North Korea has once again threatened to play the nuclear card following an announcement by South Korea and the United States of joint military exercises in the region.
North Korea has made similar threats in the past, but this time some officials in the US administration fear it might be more than just sabre-rattling. They may be ready to conduct a new atomic test or fire missiles, they fear, since they are being painted into a corner.
Some in the region fear that an explosive situation is brewing in the isolated north, which is suffering from immense economic problems, while at the same time undergoing a "transition crisis." Analysts in the US and South Korea believe ageing dictator Kim Jong Il might use the country's nuclear potential to ensure that his son succeeds him as leader.
North Korea is virtually cut off from international trade. Discontent among the population and food shortages is growing after a currency reform at the end of last year, according to refugee relief groups in South Korea.
Half of North Koreans eat just two meals a day; some 9 million people out of a population of 23.7 million were considered to be "food insecure." 45 percent of all North Korean children under the age of 5 suffer stunted growth because of malnutrition. Nine percent of children under 5 suffer from wasting; 25 percent are underweight, 7 percent severely. The World Food Program estimates that in 2009 one-third of North Korean women were malnourished and anemic.