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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 24.4 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 2014. The DPRK reported 99.97% of registered voters turned out to select the sole candidate in each constituency.
Next election due March 2019
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)
Titular Head of State President of the SPA Presidium – Kim Yong-nam
Head of Government Premier – Pak Pong-ju
Key Ministers
  • Minister of People’s Armed Forces: - Hyon Yong-chol (General)
  • Minister of Finance - Choe Kwang-jin
  • Minister of People's Security – Choe Pu-il
  • Minister of State Security – Kim Won-hong
  • Minister of Food - Jo Yong-chol
  • Minister of Foreign Affairs – Ri Su-yong
  • Minister of Foreign Trade - Ri Ryong-nam
  • Vice Premier & Minister of Agriculture – Ri Chol-man
  • Minister of Commerce – Kim Kyong-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 2012)

GDP US$30 billion (NB: The DPRK does not publish reliable economic data. These estimates are the latest available from the South Korean Bank of Korea.)
GDP per capita US$1,800
Real GDP growth 1.3%
Exports US$2.9 billion
Imports US$3.9 billion
Main exports Minerals, metals, machinery (including armaments), textiles, agricultural and fisheries products
Current account Unknown
Inflation Unknown
Gross external debt US$20 billion (2012 est)

New Zealand Trade (for year ended Dec 2012)

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.  The peninsula was initially occupied by American and Soviet forces, which agreed that their zones of occupation would meet at the 38th parallel. This became the dividing line between North and South Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) respectively, at independence in 1948.  The DPRK was a one-party state backed by the Soviet Union and communist China.  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.

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Political Situation

The DPRK has been described as the world’s last remaining unreformed Stalinist state.

The DPRK’s founding leader, Kim Il-sung, was a prominent member of the resistance during the period of Japanese occupation. Dubbed the “Great Leader”, 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 was 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 KPA 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.


Human rights

The UN has adopted resolutions 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.  In 2014, a UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK issued a damning report highlighting the serious abuse of human rights in the DPRK.

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.

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.


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 meet 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.

Inter-Korean dialogue resulted in a free-trade zone, the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), being established just north of the DMZ. Since 2004, the KIC has enabled about 120 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 and the DPRK unilaterally closed the whole complex in 2013 for several months. 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.

China is by far the DPRK’s most important trade partner, with official recorded trade of USD$6.5 billion in 2012 (up over ten percent on 2011).


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 breakup 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.

The North’s nuclear weapons programme came to international attention in the 1990s and has gathered pace since then.  The North conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 (and subsequently two more with the most recent in 2012) and is believed to be developing warheads to fit on long-range missiles which it has under development.  In 2003 DPRK became the only country to announce its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and now claims within its constitution that it is a nuclear-armed state.

The Six‑Party Talks (6PT) involve the two Koreas, US, China, Japan, and Russia. The talks have convened periodically to discuss denuclearisation proposals but have suffered repeated setbacks.  North Korea has flouted UN Security Council resolutions forbidding conducting nuclear and missiles.  The Council has imposed sanctions on North Korea in response.

Inter-Korean relations were severely strained 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.

Since assuming office in February 2013, South Korean President Park has been pursuing trustpolitik approach in an effort to improve relations between the two Koreas, and this has seen limited family reunions take place in the DPRK in early 2014.  The DPRK has also restored diplomatic contacts with Japan in 2014, talking about the abduction of Japanese citizens and the fate of these people and their descendants in North Korea.  

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Relations with New Zealand

Bilateral linkages

New Zealand's engagement with the DPRK is limited by our opposing views on several important issues including nuclear disarmament, international security and human rights.  Our main means of engagement is through periodic visits by New Zealand’s ambassador to the DPRK (cross-accredited from South Korea).  The ambassador uses these visits to deliver New Zealand’s messages around denuclearisation and respect for human rights.


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 based in South Korea. New Zealand joined the international condemnation of the DPRK's rocket launches and nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013, and its attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Ongoing support for the Six Party Talks 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.    New Zealand has co-sponsored UN resolutions on human rights issues in the DPRK, including the most recent Human Rights Council resolution supporting the UN Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in the DPRK.

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 daily food rations for the people in the DPRK came to some 400 grams per person in 2013, far lower than the WFP minimum recommended amount of 600 grams per person. 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.

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 also 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.  New Zealand currently provides humanitarian assistance to the DPRK through a small Head of Mission Fund administered by the New Zealand Embassy in Seoul.

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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 provide humanitarian and technical assistance, teach children and research birds which migrate between Oceania and North Asia. 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 2013, philanthropist Gareth Morgan led a motorcycle tour through the DPRK and across the Demilitarised Zone into South Korea (the first such crossing).  By making the trip they hoped to demonstrate how Koreans can come together over what they have in common. To symbolize this, the Morgans took some stones from Paektu, a holy mountain in the North, and brought them to Hallasan, a similarly scared peak in the South.

There are a range of sports links between New Zealand and DPRK.  In 2008, the DPRK soccer team visited New Zealand to participate in the FIFA under-17 women’s World Cup, which they won.  The Football Ferns senior women’s team have played the DPRK twice in recent years, in 2004 and 2014, losing both times.


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 most recent being December 2013. 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 five times since 2001, most recently in May 2014.

Former New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters made an official visit to the DPRK in November 2007. During the visit he met DPRK President Kim 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.shtml) has comprehensive travel information including advice on the safety of travel to various countries. 

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Page last updated: Wednesday, 30 July 2014 11:27 NZST