North Korea calls itself a republic, but it is actually a monarchy. The recent illness (apparently a stroke) of 66 year old leader Kim Jong Il (the son of the dynasties founder, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994) resulted in a decision about who in the third generation would rule the crumbling state. Apparently, Kim Jong Ils brother-in-law, 62 year old Jang Song Taek is running the government on a day-to-day bases. Jang Song Taek is a senior official in the North Korean Communist Party (called the Korean Worker's Party, and the only party allowed, it's an organization whose 350,000 members monopolize power and prosperity), and two of his brothers are senior generals in the army. After much deliberation, it appears that the chosen successor to Kim Jong Il would be his youngest son, 26 year old Kim Jong Un. The eldest son, 38 year old Kim Jong Nam, is apparently not interested in the leadership job. Kim Jong Un, while young, is interested in taking over, if only as a figurehead at first.
One problem with Jang Song Taek is that he has been responsible for most of the recent efforts to clean up the corruption and install more discipline among the 350,000 members of the Korean Worker's Party. Many, probably most, party members appreciate the need for discipline. But nearly two decades of famine and privation has corrupted many party members. Lower ranking ones had to hustle just to get by (if not for themselves, then for relatives). Higher ranking members saw opportunities to get rich, and many did. The wealth was not hidden, and this aroused the anger of the party conservatives that back Jang Song Taek. But these purists are a minority, and they back off from a full scale purge. That's because the entire party realizes it needs as many loyal members as possible to control an increasingly restive country.
South Koreas official position is that, despite the unrest and economic disorder up north, the North Korean government is unlikely to collapse any time soon. The Korean Worker's Party may be corrupt and inefficient, but it's 350,000 members (and family members) amount to nearly ten percent of the population, and have always been ruthless when it came to holding on to power, and insuring that the other 90 percent of the population did not get out of control. Much of what passes for "unrest" in the north is simply members of the Korean Worker's Party using their connections to run some kind of scam. The farmers market (basically a legalized black market) have long prospered under the protection of local Korean Worker's Party officials. Smuggling and other criminal activity prospers because members of the Korean Worker's Party are paid off. Senior, and conservative, officials in the government try to stamp out this corruption (which they see as the party losing control for the economy), and hundreds of party members are punished each year. But the corruption persists, and grows because the economy does not improve, while the greed of party members does. Moreover, without the markets, millions of North Koreans would face starvation. While nearly two million starved to death in the 1990s, the belief in the north is that, this time around, many would fight, rather than just slowly die. The memory of the Great Hunger in the 1990s remains, despite official attempts to make it disappear.
Earlier in the month, North Korea officials told a visiting American scholar that North Korea had created 68 pounds of weapons grade plutonium, which is enough for 4-5 nuclear bombs. North Korea will not allow disarmament inspectors see its nuclear bombs (which may not exist), and the government keeps saying that it will not give up its nuclear weapons. That is, unless the United States makes some major concessions (the exact nature of which constantly changes). North Korea has always acted irrationally, but now it's getting worse as the death of the current dictator, Kim Jong Il, becomes more likely. Apparently, North Korean leaders don't expect Kim Jong Il to see the other side of 70.
North Korea is establishing a free trade zone on the 15 square kilometer Wi Hwa island in the Yalu river. This would make it easier for Chinese businesses to import goods into North Korea. The Wi Hwa program is based on a similar Chinese free trade zone on the Russian border. It will take a year or more to improve transportation to the island and build other structures, before Wi Hwa can open. Last year, there was nearly $2.5 billion in trade between North Korea and China. This was about 30 percent more than in 2007.
January 23, 2009: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il apparently really did show up for a meeting with visiting Chinese officials. Kim looked thinner, but was able to stand. Many rumors have appeared in North Korea since Kim's stroke nearly a year ago. Kim Jong Il is reported to have made a slow recovery, and is not back to where he was before the stroke. As a result, there has been much attention paid in the north to preparing for what happens if Kim Jong Il were to die.
January 18, 2009: North Korea threatened to attack South Korea, as it often does when it feels it is not being shown sufficient respect. This time around, the complaint has to do with the hard line attitude adopted by the newly elected South Korean government (in response to years of lying and deception by the north). The North Korean threat caused South Korea to put its forces on alert. This is the usual response, as part of a charade that have been repeatedly played out for over half a century.