Pyongyang warns shipping and aviation to clear area ahead of early April launch.
|At least one-third of North Korea’s GDP is reportedly spent on the military [EPA]|
For more than 50 years North Korea has been ready to go to war at a moment’s notice.
Cut off from the outside world behind barricades of barbed wire, landmines and concrete tank-traps, the so-called “hermit kingdom” has come to rely for its very existence on maintaining a constant war footing.
Visiting North Korea as a tourist last year, it was impossible to avoid the message thrashed out again and again on the streets and on the airwaves that the country is under constant threat of invasion and outsiders are to be feared.
It is the message that is drilled into children from the day they are born, during the minimum six years of military service that every citizen must undertake, and in the workplaces and homes of every North Korean.
It is the message that also underpins the governing national philosophy of “juche” or self-reliance, encouraging North Koreans to shun the outside world and fuelling a national sense of paranoia that the country’s rulers use to maintain their iron grip on power.
Culture of war
In the capital, Pyongyang, escalators more than 100 metres long lead down to the city’s metro rail system built deep underground.
|North Korea’s “military first” policy has made it a deeply militarised society [Reuters]|
Accompanied by eerie piped music, the stations have been designed to act as bomb shelters in the event of a US nuclear attack that North Korea’s leaders insist is imminent.
On the outskirts of the city, the state film studios churn out a steady diet of epics intended to fuel the image of a country standing alone, defiant in the face of constant foreign threat.
Almost all the films are based around the evils perpetrated on the Korean people by outsiders – the Japanese during their occupation of the peninsula, and the US and their “puppets” in the South.
The result is that North Korea is a deeply militarised society.
Under what is known as the songun or “military first” policy, all the resources of the North Korean state are directed primarily at the armed forces.
According to outside estimates – there are no publically available official figures – almost a third of North Korea’s meagre GDP is spent on the military.
Meanwhile, aid agencies say, around a third of the country’s population rely on food handouts keeping them a hair’s breadth from starvation.
Travelling by train though the North Korean countryside to the Chinese border, almost every other person we saw at the various stations along the way wore a military uniform.
Like many things in North Korea, however, all is not what it initially seems.
Official name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Population: 22m (July 2009 est.)
Size: 120,540 sq km
GDP: $26.2bn (2008 est.)
Military: 1.2 million active-duty personnel, world’s fourth-largest armed forces
A closer look at some of the “Kalashnikovs” carried by the soldiers for example revealed they were nothing more than wooden replicas.
North Korea may have one of the largest armies in the world but, it seems, it cannot afford to give them all real guns.
In North Korea however – in a society that is taught not to question authority – reality is irrelevant and image is everything.
The 1950-53 Korean War has often been referred to in other parts of the world as the “forgotten war”, perhaps because it achieved virtually nothing other than to flatten large parts of the peninsula and kill some 2 million civilians.
On the Korean peninsula and in North Korea in particular, however, it has left deep scars.
The conflict was one of the most brutal of the last century, and it continues to carry a painful legacy – a legacy seen most poignantly in form of the thousands of divided families on either side of the heavily-fortified border.
The brief tearful reunions of mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, torn apart by the division of the Korean peninsula show how deep the wounds left by the war continue to run.
But while those wounds are undoubtedly real, they are also a political tool in the hands of North Korea’s leaders.
Through relentless propaganda and by enforcing a rigid isolation from the outside world, it is that tool that keeps them in power and their people on the brink of war.