Skip to main content

North Korea Country Report

Country Risk Level

High

Overview

Executive Summary

North Korea’s authoritarian structure, repression through its extensive security forces, and purges of opponents lend stability to its political system. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s core policy points to continued weapon development and acceptance of limited marketisation. However, Kim’s suspected health issues pose the greatest risk to government and policy stability in North Korea. In the event of his death or incapacity in the one-year outlook, his sister, Kim Yo-jong, currently appears as the most likely successor. North Korea reported its first suspected case of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in July 2020, but it is highly likely that active cases have been present in the country since at least March. North Korea’s healthcare facilities are unlikely to be able to contain, test, or treat multiple cases of COVID-19. International humanitarian organisations have criticised delays to essential medical imports since the imposition of punitive sanctions by the US and the UN in 2016 and 2017.The risk of interstate war remains high because of ambiguity around North Korea’s – and importantly the US’s – redlines. North Korea carried out a series of provocative actions against South Korea in June, including the demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office on 16 June. The escalation of the situation on the Korean Peninsula increases the risk of miscalculation leading to limited conflicts in areas bordering South Korea. As part of its strategy to coerce the US into re-engagement, North Korea is likely to demonstrate increased deterrence capabilities through intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear tests before year-end. Nonetheless, conflict remains unlikely.The domestic economy remains weak, with trade and labour exports to China remaining the major source of hard currency earnings under sanctions. During recent years, North Korea has managed a 1% growth rate because of trade with China, which will be jeopardised by the border closure because of COVID-19.

Operational Outlook

North Korea is among the countries with the highest IHS Markit operational risk scores. Government efforts to introduce more market-oriented policies have consistently stalled, or have been suspended or reversed. Despite ongoing construction, mainly in the capital Pyongyang, physical infrastructure is poor and substantial improvement is unlikely, including in special economic zones. International sanctions because of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes are likely to continue to hinder foreign investment or operations beyond the one-year outlook. All labour is controlled by the government, posing the risk of withdrawal of workers in addition to the arbitrary seizure of assets, as happened in the Kaesong Industrial Zone in April 2013 and February 2016.

Terrorism

Low

There are no known domestic or transnational terrorist groups in North Korea. The government has been widely reported to have allegedly sponsored or carried out terrorist-style attacks abroad on South Korean targets or North Korean defectors, such as the assassination of the Supreme Leader's half-brother in Malaysia in February 2017. According to international media, the North Korean government and military also support international terrorism by selling technology, training, and weapons to state and non-state actors, including chemical weapons to the Syrian government and small-arms and anti-tank weapons to militant groups, such as Hamas.

Crime

High

There is little petty crime in North Korea's tightly controlled state. Closely monitored foreign visitors are highly unlikely to be affected by criminal activity. The primary state authorities responsible for overseeing law and order are the People's Safety Agency (PSA) and National Security Agency (NSA). North Korean government involvement in international criminal activity, however, has been evidenced in multiple, well-sourced investigations. This includes allegations of cyber attacks and methamphetamine trafficking, which reportedly generate millions of dollars for the government. Increasingly, the state and its overseas organisations have also been widely reported to be involved in for-profit cyber crime.

War Risks

The risk of interstate war on the Korean Peninsula is largely dependent on ongoing diplomacy between North Korea and the United States, as well as other regional actors. In June 2020, North Korea carried out a series of provocations against South Korea intended to manufacture a sense of crisis and coerce the US into re-entering sanctions negotiations. Along with the severing of all inter-Korean communication ties, these also increase the risk of miscalculation and escalation towards conflict, although a full-scale conflict on the Korean Peninsula remains unlikely. North Korean provocations will probably culminate in an intercontinental ballistic missile test in the months leading up to the November 2020 US presidential election.

Social Stability

Low

North Korea’s ubiquitous and strict domestic security and intelligence services minimise the risk of social unrest. Most people with strong anti-government leanings are more likely to attempt to defect from North Korea rather than to rebel. Food or fuel shortages would be the most probable trigger for protests, but these would probably be sparsely attended because of repressive security forces. Authorities would probably use force and mass detention, if not public execution, to disperse and end any protests. In the long term, increasing information about foreign countries, particularly South Korea, will probably foment political dissatisfaction, although not enough to instigate an uprising.

Health Risk

Vaccinations required to enter the country

Proof of vaccination against yellow fever is required if traveling from a country with risk of yellow fever transmission and over one year of age.

Routine Vaccinations

Hepatitis A: A vaccine is available for anyone over one year of age. The vaccine may not be effective for certain people, e.g. those born before 1945 and who lived as a child in a developing country and/or have a past history of jaundice (icterus). These people can instead get a shot of immune globulin (IG) to boost their immunity against the disease.

Hepatitis B: A vaccine is available for children at least two months old.

Diphtheria-Tetanus-Polio: A booster shot should be administered if necessary (once every ten years).

Other Vaccinations

Typhoid Fever: If your travels take you to regions with poor sanitary conditions (for children two years old and up).

Rabies: For prolonged stays in an isolated region (for children from when they can walk).

Japanese Encephalitis: For stays of longer than one month in a rural zone during the rainy season (for children over the age of one). The vaccine is administered in a local medical facility.

For Children: All standard childhood immunizations should be up-to-date. In the case of a long stay, the BCG vaccine is recommended for children over one month and the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine for children over nine months.

Practical Information

Climate

Autumn is sunny and dry. Winters are quite harsh but still sunny and dry. Spring is often foggy and rivers remain frozen until mid-April. Summer, monsoon season, is hot (30°C) and very rainy.

Useful Numbers

Country Code: +850

There are no emergency services in North Korea.

Electricity

Voltage: 220 V ~ 50 Hz

Outlets:

Risk Level
Critical High Medium Low Minimal