North Korea has failed to cope with the food shortage situation over the Summer. The solution was supposed to be the "150 Day Battle" program, that put hundreds of thousands of urban people on the farms, in a vain attempt to save the harvest. It failed. Factories and construction projects are still stalled because of a lack of components, raw materials or building materials. So the government has declared a "100 Day Battle," and told the urban "volunteers" to just stay on the farms (where they can more effectively scrounge for food, and not disturb the people remaining in the cities, with the sight of more starving people.) However, farmers provide little food for these "volunteers". These two "battles" are also an attempt to cripple the markets, which became legal in the last decade, but are but are now feared by the leadership because the system has produced millions of wealthier and more savvy citizens who are seen as a threat to communist rule. Overall, the "battles" annoyed most people, and were counterproductive.
Both China and North Korea fear American influence and power, and independent minded people who have become wealthier because of market economies. But the Chinese also make no secret of their fear of a collapse of the North Korean government, and subsequent chaos. With the North Korean economy continuing to crumble, the Chinese doubt the ability of the North Korean government to keep things under control.
North Korea has, for most of the year, been deliberately irritating South Korea. Despite the looming famine in the north, North Korea is mostly obsessed with imaginary foreign plots to undermine communist rule in the north. They refuse to believe that the biggest danger to communist rule is their own disastrous decision making. This drives China and South Korea mad, especially when they find they can't even get the northern politicians to even admit that they have some leadership problems. But the food shortage problems are real, and now North Korea is offering South Korea more reunions of families separated by the Korean War (1950-3), but only if South Korea supplies lots of free food. South Korea is holding out for concessions on nuclear weapons.
Among the North Korean people, there is great fear about food shortages this Winter. Crops this year were very had, about half what they normally would be. But communist officials try to soothe everyone with promises that, by January, the U.S. will have caved and shipped in large supplies of free food. Apparently, northerners have taken South Korea and Japan at their word, that no free food will arrive unless the nuclear weapons are dismantled. But America is seen as weak, and likely to give in and supply food to the starving North Koreans.
Russia and Vietnam have shipped in some free food, but shortages are growing. It's believed that North Korea needs about a million tons of food (mainly rice and wheat) to make up for shortages this year. Normally, food would be cheaper in the markets this time of year, because of the recent harvest. But instead, prices have gone up eight percent. Even members of key government agencies are not getting the usual amounts of food, and are going hungry. In the cities, the effects of the growing hunger can be seen. People move more slowly and listlessly. Facial expressions are blank, or desperate. There is great fear upon the land.
North Korea is now demanding one-on-one talks with the U.S., before it will do any negotiating about its nuclear program. Talks with the U.S. might cover North Korean nukes, but only in return for a lot of economic aid, and the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea. But South Korea and Japan are fed up with over a decade of North Korean extortion and are no longer willing to provide free food to North Korea unless the nuclear weapons program is shut down. North Korea refuses to consider this.
China has convinced North Korea to allow another bridge, costing $150 million, across the Yalu river (that forms their border). North Korea had resisted this offer for years, as they saw the bridge as a military threat, being that it would enable China to move troops into North Korea more quickly. The fear of a Chinese takeover is real in North Korea, and has been for decades. But China is North Korea's biggest trading partner (annual trade is nearing $3 billion a year) and ultimate source of essential food and fuel supplies (some free, some must be paid for). North Korea wants China to provide the same kind of mutual security treaty that the U.S. and South Korea have. China has resisted this request, because it feared getting dragged into a war by the unpredictable leadership of the north. China, however, continues to taunt North Korea with the possibility of such a treaty. North Korean leaders remain nervous about China, especially the growing number of Chinese who live in North Korea to deal with the growing trade. There are over 10,000 of these Chinese, and North Korea police are watching, and often harassing, them more intensely.
South Korean intelligence believes that North Korea has closed four of its ten labor camps in the last decade, and reduced the number of prisoners from 200,000 to 154,000. Those sent to these camps work ten or more hours a day on a starvation diet. If you are captured trying to escape, you are executed in front of your fellow inmates. More than ten percent of the prisoners die before finishing their sentence. Those that survive come out starved and terrified. The existence of the camps is a major element in the atmosphere of terror the communists maintain up north.
The leadership in the north still agree that leader Kim Jong Il is dying, and that his successor will be the youngest son, 26 year old Kim Jong Un. Apparently Kim Jong Un is seen as a quick learner who will be ready to take over in three years. If Kim Jong Il does not last that long, there is agreement to have a temporary council rule, until Kin Jong Un has demonstrated his ability to handle things. That's 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. Kim Jong Un is very similar to his father, and spends a lot of time trying to convince the senior leaders that the future is secure. Kim Jong Un currently has a third level management job in the Communist Party leadership.
October 15, 2009: A retired South Korean air force general has been arrested and charged with espionage. The general was accused with providing information to a Swedish aircraft company that is trying to sell warplanes to South Korea.
October 14, 2009: South Korea decided to build six smaller warships equipped with the Aegis combat system (high performance radar and SM-3 anti-missile missiles). South Korea is already building Aegis equipped warships. These 7,600 ton KDX III ships are similar to American Aegis destroyers of the same size. But the six new South Korean Aegis ships will be cheaper, 4,500 ton ships. There's no problem putting Aegis into smaller warships, it's just that it's rarely done. But South Korea sees this as a good investment in naval, and anti-missile, capability.
October 13, 2009: North Korea fired five more short range missiles. This puzzled many foreign pundits, but if you look at the years when North Korea acquired many of these missiles, you'll note that many of them are "aging out" (becoming too old to be reliable.) The solid fuel of these missiles degrades with age. You can replace the rocket motor in these older missiles, but North Korea is broke and it's cheaper to fire the older missiles to get media attention, than it is to replace the rocket motors (and other components as well), or just leave the older missiles to rot.
October 4, 2009: Another North Korean ship was caught anchoring illegally off the Indian coast. Coast Guard officials inspected the ship, which was empty, and found nothing. The captain said they dropped anchor to search for a leak, and apologized for not notifying the Indian coast guard. In South Korea, another North Korean small boat, with 11 civilians aboard, made its way from the north to the south. As some North Koreans become wealthier via the markets, they can afford to buy small (7 meter or so), boats that coastal radar have a hard time spotting, and equip them with outboard motors (that can take them hundreds of kilometers out to sea) and escape capture by the coast guard (which intensely patrols coastal border areas up to about 20 kilometers out.)