North Korea is probably the most mysterious and in- accessible country in the world today. Officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the Pyongyang regime is headed by perhaps the most mercurial and enigmatic political leader alive. No prominent figure of the early twenty-first century—with the possible exception of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden—has been more reviled by Americans or considered more dangerous to the United States than Kim Jong-il. The regime Kim leads is generally considered to be one of the most repressive in existence, with a vast gulag, a massive security apparatus, and an extensive system of controls. Despite the facade of a powerful party-state possessing an enormous military, the North Korean economy is in shambles, hundreds of thousands of its people are living either as refugees in China or as displaced per- sons inside their own country, and as many as 3.5 million people have died from starvation and related diseases.
Pyongyang is one of only two surviving members of the exclusive axis-of-evil club identified by President George W. Bush in January 2002. Topping the U.S. list of concerns about North Korea is its nuclear program. Washington is extremely alarmed that Pyongyang is not only developing a nuclear capability for its own use but also proliferating nuclear material and technology. But the United States and other countries are also concerned about other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that North Korea possesses, as well as its ballistic missile program. Moreover, North Korea’s conventional military forces are sizable, with significant capabilities, and they confront the armed forces of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).