North Korea

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea is a state in East Asia, commonly known under the unofficial name of North Korea. Located in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. It has a land border with the Republic of Korea in the south (the states are separated by a demilitarized zone), the People's Republic of China in the north, and the Russian Federation in the northeast. From the west the country is washed by the Yellow Sea, from the east by the Sea of Japan.

The area of the country is 120,540 km², the population, according to a 2019 estimate, is more than 25 million people. It occupies the ninety-eighth place in the world in terms of territory and fifty-third in terms of population.

The capital and largest city is Pyongyang. The official language is Korean.

According to the constitution, it is a unitary socialist state. Power in the country belongs to the only political party - the Workers' Party of Korea, led by Kim Jong-un, who has held the highest government posts since the end of 2011. The official state ideology is Juche.

It is subdivided into 14 administrative-territorial units, of which 9 are provinces, 2 are cities of direct subordination, and 3 are special administrative regions.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a mono-ethnic state, Koreans make up about 99% of the population. The vast majority of the population are atheists.

Industrial-agrarian country with a hybrid developing economy. The nominal GDP for 2017 was $17.364 billion (about $685 per capita). The monetary unit is the North Korean Won.

Korean statehood traces its history from the 4th-3rd centuries BC. As a result of the Second World War, Korea, formerly under the control of the Japanese Empire, was divided into the northern part, which came under the jurisdiction of the USSR, and the southern, controlled by the United States. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was proclaimed on the territory of the Soviet zone of occupation on September 9, 1948, after the founding of the Republic of Korea on August 15 within the American zone of occupation. The ensuing Korean War (1950-1953) cemented the division of the country.


Getting here

Traveling to North Korea involves some bureaucratic obstacles. As a rule, you submit a visa application to KITC (Korean International Travel Company) at the same time as booking your trip. This is then usually approved within 20 days. For group tours, approval is usually not a problem. If you want to travel through North Korea alone with the leaders, you will be subject to more scrutiny and your application may be rejected. Journalists will almost certainly be refused entry to North Korea. If the application is approved, you go to the responsible embassy and have the visa put into your passport.

Embassies of the DPR Korea:
1 Germany, Glinkastraße 5-7, 10117 Berlin. Tel.: +49 (0)30 20 62 59 90 (consular questions), email: Open: Mon – Fri 9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. + 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
2 Austria, Beckmanngasse 10-12, 1140 Vienna. Tel.: +43 (0)1 894 2311.
Switzerland, Pourtaléstraße 43, 3074 Muri. Tel.: +41 (0)31 951 6621.
Beijing, Ritan Beilu, Jianggoumenwai, Chaoyang District. Tel.: +86 (0)10 6532 1186.

The embassy in Beijing is listed here because many tour operators offer trips from Beijing and the visa is often only issued in Beijing.

Before entering the country you must fill out a customs declaration. This lists what is not allowed to be brought into North Korea. In addition to the usual things like weapons or drugs, these are also hostile publications. What that is is at the discretion of the responsible customs officer. In general, however, one can say that South Korean publications, for example, are always viewed as hostile, but a German-language travel guide should not be a problem. In the worst case, things will be confiscated.

Entry requirements
German citizens need a visa to enter the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. This is issued by the embassy in Berlin. An invitation from North Korea is always required for this. However, the responsible travel agency will take care of this (for tourist trips). The processing time for a visa is approximately three weeks. The passport should be valid for another six months.

The visa can be extended on site if the Korean side is interested in an extended stay.

A stay in North Korea will result in your entry permit to the USA being canceled and/or refused in the ESTA system, even if a permit already existed. To enter the USA directly, you must then apply for a regular tourist visa, which is also granted. However, it is also possible to circumvent this restriction by entering indirectly via Canada or Mexico.

North Korea has an international airport. This is located in Pyongyang (code: FNJ). Most of the time you will fly into the country from Beijing. The state airline is Air Koryo. This has been flying from Pyongyang to Beijing and back three times a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) since May 2006. China Southern Airlines also flies three times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri) from Beijing. Most tour operators organize the trip from Beijing, but you have to travel to Beijing on your own. You don't have to worry about transport from the airport to the city, this is organized by the tour guides who pick you up from the airport.

