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From nuclear threats to dark-horse celebrity ambassadors, North Korea has made a name for itself as a hotbed of severity, secrecy and scandal.

Kenneth Bae's mother visits son in North Korean hospital

It's not Jimmy Carter, but North Korea's latest American prisoner is finally getting a visitor — his mom.
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Passersby watch a television broadcast in Seoul on May 2, 2013 showing a picture of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator detained in North Korea. (KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL, South Korea — Ever since his arrest in North Korea 11 months ago, the world has feared the fate of Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae.

The 45-year-old pastor is serving a 15-year hard labor sentence on the charge that he tried to “overthrow” the state. Two months ago, Bae was hospitalized thanks to his failing health, including diabetes and an enlarged heart.

Today, there’s some reason to hope. Bae’s elderly mother, Myunghee Bae, has landed in North Korea to visit her son, and plans to stay for five days. She was granted access to the isolated country after pleading with authorities, she said in a video released Friday.

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Tour de North Korea

In a rare event, Western cyclists race through the hermit kingdom.
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A North Korean man cycles near North Korea's border with China. The secretive nation recently allowed Western cyclists to ride through part of its northeast. (Cancan Chu/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL, South Korea — It’s not every day that 47 Western bikers can ride through the world’s most reclusive state. 

Yet as part of a race that began in China, athletes zipped through North Korea’s port town of Rajin this week, Reuters reports. Traffic was blocked off, and the cyclists given an unusual stint of freedom to move around the area. (Not that there’s much traffic in North Korea anyway.)

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North Korea attempts to sell gas masks to Assad

The alleged shipment was seized by Turkey, a Japanese newspaper reports.
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A Syrian rebel tries on a gas mask seized from a Syrian army factory in the northwestern province of Idlib on July 18, 2013. Western countries say they have handed over evidence to the UN that Bashar al-Assad's forces have used chemical arms in the two-year conflict. More than 100,000 people have died in the conflict, which morphed from a popular movement for change into an insurgency after the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown on dissent. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)
Yesterday, the Sankei Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper known for its North Korea coverage, reported an astounding allegation: that last April, Turkish authorities seized a mysterious ship under it Libyan flag. It was en route to Turkey from North Korea carrying gas masks, 30,000 rounds of ammunition and 1,400 pistols and rifles. From Turkey, the materiel would make its way to Syria, according to the ship’s captain. The announcement comes as Obama weighs his military options in the Middle Eastern nation. Washington says it has evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus last week. Under United Nations sanctions, North Korea is barred from selling weapons. South Korean defense expert Shin In-kyun told The Los Angeles Times that gas masks are considered weaponry, and that the sale could show “the Syrian government was contemplating the use of chemical weapons.”
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Why one North Korean defector wants to return home

Having made the dangerous journey out of North Korea, Son Jong-Hun is about to take an even greater risk: going home.
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One North Korean who made it out says he's planning to go back in protest at how South Korea treats defectors like him. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

SEOUL, South Korea — Nearly 25,000 North Koreans have fled their homeland to South Korea, escaping the repression and poverty of the world’s most militarized nation.

Many make a perilous trek through China, and sometimes to Mongolia and Southeast Asia, where they seek the safety of South Korean consulates and a flight to Seoul

But once in the arms of this developed democracy, not all defectors are happy.

Thanks to a troubled history of national division, many South Koreans look to their northern cousins with distrust. They’re stereotyped as backwards rednecks; even defectors who are educated by North Korean standards work menial factory jobs.

When they’re caught in China, defectors are deported back to North Korea, where they face anything between months and years in hard labor.

Son Jong-hun is one of a handful of North Korean refugees raising ire at the South, and threatening to go back to Pyongyang in protest.

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How North Korea is celebrating the war you never knew it won

While the rest of the world may see the Korean War as a draw, North Korea fetes it like a win.

SEOUL, South Korea — This week, North Korea is celebrating.

An auspicious date approaches. Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the armistice that halted the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.

Americans know the conflict as the “Forgotten War,” a devastating campaign that left 36,000 of their servicemen dead and ended in a draw.

But North Koreans have a different view of the conflict, in which they claim victory. The “Great Fatherland Liberation War,” as they call it, was a crusade to unify the Korean peninsula under a communist rule.

Since the fighting ended in an armistice and not a peace treaty, both sides are technically still at war.

This week, the isolated state is rolling out the red carpet for its war heroes. Here’s a look at the festivities.

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New Cuban missile crisis? Why it's no surprise that North Korea was caught in Panama

Scared of Kim Jong Un? Let it go. The world’s most secretive nation just can’t keep a secret.

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea, as usual, looks menacing, but can’t seem to keep its black ops under wraps. On Wednesday, Cuba came forward as the culprit behind a stash of weapons bound for North Korea. Panamanian authorities uncovered the illicit cargo — hidden in a shipment of brown sugar.

The Cuban foreign ministry claimed the obsolete Soviet-made weapons, which included two fighter jets and the parts for anti-aircraft missiles, were being sent to Pyongyang for repair. United Nations sanctions prohibit the sales of arms to North Korea.

Whether or not that’s a violation, this isn’t the first time the pariah state has been caught ferrying weapons, drugs, and other niceties around the world.

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Prop Art: The best of weird North Korean art

A wax figure of deceased dictator Kim Jong Il is the latest addition to North Korea's vast collection of propaganda art. You won't believe some of the others.

SEOUL, South Korea — On Tuesday, a Chinese artist made headlines when he offered North Korea its very own wax figure of the deceased dictator, Kim Jong Il.

Of course, wax figures molded after presidents and celebrities are common all over the world. But this is the latest reverent artwork to arrive in North Korea, a nation with a knack for churning out authoritarian propaganda art.

Here's a look at the best.

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Kim Jong Un has a $7m yacht now

How North Korea's Supreme Leader lives large.
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Kim Jong Un's new yacht is reportedly even bigger than this one. (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Kim Jong Un's new plaything reveals a taste for Western-made luxuries.
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The tragedy of the North-South hotline

The direct line between North and South Korea is, as usual, the first casualty of the two countries' fraught relations.
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South Korean soldiers stand guard at the border village of Panmunjom between South and North Korea at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Feb. 27, 2013 in South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
SEOUL, South Korea — Whenever North and South Korea spar words, one poor little bystander always suffers: the hotline.
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Will Seoul block a fake North Korean Facebook page?

South Korean police are seeking a ban on a Facebook page they say is run by North Korea's state television broadcaster. But is the profile even real?
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A propaganda poster is seen on April 3, 2011 in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

SEOUL, South Korea — The National Police Agency said on Thursday that it's requesting the South Korean government block the "official" Facebook fan page of Korean Central Television, or KCTV, the Korea Herald reports.

In case you've never seen it, KCTV stars a cast of melodramatic announcers who praise the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, and the glorious achievements of the army.

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