North Korea: Profile of a nation that riles, baffles rest of world

Its people are highly isolated, its government intensely secretive and its borders tightly controlled, yet for decades North Korea has grabbed world headlines as its military and nuclear ambitions continue to rile Western powers.

Conflicts, tensions with south, international community have escalated in recent years

North Korean soldiers take part in a military parade in Pyongyang on Feb. 16, 2012, marking the 70th birthday of the country's late leader Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011. North Korea's military ambitions have long riled the U.S. and other Western powers, who worry the totalitarian state is trying to arm ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads that it could use in an attack against its enemies.

It's a small, isolated Asian country, yet North Korea has managed to grab world headlines for decades.

The communist state has long goaded Western powers by continuing to test missiles, launch satellites into outer space and conduct nuclear weapon tests — all activities the West fears are part of North Korea's military ambitions.

North Korea has also earned scorn for its chilly relations with South Korea and the United States and has been condemned for violating the human rights of its own people. In February 2014, United Nations human rights investigators issued a report detailing human rights violations that they said "meet the high threshold required for proof of crimes against humanity in international law."

Its people are highly sheltered, its government intensely secretive and its borders tightly controlled.

In one of the more surprising twists in the saga of North Korea, former NBA star Dennis Rodman has visited the country several times and met with leader Kim Jong-un, whom he has called an "awesome guy." Rodman's trips have been controversial, with the U.S. State Department distancing itself from him during a January 2014 visit.

North Korea's nuclear program has also attracted international attention. A third nuclear test on Feb. 12, 2013, drew widespread condemnation. 

The 2013 nuclear test was only one incident in the decades-long back and forth between North Korea and the West over the totalitarian state's nuclear and military ambitions. In February 2014, a U.S. research institute said North Korea appeared to have sped up excavation at a site used for underground nuclear test explosions, although another test didn't appear imminent.

Created in aftermath of WWII

North Korea, with a population of nearly 24.5 million in a territory the size of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia combined, was created in the aftermath of the Second World War. Japan, which had occupied Korea, withdrew, leaving Soviet troops to control the north and U.S. forces to occupy the south. In 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was officially proclaimed.

When the south declared independence in 1950, North Korean forces invaded, sparking the Korean War. That prompted the United Nations to authorize a "police action" led by the United States in an attempt to repel North Korea. Canadian, British, Turkish and other troops took part in the U.S.-dominated UN force in Korea.

North Korea's military drove the South Korean and allied troops south in the early stages of the war, but the allies fought back, pushing the North Koreans toward the border with China. Chinese troops then entered the fray and reclaimed the territory North Korea had lost. A 1953 ceasefire agreement established a demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, halting a conflict that killed two million Koreans.

Strict control


After Kim Jong-il's death on Dec. 17, 2011, state media referred to his third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as "the great successor to the revolution" and "the eminent leader of the military and the people." Intense speculation had swirled about Kim Jong-il's successor after news emerged in 2008 that he suffered a stroke. As early as June 2009, there were reports that Jong-un had been named to succeed his father.

He was officially declared the country's "supreme military commander" by the Communist Party's politburo on Dec. 30, 2011.

Little is known about Jong-un, who is believed to be in his late 20s or early 30s. He apparently attended the International School of Bern in Switzerland under the pseudonym Pak Chol, studying English, German and French. Classmates described him as timid and introverted but an avid skier and basketball player.

Jong-il took over as leader when his father, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994 after ruling the country since its founding in 1948.

Much of North Korea's history has been dominated by its first leader, Kim Il-sung, who ruled from 1948 until his death in 1994. 

Kim, officially known as Great Leader, was guided by a philosophy of self-reliance and ruled the country with a rigid state-controlled system, one that was carried on by his son Kim Jong-il, who succeeded him, and after he died in Dec. 17, 2011, by Kim Jong-il's youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-un is something of a mystery man, particularly to the West. He has attracted attention for reports of ordering executions, including those of a former mistress and a once-powerful uncle. Observers suggested taking the mistress report with a grain of salt. But many analysts believe the November 2013 execution of Jang Song Thaek showed Kim Jong-un has yet to establish the same absolute power his father and grandfather had.

The media are under direct state control, with North Koreans offered little access to outside news sources and foreign journalists rarely allowed entry. The state has been ranked by the non-profit group Reporters Without Borders as among the worst in the world for press freedom.

Food crisis

One story the North Korean media are accused of underplaying is the food crisis that has long gripped the country. In 2008, the United Nations World Food Program was estimating that 8.7 million people were in need of food aid.

Many of the country's problems stem from frequent natural disasters that severely cut food production. In 1996, severe floods led to widespread famine while in 2001, North Korea grappled with one of the worst spring droughts in its history. In 2007, it was again ravaged by floods.

While many North Koreans cope with hunger, activists say citizens' human rights are also being violated. Amnesty International accuses North Korea of using torture, the death penalty, arbitrary detention and inhumane prison conditions.

Some human rights organizations estimate there could be up to 200,000 political prisoners held in the country.

In November 2011, a United Nations envoy urged North Korea to end torture and other "inhuman and degrading" treatment of detainees, saying it is perhaps the only country that believes it can ignore human rights.

The February 2014 report by UN investigators said human rights atrocities, ranging from systemic torture to executions, were comparable to those committed during the Nazi era. North Korea "categorically and totally" rejected the allegations.

