June 29, 2010:
It's been revealed that Kim Jong Il had his youngest son, 27 year old Kim Jong Un, secretly (using a false name) appointed to the legislature last year. The North Korean legislature is a rubber stamp, but being in it is seen as a necessary step for ambitious Communist Party members seeking to rise in the party bureaucracy. There are also more reports of small scale propaganda pushing the achievements of Kim Jong Un. There does not seem to be a lot of enthusiasm, or perhaps lots of resistance, to making Kim Jong Un the heir to his sickly father. More ominously was a recent announcement that there would be a meeting of the senior leadership (the Political Bureau) in September, to select (sort of elect) the eight most senior officials who, together with Kim Jong Il, comprise the Central Committee.
The food situation in the north continues to get worse. In response, the North Korean government has quietly lifted all the restrictions placed on free markets in the last year. The communist government sees free markets as capitalist exploitation of the people. But the markets also create economic activity, and available food, where the state controlled communist economy cannot. This change indicates that the communist hard liners have lost an important argument with the reformers, and that there is apparently a change in senior government officials underway. China has long advocated North Korean implementing the same kind of economic reforms (allowing a market economy) that China did in the 1980s. But in the north, many old school communists occupy senior positions in the military and secret police. The risk of civil war is still there.
North Korea is so broke that there was no foreign currency available to allow any fans to travel to the current World Cup football (soccer) matches in South Africa. North Korea's team qualified for the games, but was generally outplayed once it got there. North Korea was able to organize several hundred Chinese fans (most of Korean ancestry, from northern China) to act as "North Korean" fans (dressing appropriately and waving North Korean flags at games.) Attempts to hide the recruiting of these fans were unsuccessful. North Korea was also too broke to pay the fees to get the live feed of the games for their TV viewers. After North Korea grabbed a feed illegally, the World Cup officials quickly arranged for North Korea to get a "free" feed.
After a considerable South Korean diplomatic effort, 58 nations have condemned North Korea for the March torpedo attack on a South Korean warship. But China and Russia have been conspicuously silent. Russia was responsible for the creation of North Korea in 1945, and ordering the 1950 invasion of South Korea. China was responsible for saving North Korea from destruction during that war.
North Korea is apparently preparing to test its longest range missile, the Taepodong-2, once more. North Korea has been working on Taepodong 2 for over a decade. The earlier model Taepodong 1, launched in 1998, went about 1,500 kilometers. A 2006 Taepodong 2 test barely got off the ground before crashing. An early 2009 test only went about 3,800 kilometers (and was declared a satellite launch attempt, but no satellite entered orbit). Future models of the Taepodong 2 might make it out to 7,000 kilometers or more, and this is what the new test is believed to be about. Missiles of the Taepodong class are too expensive to use with conventional warheads, so accuracy isn't that critical. Early model Russian ICBMs were expected to land within a few kilometers of where they were aimed. No big deal, since these missiles were carrying large (several hundred kiloton, up to several megaton) nuclear weapons. At the moment, North Korea has only a few, large, crude nuclear weapons. Unless they received technical assistance from someone who had already developed nuclear weapons that can function in a missile warhead, it will take a decade or more before North Korea has a workable nuclear warhead on their Taepodong 2 missile. North Korea is believed developing Taepodong 2 for export customers.
June 25, 2010: The 60th anniversary of the North Korean invasion in 1950. There was an armistice signed three years later, but never a peace treaty. So the state of war still exists.
June 23, 2010: Northeast of Seoul in South Korea, thousands of "free North Korea" activists released over 10,000 helium balloons carrying leaflets and other useful items, to drift with the wind into North Korea (which demands South Korea stop the balloons, but the courts there refuse to allow this.)
June 22, 2010: South Korea revealed that it had detected xenon gas on the DMZ last month, at eight times normal levels. This usually indicates nuclear energy or weapons activity nearby. But North Korea has said nothing about either lately.