Air Koryo, Sunan District, Pyongyang DPR Korea. Tel: +850 2 181 11 8108, Fax: +850-2-381-4410 4625, Email:
Air Koryo in Germany, Waltersdorfer Chaussee 170, 12355 Berlin. Tel.: +49 (0)30 676 5003.

Traveling by train is also possible. However, the train journey must also be booked in advance with KITC or a tour operator. Trains run from Beijing to Pyongyang and back four times a week. The tour guides may then wait at the border crossing with North Korea, and you will be picked up when you arrive in Pyongyang at the latest.

The Moscow-Ussuriysk-Pyongyang train that runs every two weeks via the Trans-Siberian Railway (the longest train connection in the world) was not officially open to tourists until recently, but it now seems possible to book this journey as well, and leaving the country via this route is easy easier to implement.

Bus & car
Traveling by bus or car is currently impossible.

The monthly ferry service between Niigata (Japan) and Wonsan was discontinued in 2006 for political reasons. The resumption has been under negotiation since 2014. Tickets in Japan were arranged by the organization of the North Korean residents, Chongryon. For European tourists, booking this ship (if it sails again) will only be possible with good Japanese language skills, provided that the KITC approves such a journey.


Local transport

You don't have to worry about how to get ahead in North Korea. This is all organized by the tour guides. Most of the time you travel by coach, but some travel providers also offer train trips. When you travel by coach, you usually drive on completely empty highways. There are very few people who are allowed and able to drive around in cars. Some travel offers include a domestic flight. This is then carried out by Air Koryo.



Korean is spoken in North Korea. The version spoken in North Korea is slightly different from that spoken in South Korea. The use of Hanja has been almost completely abolished in the People's Republic. But if you can communicate in South Korea, you will also be able to communicate in North Korea. The only problem is that you will hardly have the opportunity to talk to North Koreans. They are very reserved towards strangers. In addition, the government doesn't like locals talking to tourists. Foreign languages are hardly spoken in North Korea. However, the tour guides are an exception here. If you book a trip in German-speaking countries, you can assume that the tour guide speaks German and speaks German quite well.



The official currency in North Korea is the won. However, tourists are prohibited from paying in won. The export of the won is also prohibited. Since 2014, there have been tours that explicitly include currency exchange and “shopping opportunities at the market” when visiting the Rason special economic zone.

Euros, Chinese yuan, US dollars and Japanese yen are used as payment methods. It is advisable to take these means of payment with you in small notes or coins, as there is not always enough change. There are exchange offices in many hotels, where you can usually exchange euros and yen. For shopping you will be taken to our own tourist shops where you can buy souvenirs.

“Credit cards are not accepted. There are no ATMs. There is no way to transfer money to North Korea via Western Union or other banks, not even via the German Embassy. You must bring cash in the currencies listed above for the entire trip and all anticipated expenses.”



Like almost everything else, the food is organized by the tour guides. You will mostly be served Korean specialties such as kimchi. This is spicy pickled Chinese cabbage. This kimchi is included in almost all dishes. The meals that are served are absolutely fine. Of course, you can't be too picky, because you never know what you'll be served. If you are a vegetarian, you should mention this when booking. You can also get vegetarian food, but it's not very varied.



The only way to “go out” in North Korea without a tour guide is at the hotel bar. Some hotels also have small discos or the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang has a casino. However, you will rarely meet the local population here, as such things are mainly reserved for tourists.

Exceptions are the many public holidays. At these times the population is on the streets and celebrates exuberantly. There are parades and North Koreans dance. These holidays are also the only opportunity to come into closer contact with the population. Because with the alcohol, the North Koreans also become more open and one or two short conversations can occur.



You can't choose which hotels you want to stay in in North Korea. These are also pre-booked by the tour guides. But you don't have to worry, you won't be spending the night in any hovels. The tourist hotels all have a relatively high quality standard. As mentioned above, many are equipped with hotel bars, discos, swimming pools, etc. In the hotels there is usually also the opportunity to buy small souvenirs. You are not allowed to leave the hotels without the prior consent of the tour guides.



