North Korea is one of the world’s most important countries. Its large military, advanced nuclear program, and deep hostility to the United States means that the rogue regime has the potential to plunge the world into the worst fighting since World War II. Recent tensions — North Korea firing an unidentified missile over Japan on Monday afternoon, most notably — illustrate just how real this threat is.
Yet North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is also one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. The history of the conflict is complex, and information about Kim Jong Un’s government is hard to come by because it has sealed itself off from much of the world and imposes harsh limits on free speech.
What follows is an attempt, using a lot of maps (and, yes, a few charts), to provide some clarity and context to help better understand both the country and the conflict. We’ll explore where the North Korean regime came from, how much of a threat it really poses to the United States and its allies, and what life is like in the most totalitarian regime on earth.
The history of Korea, and how it became divided
1) The ancient political divide that created Korea
From about 57 BC up until the late seventh century, the Korean Peninsula was dominated by three distinct kingdoms: Goguryeo, which covered much of modern Korea as well as a good chunk of China; Baekje in the southwest; and Silla in the southeast (there was a smaller and less important confederacy, called Gaya, in the south as well). There was no unified “Korean” identity during the 700 years of the so-called “Three Kingdoms” — rather, it was a struggle among these kingdoms for land and supremacy.
The decisive shift came in 660 AD, when Silla formed an alliance with the Tang dynasty in China. Their joint military prowess overwhelmed Baekje and Goguryeo, seizing full control of both by 668. Afterward, Silla turned on its Tang allies and forced them out of the Korean Peninsula, leading to the first unified dynasty on the Korean Peninsula in history. Many of the patterns of subsequent Korean history — from deep internal divisions to Chinese involvement in Korean affairs — have their roots here.
2) Korea was a junior partner to China’s great empires for centuries
Silla control collapsed after several hundred years. Subsequent Korean history was dominated by two monarchies: Goryeo (918-1392), from which the name “Korea” eventually evolved, and Choson (1392-1897). Under Goryeo and Choson rule, Korea was a “tributary” state to various Chinese dynasties — an arrangement in which Korean leaders swore allegiance to China’s rulers in exchange for military protection and trading rights. China, for example, came to Korea’s defense during a vicious Japanese invasion at the end of the 16th century.
The tributary arrangement, as University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings notes, was far less oppressive than European colonialism: China did not govern Korea and had limited influence on its policies, foreign or domestic. It was mostly voluntary on Korea’s part; the leaders of Goryeo and Choson concluded that the benefits of aligning with China in terms of trade, security, and cultural exchange was worth the loss of sovereignty. There were exceptions — when the Mongols conquered China, for example, they also took Korea and ruled it as a colony for about 80 years — but voluntary tribute status was the general rule.
The tributary period established a pattern of Chinese dominance over Korea — a position that China’s modern government views as natural and correct but modern Koreans see as anachronistic at best.
3) The 20th-century Japanese empire reshaped Korea
It was actually Japan, not China, that pulled Korea into global conflict. Japan’s industrialization in the 19th century — well ahead of competing East Asian powers — put an end to Chinese hegemony over the region. In 1895, Japan defeated China in a war designed principally to replace China as the dominant foreign influence in Korea; in 1910, imperial Japan annexed Korea.
Japan’s occupation, which lasted until the end of World War II, was horrific — the Japanese military forced thousands of Korean women to serve as camp prostitutes, euphemistically called “comfort women,” which remains a prickly issue in Japanese-Korean relations today. Imperial Japan also attempted to impose its own language and culture on occupied Korea, leaving Koreans with a profound fear of once again being controlled by a hostile foreign power — which is part of why the modern DPRK is so obsessed with protecting itself from foreign invasion.
4) The US came very close to reunifying Korea
World War II directly led to the partition of Korea. In the final stages of the war against Japan, Soviet troops had taken the northern half of Korea while US troops occupied the southern part. The post-WWII division proved to be unstable, as both the communist North and capitalist South claimed to be the legitimate government of all Korea. In June 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung invaded the South with support from both Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung.
