North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is apparently dying. Thus the hurried public announcement that his youngest son, 26 year old Kim Jong Un would succeed his father. Now the media up north is mentioning Kim Jong Un a lot, and praising him. This prepares the people for their new object of worship. Meanwhile, the true successor to Kim Jong Il is the National Defense Commission (NDC), which Kim Jong Un only recently became a part of (first only as a junior staff member). The NDC consists of the major defense, security and political officials, and is mostly concerned about their personal welfare, and that of their families. The country has been collapsing about them for more than a decade, and the NDC cannot agree on what to do about this. The North Koreans are still trying to extort enough economic aid, and cash, from their neighbors and the United States, to keep the dictatorship up north going. That plan is not working, and there doesn't appear to be a Plan B (other than defecting to China).
Although North Korea is already threatening to use its newly developed nuclear weapons, it takes several years to do the engineering work required to obtain a reliable and compact weapon that can be dropped from an aircraft. It takes somewhat longer to make such warheads smaller and more rugged so that they can be used on a ballistic missile. So the two North Korean nuclear weapons tests are simply indicators of where the North Koreans are on the road to having nukes they can use. Moreover, further analysis of the recent test indicates that it was a very small (under 5 kilotons) yield nuke. They may have been because the North Koreans don't have a lot of nuclear material, and used the minimum amount for their test bomb. The first North Korean test, three years ago, was also on the small size, and was considered, after analysis of the gas and particles that escaped into the atmosphere, to be only partially successful.
Although North Korea has been threatening military retaliation, there has been no movement of troops in the north, or anything to indicate preparations for major military operations. This is understandable, as nearly two decades of economic decline have left the military a hollow shell. For over a decade, there has been little, or no, new equipment and no money or fuel for much training. Troops spend most of their time growing their own food or working in factories (or "rented out" to industrial organizations or farms.) The only recent military activity has been on the east coast, where the nuclear test and missile launchings took place, and on the west coast, where coast guard forces have been more active, apparently in preparation for encounters with South Korean patrol ships, over disputed water boundaries. This has led to skirmishes (and casualties) in the past. South Korea has responded to this threat by sending more sailors and marines to the coastal areas just south of the border.
Google Earth, and similar services, have inadvertently provided detailed photos of North Korean labor camps (usually as adjuncts to large industrial sites, as the prisoners are used as slave labor) and the luxurious compounds of the communist elite (the swimming pools and gardens make it pretty clear who lives in these suburban, gated and well guarded, enclaves.)
The UN World Food Program has failed in its effort to raise half a billion dollars for food aid to North Korea over the next year. Nearly five million North Koreans depend on this food aid to get by, but so far, the UN has been able to raise only about fifteen percent of the money needed. The main problem is North Korean refusal to allow the UN to see where the food is going, and growing evidence that much of the food aid is diverted to the military, or exported to China (or sold on local markets) to raise cash for the government. The private markets have been one of the few bright spots in the North Korean economy, and were allowed only because the government wanted to gain more control over the growing black market. But the private markets provided a convenient outlet for foreign food aid to be sold.
In retaliation for the North Korean nuclear tests, the Japanese are hitting back with crackdowns on the shipment of luxury goods to North Korea (which became illegal after the first North Korean nuke went off in 2006). The Japanese are also investigating and prosecuting those who have assisted in the North Korea smuggling and theft (of foreign aid) operations. The U.S. is also making it more difficult for the North Koreans to use the international banking system. American satellites and warships are following North Korea cargo ships, and apparently plan to inspect these ships for carrying weapons or military technology to export customers (like Iran and Myanmar). North Korea says stopping and searching any of their ships would be an act of war. But that would be an enormous gamble by the leadership up north. Many generals are unsure if North Korean troops could be depended on if an attack on South Korea were ordered. There's also the risk that a war would find North Korea without help from its traditional allies China and Russia. Lacking that assistance, North Korea would surely lose a war (which might be a very short one). Much depends on just how delusional the North Korean leadership is. Their reality is pretty grim, but North Korean propaganda still portrays the north as the worker's paradise, with the rest of the world worse off and jealous of mighty North Korea.
In South Korea, many who had backed the "Sunshine Policy" (being nice to North Korea, in an effort to establish better relations), now believe that the south was deceived. Apparently the north never stopped developing nuclear weapons, even though it long received generous South Korea and American economic aid in return for halting work on nukes.
The north needs all the foreign aid it can get. Last year, legitimate exports (mainly to China) amounted to only $1.5 billion. As much, if not more, foreign currency (to buy essentials, especially goodies to keep the million or so officials and security personnel happy) was obtained via weapons and military technology exports. Cutting this is what the new UN sanctions are all about, and the North Koreans threaten war if this lifeline is cut.
An increasing number of Communist Party officials are defecting to China. The usual reason is imminent arrest for corruption. Such officials are usually senior enough to bully, and/or bribe their way past border guards. Once in China, they cooperate with Chinese intelligence, and then go into business with the wealth they have stashed in China. The Chinese see this as a way of recruiting many capable, if corrupt, North Korean officials, who can be used, when North Korea collapses, to deal with the flood of refugees, and possible Chinese occupation of some, or all, of North Korea.
June 20, 2009: North Korean heir apparent Kim Jong Un has been promoted to "acting chief" in the National Defense Commission (which actually runs the country, as much as anyone actually does.) The new title means that Kim Jong Un becomes head of the commission if anything happens to the army general that currently holds the post.
June 12, 2009: The UN imposed new sanctions (Resolution 1874) on North Korea (with neither China nor Russia willing to veto them). The new rules authorize stopping North Korea ships and seizing weapons (which North Korea is now banned from exporting or importing). The U.S. says it may use these new rules, and North Korea promptly responded that if ships did act, North Korea would declare war. The UN declaration did not authorize the use of force.
June 9, 2009: Two American TV reporters, who were seized (apparently on the Chinese side of the North Korean border) three months ago, were put on trial (for espionage and similar fantasies) and sentenced to 12 years in a work (slave labor) camp. The women are actually being held in an apartment in one of the housing compounds used by senior government officials. The North Koreans plan to trade the two women for something useful, eventually.
North Korea has warned ships, up to 266 kilometers from the northeast coast, to stay away until further notice, because of upcoming missile tests. North Korea appears to be preparing to launch two more long range missiles.
May 29, 2009: North Korea fired another short range (130 kilometers) missile off its east coast.
May 27, 2009: In response to the North Korea nuclear test, South Korea and the United States have agreed to implement the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), where you use your warships to search for illegal weapons shipments and seize them. North Korea promptly declared that any application of PSI to them would be considered an act of war, and North Korean forces would attack. At the very least, that would mean hundreds, if not thousands, of shells and rockets fired at Seoul, South Korea's largest city (which is just south of the North Korean border.)
May 26, 2009: North Korea fired three more short range (130 kilometers) missiles off its east coast.
May 25, 2009: North Korea fired two short range (130 kilometers) missiles off its east coast. Yesterday, North Korea apparently tested another nuclear weapon.