Because of the constant surveillance, there is almost no crime in North Korea. The nuclear conflict that is currently flaring up again does not affect the security situation, but you should check the current situation shortly before departure. After the repeated provocations from the South and the USA at the beginning of April 2013 and the recommendation to various states to evacuate their embassies in the DPRK, as the safety of diplomats could no longer be guaranteed after April 10, 2013, the Foreign Office advises against non-essential travel to North Korea, but a specific travel warning has not yet been issued.



Health facilities in North Korea are inadequate. You should definitely take out travel health insurance and be transferred to China or your home country in an emergency. But you can be sure that the North Korean side - especially the tour guides - will do everything possible to ensure that the sick person receives medical help in the event of illness. Recommendations for malaria prophylaxis and vaccinations for North Korea can be found on

Before traveling you should be vaccinated against some diseases, especially typhus and hepatitis A and B. Tap water in North Korea should only be boiled or sterilized.


Climate and travel time

North Korea has an east-side climate with warm to humid summers and cold winters. The peak travel season and the time when most organized tours take place is April to October. In winter it can get very cold in places (-10°C during the day), but the costs are slightly lower and with appropriate planning you get the opportunity to visit North Korea's only ski resort (opened in 2013).


Rules and respect

In North Korea there are some rules of conduct that must be followed. This is very important, otherwise you can get not only yourself, but especially your tour guide, into trouble. Before booking, you should be clear about whether you can get used to these rules. If this is not the case, it is better to choose another travel destination. An interrogation by the North Korean police is certainly not a pleasant experience and, in the worst case, there is a risk of expulsion or even imprisonment.

Taking photos is generally allowed, but there are many restrictions. For example, no construction sites or dilapidated houses may be photographed. If you want to photograph people, you must first ask their permission. In any case, it is advisable to ask the tour guide before each photo whether photography is allowed here. Photographs of military or working people are also not permitted. Images and statues of former heads of state Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il may only be included respectfully as a whole. If the tour guide forbids photography, you should stick to it. If you do it, the tour guide in particular can get into trouble. The cameras can be checked by border officials when you leave the country and any inadmissible recordings can be deleted if necessary.

North Korean newspapers, such as the TPyongyang Times, which are usually handed out to travelers on the plane, may neither be disposed of in a wastebasket nor folded in half so as not to bend the pictures of the leaders depicted in them. Instead, folding the top and bottom thirds is recommended.

You should only express your own political opinions very cautiously when visiting North Korea. The North Korean side is expected to accept the cult of the "great" leader Kim Il Sung and the "dear" leader Kim Jong Il; discussions on the subject of personality cults are pointless and, if in doubt, do not improve the climate with the tour guides. When you visit Kim Il Sung statues, you are usually asked to bow, which you should do. You shouldn't get involved in discussions with the tour guides, it's no use. Even if it is difficult for you, you should take the country as it is for the time you spend there. If you stay calm and follow the rules, you will definitely have a more pleasant stay in North Korea and the tour guides will be friendlier than if you constantly cause problems.


Post and telecommunications

Since 2013 it has been possible to take cell phones into North Korea. The only provider in the country, Koryolink, offers special SIM cards for foreigners and even surf sticks that can be plugged into notebooks, but the bureaucratic effort required to obtain such a SIM card is enormous and is hardly worth it for a short tourist stay. The whole thing is not a bargain - the SIM card costs €50, and the €30 credit is used up very quickly at a price of €1.58 per minute. It is still possible to call home from the hotels, but it is even more expensive than using your own cell phone (around four euros per minute. As of February 2006). Telephone calls to North Korea from abroad are still made manually, making it practically impossible to call into North Korea from outside.

The two large tourist hotels, the Yanggakdo and the Koryo Hotel, have access to the www, of course only for tourists. You dial into the www via a telephone line via China. However, the connection is very slow (comparable to 56k) and very expensive. Completely unsuitable for surfing, but if you really want to check your emails, you can use this “service” from the two hotels.

Letters can usually be posted in hotels. Letters to Europe arrive after about a week, but you have to expect that the letters will be opened and checked in North Korea. So you should also refrain from making political statements in letters. It is possible to purchase a variety of postcards and postcards in state hotels, which are actually sent all over the world (with the exception of South Korea).



The area of the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, which is located between the Korea Bay and the Sea of Japan. It borders China to the north, Russia to the northeast, and South Korea to the south.

