Perhaps no country is in the news more these days for troublemaking than North Korea. Run by a diminutive dictator, the Stalinist police state is adept at causing problems on--and beyond--the Korean peninsula.
Indeed, from its large army and the proliferation of ballistic missiles to nuclear tests and the counterfeiting of American cash, reclusive North Korea is the world's master of mayhem.
Taking a peek behind the Bamboo Curtain, it is easy to see why many consider North Korea one of the world's oddest countries--and one of its most dangerous.
Perhaps nothing is more peculiar than the cult of personality that has been erected around 68-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. According to the state-run media, he's a man of significant intellect and accomplishment.
His official biography states that when Kim was born on Korea's mythical Mount Paekdu in the early 1940s, a rare double rainbow appeared across the sky in celebration of his arrival. (He was actually born in a Soviet refugee camp.)
Kim is also an accomplished golfer--a veritable North Korean Tiger Woods--who, according to Pyongyang legend, scored a number of holes-in-one during his first-ever round of the game.
He also has a great mind. As lore would have it, he is a polymath and reportedly a "genius of 10,000 talents." As a university student, he is said to have penned more than 1,000 not book reports but books.
Kim, known as the "Dear Leader," also gives "on-the-spot guidance" at factories, farms and military units around the Mississippi-sized country, where his words are immortalized in stone monuments at the exact place they were given.
But the enigmatic and reclusive Kim suffered a stroke last fall and may not be long for this Earth. Continuing a dynasty started by his father, the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, he has chosen a progeny to succeed him.
It appears he chose one of his three sons (by two wives), the 26 year-old Kim Jong Un, to run the "Kim-dom" when he goes. The young Kim has been put in charge of North Korea's notorious Intelligence bureau, well-known for terrorism and kidnapping.
If he does well there, the next step will be taking over the military, the real power behind the Kim throne.
North Korea is a martial state, where, despite a Third-World economic status, Pyongyang spends at least one-third of its paltry gross domestic product on the military.
With that money, North Korea fields a million-man army capable of striking out at South Korean and American forces with little notice across the misnamed demilitarized zone (DMZ). While the Korean People's Army (KPA) is generally poorly equipped, it is lethal, and if another Korean war broke out, hundreds of thousands would likely become casualties in the opening days of the conflict. (The South Korean capital, Seoul, is located 25 miles south of the DMZ and its metropolitan area has a population of nearly 25 million.)
Pyongyang also has the world's largest special operations forces, estimated at more than 100,000 soldiers, which would be infiltrated into South Korea before any conflict, including via yet-undiscovered tunnels under the DMZ.
But North Korea can bring more firepower than that to bear if war breaks out.
Nukes R Us
No country rattles the nuclear saber more than North Korea. Recently, the rhetoric has been particularly shrill with threats of nuclear war and "a fire shower of nuclear retaliation" if the United States attacked.
This, of course, is not a totally hollow threat as North Korea has been a member of the once-exclusive nuclear weapons club since 2006, when it conducted its first nuclear test. In May, it conducted its second.
Pyongyang, which probably already has six to eight nukes, is also promising to increase the size of its arsenal, which is entirely possible since it recently re-opened the Yongbyong nuclear facility.
North Korean nukes are not only a threat to U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan, but they also present a major challenge to keeping a lid on the number of existing nuclear weapon-capable countries.
In September 2007, the Israelis destroyed an undisclosed Syrian nuclear reactor being built by the North Koreans. The question, of course, is who else is Pyongyang cooperating with on nuclear matters?
How about Tehran? North Korea is already cooperating with Iran on its ballistic missile program. In fact, the Iranian Shahab medium-range missile is based on the North Korean No-Dong missile design.
Making matters worse, North Korea is working on putting a nuclear warhead atop its ballistic missiles.
The Defense Intelligence Agency told Congress this spring that North Korea may be able to mate a nuclear weapon to a ballistic missile of some unspecified range.
Of course, the most frightening prospect is North Korea being able to put a nuke on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can reach American soil, including Hawaii and Alaska. Unfortunately, they are working on such a missile.
