North and South Korea have technically been at war since the 1950s, but tensions on the peninsula regularly flare up.
This time the temperature has been rising since the North tested a missile in late 2012.
But is this round of North Korean provocation really any different from the last?
By Jeong Nam-ku, Tokyo correspondent
Kenji Fujimoto, former chef to Kim Jong-il, returned to Beijing on August 4 from a two-week trip to North Korea.
Fujimoto (not his real name) worked as personal cook for the family of the North Korean leader from the 1980s until his escape from the country in 2001. He returned to North Korea on July 21 at the invitation of current leader Kim Jong-un and stayed for two weeks.
Meeting with Japanese reporters in Beijing, Fujimoto said the younger Kim had “grown tremendously as a person” and told him he was “always welcome whenever I visited North Korea.”
The cook said his welcome reception in Pyongyang was attended by around twenty people, including Kim and wife Ri Sol-ju. During the festivities, Kim embraced him and called him by his real name, he reported.
Fujimoto said Ri was “pretty and very charming.” He added that he saw Kim’s younger sister Yo-jong at the reception, but not older brother Jong-chol.
When asked whether they had discussed issues of North Korea-Japan relations, including the matter of abductions of Japanese nationals, Fujimoto said, “We didn’t go into political things.”
He also said he brought tuna with him on the North Korea trip to prepare a special dish for Kim and the others. Tuna is a “luxury item” that Japan prohibits for North Korean export, but the cook passed customs without any special item inspection because the officials did not recognize his real name, he explained.
Fujimoto was also reunited with family members in North Korea. He married a folk singer while there in the past, and is known to have a son and daughter living in the country.
The Mainichi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, interpreted the goal of the invitation and reception as twofold: communicating the new Kim regime’s openness to the international community, and encouraging Fujimoto to keep quiet on the things he knows about the family.
Pyongyang sent the invitation in mid-June via a pro-North Korean Korean-Japanese businessperson, sources reported. Fujimoto is said to have welcomed the invitation, but expressed concern he might be punished if he returned to the country.
After escaping North Korea, Fujimoto published a book called “Kim Jong-il’s Chef.” In it, he praised Kim Jong-un as having “leadership.”
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North Korea has strongly denied reports from South Korea that it is planning policy changes that will lead to the reform and opening of the country.
A government body dismissed reports that the present leadership was breaking with the past as “ridiculous”.
Some commentators have speculated that the recent removal of North Korea’s top general pointed to a possible power struggle over economic reform.
Kim Jong-un succeeded his late father, Kim Jong-il, in December.
Mr Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, has since adopted a warm public persona, being photographed at fun fairs and pop concerts with his young wife.
That - together with the recent removal of army chief General Ri Yong-ho - has fuelled hopes in the South that he could be planning to open up North Korea’s closed state-run economy.
However, a spokesman for North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which deals with cross-border affairs, dismissed the speculation in an interview with state-run KCNA news agency on Sunday.
He said that Kim Jong-un would pursue the “military first” policy brought in by his father and would build a “civilised and comfortable life for the people under socialism”.
“The puppet group (South Korea)… tried to give (the) impression that the present leadership of the DPRK (North Korea) broke with the past. This is the height of ignorance,” the spokesman said.
“To expect policy change and reform and opening from the DPRK is nothing but a foolish and silly dream, just like wanting the sun to rise in the west.”
He accused Seoul of trying to impose capitalism on Pyongyang by “trumpeting reform and opening”, adding: “There cannot be any slightest change in all policies.”
BBC Asia analyst Charles Scanlon says the statement probably shouldn’t be taken at face value.
Kim Jong-un has adopted a warmer persona than his father, fuelling speculation about reform
Any reference to reform has always been anathema for North Korean officials, he says, and it is a word they associate with victory for their capitalist enemies in the South.
There is also substantial external pressure for change, not least from China, which appears close to Kim Jong-un and his inner circle and which has pressed for reform in North Korea for more than a decade, our correspondent adds.
Mr Kim and those around him are being keenly watched for the direction in which they will take the communist state.
Singer or sister? Speculation is rife over who this woman is. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS
A mystery woman pictured accompanying North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un to recent events has prompted speculation in Seoul about whether she is his partner or his younger sister.
The North’s state television on Sunday aired footage of the woman joining Kim Jong-un as he paid tribute to his late grandfather Kim Il-sung on the anniversary of his death in 1994.
Some South Korea media reports suggested she was Kim’s younger sister Yo-Jong. Others suggested she may be Kim’s wife or lover.
Top officials including ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam and army chief Ri Yong-ho accompanied the leader to Pyongyang’s Kumsusan Palace, where the embalmed body of the nation’s first president lies in state.
Who is she? Kim Jong-un is pictured during a visit to Kumsusan Palace with an unidentified woman. Photo: AFP/North Korean TV
The TV footage showed the woman, apparently in her twenties or thirties, walking next to the leader. She bowed with him before a portrait of Kim Il-sung.
Onwards Toward the Final Victory airs on state media as part of propaganda drive to build up image of ‘great successor’
In the past decade, the bubblegum pop and kitsch dance routines of South Korea’s K-pop bands have taken the charts by storm in Asia and Latin America. But north across the Korean border, broadcasters are promoting a track less likely to become an international success: a new signature song for youthful leader Kim Jong-un.
The anthem, titled Onwards Toward the Final Victory, is part of a propaganda drive to build up the image of the “great successor”. Radio and television are airing it several times a day and the score has been printed in the official newspaper Rodong Sinmun.
“The song hardens the will of the Korean army and people to devote their all to the prosperity of the country with high national pride,” said the state run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Unlike the songs associated with his father and grandfather, it does not specifically mention Kim. It takes its title from the closing words of his address marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, the country’s founder, Kim II-sung.
“It’s like remixing his speech. It’s not really a paean to him,” said John Delury, an expert on North Korea at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Hong Kwang Sun, vice-minister of culture, told KCNA: “The song is just a powerful trumpet call of the revolution encouraging the army and people in the drive to build a thriving nation as well as a stirring drumbeat of victory.”
Professor Keith Howard of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies said music, song and dance performances were important at events such as the mass games and this spring’s celebrations of Kim II-sung’s centenary. The spectacles are so important that tap-dancing shoes have been among the clandestine cargos intercepted en route to North Korea. UN sanctions ban the export of luxury goods to the state.
Howard noted that songs have become directly linked to ideological developments in recent years. “If a newsreader tells you something five or six times you get bored. If you like the song you don’t get quite so bored,” he said.
The tune previously associated with Kim Jong-un, Footsteps, did not include a specific reference either, but was issued while his father was alive and before he had a formal position.
“It’s a bit odd [not to mention him] now that he’s leader … Some people are beginning to suggest we are seeing a situation where the father and son are being more or less deified and the grandson is just the current leader,” Howard said.
Delury added: “There’s still, definitely, a massive campaign to pump up his image and credentials … [Omitting his name] is probably related to the fact that he’s so young they have to phase in the larger-than-life elements of his public persona.”
He was intrigued that the song referred to the North as a “country” – rather than the more commonly used “great power”.
KCNA claimed in 2009 that Song of General Kim II-sung and No Motherland Without You, Kim Jong-il’s signature tune, were being beamed through space following the North’s satellite launch. Other countries said the device had never made it into orbit.