The Korean Peninsula maintained its peaceful existence until Japan overtook the Koreans in 1905 after the Russo-Japanese War.  When World War II ended, the peninsula split into communist North Korea under Soviet influence and the free South Korea.  North Korea failed to take over a US-backed South Korea during the Korean War.  Since the 1950’s, a border of “no man’s land” called the demilitarized zone has stretched from coast to coast cutting off Korean families on both sides.  President Kim Il Sung of North Korea who ruled from 1948 until 1994 started an aggressive communist program during this time that completely destroyed the nation’s economy but did strengthen the military.  Currently, Kim Jong Il has promoted four goals for North Korea’s success on the world stage: tight information control, economic revitalization, ultra-nationalism, and high militarism.  North Korea launched a nuclear program in the 1990’s that used enriched uranium for long-range missiles and nuclear bombs.  Despite sanctions from western nations such as the United States and Great Britain, North Korea has continued to expand her military power and nuclear program including the enrichment of plutonium.  Finally, in 2006, North Korea agreed to shut down some nuclear facilities and keep production to a minimum.

The poor economy of North Korea is declining.  Based on the Chinese communist model which centers economic stability on an agricultural base, North Korea’s labor force has 37% working in agriculture while the remaining 63% work either in labor or in services (CIA).  North Korea’s labor force aligns with China who has 39.5% in agriculture, 27.2% in industry and 33.2% in services, but it is comparably different from South Korea who has 7.2% in agriculture, 25.1% in industry, and 67.6% in services (CIA).  With an economic rating of zero, North Korea has seen a consistent decline of GDP over the past two decades while last year’s growth rate finished at -1.1% GDP (NationMaster).  North Korea’s GDP per capita is $1,800 while South Korea’s is $27,700 and China’s is $6,500 (CIA).  One of the key factors contributing to North Korea’s poor economy is that the majority of economic profits go directly to the military.  Currently “North Korea maintains the world’s fifth largest army and continues to adhere to a ‘military first’ policy when it comes to budget allocations, yet it remains unable to produce or buy sufficient food for its population” (Banks, 723).

North Korea’s level of equality is poor but stable.  In 1972 women were declared equal to men, yet inequality still reigns in the workforce and in child-rearing (Library of Congress).  Males are desired over females when families have children.  “The majority of women work in light industry, where they are paid less than their male counterparts in heavy industry” (Library of Congress).  Approximately 50% of women work although all are expected to participate in the work force, and children are cared for by state day care systems (WDR).  In government, women only make up 20% of the work force (Nationmaster).  Girls are not only segregated from boys in the schools, but they are also taught from different curriculums (Library of Congress).  Since the state assigns jobs, social mobility is virtually impossible and “[the] privileged lifestyle of the political elite…is rumored to be a source of popular resentment” (WDR).  North Korea consists entirely of Koreans with the exception of a very small minority of Chinese in the north along the Chinese border (WDR).  Other government issues focus on marital status and sexual preference.  Extramarital sex is strongly discouraged and the divorce rate is not even a factor (WDR).  “Homosexuality is not explicitly illegal, but it is shunned by the government as promoting consumerism, classism and promiscuity” (

The political liberty of North Korea is non-existent and stagnant.  While on political documents, North Korea claims to have the five basic freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition, in reality these freedoms are infringed upon at the government’s whim.  Free speech is not allowed and the press is heavily censored by the Korean Worker’s Party (Banks, 724).  The government controls all broadcasting stations and news agencies while also censoring the internet despite its limited access (Banks, 724).  Traditionally, North Koreans belong to the Buddhist and Confucian beliefs, but the government strongly discourages religious activity and persecution is high (CIA).  No public meetings can be held without the consent of the government who also creates all organizations and associations, and people cannot travel outside of their rural areas without a written permit.  Although everyone does have the right to vote, the Korean Worker’s Party controls all political proceedings and ultimately chooses the next national leader.  If people disagree with government, it is common for them to disappear, to be denied a fair public trial, to have no privacy in their homes or correspondences, and to be arbitrarily thrown into jail or executed.  One woman who had been sent to a prison camp reported that there were “severe beatings, torture involving water forced into a victim’s stomach with a rubber hose and [then]  pumped out by guards jumping on a board placed across the victim’s abdomen, and chemical and biological warfare experiments allegedly conducted on inmates by the army” (Miller, 184).

The stable quality of life in North Korea is extremely poor.  One man who escaped from North Korea stated that “[living] in North Korea is like a life in jail.  There is no freedom, no human rights, they cannot even go places as they wish, and the distribution system had collapsed” (Miller, 161).  Due to the communist system, the nation lacks a sufficient food supply to the point that 35% of the people suffer from malnutrition (NationMaster).  Life expectancy in North Korea is 63.81 years compared to South Korea at 78.72 and China at 73.47.  The infant mortality rate is 51.34 deaths per 1,000 births while China only has 20.25 deaths per 1,000 and South Korea has only 4.26 deaths per 1,000.  One statistic that is surprising is that North Korea’s literacy rate is 99% which rivals modern liberal democracy and exceeds the rate of surrounding countries by over 2% (CIA).  The crime rate is virtually non-existent due to the state’s reign of terror (WDR).

Currently, the fundamental question facing the West is: what does the world do about North Korea?  Border disputes between the North and South still exist.  North Korea recently threatened to attack South Korea because of the military drills South Korea has planned to do with the United States; the nation claims that these drills are a preemptive strike against North Korea.  The issue of North Korea’s nuclear state has not dissolved since 2006 when the nation promised to denuclearize her facilities.  One journalist suggests that North Korea should not be changed by force but rather by “combining engagement, information dissemination, and support for émigrés” (Lankov).  As exchanges are made between the two Koreas, reports of what the free South is like are carried back to North Korea by the émigrés.  North Korea’s tight hold on information can be loosened by the black market which brings in unfiltered internet, radios, Western movies, music, and computers.  Because North Korea’s economy is failing, she is dependent upon the outside world for help.  Liberal democracies can seize this opportunity to flood North Korea with the most powerful of all weapons: ideas.  By giving North Korea a glimpse of what the western world experiences, the people will begin to think.  Thinking translates into speech and speech incites action.  Political alliances are not changing North Korea’s way of life; “[since] outside pressure is ineffective, change will have to come from the North Koreans themselves” (Lankov).  Change must be sparked by realizing what the world has to offer.

– Hannah S. Bowers

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