January 25, 2012:
In the last month, newly anointed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has visited at least six military units, with photos and videos for the media to prove it. This is all about portraying Kim Jong Un as in control. The reality is somewhat different but it's hard to tell exactly who is calling the shots up north now.
What the government is trying to do is convince the people that all is well and under control. To that end free food is being distributed, with everyone getting at least three days rations. In areas where the people are seen as more unreliable five days' worth is being provided. In past decades such distributions led to a spike in pro-government feelings, for a while anyway. But in the last decade there have been fewer and fewer such distributions. The government is even using the military food reserves and is running out of food, money, and restraint on the part of an increasingly angry population.
China is still trying to persuade the North Korean leadership to adopt Chinese style economic reforms (a market economy in a police state) and is offering several hundred thousand tons of additional free food to encourage the change. No reply yet from North Korea. Many of the northern leaders are willing to risk another large scale famine rather than abandon their tight control of the economy. This control has all but destroyed the economy but many North Korean leaders don't grasp that connection. Actually, what many northern leaders fear is the growth of an economically powerful entrepreneur class that will challenge their power.
As more North Korea refugees show up in South Korea southerners find their history being reinterpreted. The northerners see leftist South Koreans, who supported the establishment of a communist government in South Korea, as traitors to democracy. Yet in the south, most of these leftists are seen as heroes for opposing the military governments that controlled the south until the 1980s. The northerners also accuse the southerners of underestimating the cruelty and determination of the northern leadership.
The government has ordered civilians living along parts of the Chinese border to bury planks, with nails driven through them, in shallow water on the North Korean side of rivers. This has been done before, but the government wants more of these hidden obstacles for smugglers and people trying to escape across the river during warm weather. Right now, you can usually just cross the ice at night. It's a long border. In some areas that are frequently used for illegal crossings barbed wire fencing is being installed. This is expensive, especially given the cash shortage the government is facing. But the increasing activity along the border, with North Koreans fleeing and smugglers bringing in luxury goods that remind North Koreans what they are missing out on, is seen as a major security issue.
Even well off people living in the capital are suffering from the gradual deterioration of everything. For example, apartment buildings put up in the last decade in the capital suffered from cheap materials, sloppy work, and poor quality control. Now the heating and sanitation systems are failing in many of those residential towers, making them uninhabitable in the cold weather. There is no money or material available for repairs.
January 20, 2012: In Japan, a new book, "My Father, Kim Jong-il, and I: Kim Jong Nam's Exclusive Confession" was published. Written by a Japanese journalist, after years of email and personal conversations with Kim Jong Nam, the book makes it clear (implicitly, not explicitly) that China has sheltered the eldest (40 years old) son of Kim Jong Il for decades and now has a potential replacement for Kim Jong Un if the younger (28 years old) son does not succeed as the new ruler of North Korea. By allowing the book to be published China also gets out truths that are known by many but denied officially. For example, Kim Jong Nam believes his younger brother is not capable of running North Korea and is, at best, a figurehead. Kim Jong Nam confirms what many have been saying, that North Korea is in very bad shape politically and economically and facing imminent collapse. Kim Jong Nam blames this on the policy of "military first" rather than "people first." He confirmed that North Korea sank the South Korea warship Cheonan two years ago and the later shelling of Yeonpyeong Island were both moves to intimidate South Korea and all those who were trying to halt the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
Kim Jong Nam has been living in China for most of the last decade because his father lost faith in his ability to become the next Kim to rule North Korea. This break became official in 2003. Kim Jong Nam was seen as too independent minded and undisciplined for the job. The Chinese quietly granted Kim Jong Nam sanctuary and blocked any North Korean attempts to get him back or kill him. Until now Kim Jong Nam has kept silent (as far as the public was concerned) about his views on North Korea. But now China has allowed this book to be published to make it clear to all what China was up to.
North Korea has allowed the U.S. news agency, the AP (Associated Press, which supplies reporting to over 2,000 print and electronic news outlets) to open an office in North Korea, the first such Western news agency ever allowed in. The AP makes it clear that it will not be censored. But the way these things work (based on Cold War experience) the AP will be under constant pressure from the North Koreans to spin some stories a certain way or see their lucrative and prestigious North Korea bureau shut down. That process might also include one or more AP employees being prosecuted and imprisoned for espionage or whatever.
January 16, 2012: For the first time ever in the north, government officials have been killed by rebels. Sometime in the last two weeks, in North Hamgyung Province, a secret police official, a prosecutor, and two security men were killed. Left next to the bodies was a note saying "punished in the name of the people." The government tried to keep this quiet, but word got out, if only because of the unprecedented nature of the act. The town (Cheongjin ) where the killings took place has since been sealed off as the investigation continues. It was known that Cheongjin has been the scene of anti-government activity (leaflets and graffiti).