The first recorded kingdom (Choson) on the Korean Peninsula dates from approximately 2300 B.C. Over the subsequent centuries, three main kingdoms – Kogoryo, Paekche, and Silla – were established on the Peninsula. By the 5th century A.D., Kogoryo emerged as the most powerful, with control over much of the Peninsula, as well as part of Manchuria (modern-day northeast China). However, Silla allied with the Chinese to create the first unified Korean state in the late 7th century (688). Following the collapse of Silla in the 9th century, Korea was unified under the Koryo (Goryeo; 918-1392) and the Chosen (Joseon; 1392-1910) dynasties.
Korea became the object of intense imperialistic rivalry between the Chinese (its traditional benefactor), Japanese, and Russian empires in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Following the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Korea was occupied by Imperial Japan. In 1910, Japan formally annexed the entire peninsula. After World War II, Korea was split with the northern half coming under Soviet-sponsored communist control. After the Korean War (1950-53), during which North Korea failed to conquer UN-backed South Korea (Republic of Korea, ROK), North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK), under its founder President KIM Il Sung, adopted a policy of juche (“self-reliance”) as a check against outside influence. North Korea demonized the US as the ultimate threat to its social system through state-funded propaganda, and molded political, economic, and military policies around the core ideological objective of eventual unification of Korea under Pyongyang’s control. KIM Il Sung’s son, KIM Jong Il, was officially designated as his father’s successor in 1980, assuming a growing political and managerial role until the elder KIM’s death in 1994. Under KIM Jong Il’s reign, North Korea continued developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. KIM Jong Un was publicly unveiled as his father’s successor in 2010. Following KIM Jong Il’s death in 2011, KIM Jong Un quickly assumed power and has since occupied the regime’s highest political and military posts.
After decades of economic mismanagement and resource misallocation, the North since the mid-1990s has faced chronic food shortages and economic stagnation. In recent years, the North’s domestic agricultural production has increased, but still falls far short of producing sufficient food to provide for its entire population. Starting in 2002, North Korea began to ease restrictions to allow semi-private markets, but has made few other efforts to meet its goal of improving the overall standard of living. New economic development plans in the 2010s failed to meet government-mandated goals for key industrial sectors, food production, or overall economic performance. In response, the North Korean leader in early 2021 admitted these failures, but vowed to continue “self-reliant” policies.
North Korea has a history of provocative regional military actions and posturing that are of major concern to the international community and have limited North Korea’s international engagement, particularly economically. These include proliferation of military-related items; long-range missile development; WMD programs including tests of nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016, and 2017; and large conventional armed forces. In 2013, North Korea declared a policy of simultaneous development of its nuclear weapons program and economy. In late 2017, KIM Jong Un declared the North’s nuclear weapons development complete. In 2018, KIM announced a pivot towards diplomacy, including a re-prioritization of economic development, a pause in missile testing beginning in late 2017, and a refrain from anti-US rhetoric starting in June 2018. Since 2018, KIM has participated in four meetings with Chinese President XI Jinping, three with South Korean President MOON Jae-in, and three with US President TRUMP. Since 2019, North Korea has continued developing its ballistic missile program and issued statements condemning the US, and vowing to further strengthen its military capabilities, including long range missiles and nuclear weapons. North Korea remains one of the world’s most isolated and one of Asia’s poorest countries.