North Korea has unleashed a flurry of threats in response to United Nations (UN) sanctions imposed after its recent nuclear tests. But does the secretive and impoverished nation really believe it could win a war that would inevitably involve the US?
North Korea's volatile leader Kim Jong-un has made increasingly aggressive noises about his plans for further nuclear tests, breaching UN law and enraging leaders in the United States. He has warned that North Korea cannot guarantee the safety of workers in foreign embassies, halted work at a factory run jointly with South Korea - to the detriment of North Korea's own fragile economy - and announced plans to restart the Yongbyon nuclear reactor.
The US has reacted with shows of force in joint military exercises with South Korea, although it recently delayed an intercontinental ballistic missile test in an attempt to calm the escalating row. South Korea has deployed warships to defend itself against missile attacks from its neighbour.
Last month, the story took a further twist. British reporter John Sweeney used a trip to North Korea by university students from the London School of Economics as cover for secret filming for the BBC's Panorama current affairs programme. This led to furious claims that Sweeney had put the students at risk.
But what are the real dangers for the rest of us?
On a recent visit to the South Korean capital, Seoul, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, appeared to play down American intelligence that claimed North Korea had the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile. But he also warned: "If Kim Jong-un decides to launch a missile, whether it's across the Sea of Japan or any other direction, he will be choosing wilfully to ignore the entire international community."
The Korean Peninsula has long been a battlefield for world powers. Japan controlled Korea (then one nation) until the end of the Second World War, when the US and the Soviet Union split it in two - a division that became permanent in 1948. The first leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, then declared a policy of "self-reliance", shutting the nation off from the world.
North Korea's ruling dynasty casts itself as supernatural. Kim Il-sung was known as Korea's "sun" and claimed to control the weather. On the death of his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, in 2011, the sky above the sacred Mount Paektu allegedly "glowed red". Current leader Kim Jong-un is often painted as a cartoon-like figure in the West - fond of theme parks and flashy cars. But on home soil he is described as a leader "born of heaven".
The truth behind the myths, however, is brutal. According to South Korean government estimates, 154,000 North Koreans are in prison camps and a 2011 report by charity Amnesty International estimated that 40 per cent of prisoners died of malnutrition between 1999 and 2001.
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