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North Korea Country Profile

Geography and Climate
North Korea occupies the northern half of a mountainous peninsula. The country's geographic area is approximately 46,540 square miles, slightly smaller than Mississippi. North Korea is bordered by the People's Republic of China and Russia on the north, on the east by the Sea of Japan, on the west by the Yellow Sea, and on the south by South Korea. Hills and mountains cover almost the entire country, with narrow valleys and small plains in between. The major mountain ranges are located in the north-central and northeastern sections of North Korea and along the eastern coast. On the eastern coast, the hills drop sharply down to a narrow coastal plain, whereas on the west coast the slope is more gradual, forming broad, level plains. North Korea has no active volcanoes and does not experience severe earthquakes.

North Korea has several major rivers, most of which flow westward into the Yellow Sea. These rivers include the Yalu, Taedong, Chongch'on, Imjin, and the Yesong. The east coast has several swift-flowing rivers. Only two, the Tumen and the Songchon Rivers, are large. North Korea's rivers flow strongly during the summer, fed by seasonal rainfall and melting snow in the mountains, but the volume drops considerably during the dry winter months.

Koreans are a racially and linguistically homogenous people. In 2000, North Korea's population was estimated at approximately 21,690,000. Although there are no indigenous minorities, a small community of approximately 50,000 Chinese reside in North Korea. Traditional Korean religions are Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism, and Chondokyo, a religion peculiar to Korea combining elements of Buddhism and Christianity. However, religious activity in North Korea is practically nonexistent. Several government-sponsored religious groups exist to provide the illusion of religious freedom. North Koreans are encouraged to embrace juche, a state ideology which espouses self-reliance and national identity, as a substitute for organized religion.


The capital city of North Korea, Pyongyang, is located on the Taedong River and is roughly 30 miles (48 km) from the Yellow Sea. Although North Korea is very mountainous, Pyongyang is situated on a flat, open plain. Because it receives no protection from mountains or hills, Pyongyang is buffeted by bitterly cold winds during the winter. Temperatures during the winter are generally very cold, averaging 17°F (-8°C) in January. The temperature in Pyongyang is rather pleasant during the summer with highs around 70°F (21°C).

Pyongyang is an ancient city, its origin dating back to 1122 B.C. In that year, a Chinese-born scholar named Kija established a kingdom with Pyongyang as its capital. The city quickly became a center for agriculture and textile manufacturing. Pyongyang was controlled by Kija and his successors for nearly one thousand years. In 108 B.C., Pyongyang was attacked and captured by Chinese armies. Under the Chinese, the city became an important trading center. By 427 A.D., Pyongyang became the capital of the Koguryo, a culturally advanced and warlike people. The Koguryo kingdom controlled Pyongyang until 668, when they were attacked and conquered by the Silla kingdom. The Sillas ruled in Pyongyang until 918, when the city was captured by the Koryo dynasty. The Koryos established Kaesong as their capital and made Pyongyang a secondary capital. The Mongols attacked the Koryos and seized control of Pyongyang in 1392. The city again changed hands in 1592 following an invasion by Japan. In 1627, Pyongyang was destroyed when the Manchus overran Korea and defeated the Japanese. Following the Manchu invasions, Korea was closed to all foreigners. When foreigners were allowed to return nearly 200 years later, Pyongyang became a major religious center for Christian missionaries. In 1895, the city was a battleground for the warring armies of China and Japan. Pyongyang was decimated. When Korea became a colony of Japan in 1910, the Japanese rebuilt Pyongyang and established several industries in the city. During the Korean War (1950-1953), Pyongyang was totally destroyed for the third time in its history. Following the war, the city was rebuilt with the help of Chinese and Soviet financial aid.

Pyongyang is North Korea's largest city, with an estimated population of 2,484,000 in 2000. The North Korean government has touted Pyongyang as a workers' paradise and a model for socialist progress. The city has block after block of modern apartment buildings, tree-lined streets, handsome boulevards, theaters, parks, and a zoo. Most of North Korea's libraries and museums, two modern sports stadiums, and several opera houses and cultural centers are located in Pyongyang. The city has several lavish statues and monuments honoring North Korea's leader, Kim Il-sung. Among them are a 60-foot tall bronze statue that, when floodlighted at night, is visible for miles. From 1986-1988, the North Korean government spent between $4 and $7 billion on the construction of luxury hotels, sporting facilities, and athlete villages in Pyongyang in an unsuccessful bid to jointly host the 1988 Summer Olympics with Seoul, South Korea. This construction boom nearly bankrupted the country and many of the building projects were never completed.

Although Pyongyang has many of the trappings of a modern, vibrant city, it is often described by visitors as drab and lifeless. The streets of Pyongyang are often devoid of cars, bicycles, pets, and people. Those who are on the streets go about their business without smiling or making eye contact. Apartments are often very cramped, some with only one toilet for every two floors. The lives of Pyongyang residents are tightly regimented. Individual expression and creativity are discouraged.

