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flag of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea

Key Facts



Official Name Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)
Land Area 120,540 sq km
Population 24.1 million
Capital City Pyongyang
Religion State-run organisations represent Buddhism, Christianity and the Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way) religion, but no real religious freedom.
Language Korean
Currency North Korean Won
Exchange Rate Official and black market rates differ markedly.


Political system One-party rule, based on juche (self-reliance) ideology.  The songun (military first) ideology also impacts on the political system.
National government Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)
National legislature Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), unicameral, 687 members appointed for five-year terms.
Last election March 2009.  The DPRK reported 99.98% of registered voters turned out to select the sole candidate in each constituency.
Next election due March 2014
Head of State Supreme commander, Korean People's Army; Supreme Leader WPK - Kim Jong-un. (Nominally, the deceased Kim Il-sung remains President for eternity)
Head of Government Premier – Choe Yong-rim
Key Ministers
  • SPA Presidium President – Kim Yong-nam
  • Vice Chairman, National DEfence Commission - Jang Song-taek
  • Minister of Defence: Vice Chairman, National Defence Commission - Kim Yong-chun (Vice Marshall)
  • Minister of Finance - Pak Su-gil
  • Minister of People's Security - Ri Myong-su
  • Minister of Procurement and Food Admin - Mun Ung-jo
  • Minister of Foreign Affairs - Pak Ui-cheon
  • Minister of Foreign Trade - Ri Yong-nam
Key Opposition MPs None
Main political parties The WPK is nominally in coalition with the Social Democratic Party and the Chondoist Chongu Party.

Economic (for year ended December 2009)

GDP US$40 billion (NB:(The DPRK does not publish reliable economic data. These estimates are the latest available from the CIA World Factbook. The following estimates date from 2009-2011.)
GDP breakdown







GDP per capita US$1,800
Real GDP growth -0.9%
Exports US$2.557 billion
Imports US$1.997 billion
Main exports Minerals, metals, machinery (including armaments), textiles, agricultural and fisheries products.
Current account Unknown
Inflation Unknown
Gross external debt US$12.5 billion (2001 est)

New Zealand Trade (for year ended Dec 2011)

NZ Exports (FOB) Nil
Main Exports Nil
NZ Imports (CIF) Nil
Main Imports Nil
Services Trade Nil

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The Korean Peninsula was governed by a number of Korean dynasties for more than a millennium until annexed by Japan in 1910 following the Russo-Japanese War, a legacy that still impacts on relations between both Koreas and Japan. Japan's colonial rule over Korea ended when Japan was defeated in 1945, marking the end of the Second World War. Final days of Korea's liberation coincided with the Cold War during which American and Soviet forces agreed that their zones of occupation would meet at the 38th parallel. This became the dividing line between the newly independent countries, North and South Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) respectively, in 1948. On 25 June, 1950, the DPRK invaded the ROK. Korean War hostilities ended on 27 July 1953 with the signing of an Armistice Agreement. A Military Demarcation Line in the centre of a 4km-wide De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) has served as the de-facto border since then.top of page


Political Situation

The DPRK has been described as the world’s last remaining unreformed Stalinist state. Amidst the Cold War tensions that followed World War Two, the DPRK became a one-party state ruled by the communist Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in 1948.

The DPRK’s founding leader, Kim Il-sung, was a prominent member of the resistance during the period of Japanese occupation before 1945. Dubbed the “Great Leader” following his death in 1994, he was succeeded, as planned, by his son, the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011. During Kim Jong-il’s final years, his third son Kim Jong-un had been groomed to continue the political dynasty. Kim Jong-un is now leader of the DPRK, formally the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and leader of the WPK. His succession took place far more quickly than his father’s, but he appears to have consolidated power in Pyongyang.

The Korean People’s Army plays an important role in the running of the country under the songun (military first) policy. Conscription starts at 17-years-old for Korean men and lasts for at least 10 years, with more limited recruitment for women, meaning the DPRK maintains an armed force over one million-strong – the 4th-largest army in the world.


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Economic situation

The DPRK is a centrally planned, predominately state-owned economy where significant inequalities exist between ruling officials and the rest of the population. In 2002, the government introduced measures to adjust wages and prices, open commercial markets selling food and other items, and alter agricultural and enterprise policies. These created severe inflation and the government backtracked on these changes, including reintroducing rationing. In 2009, the government issued a new currency cutting two zeros off the old denominations.

