Ten facts could paint the big picture of North Korea’s isolation from the international community.
1. High militarized area
The border between North and South Korea is one of the most militarized areas in the world, according to the State Department, with a combined total of almost two million military personnel under the control of Pyongyang (1.2 million), Seoul (680,000) and foreign powers including the United States (28,000). North Korean arms outnumber those in the South by about two to one, including offensive weapons such as tanks, long-range artillery, aircraft and armored personnel carriers. However, much of the military equipment in North Korea is obsolete.
2. Still at war
Both sides are technically in a state of war, after a ceasefire halted the Korean War more than 50 years ago. Tensions reached their highest levels in years in 2010 with the torpedoing of a South Korean warship, resulting in the deaths of 46 sailors. The South blamed the attack on Pyongyang, but North denied responsibility. Later that year, the North bombarded a South Korean island, the first such attack against civilian target since the 1950-53 Korean War.
3. 51 social categories
North Korea groups its citizens into 51 social categories, graded by loyalty to the regime, according to The Economist. Of those groups, 29 are considered to make up a mostly rural underclass that is hostile or at best ambivalent towards the regime.
4. Gourmet cuisine, starvation
Late dictator Kim Jong-Il had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine, while four in five of North Korean children suffer from malnutrition because food is poorly distributed. In March 2011, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that 6 million North Koreans needed food aid and a third of children were chronically malnourished or stunted daily potato rations have been cut by a third, to two for each person.
5. At least two inches shorter
Analysis of escapees from North Korea shows that those born after the partitioning of the Korean Peninsula in the North were consistently about two inches shorter than their counterparts in the South, according to a 2004 report in Economics and Human Biology. The minimum height for recruitment to the North Korean army is reported to have fallen by just under an inch. The well-nourished Kim Jong-Un was fit enough to have been a keen basketball player while at school in Switzerland, according to fellow students.
6. Secret children
Kim Jong-Un was kept from public view until September 2010, when he was 27 years old. The existence of his eldest brother, who was passed over in Kim Jong-Il’s succession, was hidden completely from grandfather Kim Il-Sung until his death in 1994.
7. “Clairvoyant wisdom”
North Korea is famous for its colorful use of language, praising its leaders and denouncing its critics. The statement announcing Kim Jong -Il’s death ran to 1,500 words, and was addressed to “All Party Members, Servicepersons and People”. It praised his “clairvoyant wisdom” and said he had “put the dignity and power of the nation on the highest level and ushered in the golden days of prosperity unprecedented in the nation’s history.” It concluded: “Arduous is the road for our revolution to follow and grim is the present situation. But no force on earth can check the revolutionary advance of our party, army and people under the wise leadership of Kim Jong-Un.”
8. China crucial
North Korea’s survival depends on crucial trade with China: in 2010, trade between the two was worth an estimated $3.5 billion, up nearly 30% from 2009.
9. What a golfer!
Kim Jong-Il piloted jet fighters, according to the country’s propaganda machine, even though he traveled by land for his infrequent trips abroad, reputedly because he was nervous about flying. He penned operas, had a photographic memory, produced movies and accomplished a feat unmatched in the annals of professional golf, shooting 11 holes-in-one on the first round he ever played — if North Korea is to be believed.
10. War, war or jaw, jaw?
Despite the regular tensions, at least one expert thinks the North and South have too much to lose from a full-scale military conflict. Dr. Jim Hoare, a British former diplomat who served in the country, said both sides had “gone to the brink of conflict several times” but stopped short.
“Seoul [20 miles from the border] is a vulnerable city and the North would face annihilation.”