Western entertainment, such as movies or dancing, is nonexistent in Pyongyang. Hotels, inns, restaurants, barbershops, beauty parlors, public baths, tailor shops, and laun-dries are owned and controlled by the State. Restaurants open at noon and generally do not remain open late in the evening. Only a simple meal is offered by restaurants. Diners may choose between a rice meal, rice mixed with another grain, or a noodle dish. Very few restaurants offer meat or eggs, as these are scarce and very expensive. In the few existing barbershops, each barber is expected to give about 20 haircuts each day. Beauty parlors and laundries are reserved for the wives of high government officials.

Pyongyang is one of North Korea's major industrial centers, its factories powered by coal from the nearby deposits along the Taedong River. The city's industrial base is comprised of iron and steel mills, sugar refineries, rubber factories, textile mills, and ceramics factories. Chemicals, processed food, and electrical equipment are also produced in Pyongyang.

Pyongyang serves as the major hub for North Korea's railway system. The city has a very modern, clean, and efficient subway system. Subway stations are adorned with beautiful chandeliers, marbled walls, and mosaic murals of Kim Il-sung. North Korea's international airport, Sunan Airport, is located approximately 10 miles (6 km) north of Pyongyang. Sunan Airport handles international flights to Moscow and Beijing as well as domestic flights from Pyongyang to North Korea's other major cities.

Most of North Korea's major educational institutions are located in Pyongyang. The city's largest university, Kim Il-sung University, was founded in 1946 and is located on the outskirts of Pyongyang overlooking the Taedong River. Admission to Kim Il-sung University is widely regarded as one of the highest honors to be attained by a North Korean youth. The university's departments include mathematics and dynamics, physics, chemistry, biology, history, economics, philosophy, law, Korean language and literature, and foreign language and literature. Pyongyang is also the home of the Pyongyang Pedagogical University. This university is responsible for training teachers for technical schools and universities. Pyongyang Pedagogical University offers postgraduate courses, research facilities, and a library. The university library is North Korea's central repository for educational publications and materials. Copies of all publications and materials relating to the study of education and textbooks are kept here for educational research purposes. North Korea's principal medical school, Pyongyang Medical College, is also located in the capital.

The city of Hamhung is located northeast of Pyongyang in east-central North Korea. In 1960, Ham-hung was merged with the port of Hungnam, a small village on the Sea of Japan coast. Together, Hamhung and Hungnam comprise North Korea's second largest urban area. The combined population of Ham-hung and Hungnam was estimated at 670,000 in 2000.

Hamhung was established as an important government center during the Yi dynasty (1392-1910). Hungnam developed as a very small fishing village. In 1928, a major hydroelectric plant was built near Hamhung. This power plant sparked new industrial development with the construction of a large fertilizer plant. Other industries soon followed, among them oil refineries, food processing plants, chemical industries, a textile plant, and machine plants. Hamhung became an important industrial center. The city was nearly leveled completely during the Korean War. However, most of the industries were rebuilt in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Today, Hamhung and Hungnam form the backbone of North Korea's chemical industry. The city is home to the Hamhung State Historical Museum. Ham-hung has three major colleges, a medical college, the Chemical Industry College, and the Chemical Research Institute.

Chongjin, located on the northeastern coast, is North Korea's third largest city. In 1986, Chongjin had a population of approximately 530,000. The city is the major port and distribution center for eastern North Korea.

Chongjin originated as a small fishing village. However, during the years of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), the Japanese established oil, steel, and iron ore manufacturing industries in Chongjin. Railroads were built connecting Chongjin with iron mines along the Tumen River near the North Korean border with the People's Republic of China. The Japanese also constructed modern port facilities at Chongjin. The city soon became a major conduit for manufactured goods from Korea to the Japanese home islands. Following the end of Japanese rule in 1945, the North Koreans modernized and expanded Chongjin's steel industry, railroads, and port facilities. Currently, Chongjin is North Korea's primary steel producing center. The North Koreans have also established other industries in the city. These industries are involved in the production of chemicals, textiles, and machinery. Because of Chongjin's location as a port city, shipbuilding has also evolved as a major industry.

Located 80 miles (130 km) east of Pyongyang, Wonsan is one of North Korea's principal ports and the site of a major naval base. The city developed during the Yi dynasty as a trading center and port known as Wonsanjin. In 1914, the railroad connecting Wonsan with Seoul (now in South Korea) was constructed. On the east coast, the Wolla rail line, running from Wonsan to the extreme northeastern port of Najin, was constructed in 1928. In 1941, North Korea's major east-west railroad connecting Wonsan and Pyongyang was completed. These railroads, which have all been modernized, make Wonsan a major railway hub.

Fishing is one of Wonsan's major economic activities. The presence of a warm and cold current in the waters off Wonsan attracts a great number of species. Fish caught include pollace, octopus, anchovy, sardines, flatfish, sandfish, herring, and mackerel. The abundance of fish near Wonsan has led to the development of a thriving fish processing industry. The city is also the home of other major industries, including shipbuilding, brickyards, locomotive works, chemical plants, textile mills, and a large oil refinery. Many of these industries were destroyed during the Korean War, but have been rebuilt and modernized. Wonsan haa over an estimated 350,000 residents.