DPRK’s annual food production is insufficient to meets its needs and malnutrition is widespread especially in remote communities. The mostly mountainous country has sizeable deposits of coal, along with other minerals and metals, but energy shortages have caused a sharp slowdown in industrial production. Government spending is heavily weighted towards defence and military objectives. Almost 16% of the total state budget was allocated to national defence in 2003 and Pyongyang has declared that it has increased this commitment since then.

Inter-Korean cooperation resulted in a free-trade zone, the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), being established north of the DMZ. Since 2004, the KIC has enabled South Korean small- and medium-sized businesses to operate with northern labour and tax benefits although the border has been closed temporarily in times of tension. Another inter-Korean economic project, tours to special tourism regions at Kaesong and Mt Kumgang, remains suspended after a South Korean tourist was shot at the Kumgang resort in 2008.


Foreign relations

Historically, DPRK had strong ties with its neighbours China and the former Soviet Union, and also with the Eastern Bloc countries. Following the break up of the Soviet Union the political commonality underpinning these relationships weakened, and China remains the only country to have significant political linkages with DPRK. DPRK is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It is not especially active in international and regional organisations, but can be vocal when its own interests are under threat. DPRK gains most of its global prominence for its proliferation, missile and nuclear weapons related activities.

Revelations in 2002 that the DPRK was developing a highly‑enriched uranium programme led to the establishment of Six‑Party Talks (6PT) involving the two Koreas, US, China, Japan, and Russia. Following four rounds of negotiations, the six nations issued a joint statement in September 2005 setting out a broad framework for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. In the meantime, in 2003 DPRK became to only country to announce its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Progress towards denuclearisation under this framework has been fitful. The DPRK had made slow progress toward disabling its nuclear facilities in exchange for energy assistance in the form of heavy fuel oil and steps towards the normalisation of relations with the US and Japan. This included imploding the cooling tower at Yongbyon in June 2008 in front of international media. However, the last 6PT meeting in December 2008 failed to reach agreement on a robust and comprehensive verification protocol to ensure the DPRK met its obligations. In April 2009, the DPRK expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, and withdrew from the 6PT. After a long hiatus, in July 2011 the lead 6PT negotiators from the two Koreas met in the margins of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, followed by meetings between the DPRK and US. These culminated in a “Leap Day Agreement” on 28 February 2012 announcing a DPRK nuclear and missile moratorium and the consideration of nutritional assistance from the US. A missile launch by the DPRK on 13 April 2012 ended this agreement. A second launch that year on 12 December appeared to have been initially successful at placing a satellite into orbit.

During the 6PT process, the DPRK periodically escalated tension with other countries by demonstrating its missile and nuclear programmes, including a long-range missile test and an underground nuclear test in 2006. At that time, the international community criticised the DPRK’s provocative actions and adopted UN Security Council Resolutions 1695 and 1718 which contained measures to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. In 2009, the DPRK launched another long-range rocket and conducted a second nuclear test which led to further UN Security Council censure. UN Security Council Resolution 1874 in June 2009 imposed a further series of measures on the DPRK that included tougher inspections of cargo suspected of containing banned items related to the country’s nuclear and missile activities, a tighter arms embargo, and new financial restrictions. Despite this, in November 2010, DPRK showed a visiting US nuclear scientist, Siegfried Hecker, what appeared to be an operational uranium enrichment plant. DPRK conducted a third nuclear test on 12 February 2013, but did not claim whether it was a plutonium or uranium based device.

Inter-Korean relations remain tense following two attacks by DPRK on ROK in 2010. An international investigation found a DPRK torpedo was responsible for the March 2010 sinking of the ROK naval vessel, the Cheonan, which resulted in the loss of 46 lives. DPRK shelling across the Northern Limit Line onto Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 killed four people and injured 19 - the first direct armed attack on South Korean civilians since the end of the Korean War.  

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Relations with New Zealand

Bilateral linkages

New Zealand's engagement with the DPRK is limited by our governments' opposing views on several important issues including human rights, and nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.


