People in North Korea are referred to as North Koreans. They are ethnic Koreans. For the most part, Koreans are the only ethnic group found in Korea. North Korea has been categorized as the least ethnically diverse country on Earth followed by South Korea. There are virtually no minorities in North Korea other than small communities of Chinese and Japanese. By one count there are about 50,000 Chinese in North Korea. Koreans are regarded as one the purest ethnic strains found in Asia, which is surprising when you consider that Korea has been periodically occupied by the Chinese and Japanese throughout its history (most recently the Japanese between 1910 and 1945). In contrast, China has over 86 different ethnic groups, and even homogeneous Japan has a minority, the Ainu, on Hokaido.

According to “Governments of the World”: “North Korea is an ethnically and linguistically homogenous society. Only a few Chinese and a handful of Japanese live in North Korea, some of whom were forcibly abducted by North Korean agents in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For most of its short history, emigration and immigration were virtually non-existent, although in the past few years North Korea's borders have become increasingly porous, especially along the Yalu River, which separates North Korea from China. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities, Thomson Gale, 2006]

On North Korea’s national identity, “Countries and Their Cultures” says: “A national identity as such was not born automatically with the emergence of the North Korean state. The northern leaders held the official view that the establishment of the North Korean state was an interim measure, with the ultimate goal being the unification of the entire peninsula in a single Korean national state. Kim Il Sung was not considered the national leader from the outset, either. He and his faction of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (originally named the Communist Party of Korea) systematically eliminated rival factions and individuals over several decades. Kim Il Sung's ascendancy to absolute leadership started during the Korean War with the elimination of Pak Hon-yong, who headed the South Korean Workers' Party. After the war, Kim took leadership in close connection to North Korea in its sociopolitical form from traditional Korean culture, enabling it to start anew. North Korean national identity is indissolubly connected with loyalty to Kim and North Korean-style socialism. Despite the heavy Soviet influence, Northern Korea was driven by patriotic and nationalist zeal and anti-Japanese sentiment, rather than by an ideological commitment to socialism and communism. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“In contrast to the south, where Korea's high society had been traditionally located, the north had no notable political and cultural center except for Pyongyang, which was an obvious choice for the capital. With this lack of centralized political power and cultural tradition, North Korea was able to start largely from scratch. This proved useful for constructing a brand-new North Korean cultural identity, stemming from the Soviet cultural current but distinctly North Korean at the same time.


In terms of ethnicity, the population of the Korean Peninsula is one of the world's most homogeneous. Descended from migratory groups who entered the Korean Peninsula from Siberia, Manchuria, and Inner Asia several thousands of years ago, the Korean people are distinguished from the neighboring populations of mainland Asia and Japan in terms of ethnicity, culture, and language, even though they share many cultural elements with these peoples. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Koreans have maintained their own unique language, culture and customs for thousands of years. The Koreans are believed to be descended primarily from Tungusic peoples of the cold northern regions of Central Asia. Based on linguistic evidence, the first Koreans originated from the Altai region of Mongolia and Siberia — where the Turks, Hungarians and Finns also came from — and migrated from there to present-day Liaoshi and Manchuria (regions in China) and the Korean peninsula. There is still a large population of Koreans in China today. Man of them live across the Yalu River from North Korea. The first Japanese are believed to evolved from immigrants that came largely from Korea.

Sometimes referred to as the "Irish of Asia," Koreans have a reputation for being rowdy, boisterous, friendly and emotional. According to some surveys, they drink more hard liquor than any other people in the world. Koreans divide themselves into five groups: 1) southeasterners and people from Pusan, regarded as direct, manly and boastful; 2) northwesterners, considered honest and aggressive; and 3) northeasterners, thought of as tough and resilient. 4) People from the southwest are regarded as clever, skilled compromisers but unreliable and politically disruptive; and 5) people from Seoul and the central part of Korea are considered gentle, narrow-minded, busy and selfish.

