February 22, 2012:
The North Koreans have formed a new unit of secret police to crack down on anti-government media and illegal copies of even legal media. Counterfeit DVDs are a big business in the north but so is the sale of locally produced anti-government songs and videos. This is all part of an effort to eliminate the "wrong thinking" that has led to anti-government graffiti, more illegal migration to China, and a generally bad attitude among the people.
The young new North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, is believed under the control of his uncle, Jang Sung Taek, who is married to Kim Jong Il's sister. Jang has long been a powerful government official and is believed to be quite wealthy. That's because Jang has a lot to say about how North Korea earns (by legal or illegal means) foreign currency. In a country so extremely poor, the man who controls the most money has a lot of power. Jang is believed to have ordered the recent house searches of families believed to be hoarding foreign currency (Chinese or American) rather than, as the law demands, putting it in the bank. People do not want to put their foreign currency in the bank because the government pays you less for it (in North Korean currency) than the black market money changers (who give fair market value).
Electricity shortages are having a noticeable impact on the electrified railroads. Most obvious has been shifting some trains from daytime (when electric demand is highest) to nighttime. In addition, many trains are simply being cancelled. This has resulted in a return of a practice not seen since the Great Famine (and other shortages) of the 1990s, people climbing onto the tops of crowded train cars.
Hundreds of outdoor surveillance cameras are being imported from China and set up to watch border areas where most illegal crossings into China take place. The cameras are connected, via underground cables, with secret police bases where the camera feeds are constantly monitored. The secret police are not only seeking to spot people trying to escape but to note how the border guards (who often accept bribes) perform. The northern government believes the illegal migration is increasing and could become a major problem especially with those who have fled who return with anti-government ideas. There are also a lot of legal North Korean visitors to China. Last year, the Chinese reported 152,000 legal North Koreans visited, most (over 80 percent) of them men and most of them in China for business reasons or as students. It is believed that far fewer North Koreans enter illegally, if only because the armed guards on the North Korea side of the border shoot to kill or demand very large bribes to look the other way.
February 20, 2012: South Korea conducted live fire exercises off the west coast near North Korea. This was done despite North Korean threats to declare war if the exercises were held. It was yet another northern bluff. These threats have been made for decades but have become increasingly strident of late. The threats are mostly for domestic consumption in North Korea, where the people have to be convinced that their government is doing something to defend the nation from external threats (real or imagined). Fewer and fewer northerners believe this propaganda anymore, and the North Korean government can measure this by the rapidly growing popularity of illegal DVDs featuring South Korean movies and TV shows. This is scary stuff for North Korean officials because the dictatorship in the north has always been justified by the "fact" that South Korea was worse off economically and occupied by cruel U.S. troops. But the DVDs full of South Korean TV shows (including news and documentaries) show a very different reality.
February 19, 2012: A Japanese electronic dealer is being prosecuted for illegally exporting 4,000 second hand PCs and laptops to North Korea in 2008-9. Only the highest officials, and their families, can legally own PCs. Many of the exported Japanese systems were only a year or two old, as many Japanese are pretty fanatic about always having the latest electronic gadgets. Japanese dealers take last-year's model as trade-ins for those buying new stuff and export the used equipment to Asian and African markets. This provides opportunities to make deals with North Korea to divert stuff, via a third country dealer, to North Korea.
South Korea is building a submarine control center and designing mini-subs, as well as ordering larger ones to replace the older models they have in service.
February 17, 2012: The last two days were holidays for the people, to celebrate the 70th birthday of the late Kim Jong Il. Gifts (of food) were distributed to local government officials and some non-officials. These gifts are very popular because most of the population is, if not hungry, not getting a very varied diet. Normally, there would be more food given out on an occasion like this but people were told, unofficially, that there would be a larger distribution on April 15th, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the current dictatorship: Kim Il Sung. The Kim Jong Il celebration was also used as an appropriate time to start putting up portraits of his son (Kim Jong Un) and heir.
February 14, 2012: The government engaged in a little theater to show that the leadership cares for the people. Earlier this month word went out for government officials to go collect building materials and cash from North Koreans so that monuments could be built to honor the recently deceased dictator Kim Jong Il (by celebrating his 70th birthday on the 16th). But the current dictator, Kim Jong Un, ordered officials to halt these collections and return what was collected. While this was popular with the population as a whole, it was bad for those who collected, and now had to return, the money and goods. That's because these collections are fairly common and the officials take an illegal cut. This is considered a fringe benefit.