October 20, 2011:
The police are backing off from an angry population up north. This is most visible in the relationship between police and unlicensed traders. The legal markets charge a fee for a stall. But there are not enough stalls to go around, producing a larger number of illegal traders, who carry their goods with them and set up business on the ground wherever they can. Police usually chase these traders away, but no longer seize their goods. The cops increasingly find that the traders will fight, literally, to the death to hang onto their goods. For these traders, doing business is a matter of life and death. Most of them are women, which makes them even scarier to the male police. There is not enough food available from the government to live on, so income from trading, or some other additional job, is essential to buy food in the market. The cops know these traders are doing business to survive, and don't want get into a brawl with someone who has nothing to lose.
Other women are increasingly engaging in prostitution and the making of pornographic videos. The government elite and foreigners (especially Chinese businessmen) have the money for this, and now supply and demand and bribable police have made it possible for the vice business to grow.
Despite the recent harvest, the price of rice in the markets has stayed high (at a record 3,000 won per kilogram). The price normally dips during harvest season, because so much food is for sale. But the harvest was poor this year and food has been in short supply all year. Electricity shortages are more common, and the cold weather will be particularly cold because of coal and wood shortages. Thus the hunger and cold this year makes death a real possibility for many.
In the north, a job with the National Security Agency (one of the secret police agencies) has become much more profitable of late. These guys deal with the families of North Koreans who have escaped to South Korea. It's no secret that those who have made it to South Korea have a lot more money, and send cash to their families in North Korea via Chinese smugglers. The North Korean secret police come by each month and demand a portion of that cash. Refusal to pay up can result in arrest and a trip to the labor camps. About one percent of the North Korean population is in these labor camps, and 5-10 percent does not survive their time there.
As the situation grows more desperate in the north, enthusiasm for reunification declines in the south. This is mostly matter of age. Older South Koreans are more likely to still approve reunification (and the huge cost to South Korea). But for younger South Koreans, about half no longer see a united Korea (with South Korea paying the huge cost) a desirable goal. That attitude would likely become more positive if the prospect of unification suddenly appeared. But long term, South Koreans are not happy about what it's going to cost them to rehabilitate their northern kinfolk.
North Korea has agreed to resume talks with the United States over disarmament and the search for the remains of American troops (from the Korean War of 1950-53) in North Korea. This burst of diplomacy from the north is part of an effort to get more free food and fuel from the U.S. and the West. North Korea is being aided by some Western aid agencies, who are pressuring the United States to send food, even though much (if not all) of it will be stolen by the North Korean government to feed its soldiers and buy goodies for senior officials. The aid NGOs (Non-Government Organizations, like the UN, Red Cross and so on) are less concerned with bringing down the North Korea dictatorship than with getting some food to starving North Koreans this Winter. The UN is also proposing that the north let in foreign aid workers to help improve agriculture, and that more North Koreans be allowed to legally leave the country. Neither of these proposals is very popular with the North Korean government. The north continues to threaten war in response to any effort to usurp government control in the north. But the northerners have been threatening war so long, and so frequently, that it has little impact.
South Korean intelligence has concluded that the North Korean armed forces are no longer in any shape to go to war. This was discovered a year ago, when North Korean artillery fired on a South Korean island. North Korea apparently felt this act of naked aggression would actually compel the south to counterattack. So North Korea armed forces were ordered to mobilize for war. These preparations were apparently ordered without much warning. So too, apparently, was the attack on Yeonpyeong Island.
What the South Korean intel analysts were particularly amazed by was the poor performance of the North Korean forces during this hasty mobilization. Satellite video and electronic eavesdropping showed lots of chaos and sloppiness. Fuel and other shortages prevented many vehicles, aircraft and ships from moving, and those that did move did so slowly and often unsure of what to do next. It was known that North Korean pilots had been getting less and less flying time in the past decade, but when ordered into the air on a large scale for this hasty mobilization, the results were amazingly bad. The flying skills of combat pilots were particularly unimpressive, as was the performance of many aircraft (indicating poor maintenance). There were several crashes, and many near misses in the air, and a general sense of confusion among the North Korean Air Force commanders and troops.
This mess was apparently more of a shock to northerners than to military experts in the south. American and South Korean analysts have been tracking the North Korea armed forces for decades, and have carefully monitored the decline of the military up there. The North Korean generals were apparently more inclined to believe their own propaganda. This sorry state of affairs apparently will make the northerners even more reluctant to give up their nuclear weapons.
South Korea also has its problems with readiness and training. But the south has the means (money and allies willing to help) to deal with the problems. The north is all alone. For example, after the disastrous performance of their air force last year, the north approached China and Russia for help. Both nations quietly turned down North Korea, refusing to sell them new aircraft, or otherwise help upgrade northern forces.
October 11, 2011: North Korea has asked South Korea to resume operating factories in a northern industrial park that employed 46,000 people. The south pulled out of that operation 17 months ago after a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship. Later last year, North Korea shelled a South Korean island. But North Korea is in desperate economic shape, and scoring propaganda points must take second place to survival. It's becoming increasingly obvious to even northerners that everything is going badly in the north, and refusing outside help is no longer an option. The south agreed to resume operations in the industrial park.
October 10, 2011: South Korea Christian groups say that the recent mysterious deaths of three Christian leaders were actually assassinations carried out by North Korean agents. The north has been known to do this sort of thing in the past, and the Christian activists in the south have visibly angered the North Korean government. The South Korean government has not said anything, but leaks indicate government investigators believe at least one of the deaths was an assassination. The South Korea is holding off going public with this, because it would increase tensions in the north and south.