The shores of the DPRK in the east are washed by the Sea of Japan, in the west by the waters of the Gulf of Korea.


Country name

In Germany, Austria, Switzerland and North Korea the name “Democratic People's Republic of Korea” (DPRK) is officially used. Until mid-December 2007, North Korea itself preferred the translation “Korean Democratic People’s Republic” (DPRK) established in the GDR. Until 1977, the name “Korean People's Democratic Republic” (KVDR), which was decreed by the GDR Council of Ministers in 1949, was used in the GDR. At the request of the North Korean government, after Erich Honecker's state visit to North Korea in 1977, the name was changed to "Korean Democratic People's Republic".

In North Korea, the short form Chosŏn (Korean 조선, Korea) is common. In South Korea, where the whole of Korea is called Hanguk instead of Chosŏn, the neighboring state is called Bukhan (북한, 北韓, “North Korea”).



Establishment of a workers' and peasants' state

After the Second World War came to an end with Japan's surrender in 1945, Chōsen Province, which corresponded to the territory of Korea, which had been incorporated and colonized into the Japanese Empire since 1910, was divided into two occupation zones by the victorious powers along the 38th parallel. The south was occupied by US troops, the north came under the control of the Red Army.

The Soviet Union had a strategic interest in building a Korean state that was friendly to it. This was intended to serve as a buffer against Japan, as the Korean peninsula was seen as a possible base of operations for an attack on the Soviet Union. In addition to the fact that Japan and Russia have a history of conflict, this strategy accelerated Japan's rapprochement with the United States. In the following, a workers' and farmers' state should be built in North Korea according to Marxist-Leninist ideas.

At the end of 1945, a strong immigration movement of ethnic Koreans from the Soviet Union began (especially from the Central Asian Soviet republics), which strengthened the communist groups in the north. The state authorities in the Soviet Union particularly advocated the relocation of “politically educated” Koreans. On October 13, 1945, the North Korean Office of the Communist Party of Korea was formed as a section of the all-Korean Communist Party (based in Seoul), with Kim Il-sung appointed chairman in December.

In February 1946, the Provisional People's Committee was formed, headed by Kim Il-sung. In the spring, the North Korean section of the Communist Party split off and formed its own “Communist Party of North Korea,” which merged with the left-wing New People's Party on July 29 to form the Party of Workers of North Korea. Kim Du-bong became the first general secretary. After the North Korean section split off, the South Korean communists also united with other left-wing parties to form the Nam Joseon Rodong Party (South Joseon Workers' Party). In the period that followed, the US occupying forces increased their pressure on the communist underground movement. Leading party members were arrested, the rest fled to the north, from where underground work continued in the south. In June 1949, both parties united to form the Workers' Party of Korea, of which Kim Il-sung became chairman. In addition, a National United Front was formed with the Korean Democratic Party and the Chondoist Ch'ŏngu Party.

The country's economic transformation also began in 1946. A land reform was carried out in the spring and the nationalization of industrial companies began in late summer.

Active and passive women's suffrage was guaranteed under Allied administration in the Gender Equality Act, introduced on July 30, 1946. On November 3, 1946, elections for the so-called people's committees, the local administrative bodies, took place. There was only the option to vote for or against the united front. Officially, 97 percent of the votes cast were for the united front. The 1st Congress of the People's Committees appointed the first North Korean government under Kim Il-sung on February 17, 1947 and elected the People's Committee of North Korea as a kind of parliament.

In late autumn 1947, the drafting of a constitution was officially announced, which seemed to seal the imminent proclamation of an independent North Korean state. The constitution was drafted in Moscow and finally approved by Stalin. On August 25, 1948, elections to the Supreme People's Assembly (OVV) took place, which confirmed the constitution on September 8. A day later, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was proclaimed.

The Republic of Korea had previously been proclaimed in Seoul on August 15th. Both states did not recognize each other and saw each other as the only legitimate Korean state.