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: The phrase han p'it-chul ("one bloodline") often is used by Koreans at home and abroad to symbolize their shared identity as the members of a homogeneous nation. Blood and territory thus are the most frequently invoked metaphors associated with the nation. Before the 1945 national division of the peninsula and the subsequent establishment of the two political regimes of North and South Korea in 1948, Koreans identified themselves as the people of Choson. Tan'gun as the founding ancestor has had a symbolic meaning for Koreans throughout the nation's history. A temple erected in Tan'gun's honor in 1429 stood in Pyongyang until its destruction during the Korean War. In 1993, North Korea announced the discovery of Tan'gun's tomb and a few remains of his skeleton at a site close to Pyongyang. Some Korean calendars still print the Year of Tan'gun (Tan'gi) along with the Gregorian calendar year, which the South Korean government officially adopted in 1962.” [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, Countries and Their Cultures, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Koreans are also known as Choson and Han'guk According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Because Korea is an ethnically homogeneous nation, there are no ethnonyms per se. There are, however, several alternative names used by outsiders as well as natives, all of which come from the names of previous states or dynasties. The name "Korea" comes from the Koryo dynasty (918-1392). "Han'guk" is an abbreviation of "Taehan Min'guk" (Republic of Korea), which is used exclusively by South Koreans. Its origin can be traced to "Taehan Che'guk" (Great Han Empire), the new name of the Yi dynasty (1392-1910) chosen in 1897. "Choson" originated from Old Choson (2333-194 b.c.) , the first Korean state that possessed a bronze culture. The Yi dynasty was also named "Choson" and North Korea prefixed it for the name of its regime, "Choson Minjuju-ui Inmin Konghwa'guk" (Democratic People's Republic of Korea). From "Choson," meaning "morning calm and freshness," Korea acquired the epithet by which it is known, the "land of the morning calm." [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Differences Between North and South Korea

North Korea is where most of Korea’s resources, namely coal, are located. South Korea has traditionally been more agricultural and was where most of the peninsula’s food was produced. Both North and South Korea experience cold winters but the winters in North Korea are more bitterly cold. After World War II, the industrialized north with nine million people was occupied by the Soviets . The agricultural south with 19 million people was occupied by the United States.
Doyeun Kim wrote in The Atlantic: “Today, after” several decades “of an ongoing armistice in which the two Koreas are still technically at war, the South has grown to be the 13th largest economy in the world, a dramatic departure from the war-ravaged, poverty-stricken country it once was. Meanwhile, the North, the last Stalinist state in the world, has remained disconnected from the international community, and most of its population is chronically hungry. The stark difference between the two estranged countries can be seen from satellite images of the Korean peninsula at night: The northern half is plunged in darkness, while a sudden burst of light beneath the 38th parallel clearly outlines the piece of land that belongs to South Korea. [Source: Doyeun Kim, The Atlantic, December 14, 2012]

On linguistic affiliation, “”Countries and Their Cultures”” says: Technically, North Korea uses the same Korean language as the one spoken in South Korea. The cultural and sociopolitical division of more than half a century, however, pushed the languages in the peninsula far apart, if not in syntax, at least in semantics. When North Korea faced the task of building a new national culture, it faced a serious problem of illiteracy. For example, over 90 percent of women in northern Korea in 1945 were illiterate; they in turn made up 65 percent of the total illiterate population. In order to overcome illiteracy, North Korea adopted the all-Korean script, eliminating the use of Chinese characters...By 1979, the United States government estimated that North Korea had a 90 percent literacy rate. At the end of the twentieth century, it was estimated that 99 percent of North Korea's population could read and write Korean sufficiently.” The literacy rate in South Korea is near 100 percent and English is much more widely spoken than it is in Japan and South Korean parents put a lot of emphasis on their children learning it. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

North Koreans: the “Cleanist Race”?

Brian Myers, a scholar and expert on North Korea, says North Korea’s official propaganda promotes idea of racial purity and moral superiority. In his book “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters” (Melville House, 2010), he says, according to Cathy Cockrell of the Berkeley News, “ that the nation’s race-based ideology has its roots in Japanese fascism. Koreans historically considered themselves to be in the Chinese sphere of influence, he said. But in the early 20th century the Japanese annexed Korea and launched a campaign to persuade the peninsula’s people that they were of the same pure racial stock as the Japanese themselves, said Myers. [Source: Cathy Cockrell, Berkeley News, February 19, 2010]

“Then, when Japan left Korea at the end of WWII, pro-Japanese collaborators Koreanized the notion of a pure blood line, promoting pride in a morally superior Korean race. “Koreans are homogenous, therefore they are filled with brotherly love,” Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il is quoted as saying. On recently minted Korean currency, Myers noted, the faces depicted “could be clones. Myers teaches literature at South Korea’s Dongseo University and contributes commentary to The Atlantic Monthly and other national publications.”

