The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, occupies the northern part of the Korean peninsula in East Asia, with mountains covering more than 80 percent of the land.
A Japanese possession from 1910 to 1945, Korea was then divided, with Soviet troops occupying the north and the US the south. In 1950, two years after they had been made separate states, North Korea invaded South Korea. This began the devastating Korean War (1950-53) with the North, receiving Soviet and Chinese help, fighting a US-led coalition of UN forces. The war caused an estimated three million casualties. After an armistice in 1953 a UN-monitored demilitarized zone was set up along the cease-fire line dividing the two nations.
One of the few remaining communist states, reclusive North Korea has been one of the world’s most secretive societies. The country lost subsidized trade relationships with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. After the death of dictator President Kim Il Sung in 1994 his son, Kim Jong Il, took control.
North Korea, lagging far behind South Korea in economic development, devotes large amounts of money to the military, while its people suffer from chronic food shortages. Some experts estimate that at least 2.5 million people have died of starvation or hunger-related diseases since 1994.
An estimated 300,000 North Koreans have fled to China as of 2004, where they hide from Chinese authorities who do not recognize them as refugees – and would force them to return. Despite severe shortages of food and electricity, North Korea maintains the world’s fourth largest army, a nuclear weapons program, and missiles that threaten South Korea and Japan.