Korean War (1950–1953)

After the withdrawal of Soviet and American troops from North and South Korea, North Korean troops crossed the border into the Republic of Korea on June 25, 1950. The aim of the attack was to abolish the division of Korea and integrate South Korea into the socialist Democratic People's Republic. The North initially managed to advance rapidly and conquer almost the entire Korean peninsula. UN troops and especially the US Air Force managed to stop the advance. The troops of the South and its allies now conquered North Korea and advanced to the Chinese border. China came to the north's aid with military volunteer units. In this now de facto American-Chinese conflict, the front finally stabilized close to its starting positions. The US Air Force heavily bombed North Korea and destroyed many cities during the war. Between 1.2 and 1.5 million North Koreans died during the war. On July 27, 1953, a ceasefire agreement was signed in Panmunjeom, which established a demarcation line at the 38th parallel that was slightly different than the pre-war situation. A demilitarized zone was created and a neutral monitoring commission was set up. Around three million civilians died in this war, more than three times the number of soldiers killed.


Kim Il-sung's reign (1948–1994)

The consolidation of autocracy

In the 1950s, Kim Il-sung worked to consolidate his unchallenged leadership position in the state and party. Until then, the Workers' Party of Korea consisted of various factions that had little sympathy for each other. In the years from 1957 to 1962, the officials loyal to Beijing and Moscow were eliminated, which permanently strengthened Kim's position. On December 15, 1955, Foreign Minister Pak Hon-yong was sentenced to death (accusation: he was a US spy). In 1956, Mu Chong, a former general in the Chinese army and chief of staff at the general headquarters of the combined armed forces of China and North Korea during the Korean War, was executed as a representative of the Yan'an group.

Further purges followed in 1958, which were directed against Soviet-friendly cadres such as Hŏ Ka-i, sympathizers of Khrushchev's thaw policy and officials linked to China such as Kim Du-bong. The “purges” developed from a temporary phenomenon into a permanent, systemic phenomenon. There was also a similar campaign in 1997 against reform-minded army members and party cadres, including Chairman of the Council of Ministers Kang Song-san.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Kim Il-sung was referred to as the Great Leader in the North Korean media. Until then, the title of leader had been reserved for Lenin and Stalin (both within North Korea and in the international communist movement in general).

Thanks to material support from China and the Soviet Union, North Korea's industrial production was brought back to pre-war levels. Towards the end of the 1960s, the North Korean economy showed signs of stagnation similar to those of other Eastern Bloc countries. A decline in agricultural production and shortages of consumer goods led to a decline in the economy; the immense military expenditure was an additional burden.

The Sino-Soviet disagreement over the further development of communism that emerged after Stalin's death (1953) complicated the situation in North Korea. At first there was maneuvering between the two neighboring great powers. Kim Il-sung understood the Soviet leadership's criticism of Stalin (among other things, Khrushchev castigated Stalin's personality cult in his secret speech at the 20th Party Congress of the CPSU in February 1956) as a questioning of his own position. He also rejected the concept of peaceful coexistence propagated by the Soviet Union. In 1962, Kim sided with Mao Zedong; Like Mao, he strictly adhered to the traditional style of politics and thus to the cult of personality. The decisive factor for the break with the Soviet Union was its behavior in the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962), which the North Koreans understood as defeatism. The Soviet Union then cut off all aid to North Korea, which became one of China's closest allies alongside Albania. However, China, which was itself caught in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, could not replace the USSR as a trading partner. The efforts to achieve military-strategic independence from the Soviet Union placed additional strain on the North Korean economy; That's why Kim Il-sung worked towards normalizing relations with the USSR again from 1965 onwards.



The propagation of the Chuch'e ideology in the late 1960s, which defined North Korea's self-sufficiency as its primary goal, may have been a reaction to North Korea's increasingly isolated position. Kim Il-sung was henceforth referred to as the Great Leader. This increased the country's isolation because the government tried to conceal North Korea's decline and keep South Korea's economic successes secret from the North Korean population.

The temporary break with the leadership of the Soviet Union led to a more aggressive attitude towards South Korea; the moderating influence of the Soviet Union was no longer present. North Korea launched military operations at the end of the 1960s. In January 1968, the North Korean Navy captured the US spy ship USS Pueblo (AGER-2), and after North Korean soldiers advanced into South territory, skirmishes broke out between North and South Korean troops at the demarcation line.

The so-called First Nuclear Crisis in 1994 was characterized by mobilizations in North and South Korea and the ordering of US units on site to be on high alert.


