Foreign policy and defense
According to abbreviationfinder, North Korea is a nation in Eastern Asia. Its capital city is Pyongyang. The Korean War has characterized North Korea’s foreign and security policy for more than half a century (see Conflicts: Korea). War permits formally prevail with South Korea, as the 1953 ceasefire agreement was not followed by any peace agreement. Since the 1990s, international relations have largely been about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and the world’s attempts to put an end to it.
The pursuit of independence according to the juche ideology (see Political system) has been the official guiding principle in North Korea’s foreign policy. It has contributed to the country’s isolation, although in reality it has long been closely linked to China and the Soviet Union (see Modern History).
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in North Korea for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
Nowadays, North Korea has diplomatic relations with most countries in the world, including most of the EU. However, diplomatic relations with the US are lacking and Washington’s interests are represented in Pyongyang by the Swedish Embassy.
Attempts to get North Korea to discontinue its nuclear weapons program have taken place with both carrot and whip. Pyongyang has also been attracted with oil, food deliveries and trade exchanges, and has been penalized with frozen bank accounts, delisted goods deliveries and other penalties.
The North Korean regime has promised numerous times to refrain from developing nuclear weapons, but has done so anyway. Since 2012, North Korea has inscribed in its constitution that the country is a nuclear weapons state. The country is also believed to have an active chemical weapons program and possibly biological weapons as well.
In light of the fact that the United States had nuclear weapons in South Korea, as early as the 1950s, North Korea initiated a program to develop nuclear technology, with the potential for both nuclear and nuclear weapons. The US nuclear weapons were removed in the 1970s. In 1992, North and South Korea agreed that the Korean Peninsula should be free of nuclear weapons.
North Korea refused, despite allowing the UN Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect facilities suspected of preparations for nuclear weapons. But in 1994, Pyongyang signed an agreement with the United States that the North Koreans would scrap nuclear reactors that could have been used for peaceful nuclear power – and for the development of nuclear weapons. In return, North Korea would get help with its energy supply through oil supplies and help with the construction of light water reactors.
In the years that followed, North Korea’s program of developing robots capable of carrying weapons long distances was also discussed. Promises and broken promises made each other succeed. In 2003, North Korea formally withdrew from the International Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – which it joined in 1985 but never followed. The decision prompted the United States to pressure North Korea into so-called six-party talks, in which South Korea, China, Japan and Russia also participated, to get Pyongyang to discontinue its nuclear weapons program.
First nuclear test
But in October 2006, the North Koreans for the first time blasted an underground charge. The reactions in the outside world became strong. The UN introduced sanctions that put an end to the import of military equipment.
The six-party talks continued and in 2007 a breakthrough appeared to be reached when, among other things, North Korea agreed to close its reactor in Yongbyon and other nuclear facilities and allow inspections by the IAEA. North Korea, in return, received promises of energy and food aid, normalized relations and enforced sanctions.
Nor did the pledges now lead to any major course change. In 2009, instead, the tone hardened. When the UN condemned the trial of a long-range robot, North Korea responded by jumping off the six-party talks. In May of the same year, the country again conducted a test of a nuclear weapon. In February 2013, a third underground explosion was conducted.
During the second half of the 2010s, North Korea increased the amount of robotic and nuclear weapons tests. A fourth nuclear test was carried out in early 2016 and shortly thereafter another rocket launch. According to the outside world, it was again a cover for the work of developing long-range missiles that can be equipped with nuclear weapons.
In response to the US and South Korea’s decision to deploy an air defense system in South Korea (see South Korea: Foreign Policy and Defense), with the stated purpose of protecting South Korea from missile attacks from the north, in July of the same year, North Korea fired three robots into the sea outside South Korea.
The same autumn, the country performed another nuclear test, the fifth in order. North Korean sources said that after the test, the country was now technically able to mount nuclear warheads on robots. Continued robot testing followed, resulting in new tensions and sharpened sanctions from the UN.
On US initiative, the United Nations Security Council in August 2017 adopted additional sanctions against North Korea. The sanctions, which completely prohibit the country from exporting coal, iron and lead, were estimated to reduce export revenues by more than a third.
