North Korea is believed to generate several billion dollars a year selling weapons and related technology. Given that the North Korean GDP is only about $26 billion, this arms trade is vital to keeping the dictatorship afloat. No wonder the North Korean have refused all demands, and bribes, to shut it down. One thing the northern leadership can agree on is the need to continue developing longer range ballistic missiles, and nuclear weapons. Not only do these weapons provide the ability to extort aid from nervous neighbors, but sales of this technology is the major source of foreign currency. That cash is essential, to buy the consumer and luxury goods that keep the ruling elite happy. Although, at this point, the few percent of the population that runs the country are beginning to worry more about basic survival, rather than getting a new iPod or flat screen TV. But these fears are not widespread enough to cause any changes in policy.
The latest rumor out of North Korea indicates that leader Kim Jong Il has pancreatic cancer, a form of the disease that moves fast and is usually fatal. Recent pictures of Kim Jong Il show a sick man who does not appear to be getting better. All indications are that no one is really in charge up there, and some of the several factions (military, party, pro-China, nationalist, pro-market economy) are trying to form a ruling coalition. The leadership can agree on one thing; North Korea is changing, despite efforts by the security forces to halt this unwelcome process. But the outside world is getting in. News, of what is happening inside North Korea, as well as from outside, is now circulating inside the country. Illegal cell phones and radios are more common, because people have more money, are bolder, and know that they can often bribe their way out of trouble if caught. Government attempts to crack down on the spreading corruption have failed, and that means the "end is in sight," for a police state.
The leadership cannot agree on how to cope with the coming end game. With leader Kim Jong Il dying, there is agreement on his successor. But that presents problems, as the agreed-on heir is the youngest son, 26 year old Kim Jong Un, an up and coming government official, but not a major player in the senior leadership. That means a council will have to rule, until Kin Jong Un is influential enough to run things, assuming there's anything left to run. Some senior officials are making escape plans, gathering portable wealth and cultivating connections in China that would be useful for a getaway. There is a growing consensus that Kim Jong Il will be gone within three years, and that after that, chaos.
The government is trying to regain control of the population by going after obvious signs of dissent. Thus it has been decided that urban women wearing pants are a bad things, and that women should stick to skirts. So groups of women from Communist Party women's organizations prowl the streets during rush hour searching for suitable victims to be harassed and made an example of. This is more annoying than intimidating. The women in pants often talk back, and there have been some tense confrontations in public, over the issue. This sort of thing backfires, as people see that the government is growing more feeble, ineffective and pathetic. The most glaring example of this was how everyone ignored last Novembers order that all legal markets convert to selling nothing but agricultural products. This was widely, and rather visibly ignored.
South Koreans are growing increasingly anxious at the difficulties North Korean refugees are having in adapting to life in a prosperous democracy. There are over 17,000 refugees in South Korea now, and the children do not do well at school. Few get into a university. The adults do poorly in establishing prosperous careers. These refugees are among the most enterprising North Koreans, because of the planning they had to do, and risks they had to take, to get out of the country. But these people are obsessed with basic survival, not personal improvement and advancement, as in South Korea, and the rest of the world. Sixty years of police state rule up north, plus the 1990s famine, has seriously crippled the initiative and ambition of the northerners. It appears that the North Koreans are much more psychologically damaged, than were the East Germans (and east Europeans in general) after their communist dictatorships collapsed in 1989. This just makes South Korea, and China, even more anxious about a collapse of the North Korean government, while would leave China and South Korea to deal with refugees, and picking up the pieces in general.
July 16, 2009: The UN has imposed new sanctions on North Korea, in response to continued North Korean work on nuclear weapons. This time, five people and five companies were sanctioned, making it difficult for the five people to travel abroad, and for the five companies to do business outside North Korea.