Personality cult and clan rule

In 1972, North Korea adopted a new constitution under which Kim Il-sung was declared president. From this point on, the cult surrounding him assumed previously unknown proportions and Kim's family was also included (both Kim Jong-il, his successor, and his late wife Kim Jong-suk). The “dictatorship of the proletariat” increasingly developed into rule by a few family clans with Kim’s family at the top (oligarchy). In addition to his son, Kim's third wife, Kim Song-ae, who held high positions in the party and mass organizations, was also included.


Reign of Kim Jong-il (1994–2011)

Kim Il-sung died in 1994. After a state-imposed three-year mourning period, his son Kim Jong-il took over the post of general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea. He had been chairman of the National Defense Commission since 1993, but it gained considerable influence in 1998 due to a constitutional change. The post of president is still vacant today because Kim Il-sung became eternal president through the 1998 constitutional amendment. Kim Jong-il was called the Beloved Leader, later the Great Leader like his father.

The period since the collapse of the socialist bloc of states in North Korea has been characterized by a relatively uncompromising adherence to the status quo. This can be seen both in socialist economic policy and in foreign and defense policy, which continues to focus on isolation. The reason for this is the North Korean leadership's assumption that a deviation from the previous line, a softening of the Stalinist-influenced regime, would inevitably lead to its overthrow, which can be observed in the former Eastern European sister states.

According to an official announcement, Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack on December 17, 2011 while traveling by train. On the day his death was announced, on December 19, 2011, his son, Kim Jong-un, was named as his successor by the official Korean news agency.


Nutritional situation

Due to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, North Korea's foreign trade came to an almost complete standstill in the early 1990s. The import of cheap petroleum, spare parts for machines, artificial fertilizers and food from the Soviet Union almost completely stopped. Food production, which was already structurally too low, was further hampered from 1994 onwards as a result of the completion of a dam, which flooded large parts of the already little cultivated land. Due to these developments and serious mistakes in the reaction of the North Korean government, which did not want to allow helpers into the country in the first years of the crisis, a severe famine occurred, the direct and indirect consequences of which affected a large number of North Koreans from 1994 to 1999 died. To date, the number of victims is only approximately known. Initial estimates varied between 220,000 and 3.5 million deaths; later studies put the number between 600,000 and one million.

In March 2011, an investigative group composed of the United Nations World Food Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and UNICEF informed the global community that approximately six million North Koreans were at risk of hunger. The World Food Program then launched an emergency operation to provide food to 3.5 million North Koreans. This emergency aid operation is also viewed critically internationally, as representatives of many countries fear that the North Korean government would dramatize the situation in order to obtain aid by fraud and then misuse it for its intended purpose. According to the first report by a UN emergency relief coordinator since 2002, in this case Valerie Amos, daily public distribution rations had to be halved from 400 to 200 grams per person. The annual requirement of 5.3 million tons of grain was around one million tons short. Due to the chronic nutritional crisis, every third child under the age of five is short in stature. In 2015, according to World Bank figures, 41.6% of the population was undernourished.

On March 29, 2016, state media announced another “arduous march,” terminology the leadership had already used during the 1994 famine. The population was called upon to save food. In February 2019, North Korea told the United Nations that it was missing 1.4 million tons of food due to poor weather conditions and sanctions. As a result, state food rations would have to be cut almost in half.


Development of relations between North and South Korea

In 2000, as part of Kim Dae-jung's sunshine policy, successes in detente between North and South Korea became apparent. For some time, visits from family members who had been separated for decades due to the Korean division were possible. It was agreed to renew the transport connections between the two countries, which had previously been out of service. South Korean tourists were subsequently able to visit the Kŭmgang Mountains until 2008, when a South Korean woman was shot by a North Korean soldier under circumstances that are not yet fully understood. South Korean companies have been producing in North Korean special economic zones (Kaesŏng industrial region) since 2003. The North and South Korean teams entered the 2000 Olympics together. Finally, the first summit meeting between the two heads of state took place in Pyongyang.

However, under South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, relations between the two countries cooled noticeably. Lee had already announced during the election campaign that he would pursue a tougher foreign policy line towards North Korea. The North Korean government finally announced that it would close its borders with the South from December 1, 2008. This measure primarily affects trips by South Koreans to North Korea's tourist areas near the border. This was preceded by actions by South Korean non-governmental organizations that used balloons to drop thousands of leaflets over North Korea. It contained information about Kim Jong-il's health and his family relationships. Both topics are considered taboo in North Korea. The North Korean leadership was correspondingly angry and accused South Korea of hostile policies.

