LONDON (DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The two Koreas seem to exist on different planets: prosperity and democracy in the South, and grinding poverty and repressive dictatorship in the North.
These differences were highlighted in the recent assassination of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of North Korea's dictator, the murderous young Kim Jong Un.
Since the two Koreas went their own paths over sixty years ago, the North has become ever more repressive and closed off, with mass starvation an ever-present threat. But at the same time, the country has forged ahead with its nuclear weapons and missile programmes despite tough international sanctions.
Even China, its only friend, is getting increasingly fed up of its embarrassingly unpredictable ally. According to recent reports, it has refused to buy any more North Korean coal, thus bringing it in line with United Nations sanctions.
A friend who has visited North Korea regularly over the last few years as a European Union consultant told me about the weird policies and the paranoia that hold the secretive communist country in thrall. Of course he was never allowed to speak to anybody without his official minder being present. But he saw the strict regimentation and the rampant poverty, especially in the countryside. Defectors from the North speak about the dreaded secret police and the concentration camps that hold thousands of those suspected of dissent.
But despite the hardships his people go through, Kim Jong Un reportedly has access to imported goodies like caviar and cognac.
So clearly, the sanctions and the stone-age agricultural practices and policies affect ordinary citizens, and not the party elites. And I'm sure that our own nuclear physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan - the man accused of selling nuclear plans to North Korea - was well looked after on his frequent trips to Pyongyang.
In its occasional coverage of South Korea, the North's TV channel blurs the images of Seoul's imposing skyscrapers so that its citizens don't see their neighbour's prosperity and progress. And since people have no access to the internet, and foreign radio and TV broadcasts are still forbidden for North Koreans, they are unaware that they have a per capita GDP of a mere US$583 (S$819) versus US$34,300 for South Koreans.
Constantly brainwashed about the existential US-led threat their country faces, they feel their sacrifices are worth the military strength they have achieved. And despite the presence of a powerful American army contingent in South Korea, the North presents a formidable threat to its southern neighbour.
In fact, it is the danger it poses to Seoul - a mere 60 km from the heavily militarised border - that has prevented outside forces from mounting an armed incursion to prevent this dangerously volatile country from developing a full range of nuclear-armed missiles.
Despite the huge economic constraints the country's military operates under it has mobilised a huge paramilitary force of nearly six million soldiers, or around 25 per cent of the population. And although its anti-aircraft batteries and missiles are now outdated, their numbers still present a formidable deterrent. The country's poverty has not prevented its rulers from allocating some US$6 billion for defence annually.
Thus far, China has resisted calls to rein in its maverick ally, and to force it to change its behaviour. It has long feared that an imploding North Korea would cause a flood of refugees to cross over. And China has also desired a buffer between its borders and South Korea, with its powerful army, strengthened by a strong American force.
But now, by assassinating Kim Jong Nam, a member of the Kim dynasty under the protection of China, North Korea might finally have gone a step too far. While the reason for the killing by VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur airport is still unclear, the fact is that there had been an earlier attempt by North Korean agents. The current theory is that the North Korean dictator feared that his estranged half-brother might have been put up as an alternative to him by China one day. His elimination was thus a matter of survival for the paranoid Kim Jong Un.
The assassination has also strained relations with Malaysia which is furious that the very public killing took place on its soil.
For its part, North Korea has denounced the fact that it has been accused of being behind the hit. Its agents had probably assumed that given the subtle nature of VX, its presence would not be detected, and Kim Jong Nam's death would be assumed to have been caused by a heart attack. But CCTV cameras caught the swift action of the two women who carried out the actual hit while their North Korean minders watched from a safe distance before catching a flight to Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un is the third in line from the Kim dynasty to assume absolute control of the country. Kim Jong Nam fell out of favour of his father, Kim Jong-Il for attempting to enter Japan on a fake passport to visit Disneyland. Once his half-brother took over, he had feared for his life and lived in Macau under Chinese protection. His visit to Malaysia proved fatal as he was constantly under surveillance by the North Korean secret service.
North Korea is clearly an aberration in the 21st century with its secretive ways and its repressive rule. The half-baked socialist policies it follows has bankrupted the country, and yet it has continued on its prickly, paranoid path. The true reason its leaders refuse to relax their grip is to retain their position of power and privilege. Its people are prisoners in a vast gulag where to disobey or disagree is punishable by death.
Among the annals of dictatorships, North Korea surely stands out as the worst of the lot.