Area: 46,500 square miles. China forms the northern boundary, and South Korea the southern.
Environment: Rugged mountains with narrow valleys, and a western coastal plain. The mountains are covered with coniferous and deciduous forests. The climate tends to be harsh, with long and severe winters. The coastal plain, with its five alluvial rivers, is suitable for cultivation.
Population: 25.5 million (99% Korean); 2.4 million in Pyongyang (capital).
Life expectancy: Men 71 years, women 74 years.
Economy: State-controlled industries and collective farming. There are major reserves of minerals, including coal (the main energy source), iron ore, tungsten, magnesite and graphite. Hydroelectricity is also an important source of power. Exports include coal, iron, textiles and chemicals.
There has been a catastrophic economic collapse. This has been caused by structural economic deficiencies, flooding, the ending of favourable trade terms with the former Soviet Union, the enormous demands of militarization and the failure of North Korea’s agriculture.
Religions: All religions have been harshly repressed. Estimated figures of adherents are: non-religious/atheist 68%; Korean religions, including Shamanism and Confucianism 30%; Buddhist 1.6%; Roman Catholic 0.2%; Protestant 0.2%.
History: During the Korean War the North was supported by China. Since 1953, state control of all areas of life has been achieved under the rigid communist regime of Kim II Sung. He effectively isolated his country from most of the outside world. However, unprecedented scenes of national mourning followed his death in 1994.
North Korea’s military establishment numbers over one million and constitutes the largest defence force in East Asia. A cold war with the South has continued since the 1960s. Several prominent South Koreans have been assassinated by the North.
North Korea is now experiencing endemic famine, and there have even been reports of cannibalism. Even South Korea has given it food aid. The North has agreed to halt nuclear development in return for US help. But there is always the possibility that it will resort to nuclear weapons as a last, desperate act of self-assertion.