Initially, the well-equipped Northern army overwhelmed the relatively unprepared Southern forces, nearly conquering the entire country. But US intervention, authorized by the United Nations, turned the tide — specifically through a surprise landing at Inchon, a beach near occupied Seoul, in September 1950 (depicted in the above map).
5) Chinese intervention forced a US retreat — and changed history
After Inchon, US and South Korean troops nearly reconquered the entire Korean Peninsula. But the further north they got, the more worried China’s young communist government became about a capitalist presence on their borders. Mao’s government warned the US to stay away from the Yalu River, which forms the boundary between North Korea and China — a warning that, in General Douglas McArthur’s zeal to seize all of the North, was ignored. Chinese forces streamed across the border in October 1950, attacking the US-led coalition and once again shifting the war’s momentum. Chinese intervention marked a permanent break from the benevolent view of China during the tributary period, leading to its modern role as a patron to North Korea and a security threat to South Korea.
6) After all the intervention, the Korean borders ended up basically where they started
By 1951, the war had become a stalemate. The Chinese and American interventions canceled out each side’s gains, as you can see in the above GIF. Both sides continued to fight along the 38th parallel — a latitude line 38 degrees north of the equator that had been the line drawn by Soviet and American territory in Korea prior to the war.
In 1953, the belligerents signed an armistice that turned this line — not a natural division between countries, but an arbitrary line in the middle of Korea drawn by American and Soviet planners — into the basis for an indefinite split. Korea was, for the first time in centuries, formally divided.
7) Where the Korean border lies today
The North-South border agreed upon in 1953 does not run exactly along the 38th parallel; instead, it’s based on where the front combat line between the North and South was when the fighting ended. The 160-mile-long border is surrounded by something called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 2.5-mile-wide area that neither side’s forces are allowed to enter (with a few small exceptions). Today, the area just outside the DMZ is (ironically, given the name) one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world.
Neither North nor South Korean leaders believe the DMZ marks a natural border that should exist forever. Both countries still claim to be the sole legitimate Korean government.
The birth of a totalitarian system
8) Why the “Marxist” North Korean government is actually a family dynasty
The North Korean government that emerged after the Korean War is not, contrary to popular belief, a classic Marxist or Stalinist state. For one thing, its leadership is essentially monarchical: Kim Il Sung handed power to his son, Kim Jong Il, who gave it to his son, Kim Jong Un. It’s guided by an official ideology, Juche (“self-reliance”), that positions Koreans as a pure yet vulnerable people who are building authentic socialism but can only do so with the protection of a semi-divine leader from the Kim dynasty. It’s an odd blend of a kind of racial purity ideology promulgated by the Japanese empire, pre-modern Korean monarchism, and Marxism — cobbled together to justify the Kim family’s control and extreme policies.
9) The North’s economic policies have shattered its society
Postwar South Korea eventually entered the international economy, building up an economic model focusing on export manufacturing starting in the ’70s and technology more recently. South Korea is as a result one of the world’s richest nations; its GDP per capita is higher than that of many European nations.
North Korea took the precise opposite approach to economic development, banning private enterprise and attempting to plan the entirety of the national economy from Pyongyang. The result is that the North, which started out slightly richer than the South, ended up much, much poorer. Its GDP per capita is less than half of Sudan’s.
10) The North cannot keep the lights on — literally
There’s no more dramatic demonstration of North Korea’s deprivation than this map of light emission at night, based on satellite photos NASA captured in 2012. Light emission can be used as proxy for wealth, as wealthier countries have access to better lighting technology and electrical grids. South Korea, as you can see, is lit up — as are Japan and China. North Korea is almost entirely black, except for a small dot of light on the capital city of Pyongyang. It’s an astonishing demonstration of just how poor North Korea is relative to its neighbors.
11) How North Korea’s economic system starved millions
The economic system that developed in North Korea during the Cold War depended heavily on Soviet aid, particularly in the area of food. North Korea has very little arable land, and the collective farms it managed to build were radically inefficient. So when the Soviet Union began to totter in the ’80s, and aid slowed, North Koreans started to starve.
