November 5, 2011: Senior officials of the secret police (NSA, National Security Agency) have been arrested for taking bribes to enable people to escape to China. This is unprecedented, as the NSA is considered the ultimate guardian of the North Korean government. But for the last few years, a growing number of rumors described many NSA officials as "approachable" (could be bribed.) Four months ago, North Korea sent agents from two competing agencies (military intelligence and the NSA) to help fight corruption along the border. The agents were ordered to watch their rivals for signs of someone being bribed.
The NSA arrests are part of a crackdown on the areas of greatest corruption. One of these is North Pyongan Province (in the northwest, along the Chinese border). In this area, officials are publicly confirming rumors of executions, usually by firing squad, of corrupt officials and managers of commercial enterprises. To speed things along, local government and police officials were kept out of the investigation and prosecutions. Police and prosecutors were brought in from other provinces. Like many other parts of North Korea, once the local officials became corrupt, they all cooperated to protect each other from being prosecuted and punished. While the punishment of the corrupt officials is popular with most residents, the process wrecked the administration of the province and the newly appointed officials are expected to start stealing as soon as they have a chance.
North Pyongan Province contains 12 percent of the national population, and an even larger portion of GDP. It is the site of most trade with China, and most smuggling as well. Aside from shock, many North Koreans see this crackdown as a way of shaking up the party establishment and making them more willing to accept the young heir, Kim Jong Un, as the true ruler when his father, Kim Jong Il dies. The government propaganda experts are working very hard to turn Kim Jong Un into a heroic figure. For example, the latest news is that Kim Jong Un has been promoted to full general (about 30 years ahead of schedule, compared to most officers of that exalted rank). This is not having the desired effect, as the number of jokes about Kim Jong Un is increasing, as is graffiti mocking the "youth captain" (what the propagandists have nicknamed Kim Jong Un, a title now made obsolete by his recent promotion.)
Over the last few months, police and government officials were ordered to take extraordinary efforts to insure the armed forces got a large share of the harvest. This was in anticipation of larger than usual losses to theft or "accidents." This year's harvest was poor in some parts of the country, and farmers were desperate to keep as much of it for themselves as possible. In other areas, the harvest was average, but the farmers want to keep more of to sell in the markets. Local officials were bribed (with food) to help the farmers keep more food and the government responded by sending more officials and secret police to watch the watchers. Thus the farmers had more people to bribe, and the troops got less food anyway. For the first time, lots of troops are going hungry. This cannot be good. The problem is that the North Korean economy has been shrinking and the government has been taking a larger share of what there is to keep the senior officials, the security forces, and their families happy. That results in people starving to death.
The economic problems stem from the usual mismanagement and incompetence found in planned economies. This is what brought down the Soviet Union and East European communist governments in 1989 and 1991. North Korea noted this with great alarm, but was not able to reform sufficiently (as the communist government in China had done in the 1980s) to avoid continued economic collapse. The situation has now gotten so bad that many troops and members of paramilitary organizations are going hungry, or getting lower quality food. There is growing fear upon the land. The government has cut way back on food distribution, forcing people to rely on the markets. But these experiments in a market economy are also short of food, and the prices keep rising. In the North Korea socialist paradise, people are dying because they cannot afford to buy food. The Chinese look at all this nervously, with government historians reminding everyone that hungry troops often lead to disorder and rebellion. That's what has happened so often in Chinese history, as recently as the three decades of civil war that brought the Chinese communists to power in the late 1940s.
Russian government analysts believe that the North Korean government is losing control, and that eventually North Korea will be absorbed into South Korea. But while Russia favors a united Korea, China does not, and wants to maintain a dictatorship in the north, perhaps one sponsored by China.
The UN continues to have problems raising money for emergency food aid for North Korea. Less than a quarter of the amount needed has been raised. Potential donors will not give because they believe the North Korean government will steal most of the aid. The UN cannot officially admit that, and continues going through the motions of calling for food aid donations. UN staff is allowed to monitor hunger in North Korea, and currently estimate that over a quarter of the population is starving.
November 1, 2011: Off South Korea's west coast, close to the North Korean border, a boat carrying 21 North Koreans was found drifting. The North Korean refugees promptly asked the South Korean sailors for asylum. Such escapes are desperate measures, for if you get caught, the punishment is a labor camp for the adults and orphanage for the children. There is little food in either place, and an early death is common.
October 28, 2011: Senior leaders in the South Korean military have publicly gone on record promising a strong response to any more North Korean attacks. This is in reaction to public anger over last year's attacks. South Korean generals and admirals believe that the North Korean military has deteriorated to the point where they can only make small attacks, like they did last year, but not follow up with much. The southerners believe their forces could strike back much harder, and that the north would not be able to get a meaningful invasion of the south going.
October 27, 2011: The U.S. Secretary of Defense visited South Korea and reiterated American promises to supply a "nuclear umbrella" for the south. This means that American nukes would hit the north if North Korea used nuclear weapons against the south. This message was meant for the northern leaders as well. For decades, the northern leadership has responded by building very deep bunkers, to protect them, and many key North Korean officials, from nuclear attack.
October 26, 2011: News of the death of Libyan dictator Moamar Kaddafi, sent North Korean leaders rushing to visit the headquarters of their bodyguard unit (the "Escort Bureau"). Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un went, along with other senior leaders. The Escort Bureau not only guards the senior leadership, but can also be used to put down popular uprisings. Kaddafi has long been a valued ally and customer (of weapons technology and cheap labor). North Korean media has been silent on this year's uprisings in the Arab world. But North Korean secret police report that the news has gotten through. In response to that, last June the North Korean government openly ordered hundreds of North Korean workers in Libya to stay where they are. While other nations went to great lengths to get their citizens out of Libya, North Korea told its people to hunker down and fend for themselves. The North Korean government did not want people coming back with tales of how a popular uprising overthrew a hated dictatorship.
October 21, 2011: North Korea has agreed to allow the U.S. to resume the search for the remains of American troops, from the Korean War (1950-53) in North Korea. This gesture indicates the North Koreans want to talk again. North Korea broke off these American searches six years ago, when the north was not in such desperate need of food and fuel.