The standard of living is low, especially in the countryside. A fifth of the workforce works in agriculture. Still, there is a lack of staple foods such as rice and corn. In some parts of the country the population is malnourished. From 2012 the large state farms were downsized and the farmers were allowed to sell a larger part of their produce freely. This should improve the supply of food.

A fifth of the country’s area can be used as arable land. Almost half of this is artificially irrigated, especially for growing rice. The cultivation of ginseng and the breeding of silk spiders are for export. The cultivation area was expanded by the dike in the marshland on the west coast. The development of areas at higher elevations led to erosion and, after heavy rainfall, more landslides.

North Korea’s rich mineral resources include hard coal, lignite, iron ore and deposits of non-ferrous metals as well as graphite and phosphate. However, a lack of energy, a lack of transport options and international penalties affect funding. The focus of the industry is on ore smelting, machine, vehicle and shipbuilding as well as the chemical industry. However, the systems are outdated, underutilized, or inoperable. From 2004, South Korean companies built an industrial park in the border town of Kaesŏng. Tens of thousands of North Koreans worked there until it was closed in 2016. The railroad is the main mode of transport. Most of the roads are unpaved. Only the capital region is well developed.

North Korea Country Overview

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