A new low point in relations with South Korea was the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan on March 26, 2010, in which 46 sailors died. The ship sank near Baengnyeongdo Island after an explosion. Baengnyeong is part of South Korea, but lies off the North Korean coast. The maritime border between the two Korean states is controversial. A commission of experts made up of representatives from South Korea, the USA and other Western countries came to the conclusion that the ship had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo. North Korea denied involvement in the incident.

On November 23, 2010, North Korean units fired more than 100 grenades on the inhabited South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which had been converted into a military base, in an artillery duel with the South Korean military, killing two South Korean soldiers and two South Korean civilians. There had not been a military conflict of this magnitude since the end of the Korean War.


Reign of Kim Jong-un (since 2011)

After the death of Kim Jong-il on December 17, 2011, his youngest son Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as head of state. However, it is believed that his uncle Jang Song Thaek played a key role in shaping the country's politics until his arrest. Army leaders are also involved in decisions as officials.

In mid-April 2012, North Korea officially declared itself a nuclear power through a constitutional amendment.

In his New Year's speech in 2013, Kim Jong-un spoke of a possible reconciliation with the South and made suggestions that modernization of the state under his rule appeared possible.


Foreign policy crisis

After the UN imposed tougher sanctions on North Korea and the United States announced joint military exercises with South Korea, Kim announced renewed nuclear tests in the spring of 2013, declared martial law, put the armed forces on full alert, and threatened both South Korea and the United States States with a nuclear pre-emptive strike and temporarily closed access to the Kaesong Special Economic Zone. The international community, including the People's Republic of China, an ally of North Korea, strongly condemned these threatening behavior and urged North Korea to show moderation.

The United States largely considered the threats to be war rhetoric, but responded by announcing that it would build additional missile defense stations on its Pacific islands, such as Guam, to intercept a possible attack. In June 2013, relations between the Korean states relaxed again.

In 2018, North Korea took part in the Winter Olympics in South Korea and competed in women's ice hockey on a joint North and South Korean team.

According to the expert report to the UN Security Council, which was announced in early February 2018, North Korea circumvented UN trade embargoes “on a large scale” in 2017. Coal is exported, crude oil and iron are imported, and ships sail under false flags and with forged shipping documents. 40 deliveries were made to the Syrian chemical weapons program between 2012 and 2017. Myanmar was supplied with ballistic missiles and rocket launchers. According to findings by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), high-tech components (some of them dual-use goods) for the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons program were procured via the embassy in Berlin.


Internal power struggle

In early December 2013, the vice chairman of North Korea's National Defense Commission, Jang Song Thaek, was arrested and removed from power. He was accused of, among other things, treason, corruption, gambling addiction, drug abuse, wasting money and selling off raw materials to the People's Republic of China. Jang was executed on December 12, 2013. At the same time, Jang's widow and sister of Kim Jong-il, Kim Kyŏng-hŭi, was appointed to the committee for the state funeral of member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the WPK and chairman of the Party Control Commission Kim Kuk-thae in mid-December 2013.

In February 2017, Kim Jong-un's half-brother Kim Jong-nam was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur Airport.


Precarious supply situation

For several years now, the North Korean leadership has repeatedly spoken about a food shortage in the country. The UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, warned of a “serious food crisis” in a report to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021. There are already reports of starvation deaths and an increasing number of begging children and elderly people who can no longer be looked after by their families.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the border with the People's Republic of China, where smuggling previously made an important contribution to the economic situation, was massively expanded and reinforced with more border staff. Walls were built, barbed wire fences were erected and almost all remaining loopholes on the border were closed. As a result, trade with China practically collapsed. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in North Korea and the resulting pandemic laws, domestic food trade also collapsed. According to a BBC documentary, which managed to communicate with North Koreans on the ground about the supply situation, the country is on the verge of a famine catastrophe that threatens to exceed the dimensions of the 1990s.

At the same time, as part of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, North Korea came into the world's attention as a confirmed and future potential weapons supplier to the Russian army in 2022.