The situation is grim, especially if you are North Korea. The rest of the world is imposing more sanctions and trying harder to disrupt the arms smuggling that helps keep the police state government alive. Open opposition to the North Korean leadership is spreading, and the usual police state tactics are not stopping it. Food and fuel shortages have hurt morale in the armed forces. Being cold and hungry does little for fighting spirit. The North Korea armed forces have been in decline for the last decade, as they received less money (for new equipment), less fuel (for training and heating), less food (for morale) and fewer physically and mentally capable recruits (the children of the great famine of the 1990s were noticeably smaller and weaker). The officers, most of them the children of the small ruling class, were much taller than their troops. This only made the differences in living standards more visible. This did not help morale. The planners in the general staff, drilled in Soviet methods of measuring combat power and the outcomes of battles, have watched the "correlation of forces" go increasingly against North Korea in the last decade. Nuclear weapons were supposed change that, but North Korea really hasn't got an effective nuclear bomb design yet. The current design has been tweaked once more, and a deep tunnel is being dug for a third nuclear test next year. Even if that works, it would be several years before a militarily useful weapon was available. Meanwhile, the fraying of North Korea society and military power continues.
North Korea has increased security along its Chinese border, and ordered Communist Party and security officials to increase efforts to halt the spread of jokes, posters and graffiti criticizing the heir Kim Jong Un. Official propaganda praises the young Kim Jong Un as the "youth captain," and hails him for his role in making South Korea submit to North Korean power. But most North Koreans know that this is just more of the usual political theater North Korea specializes in. This growing opposition is saying that people want food and heat, not more propaganda and secret police. The police fear that much of this opposition is coming from the children of the ruling class. More than their parents, the kids see that North Korea is a hopeless mess, and want change.
China has told South Korea and the United States that it has limited influence in North Korea and that the leadership there is out of control when it comes to rational decision making. China has good reason to be honest with South Korea, because huge amounts of Chinese money is pouring into South Korea. In addition to being a major trading partner, South Korea is considered a great place for Chinese companies to invest. So the last thing China wants is a war with North Korea. The Chinese don't think the North Korean military could do much, even if Kim Jong Il ordered them to march south. But just to be sure, and limit potential Chinese financial losses, the Chinese do what they can to keep North Korea out of another war. The Chinese explain to Americans that all this gamesmanship is North Korea doing all it can do, given its busted economy and declining military power. If they push, push right back, but don't go overboard. It's all a game, not a real attempt to start a war that everyone will lose.
The North Korean Army has organized a new organization, the 10th Corps, to guard the Chinese border in Yangkang province. The North Korean Army had nine corps until 1995, when one of them, the 6th (stationed along the Russian border) was disbanded because some of its officers were involved in an attempted coup. The new 10th Corps is also in the north, but southwest of where the old 6th Corps was, and guards part of the Chinese border. In the grand scheme of things military, this means very little.
North Korea's latest round of brinksmanship has led South Korean and American officials to double check their evacuation plans. This has not been very encouraging, as any major North Korean attack would send millions of prosperous South Koreans and foreigners fleeing south in their automobiles. No one has been able to come up with a convincing plan on how to handle this, but now it the time to give it another try. American military planners, who have wrestled with this problem for decades in Europe during the Cold War, believe that such an exodus from Seoul will create the largest traffic jam ever. Best advice anyone can come up with is; "prepare to improvise".
December 20, 2010: After over a week of increasingly strident threats against South Korea, the north said not to worry. The north would not attack if the south held its usual monthly artillery exercises off the west coast, which the southerners did. These exercises have been held every month for decades, but recently North Korea declared the exercises provocative and threatened to retaliate if South Korea went ahead. The south did, and north responded by asking for some negotiations, peace talks, or whatever.
December 14, 2010: Russia put its troops on the North Korea border on higher alert. Its unclear why this was done, other than Russian fear that the current round of North Korean brinksmanship might actually lead to another war. Three days earlier, a team of North Korean officials arrived in Russia to try and obtain more economic and military support.
The commander of the South Korean army resigned, apparently over a property investment scandal, not a military issue.
December 13, 2010: While over a third of the population in North Korea is either out of work, or only has part time employment, the unemployment rate in South Korea continues to decline. The rate is currently 3.2 percent.
December 12, 2010: Japan announced that, starting next year, and for the next five years, more Patriot anti-missile missiles would be added to Japanese air defenses.
December 11, 2010: Rice prices in North Korean markets has gone down, from a peak two days ago (when it was more than twice what it was before the November 23rd shelling of the South Korean island Yeonpyeong). Some parts of the country had much better harvests this year, but the government took most of the additional grain, telling farmers that the "Youth Captain" needed it for the army.