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What is life like inside North Korea?

By Andrew Salmon, for CNN
  • Korean peninsula divided at end of World War II
  • Kim Il-Sung, first leader of the North, passed leadership to his son in 1994
  • N. Korea is one of the world's most destitute countries, with per capita GDP at US$1,900
  • Analysts believe Kim Jong Un, the third son of Kim Jong Il, is going to be named successor

Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and the author of American Business and the Korean Miracle: US Enterprises in Korea, 1866 - The Present; the battlefield history To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951; and the upcoming Scorched Earth, Black Snow: The Commonwealth Versus Communism, Korea, 1950.

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- Why are there two Koreas?

Korea was colonized by Japan in 1910. At the end of World War II in 1945, the peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel by the great powers, with the Soviet Union installing leadership in the North, and the United States placing leadership in the South. Designed to be a temporary arrangement at the time, it ossified during the Cold War and still pertains more than six decades later.

Who was Kim Il-Sung?

A communist guerilla leader who resisted Imperial Japan in North Korea and Manchuria, then fled to the Russian Far East, where he became an officer in the Red Army. After World War II, he was installed by the Soviets as the leader of North Korea.

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How did the Korean War begin and end?

After left-wing rebellions in the South had been put down, Kim launched a conventional invasion with his Soviet-equipped army in June 1950, aiming to re-unify the peninsula under his rule. The United States leapt to the defense of the South. In October, the United States, with the United Nations and South Korean allies, smashed the North Korean army and counterattacked into North Korea. China came to its communist ally's aid, and fighting raged until the armistice of July 1953. The war, which left millions dead and the peninsula divided along the 38th parallel, was never formally ended by a peace treaty and remains unresolved to this day.

What path did North Korea take after the war?

The North -- the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK, to use its official name -- had only half the population of the South, but had most of the industrial and natural resources. The country remained firmly in the communist bloc and successfully rebuilt. It remained more prosperous than the South, until the latter's "industrial miracle" kicked off in the late 1960s. While the Cultural Revolution was underway in neighboring China in the late 1960s, North Korea's propaganda apparatus wove a personality cult around Kim.

How dangerous is North Korea?

Looking at recent history -- very. North Korean assassins attempted to kill the South Korean president in 1968, bombed the South Korean cabinet -- on a visit to Yangon, Myanmar -- in 1983 and blew up a South Korean airliner in 1987. In 1968, North Korea seized (and still holds) an American spy ship, the USS Pueblo. Moreover, it admitted to kidnapping Japanese citizens, allegedly as language trainers in its spy schools, in the 1970s and 1980s. It has defied the international community with ballistic missile tests and with two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. It also stands accused of torpedoing the South Korean warship Cheonan in March 2010, killing 46 sailors. The incident took place on the flashpoint Northern Limit Line, the tense maritime border between the Koreas in the Yellow Sea.

Who is Kim Jong Il?

Kim Il-Sung's son and chosen successor. When Kim Il-Sung died in 1994 he was made Eternal President, while Kim Jong Il assumed control of the nation -- the first dynastic power handover in any communist state -- as Chairman of the National Defense Committee, his official title to this day. His father's guiding policy had been Juche ("self reliance"); the son's is Songeun ("military first"). Although he appears to lack his father's charisma -- the only time he has spoken in public was to praise the military -- Kim Jong Il has inherited his father's personality cult and enjoys near god-like status. His health, however, is in doubt: He is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008, and recent photos show a frail man.

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  • North Korea
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  • United States
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What caused the famines of the 1990s?

With the fall of European communism in the early 1990s, North Korea's economy spiraled downward, as preferential trade relationships collapsed. This, combined with a series of bad harvests, resulted in devastating famines that may have killed as much as 10 percent of the population, known today in North Korea as the "Arduous March." Many analysts expected Kim's North Korea to go the way of Nikolae Ceausescu's Romania, but it defied expectations and still exists -- albeit in a more decrepit state now than at any time since the Korean War.

Why did Kim Jong Il never launch China-style economic reforms?

Experts say that for him to have done so after Kim Il-Sung's death would have shown disrespect to his father's legacy. Since then, Kim Jong Il's leadership and system has calcified, meaning that any significant reforms launched would be highly risky for what some now consider a brittle regime.

What is the nature of North Korean society today?

In state propaganda, the Kim personality cult, the anti-Japanese struggles of the 1930s and the Korean War of the 1950s (which North Korea insists was started by the South) are central to national identity and explain why the state sinks so many resources into its military. Communism was officially struck from the Constitution in 2009; today the state's characteristics lean more towards fascism: intense nationalism, socialism and a "military-first" policy.

Is Kim Jong Il firmly in charge?

Politically, yes: He controls the armed forces which, at 1.2 million (among a 23 million-strong populace) makes North Korea perhaps the world's most militarized state. But economically, many experts believe that regions outside Pyongyang -- Kim's showpiece capital and the home of the favored elite -- have become increasingly autonomous, due to the failure of centrist distribution policies.

What is the economy based upon?