This culminated in a massive famine, called the “Arduous March” in North Korea, between 1994 and 1998. Somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million people died, partially because Kim Jong Il’s government prioritized feeding its military under a policy it called “Songun” (or military first). The famine was eventually solved by international assistance, but the Songun policy remained a core part of North Korean state ideology — the Kim regime told its people that they were poor because their leaders needed to spend every dollar on the defense of the nation from American and South Korean imperialists. This is partly why belligerence and military brinksmanship became a regular feature of North Korean policy in recent years.
12) North Korea uses a huge network of modern gulags to maintain control
The Kim regime doesn’t simply count on ideological indoctrination, ideas like Juche and Songun, to maintain power. The government violently represses political organization, free speech, and basically any activity not sanctioned by the regime.
There’s no better symbol of this repression than North Korea’s network of prison camps. Amnesty International estimated that in 2016, about 120,000 North Koreans were held in these camps, where they are subjected to “rape, infanticide, torture, deliberate starvation, forced labor, and executions.” Further, Amnesty reports, “many of those detained in these camps have committed no crime, but are collectively punished through guilt by association as family members of those deemed threatening to the regime.”
13) Executions happen regularly around the country
The above is a map of mass executions near a waterway in North Korea, put together by a Korean human rights group based on interviews with North Koreans from the area who have escaped. The location is not identified, so the North Korean government doesn’t know to cover up the evidence of war crimes there.
What it shows is that when the Kim regime doesn’t want to detain someone, it simply executes them — and does so regularly. This level of brutal repression is difficult for Americans to understand, but it helps explain why uprisings against the DPRK government are so unheard of. The government’s capacity to repress dissent is vast, and so its willingness to employ that capacity in brutal fashion.
North Korea's relations with the world
14) The “Demilitarized Zone” between North and South is incredibly militarized
The DMZ today is one of the world’s tensest borders. Because both sides fear invasion by the other, they have spent enormous resources attempting to build up defenses — the boundary is surrounded by roughly 1 million land mines. South Korea is especially worried by Seoul’s proximity to the DMZ; its capital, home to 10 million people, is close enough to be in range of North Korean artillery. This military buildup means both countries are in a state of constant tension, watching the other side to see if they make a move.
15) America has a lot of troops near North Korea
The US military strategy in East Asia is, more or less, to maintain enough troops in the area to credibly deter aggression by revisionist powers — meaning China and especially North Korea. While there are only about 23,500 US troops in South Korea proper, hardly enough to stop the 1.16 million-strong North Korean army, their presence sends a strong signal to the North that any attack on South Korea would, inevitably, be an attack on the United States — and that the many US assets in the Pacific would move in as quickly as they could to retaliate.
16) What the North’s isolation looks like from the air
Here’s a neat visualization, from Martyn Williams of North Korea Tech, of one day of flight patterns over North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. It shows how isolated the North is from global commerce, as essentially no flights are going in, but also the ways in which its belligerence and weak political political institutions set it apart.
Williams explains the reason the FAA bans flights over most of the North:
The ban is in place because of North Korea’s unpredictable short- and medium-range missile launches and uncertainties over just how good the coordination is between civil air traffic controllers and the military. The rules are in place to avoid an aircraft getting shot down, either by mistake or due to a misunderstanding.
17) The torturous path people take to escape North Korea
There are nearly 30,000 North Korean refugees living in South Korea today. Because they can’t walk through the DMZ or fly out on a commercial flight, they have to sneak across the border to China.
But China won’t let them go straight to South Korea (and in fact typically just sends them right back to North Korea). So they typically trek 3,000 miles to Thailand, relying on a network of smugglers and secret Christian activists to get them there or to another country (like Mongolia). Only afterward can they finally fly to the South.
These defectors are an invaluable source of knowledge on what life is like in the North, but more importantly, they’re a testament to how horrible life is inside North Korea. It takes a lot to convince people to take the kind of risks they take.
18) North Korea’s growing dependence on China
After the Soviet Union fell, North Korea lost its principal economic partner — which contributed in part to the famine of the 1990s. As the years went on, China increasingly took the Soviet Union’s old place as economic guarantor, ramping up both imports from and exports to the North. This has only intensified as time has gone on: As of 2017, China makes up roughly 90 percent of North Korean trade, providing a vital role in propping up the Kim regime through (for example) coal exports that keep its power plants running. This could potentially give China serious leverage over North Korea — if it chose to use it.