Myers said “North Korea is not the last bastion of Marxist Leninism or of Confucian patriarchy, as it is often characterized. Rather, it’s guided by a paranoid ideology of race-based nationalism, he says, holding that the Korean people are inherently purer than all others.” He “believes that Western misperceptions of the DPRK involve a failure to appreciate this ideology and its hold on the North Korean populace. Though “one of the most repressive nations on Earth,” he said, the Pyongyang regime enjoys considerable public support. There’s no way to understand that seeming contradiction, he suggested, “without going to the heart of what it tells its own people.”

On the limited amount of mixing that has occurred in North Korea, Randy McDonald wrote in North Korea's population is exceptionally homogeneous. North Korea's ties with Communist Vietnam did see some Vietnamese students migrate there. Some ethnic Koreans from Japan with their Japanese wives settled in North Korea in the decades after the Second World War. Some North Korean female migrants, for whom survival sex is a frequent feature of life, married Chinese farmers and are integrated into local communities. Unlucky ones were deported back to North Korea, where they are stigmatized for having contaminated the Korean race by consorting with ethnic Chinese men and are subject to forced abortions (at least some of the time, more sophisticated than having prison guards repeatedly kick pregnant women), and infanticide if the pregnancy is advanced (their mothers frequently being forced to watch, so as to encourage them not to err in the future). [Source: Randy McDonald,, November 29, 2010]

North Korea’s Race-Based Worldview

B.R. Myers wrote in Foreign Policy: “North Korea’s ideology is not merely a nationalist-tinged communism of the old Yugoslav variety. It is a race-based worldview utterly at odds with the teachings of Marx and Lenin. And yet, the outside world continues in the illusion that North Korea is a hard-line Stalinist state. True, the nation’s first leader, Kim Il Sung, was installed by Soviet occupiers after World War II. It is also true that the personality cult of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il bears superficial resemblance to the cults of Stalin and Mao. Yet look closer, and it’s clear just how different North Korean ideology is. Not for nothing was the country almost as isolated during Soviet times as it is now in the post-communist world. [Source: B.R. Myers, Foreign Policy, February 11, 2010]

“North Korea’s race-centric ideology was inspired by that of the fascist Japanese who ruled the peninsula from 1910 until the end of World War II. Having been taught by their colonizers to regard themselves as part of a superior Yamato race, the North Koreans in 1945 simply carried on the same mythmaking in a Koreanized form. This can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure-blooded, and so too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader. This paranoid nationalism might sound crude and puerile, but it is only in this ideological context that the country’s distinguishing characteristics, which the outside world has long found so baffling, make perfect sense. Up close, North Korea is not Stalinist — it’s simply racist.

“According to the country’s propaganda, the pure-bloodedness and homogeneity of the Korean race make the North’s army a uniquely tight-knit and formidable fighting force. This way of thinking reflects an official ideology that many outsiders misperceive as communist but in reality belongs on the far right and not the far left of the ideological spectrum. No, I’m not referring to the pseudo-doctrine of North Korean “Juche” thought, a mishmash of humanist bromides (such as “man is the master of all things”) that has never had the slightest effect on policymaking. I’m referring to the ideology that the Juche smokescreen is meant to hide from the outside world: a paranoid nationalism that has informed the regime’s actions since the late 1940s.

Propaganda That Shores Up North Korea’s Race-Based Worldview

B.R. Myers wrote in Foreign Policy: “The celebration of racial purity and homogeneity is everywhere in North Korea. The citizens pictured on the country’s new currency, for example, could pass for members of the same family, which in a sense they are. A worker in one painting appears much like a farmer or soldier in another, while the children pictured in schoolbooks are downright identical. White is the dominant color in Pyongyang: White concrete plazas, white or at least blond-stoned buildings, and white statues of virginal maidens in long gowns abound. Pyongyang is often photographed or depicted under snow, a favored symbol of purity itself. “Our nation has always considered its pure lineage to be of great importance,” a North Korean general told his South Korean counterpart during a 2006 meeting to discuss realignment of the maritime border between the two states. “Since ancient times our lands have been one of abundant natural beauty,” he said. “Not even one drop of ink must be allowed.” [Source: B.R. Myers, Foreign Policy, February 11, 2010]

