Last Fall, the North Korean government sought to control the growing importance of the free markets, by restricting how often they could be open, and what goods they could sell. These new rules have largely been ignored. The police assigned to monitor the markets were simply ignored, or bribed. No one higher up in the security services bothered to press the issue, another indicator of how essential the free markets have become amid North Korea's crumbling economy. The torture has been known about for many years, because some of the North Korea escaping into China had been in the work camps, or had kin who had, and it was common knowledge in the north. The "torture" is usually physical punishment (not an attempt to obtain information), and meant to intimidate the population and instill fear.
The UN dispensed with its usually diplomatic approach and openly accused North Korea of torturing thousands of prisoners in work camps, and denying over a third of the population food aid. Several weeks ago, North Korea told the U.S. to halt food shipments, and ordered five foreign aid groups that supervised the distribution of food aid, to leave North Korea. This sort of self-destructive behavior has been used before to get attention, and obtain other goals (diplomatic or material). But of late, things are bizarre even by North Korean standards. There appears to be a power struggle and debate going on within the North Korea leadership. Not many details are getting out, and the recent punishments meted out to some senior officials who gossiped about the activities of the most senior officials, has caused usually reliable sources to clam up. There is growing hunger in many parts of the country, which is made worse by the military going out and taking food from farmers. The troops are not as well fed as they used to be, and they often suffered, along with the civilians, from power and fuel shortages this past Winter.
For years, Kim Jong Il was rated (by using various rankings of national problems and achievement) the worst ruler on the planet. But this year, Kim Jong Il came in third place, behind Zimbabwe (Robert Mugabe) and Sudan (Omar al Bashir). Things haven't gotten any better in North Korea, they've just gotten much worse in Zimbabwe and Sudan.
The North Korean media show, featuring a threatened ballistic missile launch, continues. China seems unconcerned, but all of North Korea's other neighbors have urged that the launch be scrapped. Both Japan and the U.S. have moved Aegis equipped warships to the North Korea coast. These vessels have weapons that can shoot down the North Korean missile. The U.S. said it will not do so, but the Japanese say they will. North Korea says that would be considered an act of war. South Korea and Japan insist that the North Korean launch violates UN sanctions. The entire affair is yet another effort by North Korea to remain in the headlines.
March 20, 2009: For the second time in two weeks, North Korea has closed its border with South Korea. This meant that trade with the South Korean industrial zone in North Korea was interrupted. As before, the border was opened after a day or two.
March 17, 2009: Two American journalists were seized by North Korea border guards, as the two women photographed activity in North Korea from the Chinese side of the border. The North Korea guards crossed the border and dragged the women into North Korea, after the women, ignored orders to put their cameras away. North Korea later said the two Americans would be tried for spying. The U.S. will have to trade something valuable to get these two back, which is why North Korea grabbed them in the first place.