Military might, nuclear fears

Even as millions of its people live in poverty, North Korea's government has built up a large, powerful military.

The Korean People's Army has more than one million troops, making it one of the largest militaries in the world. Tens of thousands of soldiers guard the demarcation line between the two Koreas.

At times, the north has allowed nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency across its borders to monitor for signs of nuclear activity. The country has even agreed to dismantle some of its nuclear programs in exchange for food and fuel.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Reuters/Kyodo)

But usually, just when it appears progress has been made, North Korea takes a step back by kicking inspectors out of the country, launching test missiles and encroaching on South Korean territory.

On Oct. 21, 1994, it appeared a breakthrough was at hand. North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for fuel and two nuclear power reactors, an agreement struck with the U.S. during negotiations in Geneva. But within two years, North Korea was flexing its muscle, sending troops into the demilitarized zone and launching a rocket — which it claimed was a satellite, not a missile — into the Pacific Ocean near Japan.

There was promise for peace again in 2000, when Kim Jong-il and former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung held a historic summit in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and agreed to work toward conciliation. The summit was capped by a historic reunion of North and South Korean relatives who hadn't seen each other since the Koreas split.

'Axis of evil'

Late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il salutes during his visit to an army unit in this undated photo released by the North Korean Central News Agency in 2008. ((Korean Central News Agency/Associated Press))
But by 2002, the hope had all but faded, and North Korea's reputation was hitting an all-time low.

U.S. President George W. Bush had declared North Korea part of an "axis of evil" that included Iraq and Iran. Bush accused North Korea of having a secret weapons program and halted oil shipments to the country.

North Korea responded by withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and declaring it had enough plutonium to start making nuclear bombs.

Rounds of international talks designed to mediate the tensions brought little real success.

In 2005, North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear program in return for aid and political concessions and began the so-called six-party talks to implement an agreement with South Korea, China, the U.S., Russia and Japan.

But by 2006, North Korea was test-firing a long-range missile, experimenting with medium-range missiles, and that October it conducted its first test of a nuclear weapon.

Things appeared to look up in 2007, when North Korea invited nuclear inspectors back into the country and held another historic summit with South Korea, but tensions quickly mounted again.

'Provocative act' causes alarm

In February 2009, North Korea announced plans to send a communications satellite into space. While the country asserted it had the right to develop a space program, the U.S. and South Korea argued that North Korea had ill intent.

They feared that the launch, which took place that April, was in reality a ballistic-missile test for the nuclear-armed North and violated a 2006 resolution barring the regime from ballistic-missile activity.

U.S. President Barack Obama said the launch was a "provocative act" that would jeopardize peace talks and any food or fuel deals. North Korea ordered the nuclear inspectors to leave.

In April 2009, the six-party talks broke off.

Then in May 2009, the stakes were raised yet again. North Korea announced it had successfully completed another nuclear test. It had been threatening to do so in response to tougher international sanctions stemming from rocket tests it had conducted in April.

Russia's Defence Ministry later confirmed the test and estimated its yield at 10 to 20 kilotons, comparable to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The blast was believed to be far more powerful than the first nuclear test. It was followed, hours later, by three short-range missile tests, according to South Korean media.

The international community took action.

On June 12, 2009, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution to impose new sanctions. It urged countries to reduce financial ties with North Korea and extended a ban on exports of tanks, artillery and other large arms that represent a significant source of revenue for the regime.

More missile tests followed, and then more UN condemnation.

Yellow Sea conflicts

North-South tensions tightened when a South Korean warship, Cheonan, sank with the loss of 46 lives on March 26, 2010. A South Korean investigation, with international backing, later claimed the ship was hit by a North Korean torpedo — but Pyongyang denied it.

There were other incidents in the following months, leading up to South Korean military exercises that began Nov. 22, 2010. North Korea demanded the South cease military drills in the disputed waters and then shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong island when the drills continued the next day. South Korea returned fire and sent out fighter jets. Two South Korean marines and two civilians on the island died in the artillery attack.

The North Korean action spurred condemnation, with the U.S. stating it was "firmly committed" to South Korea's defence.

Further aggravation

In early December 2010, South Korea staged another weeklong military drill, which again included firing artillery into the Yellow Sea and elsewhere. The North issued warnings but did not attack.

The South further aggravated tensions on Dec. 20 by starting more live-fire drills in waters near the border with the North. The South Korean army said it was the biggest firing exercise it had ever staged.

Pyongyang responded by adding "nuclear" to its rhetorical arsenal. The North's armed forces minister, Kim Yong-chun, said his forces, "are getting fully prepared to launch a sacred war of justice of Korean style, based on the nuclear deterrent, at any time."

Military talks between the South and the North resumed in January 2011 but broke down soon after, and in February 2011, the South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that North Korea was digging tunnels at Punggye-ri, the site of two earlier nuclear tests. South Korean officials said this was an indication it was planning further nuclear tests

On April 13, 2012, North Korea launched another long-range rocket from a west coast site but it fizzled shortly after liftoff. Several days later, the country said it had figured out the cause of the failure and pledged to continue its space program. Another long-range rocket was launched in December 2012.

On Feb. 12, 2013, North Korea announced that it had successfully detonated a miniaturized nuclear device at a northeastern test site, several hours after seismic activity was detected and reported by South Korean, American and Japanese monitoring agencies. The agencies detected an earthquake with a magnitude between 4.9 and 5.2.

With files from The Associated Press and Thomson Reuters