In the north, food has increasingly become the main obsession. That's because there's so little of it. Despite that, there are other problems. Among the upper class (Communist Party officials and military and police commanders), another big issue is growing drug use by their well-off children. Since the late 1990s, pharmacists and other medical personnel have been manufacturing methamphetamines, and selling the stuff to Chinese dealers across the border. This was a vital source of income at a time when starvation was an ever present danger. But in the last few years, more and more of the methamphetamines have been sold inside North Korea, to the children of the ruling class. Angry, and very influential, parents ordered a crackdown earlier this year, which has only been partially successful. Most of the methamphetamines are produced in towns near the Chinese border, but distributors have been found in the capital, and some other major cities. Many of those caught are executed, others are given the fate-worse-than-death and sent to prison. These "labor camps" (which kill a large number of inmates via malnutrition, violence or disease) are overcrowded. Normally built to hold about 150,000 enemies of the people, there are now closer to 200,000 inmates. That is controlled with less food and more violence, but this takes time (less time during the cold seasons).
About ten percent of North Koreans are much better off than everyone else up there. But even these people, working for the bureaucracy, military or security agencies, and their families, are getting less food, or, more noticeably, food of much lower quality. Chinese traders are seeing a lot more household appliances being sold by these "middleclass North Koreans" in the markets, in order to buy more food or fuel.
The anti-government graffiti and jokes are out of control in the north. The problem is that it's no longer cool to tell the secret police about who is doing this stuff. This is a fundamental shift in the north.
The sanctions on North Korea are hurting. It's estimated that total trade up there is about $3 billion a year, and that it's been declining at least ten percent a year for the last three years. This is despite efforts to come up with new ways to smuggle weapons and military tech out. About 80 percent of the legal trade is with China, which has been enforcing more and more of the international sanctions.
China has been more cooperative in some ways. For example, North Korean border guards are under more pressure to halt people from fleeing North Korea. If you shoot escapees, there are rewards (like more food). China does not want more North Korean refugees, who often resort to illegal or semi-legal activities to survive once they arrive. So in remote areas of the border (now easily crossed over frozen rivers), North Korean border guards are allowed to pursue escapees into China, kill them, and drag the bodies back to North Korea (and collect the food bonus). Hunting has been good this year.
Over the last few weeks, North Korea has been asking for "peace talks" between north and south. North Korea does this when it realizes that South Korea is very angry about something. The north knows that it is not going to get any freebies out of the south unless the anger over northern aggression (and fifty dead South Koreans last year alone) can be reduced. But the southerners know this drill all too well, and are refusing to talk unless the north makes some concrete proposals, and follows through. The north isn't doing that, so the south is not answering the calls from North Korea.
China is going to deal with the economic crises in parts of North Korea (close to the Chinese border) by investing billions of dollars to build factories there. North Korea does not dare mess with Chinese assets, and with these investments China will build more and more control over parts of North Korea. This new round of investment is being matched by North Korea diverting part of the military budget to build export (to China) items.
January 8, 2011: North Korea did not officially celebrate the birthday of heir Kim Jong Un. The reason is believed to be a combination of not enough money, and too much public unhappiness with the "Youth Captain." Despite months of efforts to halt the spread of jokes, posters and graffiti criticizing the heir Kim Jong Un, there's more and more of this stuff out there, in the open. Worse, some critics of Kim Jong Un posted an unflattering video on YouTube to celebrate the heir's birthday. South Korean hackers also took over the official North Korean website and Twitter account, posting angry denunciations of the Kim dynasty. Inside North Korea, many people would have liked a celebration, because such events are usually accompanied by a gift of food (half a kilo/1.1 pound of corn per person being typical). But there's not a lot of food in North Korea this Winter. However, key government officials gave Kim Jong Un rare (in North Korea) and expensive items as birthday gifts. The Youth Captain did quite well.
January 6, 2011: South Korea and the United States have reduced the alert level of their troops, in response to a similar action in North Korea.