19) The risk of North Korean collapse explains why China can’t control Kim
The reason China has stepped up to help the North is the same reason it can’t really push the North around: China is terrified of what happens if and when the government in Pyongyang collapses.
The above map shows a rough estimate of the number of people who would need humanitarian assistance in different parts of North Korea. It shows that the US and South Korean militaries would need to enter the North to provide aid, maintain order so it can be distributed, and prepare for the reunification of the Koreas.
The collapse of North Korea, then, would mean a humanitarian crisis in which millions of refugees are projected to try to stream across the Chinese border — and the likely presence of a rival military presence right on China’s border.
Therefore, China can’t credibly threaten to cut off trade in a way that would seriously undermine the government in Pyongyang without risking disaster, and Kim Jong Un knows it.
20) North Korea gets away with incredibly risky stuff
North Korea’s geopolitical and domestic position makes it rational, for all sorts of reasons, for it to engage in really risky behaviors. Military brinksmanship, like missile tests or firing artillery at South Korea, can be used to grab attention and try to wring diplomatic concessions from the West.
Manufactured crises also get used by the North Korean state media to prove that the Songun (military first) policy is still necessary: that the military still needs to suck up huge amounts of the country’s resources to deter the “imperialist” threat. Kim Jong Un seems to use it to build up his own personal mythology as a strong leader.
So the North frequently does provocative things — one of the scariest of which was the 2010 sinking of a South Korean destroyer, the ROKS Cheonan, in waters also claimed by the North. In these crises, South Korean and American analysts are forced to guess what the North is trying to accomplish — a dangerous state of affairs.
21) The US and South Korea are constantly trying to deter the North
One reason these North Korean provocations haven’t gotten out of hand (so far) is that the North knows its opponents are stronger and well prepared for an attack. There are a variety of ways the US and South Korea signal this, but war games — where troops train together on or around the Korean Peninsula — are one of the most visible.
Seeing that the US and South Korean forces are capable of fighting in practice and not just on paper helps the North understand that it can’t take its aggression too far without risking major military consequences. The annual Foal Eagle training sessions in the spring, for example, typically involve practicing amphibious landings and anti-infiltration sweeps — the kinds of things that US and South Korean troops would be doing in the event of war with Pyongyang.
22) Missile defenses show how the US has been trying to minimize the threat from the North
One of the more recent ways the US has worked to protect South Korea, and by extension deter the North, is by deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system — or THAAD for short. THAAD works by shooting down missiles when they’re on the way down, and has an effective range of roughly 125 miles. Unlike many missile defense systems, THAAD actually has a pretty good track record — the US military reports that it has successfully shot down target missiles in 13 practice tests.
But tests aren’t the same thing as actual battlefield conditions. And even if it works under such stress, there just simply aren’t enough THAAD batteries to shoot down all of the missiles North Korea could lob south.
What’s more, THAAD is highly controversial in South Korea. It is placed on a golf course (of all places) deep in the country’s south, the yellow triangle on the above map. As you can see, it puts it in range to protect several US military facilities — but not Seoul. There are also serious concerns about the potential environmental impact THAAD might have on nearby communities.
23) But no matter what, a North-South war would inevitably be devastating
If deterrence truly does fail, we are in for a conflict on a scale unlike any we’ve seen in decades — and that’s even before we talk nuclear weapons. The North has such a large volume of artillery pointed at Seoul and other areas just south of the DMZ that it could do incredible damage to the South before they could be taken out.
A barrage targeting Seoul, in particular, is terrifying to contemplate: It’s one of the densest major cities in the world, with 27,000 people per square mile, which means the amount of carnage that an artillery barrage could accomplish dwarfs anything seen even in a conflict as terrible as Syria.
A South Korean simulation conducted in 2004 estimated that there could be up to 2 million casualties in the first 24 hours of a conflict alone — before we get to protracted ground conflict. There is no military option for confronting North Korea that doesn’t end in immense amounts of bloodshed, civilian and military alike.
