North Korea has long been enigmatic - especially to the West. An elaborate cult of personality created around the ruling Kim family permeates both the cultural and political lives of the nation. The world's most militarized nation, it has been developing nuclear weapons and a space program. In 2002, President George Bush labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil," primarily due to its aggressive military posture but also because of its abysmal human rights record.
Prior to Obama's speech, Pyongyang said it will see any critical statement of its nuclear program as "a declaration of war." His remarks follows last week's announcement by North Korea that it is planning to carry out a rocket-powered satellite launch in April.
Using ballistic missile technology, however, is in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 and against a deal struck with the United States earlier this month that it would not carry out nuclear or missile tests in return for food aid.
North Korea's relationship with the South has determined much of its post-World War II history and still undergirds much of its foreign policy. North and South Korea have had a difficult and acrimonious relationship since the Korean War. In recent years, North Korea has pursued a mixed policy--seeking to develop economic relations with South Korea and to win the support of the South Korean public for greater North-South engagement while at the same time continuing to denounce the R.O.K.'s security relationship with the United States and maintaining a threatening conventional force posture on the DMZ and in adjacent waters.
Except early today, the North began shelling the inhabited island of Yeonpyeongdo, about two miles south of the maritime armistice line. According to the Korea Times – which headlines its piece “1st NK Attack on S. Korean Soil” — the North’s army is believed “to have about eight 27-kilometer-range 130mm howitzers and eight 76 guns with a range of 12 kilometers,” presumably at use in the strike.
North Korea is reported to hold up to 200,000 political prisoners. Because of the high number of deaths reported in detention, human rights groups have increasingly begun to recommend that humanitarian organizations like the ICRC, WFP and UNICEF be allowed entry into the camps. The US State Department’s 2010 human rights report affirmed, “Many prisoners in political prison camps were not expected to survive.”
The Stanford University scientist visited Yongbyon in November, 2010, and reported that he saw a facility that housed 2,000 centrifuges and was producing low-enriched uranium. It could, however, he wrote then, "be readily converted to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU) bomb fuel."
Hecker, an emeritus director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, also estimated that North Korea has between four and eight plutonium bombs, each of which could do damage similar to that of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in Japan at the end of World War II.
North Korea has suffered famines and widespread malnutrition during the past two decades -- thanks to its dysfunctional economy and international sanctions. Other countries and international groups have repeatedly stepped in with food aid to alleviate the situation.
North Korea is the last Stalinist state on earth, and in 2006 it became the latest country to join the nuclear club. Over the past two decades, it has swung between confrontation and inch-by-inch conciliation with its neighbors and the United States, in an oscillation that seems to be driven both by its hard-to-fathom internal political strains and by an apparent belief in brinksmanship as the most effective form of diplomacy.
About 150,000 North Koreans protested at the Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang on Sunday to condemn the South, according to South Korean media.
North Korea's KCNA reported a South Korean army unit hung portraits of the late leader Kim Jong Il and the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, on walls and doors of a military base and wrote "unspeakable defamatory words below them."
Travel within the DPRK is severely restricted. DPRK leader Kim Jong-Il died on 17 December 2011. We assess that there is currently no increased risk or danger to British nationals in the DPRK, but British nationals resident in or travelling to the country are advised to monitor local news updates regularly and to register with the British Embassy in Pyongyang. Travellers to DPRK should avoid remarks about the leadership which could be deemed offensive.