The North Korean Taepo-Dong missile is believed to have ICBM potential. In fact, a test launch this spring--while not entirely successful--did result in Pyongyang shooting a missile further than ever before.
The Taepo-Dong launch, done under the guise of a satellite shot, traveled more than 2,000 miles into the Pacific Ocean. (No satellite was put into orbit, and it is not clear there ever was one.)
A North Korean missile would have to travel 3,700 miles to strike Anchorage; 4,500 miles to reach Honolulu; and, 4,700 miles to hit Seattle. No doubt that capability is on the drawing board--and no doubt others, who are unfriendly to America, would probably be interested getting their hands on it, too.
But if you think dealing with the North Korean threat is hell, try living there.
Hell on Earth
Life in North Korea is nothing short of a living nightmare. There are virtually no personal freedoms as all civil liberties are considered a threat to the Communist regime.
Political loyalty is demanded. Every home and office has pictures of the Great and Dear Leaders prominently displayed. Party members wear a lapel pin to show their fealty.
Propaganda is the word of the day. Radios and TVs are hard-wired to pre-set frequencies. North Koreans are subjected to constant martial music and B-grade Korean War flicks--this time, they win!
Failure to play by the rules could mean a bullet in the head or, worse yet, a one-way trip to one of Kim's labor camps.
North Korea imprisons more than 200,000 men, women and children in an estimated 10 hard-labor political prison camps. Some reports suggest that more than 500,000 have perished in the Stalinist gulags since they were established in the early 1970s.
While life in the camps is not laughable, some of the "crimes" are. They include watching a South Korean soap opera, saying something negative about the Dear Leader, attempting to defect or reading "subversive" material.
One story from a State Department report claims a comrade was sent off to prison camp for having accidentally sat on a newspaper that included a picture of the Dear Leader.
Entire families are sent to the gulag because of a single family member's offense. Female prisoners, who become pregnant--sometimes due to rape by prison guards--often undergo forced abortions. Infanticide is common.
Tragically, prisoners are not sent to the gulag for re-education, but to perish--either at the hands of guards or from disease, hunger or hard labor.
It is not so great outside the camps, either. North Korea has been fighting a famine since 1995. Natural disasters such as annual floods account for some of the food shortages, but most is due to failed agricultural and economic policies. As a result, as many as 3 million people may have died. Many children born during the famine have been orphaned and now suffer from mental and physical handicaps due to severe malnutrition in early life. Defectors report cannibalism.
And while North Korea has received international food aid, relief groups report Pyongyang uses food as a weapon, directing aid to society's most loyal segments, while withholding it from others.
People have subsisted on twigs, bark and grass for years. Local cooperatives mix grass with grain to produce horrid, drab olive "Franken-food." (For humans, grass has absolutely no nutritional value.) Hospitals are little more than hospices.
But life is not that way for all.
North Korea is a gangster nation, pocketing as much as $1 billion a year in illegal international activity--and providing a tidy little slush fund for the Dear Leader's needs and pleasures. The money not only keeps Kim living in luxury, but it also buys loyalty from the military, security services and other elite--key to Kim staying in power.
Pyongyang runs a range of crime-for-profit schemes. For instance, according to defectors, North Korea has been involved in opium and methamphetamine production and trafficking over the years.
North Korea is also the top counterfeiter of U.S. currency, especially the $100 bill. Since the first "supernote" was revealed in 1989, Pyongyang has printed new versions to keep up with the U.S. Mint's changes to the greenback.
Pyongyang also sells a slew of other counterfeit goods: cigarettes, U.S. postage stamps, Viagara, blue jeans, gold, diamonds, weapons, ivory and even rhino horn.
Unfortunately, there is nothing to indicate North Korea will change its tough-guy stance anytime soon. That is certainly a shame for the North Korean people, who remain victims of the world's most repressive regime.
But Pyongyang's mobster-like behavior also dangerously increases the chance of misperception and miscalculation that could easily lead to very unpleasant consequences for North Koreans--and others as well.
Peter Brookes is senior fellow for National Security Affairs in the Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in Townhall Magazine