“This worldview is not set out, at least not straightforwardly, in the writings of North Korea’s father-and-son dictators, which are more often praised than read. Yet it informs all of the country’s mass propaganda, most of which can easily be accessed at the North Korea Resource Center in Seoul. This material is varied in form if not in content: Over eight years, I’ve examined everything from nightly news reports and television dramas to animated cartoons and war movies; from the glossy-papered Rodong Sinmun, the Workers’ Party organ, to women’s magazines printed on gray, low-quality paper; from short stories and historical novels to dictionaries and school textbooks (these last printed, semi-legibly, on the worst paper of all); from reproductions of wall posters to photographs of monuments and statues. There is no way of knowing how much of this material is produced every year, but so significant is the propaganda apparatus that it was one of the few North Korean institutions that did not miss a beat even during the catastrophic famine of the 1990s.

“What is especially significant and perhaps unique about North Korean nationalism is its emphasis on the vulnerability of the race. Whereas World War II-era Japan’s racialized worldview equated virtue with strength, the North Koreans are taught that their virtue has rendered them as vulnerable as children in an evil world — unless they are protected by a great leader who keeps a watchful eye on military readiness.

Hatred of Foreigners Helps Define North Korea’s Identity

B.R. Myers wrote in Foreign Policy: “North Korea has often been called “solipsistic,” but strong racial pride always entails intense awareness of an inferior other. For the North Koreans, foreigners are inferior — even the friendly ones. Typical is a panoramic painting of a procession of exultant tourists during 1989’s Pyongyang World Festival of Youth and Students. In whatever direction they happen to be looking, their faces are partly obscured by a sinister shadow. A fat Caucasian woman wears a low-cut blouse, while a few African women appear in halter tops; in Pyongyang today, such clothing is considered indecent. Here and there, unsavory-looking men sport long sideburns and denim, more signs of Western decadence. The only well-groomed and attractive person in view, and the only one whose face is evenly lit, is the Korean guide — an innocent young girl, naturally — who leads the way in traditional dress. [Source: B.R. Myers, Foreign Policy, February 11, 2010]

“Although popular imagery strongly implies that all foreigners are morally inferior, and occasionally criticizes the Jews’ influence on world affairs, it subjects the Japanese and Americans to the worst routine vituperation. Like the “Japs,” the former occupiers, the Yankees are condemned as an inherently evil race that can never change, a race with which Koreans must forever be on hostile terms.

“Even the Soviet Union, for all its decades of patronage, is remembered with more contempt than fondness. In Eternal Life, a 1997 historical novel, Nikita Khrushchev is called a “traitor,” one of the “fake communists” who betrayed world socialism. In the same book, Kim Il Sung chuckles about how he learned Soviet secrets by getting Leonid Brezhnev drunk. History books rarely mention the Soviet Union’s demise without sneering about how it went down “without firing a shot.”

“The Korean War predictably occupies a central place in anti-foreigner propaganda, but this tends to focus less on the U.S. Air Force’s extensive bombing campaign (which is hard to reconcile with the myth of a protective leader) than on isolated village massacres and other purported outrages. The killing of tens of thousands of civilians in Sinchon in October 1950, which was actually perpetrated by Korean rightists, is held up as the Yankees’ most heinous crime. The Americans are held responsible for the nation’s current economic woes as well. Last June, the nightly news in Pyongyang constantly intoned that the Yankees are “the cause of all our people’s misfortune.”

North Korea’s Especially Strong Antipathy Towards the U.S.

B.R. Myers wrote in Foreign Policy: “In countless posters displayed in city centers, North Korean resolve is contrasted with American spinelessness. “If we say we do something, we do it,” a towering Korean People’s Army soldier shouts in one poster as he slams his clenched fist down on the continental United States. “We don’t utter empty words!” Other posters depict North Korean fighter planes and missiles destroying the U.S. Capitol while helpless American soldiers, mere spindly, insectlike creatures, are hoisted effortlessly on bayonets or squashed under missiles.