The North Korean nuclear program
24) How a Pakistani scientist helped North Korea get nukes
The North Korean nuclear program has its origins in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union helped Kim Il Sung set up rudimentary nuclear facilities. But the program didn’t become a topic of global concern until 1993, when North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) — an indication that they were pursuing the bomb.
The crisis was temporarily averted by a negotiated agreement with the United States, called the Agreed Framework, in 1994 — but the agreement broke down, and North Korea’s nuclear program continued to advance. This was due in no small part to Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani nuclear scientist who built a global smuggling network that moved nuclear secrets from his country’s program to rogue states.
AQ Khan, as he’s commonly called, sold North Korea vital nuclear technology in the 1990s. There is some evidence that he may have had the Pakistani military’s backing — suggesting the North’s program had many fathers.
25) The Iraq War shows why North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons became so important
The fundamental motivation for North Korea’s nuclear program is survival. North Korea knows it could never win a conventional war with the United States and South Korea, so it perpetually seeks ways to raise the costs of war — and nukes are the strongest deterrent of all.
The US’s toppling of Saddam Hussein in under a month in 2003 — the rapid campaign depicted in the above GIF of the US invasion’s progress — was an object lesson for the Kim family in what the US could do to a rogue regime that didn’t have a nuclear deterrent. The fact that it came on the heels of the Bush administration lumping in North Korea with Iraq (and Iran) as part of an “Axis of Evil” sent the message that the North might be next, and that it needed to keep up its pursuit of nuclear weapons to avoid that.
26) The nuclear facility at the center of North Korea’s program
The beating heart of North Korea’s nuclear program is the complex in Yongbyon, located roughly 50 miles northwest of Pyongyang. The site is principally used to create the raw materials necessary to power nuclear devices: weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.
The above photo shows some of the important landmarks, including a nuclear power plant (light water reactor) and a reprocessing facility that turns uranium used by the plant into weapons-grade plutonium. Recent thermal imagery suggests that the two facilities are being used to manufacture more raw material for bombs and nukes, meaning the North Koreans could be producing even more weapons than they already have.
In addition to what’s pictured, Yongbyon is also home to a uranium enrichment facility, which puts the element into centrifuges to make it usable for a bomb. Some of these centrifuges appear to be based on Pakistani designs provided by AQ Khan.
27) North Korea has a lot of sites relevant to its nuclear program
In addition to the raw material manufacturing at Yongbyon, there are two known sites for testing explosive devices — a main facility at Punggye-ri, where all five of its known nuclear tests have been carried out, and another at Youngdoktong, where it tests high explosives that could be used in a nuclear device. There are also several sites devoted to the creation of ballistic missiles that could deliver a bomb to a target in South Korea, Japan, or even the United States.
28) North Korea’s nuclear tests are getting bigger
North Korea has tested five separate nuclear devices — in 2006, 2009, 2013, January 2016, and September 2016. Each detonation has set off a larger earthquake, indicating that the bomb North Korea is testing sets off a larger explosion.
The yield of the latest test, according to expert estimates, is somewhere around 20 kilotons — meaning it explodes with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT. That’s around the yield of Fat Man, the bomb the US dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
The above map shows what would happen if a 20 kt bomb were to be dropped on downtown DC. Depending on placement, it could level the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court in one blow.
29) North Korea has many ways to deliver nukes regionally
The US Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that North Korea has up to 60 nuclear devices. But they aren’t very useful as a deterrent (their intended purpose) unless they can be delivered to a target.
This has long been the weak point of North Korea’s program: Building a nuclear device small enough to fit on the tip of a missile is hard, technically speaking, and dropping a bomb from a bomber flying over a city would be risky given that America’s vastly superior air force could just shoot the bomber down.
However, the DIA estimates that North Korea has recently overcome that hurdle — meaning that its large arsenal of short- and intermediate-range missiles could very well be nuclear-tipped. That puts South Korea, Japan, and a number of US bases at risk of a nuclear attack — making the North’s threat a much more effective deterrent to war.
