China and North Korea have agreed to improve communications between their armed forces. This was done in the spirit of "China will always back its friend North Korea," but others see it as another tool the Chinese can use to back their faction if there were to be a civil war or coup attempt in the north. The is a growing sense of dread in North Korea, a feeling that the situation (depressed economy, famine) will get a lot worse, then there will be a big change.
Russia has told North Korea that there is only one option; make a deal to shut down your nuclear weapons program, and receive sufficient economic aid to avoid social chaos and government collapse. The North Korean ignored this bit of advice, which they have heard many times before.
In the north, the government has had much success in shutting down illegal methamphetamines production within government facilities. Smuggling has also become more difficult. As a result, the street price of methamphetamines has more than tripled in the last year. Many addicts are switching to opium (made from poppies grown in government plantations), which is also rising in price. Most of the drugs are for export, where a kilogram of methamphetamines smuggled into China, can yield a profit of over $20,000. That's an astonishing amount of money in North Korea, and many families have become quite affluent as a result. Many police and security officials have to be paid off to sustain this kind of lifestyle, and the main reason for going after the illegal (as opposed to the government sponsored operation) drug trade is to reduce the corruption of the police, especially the secret police.
The food situation in the north remains desperate, and hundreds of thousands of northerners may not survive until Spring. Meanwhile, in the south, the recession is over, and GDP growth of at least five percent is expected in 2010.
November 19, 2009: The UN publicly chastised North Korea for use of torture, slave labor camps and mistreatment of its citizens in general. North Korea blew it all off an another American plot to discredit the northern government.
November 18, 2009: In Sweden, two North Korea diplomats were arrested for trying to smuggle 230,000 cigarettes into Sweden from Russia. The two diplomats claimed diplomatic immunity, but the Swedes pointed out that that was only true in Russia, not in Sweden. North Korean diplomats have been involved in criminal scams for over two decades. But as the North Korean economy has gotten worse, the budgets of North Korean embassies was cut, and the diplomats have been told to improvise, or starve. Thus most nations that host a North Korean embassy consider the diplomats within as likely to be running some kind of criminal activity (smuggling, or distribution of counterfeit American currency and narcotics.) Threats to shut down an embassy keeps the North Korean gangsters (with diplomatic immunity) in check, but the criminal activity still continues. Otherwise the poorly paid North Korean diplomats would not be able to live. The main (official) function of North Korean diplomats is espionage.
November 12, 2009: The November 10th gunboat clash off the west coast, which was a humiliating defeat for the north, resulted in the usual warlike threats from North Korea. But this time, U.S. officials rather bluntly and publicly told the northerners to shut up, because the north could not, and would not, do anything about the naval incident. Moving the maritime border, the NLL (Northern Limit Line), south, has been a North Korean goal for decades. The reason is the lucrative crab fishing grounds off the west coast. North Korea currently makes $100 million from crabs taken north of the NLL. Only military families (mostly from the navy) are allowed to take crabs, and the crab catch is a major part of the income of these loyal officers. North Korea wants more crab fishing grounds, to make more of its naval officers happy. Thus, every few years, North Korean patrol boats cross the NLL, get shot up by superior South Korean warships, and honor is satisfied. The northerners also believe the waters south of the NLL contain oil deposits as well, but this appears to be mostly rumor. The crabs are real, and so is the combat superiority of the southern naval and air forces.