The North Korean government, who hates to be ignored by the world, has announced they will be testing their new longer-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missile soon. According to the best reports available, it could take one or two months to implement the test. This isn't a problem for them. The government craves attention and relishes being featured on every major news network worldwide. During their last missile test, the device exploded in midair about thirty seconds after launch. They are dedicated to keep trying, though.
The head honcho in this scenario is Kim Jong II, a man who holds every title in North Korea except 'God of Everything' and he's applied for that job, too. Kim was reported to have suffered a stroke a while back but has apparently recovered and ready to show the world North Korea is a nuclear player on the world stage.
'Recovered' is an ambigious term. There have been claims that Kim Jong II is either incapacitated or has been dead since 2004, replaced by one of the lookalikes he keeps around to fool possible assassins. No one really knows for sure, and the North Koreans are silent on all questions regarding Kim. It is believed (if he is alive) that he is staying at a complex north of Pyongyang complete with multiple fences, machine guns, bunkers, and anti-aircraft batteries.
Or he could be at one of his sixteen other residences scattered throughout the country, such as his private resort near Paektu Mountain, or the seaside lodge in the city of Wonsan.
On the other hand, the 'personality cult' that North Korea has built around Kim is good at keeping secrets. But occasionally a few facts about the leader of the world's most famous pariah nation leak out.
'Like his father, Kim has a fear of flying, and has always traveled by private armored train for state visits to Russia and China. The BBC reported that Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian emissary who traveled with Kim across Russia by train, told reporters that Kim had live lobsters air-lifted to the train every day, which he ate with silver chopsticks...'
North Korea lives under many illusions, and one of them is that they are anything resembling a real threat to the United States. Their government is practically penniless, they have no tax base, and any support for the government is acquired on pain of death or imprisonment. However, North Korea also has the fifth largest standing army in the world and could mount an invasion on their southern neighbor if they wished. Their effort to acquire nuclear weapons and put them under the control of a man who considers himself a deity makes South Koreans justifiably nervous.
The closest model to North Korea is probably the government of China when it was under the rule of Mao Tse Tung.
Both Japan and the United States are easily able to follow the progress of Kim Jong's program via spy satellites. They are keeping close tabs on everything that is going on in a country that models itself much after the famous book by George Orwell.
Kim's official birthday is one of the biggest holidays in North Korea, and celebration is required of the populace. And since Kim's picture is plastered on monuments and walls in every village in the country, he makes sure you don't forget to participate.
How the economy actually works in North Korea is a mystery. Foreign visitors to shops in Pyongyang say there are goods for sale, but the shopkeepers show little interest in customers. The average wage is between $10-$35 a month while rice costs about $1.40 a kilogram. Obviously, most of the real economy is underground. Cell phones were allowed for a brief period in 2003-04, but were soon banned and service cut off. The few visitors who gain access to the country report that people still talk about how great it was when they had the phones. They don't shout these things from the rooftops, of course. That could make you disappear faster than a historical footnote at Orwell's Ministry of Truth.
A team of U.S. experts, including former Ambassador to South Korea Stephen Bodsworth, are going to meet with North Korean officials February 3 to talk about the upcoming missile test and other issues. They are not an official U.S. delegation.
The North Korean government has been unhappy ever since the U.S. cut off energy assistance to the country for failing to allow nuclear inspections. The South Korean government also cut off a previously free-flowing river of aid and cooperative business ventures that were slated to employ more than 100,000 North Koreans. Other governments, such as Russia and China, have participated in negotiation efforts to halt North Korea's nuclear program, but have had little success. Russia, who once was one of North Korea's biggest friends and a trade partner, is no longer able to provide much support.
According to a spokesperson at the 'Blue House' in Seuol, President Obama spoke by telephone just after taking office to South Korean president Lee Myung Bak. South Korea claims that Obama agreed to 'cooperate' with their government, although beyond the usual support that the U.S. gives South Korea, not much else is known about what 'cooperation' really entails. Perhaps President Obama was just assuring South Korea that the status quo between the two countries would continue.
In 2004, about 35,000 U.S. soldiers were stationed in South Korea, although some were later moved to Iraq. This is the main concern of the U.S. government regarding North Korea. Should Kim Jong II order an invasion of the south, American soldiers would be standing alongside the South Korean army to meet them. Neither the U.S. or South Korea wants a repeat of the Korean War, so diplomatic efforts will probably continue. Some experts believe North Korea's nuclear program is more extortion than military-oriented. In other words, North Korea might be building up its program as more advanced than it really is, in an effort to gain financial and economic support. Unfortunately, since North Korea is so isolated from the rest of the world, they may not have heard about the worldwide recession.
Perhaps diplomacy under the Obama administration will have better success convincing the North Koreans to give up building nukes. Bringing them into the 21st century as well?
Don't get your hopes up.