30) North Korea’s missile program now poses a threat to the American homeland
North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are considerably less advanced than its shorter-range missiles. Its tests often fail. But in July 2017, it successfully tested the Hwasong-14 ICBM twice — a missile that, in theory, could go as far as the Eastern Seaboard.
It’s unclear whether the missile could actually reach the US with a nuclear warhead that would successfully detonate. But they’re definitely heading in that direction. And if North Korea were to perfect the Hwasongs, build a number of them, and then fit them with its stockpile of bombs, it could eventually pose a serious threat to the United States — the kind of thing we saw with the Soviets during the Cold War.
The US’s primary goal right now, in nuclear diplomacy with the North, is to head off this possibility — to convince the North to stop its missile program before the threat gets any worse.
31) North Korea is testing more missiles than ever
Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, North Korea’s rate of missile tests has sped up dramatically. It’s clear that Kim places far more value on nuclear weapons as a deterrent than his father or grandfather — which makes sense, given that he’s the first North Korean leader to have taken power with an already-working nuclear capability.
Nuclear weapons have become central to North Korea’s strategic doctrine, and most experts doubt Kim would ever be willing to give them up. He’s almost certain to continue to grow the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities unless he’s offered something that could convince him otherwise. And what that could be is anyone’s guess.
32) It’s hard to know how to punish the North anymore
The United Nations has, through successive Security Council resolutions, created a large and complex system of sanctions on North Korea as punishment for its nuclear program. The US has its own sanctions against the North too.
But the problem is that North Korea is already pretty walled off from the global economy, so it’s hard for sanctions to have much bite. UN resolutions applying new punishments on North Korea are getting tougher to draft, as the above chart from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows. That doesn’t mean impossible — a UN resolution passed in August, after this chart was compiled, in response to North Korea’s July missile test — but certainly more complicated.
That’s in part because China is worried that going too much further would be dangerous for its own commercial interactions with the North. “China’s basic policy line on North Korea’s nuclear programme,” SIPRI’s Fei Su and Lora Saalman write, is “that sanctions should not influence normal trade and people’s livelihoods.”
Even if China agrees to UN sanctions, there’s no guarantee it will actually enforce them, as it hasn’t in the past. Interestingly, it does seem to be going along with some of the most recent UN resolution’s restrictions, particularly on coal imports from the North.
33) China doesn’t really approve of the North’s nuclear program
China’s stance on all of this is interesting. Though China has done little to curb North Korea’s nuclear development, it has clearly expressed disapproval through various state media outlets. For instance, the semi-official Global Times wrote that if the US responds militarily to a provocative North Korean missile test, “China will stay neutral.”
North Korea’s nuclear program raises the stakes of conflict on China’s borders, increases tensions between Beijing and Washington, and makes the collapse of North Korea’s government even scarier for China, as there would be uncontrolled nukes on its borders.
Relatively limited formal state visits in recent years are another way that Beijing has expressed its frustration with the North. As the above chart shows, there were about 4.3 state visits per year between China and North Korea under Kim Jong Il — but only 1.5 per year under Kim Jong Un. The rising tensions between the two countries are a glimmer of an opening for US negotiators hoping to get China to put real pressure on the North.
34) North Korea firing missiles over Japan shows how dangerous the situation is
After the mid-August 2017 tensions between the US and North Korea — in which President Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” — the situation seemed to have briefly calmed. But then North Korea fired a missile over Japanese territory, the northern prefecture of Hokkaido specifically, on August 28.
Some kind of provocation from the North was to be expected. At the time, the US and Japan had just finished military exercises on Hokkaido, and US-South Korea exercises were ongoing. Moreover, the US and Japan were in the midst of practicing missile defense together. The North typically responds to these kind of activities, obviously aimed at Pyongyang, with some kind of demonstration of its resolve.
But firing a missile over Japan is way-beyond-normal provocative; this is only the third time the North has done it. That’s because there was a risk that if there were a targeting or technical error on the North’s part, Japanese citizens might well have been hurt or killed.