Since the state releases no economic date, this is a statistical void, but the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated the North's economy in 2009 as being worth US$40 billion, roughly the same as that of Panama. North Korea was one of the world's most heavily industrialized nations, but due to power shortages and chronic underinvestment since the 1990s, most of this capacity lies silent. However, the country is known to produce military hardware -- notably missiles -- and chemicals; it also exports high-value added foodstuffs (seafood, mushrooms, etc.). The service sector earns some foreign currency with tourism, animation and software. The nation boasts veins of coal, iron ore, limestone, magnesite, graphite, copper, zinc, lead and precious metals. Finally, there is strong evidence that a secret directorate channeling money to Kim Jong Il earns hard currency through sales of military goods, contraband tobacco and narcotics. Money is needed for Kim to buy the allegiance of the elite, and these are the sectors U.N. sanctions are designed to impact.

Are there any signs of free market economics?

Some. Low-end cross-border trade with China has expanded since the late 1990s. Black markets and farmers' markets have always been permitted in limited forms, but since the 1990s have expanded as the state-run distribution sector faltered. Few consider this real reform, however; most analysts see official tolerance of markets as being less about reform, more about acceptance of essential economic survival mechanisms. Central authorities periodically crack down upon market activity to reassert the primacy of central distribution, but such efforts have been increasingly ineffectual in recent years, indicating a weakening of central control. A currency re-evaluation at the end of 2009 was reversed after reported unrest: The move wiped out the savings of a nascent entrepreneurial class and led to hoarding of goods and produce.

How do North Koreans live?

If not members of the elite or the privileged military, poorly. The country is one of the world's most destitute, with the CIA estimating per capita GDP at US$1,900, meaning that many North Koreans survive at the subsistence level. With the state industrial sector largely idle, many citizens reportedly rely on state asset stripping, hoarding, trading and personal farm plots to survive. Amid economically booming Northeast Asia, North Korea is, literally, a black hole: At night, due to power failures, the lights go out.

Who are North Korea's investors and partners?

Primarily China, though there is limited investment from Southeast Asia and Europe. South Korea operates the Kaesong Special Industrial Zone, a border enclave where North Koreans work in southern factories. With Beijing maintaining strong political ties with Pyongyang -- which it sees as a buffer on its northeast border -- and investing heavily in the dilapidated state's natural resources, some South Koreans worry that North Korea is becoming an economic colony of Beijing. Many nations -- including most of Western Europe -- have diplomatic representation in Pyongyang, though key players Japan, South Korea and the US do not.

What do North Koreans really think of their leadership?

One demonstration of the effectiveness of the personality cult is the surprising number of defectors who are loath to speak ill of Kim Jong Il himself, blaming the country's problems instead on those around him. In the 57 years since the end of the Korean War, fewer then 20,000 defectors have fled to South Korea.

How serious are North Korea's human rights abuses?

The country keeps the doors of its labor and "re-education" camps firmly closed, but from the testimony of defectors who escape, it is clear that due process is largely absent, internees' family members suffer incarceration alongside internees, and near starvation diets and brutal treatment at the hands of guards are commonplace. Public executions have been filmed, and some who have fled the country have made allegations of torture, forced abortions and even the testing of chemical or biological weapons on prisoners. Organizations as diverse as Amnesty International, the UN and the US State Department are highly critical of Pyongyang on the human rights front.

Is North Korea a military threat?

The country's military suffers from outdated equipment and fuel shortages but possesses significant asymmetric capabilities -- notably massive special force units, biological and chemical weapons and heavy artillery dug into bunkers and ranged on Seoul. The country possesses both atomic materials and long-range missiles, although it is believed to have neither a nuclear warhead nor a missile with the range to reach the continental United States -- yet. While many analysts say North Korea would never launch another war, which would spell the end of its regime, some fear that a pressured Pyongyang might lash out as a last resort. Another worrying scenario is of internal chaos, collapse or civil war, with factions competing for possession of fissile materials. With the country threatening both South Korea and Japan, any military action could have catastrophic effects on global capital markets.

Who is Kim Jong Un?

He is the third son of Kim Jong Il and the man who, analysts in the South believe, is going to be named his father's successor, though there has been no official confirmation from the North. Being a scion of the most secretive family in the world's most secretive state, virtually nothing concrete is known of him. He is believed to have studied in Switzerland, and to share many of his father's personal characteristics. His older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, was expected to take power but today resides in Macau, where he is believed to operate businesses; he has told Japanese reporters that he has no interest in taking power. The middle brother is Kim Jong-chul, but according to the memoirs of one former regime insider, he is regarded as "un-manly" and not a potential successor.

Are there other power personalities among North Korea's elite?

Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, is widely considered Kim's right-hand man. He has accompanied Kim to Beijing, and many analysts expect him to guide the widely anticipated succession of Kim Jong Un. Jang's wife -- Kim's younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui -- has also been photographed widely with Kim on visits to military bases and factories, a strong sign of official favor.

Is North Korea on the verge of collapse?

There are no such signs, though -- unusually -- reports of public unrest following last year's botched currency revaluation have leaked out. Whether or not the populace would support a third Kim seems irrelevant, as the nation is still so tightly controlled that revolution appears unlikely. But would Kim Jong Un wield real power -- as his father and grandfather did -- or would he be the puppet of powerful figures in the party or the military? This is unknown.