This mountainous country occupies the northern part of East Asia’s Korean peninsula.
Korea is a 750-mile-long (1,200-kilometer-long) peninsula located in the easternmost part of the Asian continent. Today, the country is split into South and North Korea. North Korea borders China to the north and Russia in the extreme northeast. A 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide strip of land known as the Demilitarized Zone (or the DMZ) separates North Korea from South Korea. To the east is the Sea of Japan and to the west is the Yellow Sea.
North Korea is a land of mountains and hills separated by deep, narrow valleys. Paektu-san, or "white head mountain" in the Korean language, is the country's tallest mountain, reaching 9,003 feet (2,744 meters). It sprouts off the volcanic Baekdu Mountain, which sits near the country’s border with China.
The Yalu River is the longest river in North Korea, stretching 491 miles (790 kilometers). It begins on Paektu-san and flows southwest to the Yellow Sea. The Tumen River also begins on Paektu-san; it flows east into the Sea of Japan.
PEOPLE AND CULTURE
North Korea is one of the most ethnically similar countries in the world—99.8 percent of the population is Korean. Since the end of World War II, very few foreigners have been allowed into the country.
More than two-thirds of the country’s people live in urban areas. North Korea’s capital city, Pyongyang, is also its largest city, with its 2.87 million population outnumbering that of Hamhung, the country’s second-largest city, which has nearly 800,000 people. The country’s most-populated rural areas are the eastern and western coastal lowlands and river valley plains.
Several religious traditions have influenced North Korean culture. Historically, the Korean way of life was shaped by Confucian values based on the teachings of Confucius, a Chinese teacher and philosopher. Through the years, the religions of Buddhism, Shamanism, and Christianity also gained influenced in North Korea. Today, like in the United States and many other countries, public life in North Korea is non-religious. There are no official statistics on religion in the country.
North Korean society is mostly closed to the outside world, and the government has a huge influence on how people behave. For instance, artists are expected to create works that show how Korean culture is better than others as well as celebrate the ruling family.
The government also controls what people can see on TV, read in newspapers, and view on the internet. It even controls how people look: Citizens must sport government-approved haircuts.
North Korea's mountains were historically covered in thick coniferous (or evergreen) woodlands. Siberian fir, spruce, and Korean pines are all native trees to the region. Although much of the forest has disappeared after decades of deforestation, many large mammals still roam the more remote areas of North Korea’s remaining woodlands. Siberian musk deer, Siberian tigers, and Siberian leopards are all native to the peninsula.
North Korea is also an important stop for migratory birds. One of the world's major avian highways, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway passes through North Korea. Every year, more than 50 million birds rest and feed along North Korea's Yellow Sea shoreline during their migration. Birds spotted in North Korea include white-naped cranes, white-tailed eagles, mandarin ducks, and arctic loons.
North Korea has nine national parks, the largest of which is Mount Kumgang National Park. But the DMZ between North and South Korea may be the peninsula's most important nature preserve. Since 1953, the DMZ has been considered neutral territory that no country owns; it’s patrolled by North Korea on one side and South Korea and the United States on the other, but few people are allowed inside. As a result, the DMZ is one of the most pristine nature preserves in Asia.
The area is home to Asiatic black bears, red-crowned cranes, and long-tailed gorals (a species of wild goat). Overall, the DMZ is estimated to be home to some 70 species of mammals, more than 300 birds, and about 3,000 plants.
GOVERNMENT AND ECONOMY
North Korea is known as a "hermit kingdom" because of how it chooses to isolate itself from the rest of the world. Since 1953, Kim Il-Sung and his descendants have ruled North Korea. Today, his grandson Kim Jong-Un leads the country and acts as North Korea’s "supreme leader." Kim Jong-Un works closely with the ruling communist Workers' Party of Korea.
Many of the actions of North Korea’s government are based on the juche (pronounced joo-chay) ideology. Loosely translated as “self-reliance,” juche asserts that a nation can achieve true socialism only when its citizens are self-reliant and strong. (The goal of socialist society is to spread wealth more evenly across the population.) Because of the rules of juche, North Korea does not allow itself to depend on other countries for things like goods and protection. That’s why it rarely participates in international trade and develops its own nuclear weapons.
North Korea has a command economy, meaning all decisions about the economy, from labor to prices, are controlled by the government. Most other countries have a market economy, meaning the government works alongside other organizations and companies to make these decisions.
China is by far the country's biggest trading partner. Since World War II, North Korea has shifted from an agricultural to an industrial country, with major industries including mining and the production of military products.
People have been living in Korea for at least 10,000 years. Archaeologists believe the ancestors of today's Koreans came from Mongolia and Siberia.
Korea's first kingdom was Old Chosun, which ruled the northwest and parts of China for more than 22 centuries. In 108 B.C. it was overthrown by Chinese armies, and three new kingdoms emerged: Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla. In the A.D. 660s, the Silla, with the help of Chinese troops, won control of the country.
By A.D. 901, Korea had once again broken into three kingdoms. In 936, a powerful noble named Wang Kon unified the country under the name Koryo. This kingdom lasted until 1392, when the Yi family seized the throne and began the Choson dynasty, which ruled until 1910.
Entering the 20th century, Korea was often invaded by forces from both China and Japan. Japan’s final occupation of Korea stretched from 1910 until 1945, ending only after Japan was defeated during World War II.
After the Second World War, the former Soviet Union (now Russia) occupied the northern part of the peninsula, as the United States occupied the southern area. In early 1948, two separate governments were established: the Soviet-aligned Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north and the Western-aligned Republic of Korea in the south. Both claimed to be the true government of all of Korea.
Although the Soviets left North Korea in late 1948, they continued to provide military training and equipment to the communist Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Members of the communist government in the northern part of the peninsula wanted to use this training and equipment to overtake the government in the south. An important leader of the communist cause in the north was Kim Il-Sung.
The Kim political dynasty has ruled North Korea since 1949. At that time, Kim Il-Sung seized control of the Workers' Party of Korea and, therefore, the whole country. In 1950, he oversaw the invasion of South Korea, which led to the beginning of the Korean War. The war raged until 1953, and more than 2.5 million Koreans, Americans, Chinese, and others died. Though the fighting stopped in 1953, the two sides never made peace and the Koreas remain divided today.
Kim Il-Sung ruled until 1994, when his son Kim Jong-Il took over. During his rule, North Korea began developing their own nuclear weapons program, which concerned many countries because they feared North Korea planned to use these weapons against enemies instead of using them as protection from other countries. When he died in 2011, his son Kim Jong-un became the country’s leader. Kim Jong-Un sped up North Korea's nuclear program and conducted many nuclear missile tests as a show of strength, once again alarming other countries.
In 2018, relations between North and South Korea showed signs of improving. South Korea hosted the Winter Olympics that year and invited athletes from both countries to march together under a single flag in the opening ceremony. The warming relations led to a meeting between Kim Jong-Un and South Korea's president, Moon Jae-In. A peace treaty was signed, but both countries have since accused the other of violating it by moving forward with weapons testing drills. The two countries aren’t at war, but tensions remain high.