Learn about the Korean Peninsula then answer the question at the bottom for a chance to add a stamp to your Virtual Passport!
The Korean Peninsula is located in Northeast Asia. It includes the countries of North Korea and South Korea. North Korea also shares a border with China and Russia. The Korean Peninsula lies between the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea.
The population of North Korea is estimated at about 25.5 million (State Department, citing CIA World Factbook, July 2011). The population of South Korea is estimated at 48.6 million (also by the State Department).
Previously under Japanese rule from 1910-1945, Korea became divided into two separate countries in the aftermath of World War II. North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is a Communist state and remains largely closed off from the outside world. South Korea, officially known as the Republic of Korea (ROK), is a modern democracy with a thriving market-based economy.
Relations between the two states were strained for decades, but improved with the signing of a Basic Agreement on non-aggression in the early 1990s. From 1998-2008, the leaders of South Korea pursued a “sunshine policy” aimed at increasing economic engagement with their neighbors to the North.
Since that time, however, North Korea’s accelerated nuclear weapons development activities have led to increased tensions. In October 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, which resulted in strong international condemnation. Since this time, increased diplomatic efforts have sought to peacefully end North Korea’s nuclear programs. The Six-Party Talks – involving the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia – has been the primary mechanism for negotiations.
The election of a new conservative leader, President Lee Myung-bak in South Korea in 2008 ended the “sunshine policy.” Tensions rose when North Korea walked out of the Six-Party Talks in April 2009 and, one month later, carried out a second nuclear test. North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship in March 2010 further strained relations. North Korea’s artillery attack on a South Korean island in November 2010 almost led to a military confrontation.
Chronic food shortages in North Korea have caused widespread suffering and a reliance on foreign aid, though many international observers believe that North Korea’s leaders are hoarding or manipulating supplies for political ends.
After visiting 40 counties in nine of North Korea's eleven provinces, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and UNICEF reported in March 2011 that more than 6 million North Koreans — about a quarter of the country's population — are in urgent need of international food aid. The North Korean leadership is also accused of systematic human rights abuses against its people.
The sudden death of North Korea’s longtime ruler, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011, raised important questions about future leadership and key regional dynamics. A February 2012 agreement between the U.S. and North Korea appeared to mark a modest initial step forward in that bilateral relationship: North Korea agreed to suspend nuclear activities at its Yongbyon complex and long-range missile tests and the U.S. agreed to provide 240,000 tons of food assistance to North Korea.
In December 2012, however, North Korea’s execution of a ballistic rocket launch led to U.N. Security Council sanctions and condemnation. Shortly thereafter in February 2013, the country conducted its third nuclear test explosion, the first during the rule of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, son of previous leader Kim Jong-il. The test was met with immediate global condemnation. Analysts now voice concern that North Korea is working on a lighter, smaller nuclear device.
The Six-Party Talks that previously considered North Korea’s denuclearization in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives are currently dormant.
Northeast Asia is critical to U.S. national security interests: two key American allies (Japan and South Korea), a rising power (China), and a dangerous regional threat (North Korea) are all located in this region. U.S. officials have estimated that a war on the Korean Peninsula could claim 50,000 American casualties and cost the United States over $100 billion. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) between South Korea and North Korea is the world's most heavily-fortified frontier.
In this important and increasingly volatile region, the United States Institute of Peace has effectively facilitated early direct communication and joint preventative action to de-escalate tensions.
USIP conducts ongoing research and policy analysis on major developments on the Korean Peninsula through three Track 1.5 projects, which involve current and former policymakers and leading policy experts. These projects are: the Korea Working Group, the U.S.-China Project on Crisis Avoidance and Cooperation, and the U.S.-Republic of Korea-Japan Trilateral Dialogue in Northeast Asia. Such projects provide an effective channel of communication for policymakers and advisers during periods of escalated tensions.
USIP experts also conduct regular briefings for senior Congressional staffers and officials at the State Department and the Pentagon. USIP staff members closely follow developments in the region and publish news briefings, blog posts and other written content for a range of audiences.
More information about our work on the Korean Peninsula
More information on the Korea Working Group
News updates on North Korea and South Korea
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