After a sixth nuclear test took place in September 2017 – the first hydrogen bomb found – new sanctions were introduced for the eighth time since the country conducted the first nuclear test in 2006. This time, a limit was placed on how much oil was allowed to be exported to North Korea. This mainly concerned China, which is the country that mainly supplies North Korea with oil. Chinese oil exports could continue at the same level as last year, but no more. A ban on North Korea’s important textile exports was also introduced. In addition, new visas were also not issued for North Korean guest workers.
After a close relationship with South Korea and the United States (see below), in the spring of 2018, North Korea’s leaders announced that the country no longer needed to test nuclear weapons and long-range robots because they now had nuclear weapons that could deter the country’s enemies. He also said he was willing to work for nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula. No more nuclear and robotic tests would be done and the nuclear weapons testing facility destroyed, as witnessed by foreign journalists.
Relations with South Korea
North Korea has never acknowledged South Korea, but has the goal of reuniting the peninsula (the reverse also applies). Despite this, a cautious dialogue was initiated between the countries in the 1970s and in the mid-1980s group trips began with meetings between family members who had not met since the Korean War. After the end of the Cold War around 1990, trade and talks followed.
When North Korea released the requirement that only a reunited Korea could join the UN, both Korea were admitted as members there in 1991. The following year, a broad cooperation agreement came into force.
In June 2000, a historic summit was held in Pyongyang between Kim Jong-Il and South Korea’s President Kim Dae-Jung. They decided on financial cooperation, re-established rail links and reopened liaison office at the Panmunjom border station. At the inaugural Olympic Games in Sydney the same year, North and South Korea’s participants marched in together.
North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006 created new tensions. A second summit between North and South Korea in 2007 gave hope for more icing, but in practice did not lead far. In 2009, the rhetoric of war was escalated and after the second test blast, the North said it was no longer bound by the 1953 standstill agreement.
In 2010, the situation was further tightened. In March, 46 South Korean sailors died after the warship Cheonan exploded and dropped near the Yellow Sea border. An international investigation found that a North Korean torpedo dropped the ship. Pyongyang refused to interfere and broke all relations with Seoul. In November, a firefight broke out when North Korea suddenly fired artillery fire at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, also near the border. Four South Koreans were killed in the attack, which also caused material destruction.
The situation remained predominantly tense between countries and worsened by North Korea’s rocket launch and nuclear test 2012-2013.
Following Pyongyang’s rocket launch in early 2016, South Korea made the decision to close the Kaesong joint industrial zone, which the countries have been operating along with some disruption since 2004 (see Industry).
Although the conflict was perceived as more frozen than ever towards the end of 2017, an iceberg occurred in early 2018. In January of that year, for the first time since Kim Jong-Un’s accession as North Korean leader, bilateral talks were held at a high level. The official reason for the talks was to discuss North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in South Korea next month. During the inaugural ceremony, North and South Korean contestants marched together and later met with South Korean President Moon Jae-In North Korea’s Former Head of State Kim Yong-Nam and Kim Jong-Un’s sister Kim Yo-Jong. In April of that year, a historic meeting was held, in the border town of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone, between Kim Jong-Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In.
The two Korean leaders then met on two more occasions in 2018 and agreed on concrete measures to reduce tensions and spur joint cooperation. These included removing land mines along the common border and reducing the number of guard posts. In addition, a reunion was held for families who split up in the Korean War and ended up on each side of the border. However, the continued international sanctions against North Korea have put a stalemate on closer economic cooperation between the states and investments in North Korea.
Relations with the United States
Relations with the United States are particularly closely related to the game around the core program. Pyongyang ideally wants direct negotiations with Washington and only reluctantly agreed that other countries in the region participated in the six-party talks that lasted until 2009. North Korea counts the United States as its main enemy and accuses South Korea of being its puppet state.
The relationship was extraordinarily much in tune with then-US President George W Bush’s 2002 speech on the “axis of evil” – North Korea, Iran and Iraq. When Barack Obama took office as president in 2009, there were hopes of thunderstorms. Instead, North Korea provoked the launch of a long-range robot and then a nuclear weapon.
