The looming threat of mass starvation deaths has apparently caused North Korea to quietly approach South Korea for a resumption of negotiations (the north wants food and fuel, the south wants a halt to missile and nuclear weapons development up north). The southerners are reluctant to send lots of aid north, because in the past, most of the stuff has been diverted to support the military or leadership (and their families, a few percent of the population). Until the south cut off aid over the last few years, that assistance accounted for about five percent of the north's economic activity. But the northern leadership saw the foreign aid (which, altogether, accounted for over ten percent of their economy) as a danger to the communist control of the country, and insisted that most of it cease. The northern government was also unwilling to halt the diversion of much aid to the military and markets (where it was sold to provide money for the government). Since the last 1990s, South Korea has sent over three million tons of rice north (and nearly as much fertilizer), but refuses to send any more unless the north allows distribution to be monitored. The north has refused to do this, but now is making noises that it may have changed its mind. So the south agreed to send 10,000 tons of corn, to see how serious the northerners are. North Korea reports that this year's food crops have failed, producing a third, or more, less than normal.
The UN has examined living conditions in North Korea and concluded that the situation is dire. Some nine million North Koreans are hungry, or starving. Only about two million of those are receiving any food aid (from China, and the little that still comes in from other nations).
Over a decade of economic collapse in the north, and a half hearted attempt to establish markets, has put millions out of work, in a society where unemployment does not, officially, exist. There are now informal job markets, where merchants, and even government officials, come to hire illegal workers for all sorts of jobs. That includes prostitution, smuggling and a growing list of criminal activities. Those organizing all this, and profiting from it, stay out of prison camps by bribing the right people. Thus the government has the undivided loyalty of a shrinking portion of their officials. The looming famine is causing another loyalty problem. Unlike the 1990s famine (that killed two million), communications between North Koreans are better now, even if many of them (like cell phones) are illegal. The word is getting around about the failure of crops this year, and the government refusal to allow foreign food aid (because the donors insist on North Korea shutting down their nuclear weapons program.) If the food disappears in many parts of the country, the result may be uprisings, not apathetic, but disciplined, starvation and death.
North Korea is having a growing problem with the reliability and discipline of army units stationed along the Chinese border. The troops are obliged to fire on those caught trying to escape across the river into China. But the troops are also constantly offered bribes from traders and people trying to get out of the country. Most of the troops take the bribes, and even compete for duty that enables them to collect the most in bribes. China discourages North Korean soldiers from defecting (sending back, to a certain execution, those who do), but does not do much more to clean up the North Korean mess, and the North Koreans themselves have constantly failed to fix things. It's believed that if there is ever a mutiny in the North Korean military, it will begin in one of the corrupted units along the Chinese border.
Defectors from the north, and frequent visitors there, believe that opposition of a Kim family dynasty is growing. Kim Jung Ils youngest son is being groomed as the third generation of Kims to run the communist police state. But many North Korean officials agree with the Chinese that economic reform is the only thing that wills save the north. Thus when the sickly Kim Jung Il dies (soon, according to many northerners), there will be a move, and perhaps violence, to block Kim's son from taking power.
South Korean military commanders are being criticized because a South Korea farm worker (sought by police for assaulting his employer) recently managed to get to the DMZ, cut a hole in the fence, then made his way through the minefields to North Korea. The South Korean military is supposed to keep civilians away from the DMZ, and this incident is threatening the careers of at least five officers. The escape was believed possible because the defector, a former soldiers, know of a blind spot in the fence and was familiar with the terrain.
October 30, 2009: South Korean officials have specifically blamed North Korea for Cyber War attacks on South Korean and American targets last July. A lengthy investigation traced the attacks back to North Korean government Internet connections.
October 29, 2009: South Korea has agreed to send 300 troops to Afghanistan, to provide security for the teams that are supervising reconstruction projects out in the countryside.
October 28, 2009: The South Korean economy has emerged from the global recession, enjoying its highest economic growth (2.9 percent GDP increase in the third quarter) in seven years. There had been three quarters of decline. The recession had little impact on North Korea's economy, which has been shrinking for years. South Korean banking officials estimate that the North Korean economy shrank 1-2 percent a year for the last few years. North Korean GDP is estimated at $25-30 billion, creating a per capita income of $1,000-1,200. South Korea has a GDP of nearly a trillion dollars a year, and a per capita income of about $20,000. The enormous economic gap between the two Koreas is the result of over half a century of communist economic mismanagement in the north.
October 27, 2009: Off the Japanese coast, a Japanese destroyer collided with a South Korean freighter. This happened just after the sun went down. Three sailors were injured, and there was a lot of damage to the bow (front) of the warship. The collision took place in the Kammon Strait, a difficult stretch of water even in daylight.
October 24, 2009: In a rare move, a North Korean diplomat came to New York City to meet with American officials, to discuss a deal that would involve North Korea shutting down its nuclear weapons program, in return for massive economic aid (especially food, fertilizer and fuel). These talks have failed in the past because North Korea would not provide any guarantees that it would carry out its end of the deal (which it had not done in the past.)
October 23, 2009: The United States put a freeze on the assets of the North Korean controlled Amroggang Development Bank, accusing it of supporting illegal importing of missile and nuclear weapons components. This type of action has been increasingly popular with the U.S., because it does interfere with North Korea weapons development projects.
October 20, 2009: North Korea announced plans to build 100,000 new apartments, in 18-30 storey buildings on the outskirts of the capital. These will be rewards for loyal members of the government, who have been living in shabby accommodations. North Korea spends little on new housing, leaving most people crowded together in deteriorating buildings. It's a big reward to loyal citizens, to be granted one of the new apartments that are occasionally built.
October 18, 2009: The recent 60th anniversary of communist rule in China, was also the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and North Korea. The relationship has been increasingly uncomfortable. As China has developed a market economy over the last three decades, and become wealthy, North Korea has continued to run a command economy and demand handouts. China is the only country that still complies, and Chinese officials are now openly upset with North Korea's inept leadership. The Chinese have long advised the North Koreans to reform their economy, like China did, but the North Korean leadership fear they will lose control. They would rather starve most of the population, than risk seeing "the masses" think for themselves, and become hostile to their callous leaders. This has gone so far that, this year, the North Koreans have tried to bar women under age 49 from participating in the legal markets. Young women are also forbidden from wearing pants or riding bicycles. The North Korean leaders see economically successful women as a threat to their power.