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A Kim Jong-un sticker in Washington, D.C.
A Kim Jong-un sticker in Washington, D.C.

Kim Jong-un will be celebrating his 33rd birthday this Sunday. Wishes and presents are usually in order on this type of occasion, but it's difficult to see any desire the North Korean dictator hasn't already seen fulfilled in his five years in power.

For starters, the cult of personality has never been bigger in North Korea. As NK News recently reported, Kim's approach when it comes to imposing his image is "quantitative, not qualitative." New statues of the young leader rise on a regular basis in squares around the country, and his "Image of the Sun" portrait has been copied tens of thousands of times. More recently, Kim even seems to have managed to ban Christmas, replacing it with his grandmother's birthday.

His purge among the country's elite seems to be going just fine too, though it's been some time since he last had an official executed by an anti-aircraft gun. Though the economy still suffers from absolute state control and international isolation, Kim has managed to bring ATMs to Pyongyang and North Korean food is finding a niche or two overseas.

But perhaps of most relevance for the rest of the world, is what U.S. intelligence sources call a "qualitative" improvement in North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities. Kim used New Year's Day to boast that his country was preparing a test of its first intercontinental ballistic missile, which could reach the continental United States. To this vow, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted back his resolution: "It won't happen!"

Exclamation points have never meant so much, and so little.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Along The "New Border" Of Ukraine, Annexation Has Just Doubled The Danger

Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Ukrainian territories in a ceremony in the Kremlin. In a village just a few kilometers away from what is now the Ukraine-Russia "border" in Putin's eyes, life continues amid constant shelling and the fear of what comes next.

Ukrainian soldiers are stationed in the village of Inhulka, near Kherson.

Stefan Schocher

INHULKA — The trail leads over a gravel road, a rickety pontoon bridge past a checkpoint. Here in the remote village of Inhulka near Kherson in southern Ukraine, soldiers sit in front of the village shop. Inside, two women run back and forth behind the counter, making coffee, selling sausages, weighing tomatoes. "Natalochka, where are the cookies," calls a dark-haired lady across the room.

But Natalochka, her colleague, is about to lose her nerve. "What kind of life is that?" she says, finally reaching up to grab the cookies from the top of a shelf. What kind of life can it be, she asks, when something is constantly exploding next to you and you don't know if you'll wake up in the morning.

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Inhulka is the center of a rural community. 1,587 inhabitants, as the village chief says, one school, one kindergarten, one doctor, two stores. Since March, nothing here is as it used to be. That was when the Russian army came to the village.

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

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