August 4, 2009
By Peter Brookes
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Peter Brookes is senior fellow for National
Security Affairs in the Davis Institute at The Heritage
First Appeared in Townhall Magazine
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.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Read More >>
Request an interview >>
Please complete the following form to request an interview with a Heritage expert.
Please note that all fields must be completed.
Heritage's daily Morning Bell e-mail keeps you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.
The subscription is free and delivers you the latest conservative policy perspectives on the news each weekday--straight from Heritage experts.
The Morning Bell is your daily wake-up call offering a fresh, conservative analysis of the news.
More than 450,000 Americans rely on Heritage's Morning Bell to stay up to date on the policy battles that affect them.
Rush Limbaugh says "The Heritage Foundation's Morning Bell is just terrific!"
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) says it's "a great way to start the day for any conservative who wants to get America back on track."
Sign up to start your free subscription today!
The Heritage Foundation is the nation’s most broadly supported public policy research institute, with hundreds of thousands of individual, foundation and corporate donors. Heritage, founded in February 1973, has a staff of 275 and an annual expense budget of $82.4 million.
Our mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. Read More
© 2015, The Heritage Foundation Conservative policy research since 1973