“Such violent imagery isn’t confined to posters. Even North Korean math textbooks draw on the vocabulary of military might: “Three People’s Army soldiers rubbed out thirty American bastards. What was the ratio of the soldiers who fought?” Dictionaries and schoolbooks encourage North Korean citizens to speak of foreigners as beasts with “muzzles,” “snouts,” and “paws,” who “croak” instead of dying. In a chilling illustration from a recent North Korean art magazine, a child with a toy machine gun stands before a battered snowman; the caption reads, “The American bastard I killed.”

“Unfortunately for the United States, there is no place in this for any improvement in relations between the two countries. Were Kim Jong Il to abandon his ideology of paranoid, race-based nationalism and normalize relations with Washington, his personality cult would lose all justification, while his impoverished country would lose all reason to exist as a separate Korean state. The problem for U.S. negotiators is therefore not one of sticks versus carrots; the regime in Pyongyang will neither be bullied nor sweet-talked into committing political suicide. Nor, to dispel an increasingly popular pipe dream, can Washington expect the Chinese to make the North Koreans commit political suicide. If you want to know why there’s no possibility of a deal, you can read all about it — in Kim’s own propaganda.

North Korean Stunted and Weakened by the 1990s Famine

As many 2.6 million children suffered stunted growth caused by malnutrition during the famine in the 1990s. Aid workers described malnourished children in the winter of 1997 as "nutritional dwarfs." Children that looked three years old were six. Those there were ten looked five. Four-years weighed around 10 pounds. They moved slowly to conserve energy and their skin hung from their wrists and ankles. Long-term malnutrition can leave children permanently undersized but they usually recover mentally.

In some places a child is considered full grown if the top of his head reaches the bottom of his mother’s nose. Stephen Linton, an expert on North Korea that visited the country more than 80 times, said the food shortage could result in "generational stunting" and said that government may have decided let relief workers into the country because "they don't want to face the 21st century with a stunted population facing serious growth and developmental problems...If they are malnourished in the critical years, you can't make it up. You can grow up with a generation of cretins."

There were reports people beggars at railway stations asking for scraps of food, exhausted people slumped beside the road, schools letting out early so children could get food, and children so weak they couldn't even sing the Welcome Song when foreign guests arrived. Malnourished and hungry people with weak immune systems died from diarrhea, measles, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Defectors reported seeing people with faces that had “turned black” from malnutrition.

In November 1997, Hilary Mackenzie wrote in Newsweek, "Everywhere I saw people slumped by the side of the road, exhausted and starving and people stripping bark from the city's trees for food.” One Chinese Korean who visited North Korea told the Korea Times, "I saw that people didn't move and I thought they were all dead. But later I realized they were too feeble to move because they hadn't eaten in days."

In some towns no people over 60 were visible because the elderly reportedly gave up their food rations so their children could survive. The elderly were too sick to get out of bed but they didn't kill themselves out of fear that their food ration might be taken away. Mackenzie wrote: “On family visits, I watched the elderly give their meager rations to children: one grandmother keeled over in front of my eyes."

North Korea Army Cuts Height Requirement to Accommodate Famine-Stunted Conscripts

In 2012, North Korea reduced its minimum height requirement for military conscripts because young people coming to military service age at that time had been stunted by the deadly famines in the 1990s. Daily NK, a Seoul-based online newspaper run by North Korean defectors, said the military has cut the minimum height from 145 centimeters to 142 centimeters. AFP reported: "There were too many short boys who don't meet the previous height requirement... so the military is now accepting all who are taller than 142 centimeters," said a North Korean source quoted by Daily NK. The average height for South Korean boys of the same age is about 172 centimeters. [Source: AFP. April 2, 2012]

North Korean boys facing conscription this year were born in the mid-1990s — at the height of the famine that devastated the impoverished communist state and killed hundreds of thousands. Child mortality during this period was high and the fertility rate low, causing an acute shortage of new conscripts, said the source. "North Koreans say the country's new generation is shrinking in size," said the source, adding the army was still struggling to find enough new troops even after relaxing the physical requirements.

“UN agencies, after a visit to the North, estimated last November that three million people would need food aid in 2012. UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, after a separate visit last October, said that in northern regions almost one in two children were chronically malnourished.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: Daily NK, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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