After Donald Trump took office as new US president in January 2017, the relationship between the two countries became increasingly hostile as North Korea expanded its robot tests (see Calendar). The same spring, in conjunction with the annual military exercises between South Korea and the United States, when North Korea’s leadership has traditionally protested openly with threatening statements, the turmoil in the Korean peninsula increased again. But the Trump leadership made it clear that the goal was for North Korea to be piloted again in a dialogue on the nuclear program. To achieve this, diplomacy and further sanctions would be used. At the same time, the American press had also increased the pressure on China (see below) to actively participate in attempts to get North Korea on the right path.
After Kim Jong-Un suddenly began a rapprochement with South Korea in early 2018, he also came in the spring with an invitation to President Trump. This man surprisingly agreed to hold a summit with Kim Jong-Un. The meeting finally took place on June 12 the same year in Singapore. It was the first time a US president met with North Korea’s leaders. The two leaders discussed nuclear disarmament and signed a document to promote the Korean Peninsula to be free of nuclear weapons. The United States pledged to safeguard North Korea’s security and would also stop the recurring military exercises with South Korea. In addition, it was agreed to endeavor to establish a formal peace agreement after the Korean War. However, how it all went to was very unclear and therefore further meetings were needed.
In February 2019, Trump and Kim Jong-Un met at a second summit, this time in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi. Expectations were high before the meeting, both of the parties as well as the outside world. But the summit was stranded and had to be canceled prematurely. The countries blamed each other. The US believed that the North Koreans demanded too much, according to President Trump, to lift all sanctions, against the partial dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. It was stated from North Korean sources that they had only demanded that the sanctions introduced in 2016-2017 be removed.
Relations with China
Since the end of the Cold War, China has been North Korea’s closest ally. A friendship agreement was signed in 1961 between the countries where China promises to come to the rescue of North Korea in an external attack. Almost all of North Korea’s trade is done today with China, which is also an important source of food and energy for the North Koreans. But the relationship is complicated and China’s influence seems more limited than before.
Beijing has tried to intercept North Korea’s nuclear weapons test blasts in the early 2000s and participated in its condemnations. At the same time, China is believed to be more concerned about instability in the Korean Peninsula than for the nuclear weapons themselves. Beijing has supported UN sanctions against North Korea, but Chinese leaders have not wanted to resort to overly harsh methods to avoid the collapse of the Pyongyang regime. Not least, in China, there is a strong concern about a refugee storm across the common border.
After Kim Jong-Un took over the leadership of North Korea, relations cooled. But in early 2018, just before the planned US summit, Kim Jong-Un made a train trip to Beijing, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The trip, Kim Jong-Un’s first official trip abroad as a North Korean leader, was perceived by observers as a way to assure Beijing that it was not excluded from the negotiations that had begun on the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
Relations with Japan
Japan has joined South Korea and the United States in the conflict on the Korean Peninsula and Japan also has a military alliance with the United States. This has made North Korea perceive Japan as an enemy. Relations have been further strained by the difficult experiences of the North Koreans during the former Japanese colonial empire and a dispute over North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. In 2002, Pyongyang acknowledged that 13 Japanese were kidnapped, of which five were sent back, but according to Tokyo, hundreds of Japanese may be detained in North Korea.
North Korea has the world’s fourth largest military power and is the most militarized country in terms of population. Military spending in recent years has been estimated at around one quarter of gross domestic product (GDP). The military has over one million soldiers and several million reservists. The military service can last up to twelve years in the army and up to ten years in the Navy.
It is unknown how many nuclear weapons North Korea has available: estimates range from 15 to 60. It can produce both highly enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear bombs. The sixth nuclear test 2017 was a hydrogen bomb and the most powerful to date.
With its robot tests, North Korea has also shown that it has developed several different types of robots, from short-range, to medium- and long-range weapons.
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 1 100 000 men (2017)
The air Force: 110,000 men (2017)
The fleet: 60,000 men (2017)