Most likely, this is a bid to signal that the North is still dangerous to America and its allies — to scare the US into giving it some kind of diplomatic or economic concession. But the riskiness of the move is a reminder of how North Korea uses its nuclear program in an extremely destabilizing fashion, and will continue to do so in the future. Nuclear diplomacy, even when the aim is deterrence or extracting concessions, is just about the riskiest kind of diplomacy there is.
Beyond the nuclear program
35) North Korea’s economy is growing
North Korea is comparatively poor, but it’s far from the poorest country in the world, and its economy is getting larger — a significant improvement from the absolute nightmare of the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Part of this is due to a 2002 decree that liberalized rules governing imports and starting businesses, which fueled actual economic development.
This has accelerated recently due to Kim Jong Un opening up space for limited free market activity: enlarging shopping centers, which now employ more than 1 million North Koreans, and even allowing the imports of some American products like Coca-Cola. The Bank of Korea estimates that in 2016, North Korea’s GDP grew by 3.9 percent — the fastest rate in nearly two decades.
North Korea is by no means moving toward a free market, let alone democracy, but the limited reforms it has implemented have led to real gains for some North Koreans.
36) North Korean elites benefit from exchange with China
The North Korean elite — regime loyalists in Pyongyang and high-ranking military officers — have access to a lot of fancy goods that are nominally banned for the rest of North Korea’s citizens. Much of this stuff is imported from China; the above chart shows three estimates of how much comes in, but all agree the number has gone up. This trade in banned goods is both a way of buying off powerful elites who might challenge Kim and, per a CNN report, a way of funneling cash back to the Kim family.
37) Pyongyang’s relatively advanced subway shows inequality inside North Korea
The North Korean capital has a surprisingly extensive subway system. The above map is from 15 years ago, when North Korea’s economy was weaker, so it’s probably much larger than it used to be. Photos of the subway stops available to tourists are almost shockingly opulent, showing high arched ceilings and well-decorated colonnades. What this suggests isn’t that North Korea is secretly advanced. Instead, it’s that Pyongyang is a place where the North Korean government funnels most of the country’s wealth, to the detriment of the rest of its citizens. Think of it a bit like the Capitol in The Hunger Games.
38) The control over information in North Korea is staggering
Though the Kim Jong Un era has seen the spread of modern media, like cellphones and DVD players, his regime is perceived (according to a survey of 350 North Korean defectors) to be stricter about punishing consumption of prohibited information than ever. There is no independent media in North Korea, and state-run media is pure propaganda. Listening to foreign broadcasts is banned, though some North Koreans risk it.
So most people get their information about the world by talking to other North Korean citizens — basically a giant game of telephone. The result is that North Koreans have a very limited understanding of the outside world.
39) North Korea wants you to visit
Roughly 100,000 tourists visit North Korea every year; about 90,000 of them are Chinese. Of the remaining 10,000, about half hail from Western countries. The Kim regime actively encourages this, setting up foreign language official websites that advertise its natural beauty (like the one you see above) and providing tour guides who are picked based on their language skills and physical beauty.
This is the principal way many North Korean citizens actually get a chance to meet foreigners, though they do so under strict state supervision. It’s also a real source of cash for Pyongyang; it makes up to $40 million a year off of tourism, leading some to criticize tourism to North Korea as morally dubious at best. “Casually touring North Korea is akin to hiking at Auschwitz under the Nazis,” Suki Kim, a Korean-American writer who briefly lived in North Korea, writes.
40) You really shouldn’t visit North Korea
Traveling to North Korea is incredibly risky. The most tragic case is Otto Warmbier, an American college student who visited the North. Warmbier tried to take home a sign from a North Korean building as a souvenir; the North sentenced him to 15 years at a labor camp. During his captivity, he suffered some kind of serious brain trauma, and he died shortly after being sent back to the US in July 2017.
It’s hard to know what really happened to Warmbier, but his case illustrates that any foreigner — especially an American — is subject to Kim’s mercies (or lack thereof) once they’re inside its borders.
So even if it weren’t for the military standoff between North and South Korea, or the nuclear program, North Korea would still be a horrific rogue regime — a danger to foreigners and, most of all, to its own people.