Recently released (via Wikileaks) U.S. diplomatic messages revealed that Chinese officials, despite their public support for North Korea, were very unhappy with how North Korea was being run, had told North Korean leaders many times, and only showed public support for North Korea for political reasons (to make North Korean officials more likely to listen to Chinese advice, and to justify to the Chinese people aid and support supplied to North Korea.) In China, it's no secret that North Korea is a nightmare situation; a poverty-stricken police state that, if nothing else, makes Communist China look like a paradise. In the leaked documents, the Chinese admitted that, if North Korea collapsed, they would go along with South Korea stepping in and uniting the country. In the last decade, China and South Korea have become major trading partners, and China is much more comfortable (than it will admit in public) with a united Korea, run by a democratic government, on its borders.
The North Korean leadership has made it clear that they will not just surrender. Absorption by South Korea will have to come from North Korean internal collapse (unlikely with such a brutal police state), or a coup (more likely). Why a coup? There are different factions in the North Korean leadership, identified by willingness to reform their economy, or use extortion against neighbors, and the world, to get needed food, fuel and other goods. So far, these factions have been deadlocked, the result being no meaningful reform, and half-hearted extortion moves (like the torpedoing of a South Korea ship earlier this year, which North Korea officially denied, and the recent shelling of a South Korean island in daylight.) Now North Korea has to deal with a South Korea roused to demand vengeance. The catch phrase in the south is now, "we feed them and they kill us." This anger is something the northerners have not had to face since the 1950s and 60s. China is alarmed, because the North Korean leadership do not appear to realize how angry, and unpredictable, they have made South Korea. For example, the South Korean government has been so embarrassed by the two attacks this year (the torpedo and artillery actions) that they have had to promise they will respond more strongly the next time. This will include air attacks. The North Korean threat to fire rockets at Seoul, the South Korean capital, no longer terrifies the angry South Korean voters as it once did. Thus the main outcome of increased North Korean violence has been to make their stronger, wealthier and more populous neighbor more willing to shoot back. Can North Korean leaders adapt, and realize that another violent act on their part would likely trigger another Korean War, one that the north is doomed to lose (at great cost to both Koreas)? So far, North Korea seems as clueless and rapacious as ever. China is hustling to get the two Koreas to talk, and reduce the tensions. This effort is not working. The head of South Korean intelligence has openly admitted that another North Korean attack is highly likely.
China has found South Korea more responsive to calls for restraint. But this can only go so far. When you have a democracy (South Korea) with an aroused, and fearful electorate, you cannot just flip a switch to calm things down. There will be elections, and consequences. China has long been rumored to have discreetly proposed that its allies in North Korea stage a coup, installing a more reform minded, and less warlike, government. That's always been a dangerous option, but given the current situation, not nearly as dangerous as it was a year ago.
The Wikileaks documents also confirmed the role of Iran and North Korea in providing a black market for ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technology. Iran depends on North Korea for a lot of this tech, and North Korea survives on Iranian oil money paid for the weapons, and the knowledge of how to build them. This bothers Russia more than China, but it also has made North Korea an international outlaw, now under heavy trade sanctions in an effort to stop the movement of banned weapons. So no help from international organizations for North Korea, which makes one wonder how much worse the situation can get for the northerners.
At the beginning of the year, the South Korean military was looking at a 3.6 percent increase next year's defense budget. Given the two North Korean attacks this year, the South Korean defense spending is more likely to increase by more than ten percent.
In the north, the public is unmoved by calls to defend the state. The cold, and growing food and electricity shortages are what concerns most North Koreans. But for a million or so North Koreans (the ruling elite and their minions in the secret police, weapons industries management and officer corps), the need to mobilize support for a war in South Korea is essential. That support is not there. But there's lots of cold, and hunger and anger.
December 1, 2010: South Korea has moved another battery of K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzers to Yeonpyeong Island, along with hundreds of additional troops and more weapons. There are now twelve K-9s on the island, but South Korea apparently is ready to use aircraft and smart bombs the next time. These bombs are more accurate, and effective, but a major escalation in combat.
November 30, 2010: Two senior North Korean officials arrived in the Chinese capital, apparently so the Chinese would chew them out and try to work out some kind of arrangement that would ease the aggression within the North Korean government and prevent a major war between the two Koreas.
November 28, 2010: North Korean propaganda is giving credit for the November 23rd "victory" to Kim Jong Un. He is the son and heir to ruler Kim Jong Il, and now commonly described as the "Youth Captain." The kid has image problems, as even official photos show him as a pudgy little guy with a perpetual look of bewilderment.
November 27, 2010: Apparently, the November 23rd artillery attack on South Korea was accompanied by a three day reserves mobilization drill in North Korea.