New Zealand has a long-standing commitment to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula. New Zealand contributed forces to the UN Command that opposed the DPRK during the Korean War in 1950-53 and continues to deploy three staff officers to the UN Command Military Armistice Commission. New Zealand joined the international condemnation of the DPRK's rocket launches and nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and its attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Ongoing support for the 6PT process and denuclearisation of the peninsula is consistent with New Zealand's stand on global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Human rights

New Zealand is concerned by the human rights situation in the DPRK and has spoken out on the matter in international fora. The DPRK has ratified international covenants and conventions on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the Rights of the Child (CRC); and the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but has shown scant regard for the commitments entailed. The UN has adopted resolutions co-sponsored by New Zealand declaring deep concern at reports of systemic, widespread, and grave violations of human rights in the DPRK each year since 2003. The UN mandated a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK in 2004, but no Rapporteur has yet been allowed into the country.

Among the problems highlighted by the UN and non-governmental organisations are restrictions on the right to life and individual liberty; freedom of religion; freedom of the press and expression; freedom of assembly and association; and the status of women. North Koreans are closely watched by authorities. Reception on radios and television sets is restricted to government broadcasts with the Korean Central News Agency the sole news distributor. Internal travel is strictly controlled and foreign travel limited to government officials, sporting teams, and trusted performers. Defectors claim the DPRK detains as many as 200,000 people suspected of political crimes in forced labour camps where they suffer ill‑treatment and sometimes torture or execution.

Trade access issues

There has been no recorded trade between New Zealand and the DPRK since 1999. New Zealand has adopted regulations that give effect to UN Security Council resolutions which impose sanctions on the DPRK. These prohibit the supply, sale or transfer to the DPRK of certain military items, dual-use technologies, and luxury goods. In addition, a UN sanctions committee has designated certain DPRK individuals and companies involved with the country's nuclear and missile development be subject to a travel ban and asset freeze.

Overseas Development Assistance

The DPRK has serious humanitarian needs. Floods in 1995 and 1996, along with droughts in 1997 and 2001, plunged the country into famine. While the present food situation is not as bad as the “Arduous March” of the 1990s, during which between one and 3.5 million people are estimated to have starved to death, malnourishment remains an issue. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates 8.7 million people, or a third of the population, require food assistance. Structural agricultural problems have contributed to food shortages, with the goal of food self-sufficiency leading to excessive terracing, soil exhaustion, and widespread deforestation that contributes to annual flooding. Problems are further exacerbated by rundown infrastructure, unsafe water, and a lack of medical supplies.

New Zealand provides humanitarian assistance to the DPRK through international aid agencies and a small Head of Mission Fund administered by the New Zealand Embassy in Seoul. More than NZ$4.1 million in aid has been given to UNICEF, the WFP, and the International Federation of the Red Cross in response to DPRK-focused appeals since 1995. In addition, New Zealand was a financial contributor to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation until the light-water reactors project and fuel oil shipments were suspended in November 2003.

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Cultural and business linkages

Private individuals and groups from New Zealand occasionally visit the DPRK. These exchanges include efforts to record migratory birds, provide humanitarian and technical assistance, and teach children. A New Zealand Friendship Farm and Friendship School have benefited from contributions by private individuals and groups. Much of this interaction is facilitated by the NZ-DPRK Society (with help from its equivalent organisation in Pyongyang) to promote awareness, understanding and contact between citizens of both countries.

In 2008, the DPRK soccer team visited New Zealand to participate in the FIFA under-17 women’s World Cup, which they won.


Multilateral links

The DPRK joined the UN in 1991. It is a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), established to discuss Asia-Pacific security issues. New Zealand, however, has limited contact with DPRK in these settings.



Diplomatic relations between New Zealand and the DPRK were formally established in March 2001. New Zealand’s Ambassador in Seoul, Republic of Korea, is cross-accredited to the DPRK and makes regular official visits to Pyongyang. The last of these was in September 2012. The DPRK’s Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, is responsible for diplomatic relations with New Zealand. North Korean Ambassadors cross-accredited to New Zealand have visited three times since 2001, most recently in May 2007.

Former New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters accepted an invitation for a ministerial visit to the DPRK in November 2007. During the visit he met DPRK President Pak Yong Nam, Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun, and the Ministers of Trade and Agriculture. He also visited a garment factory and farm.


Travel advice

The Safetravel website (www.safetravel.govt.nz/destinations/northkorea) has comprehensive travel information including advice on the safety of travel to various countries. 

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Page last updated: Monday, 09 December 2013 13:00 NZDT