Despite increasing pressure from China, North Korea refuses to give up its nuclear weapons program. North Korea knows that Chinese options are few, because the last thing China wants is chaos in the north. That would mean millions of starving North Koreans pouring into China, and the risk of unification under South Korean rule. China, however, fears that North Korea would use those nukes to threaten China. Thus it comes as no surprise that both China and North Korea have increased espionage activity against each other. North Korea fears that China is trying to organize a coup by pro-Chinese officials in the North Korean government and military.
But the situation in North Korea is worse than it's ever been before. The people are not only angry, but they have more information about what's going on in North Korea, and the world, than ever before. Cell phone users along the Chinese border allow information in, and out. This despite secret police mobile cell phone monitoring patrols. These guys do not mess around. Anyone caught using an unauthorized (Chinese) cell phone goes straight to jail. Some of these people have been executed. But most of the illegal cell phone users get away with it, and North Koreans not only know they are screwed, but how and by whom. Thus the looming famine is unlike the big hunger of the 1990s (that killed two million and stunted the growth of a generation), in that back then, the population were convinced that they were victims of an international conspiracy. This time around, North Koreans know that the cause is their own government. People are increasingly speaking out in public, and the security forces do nothing (or, more ominously, nod in agreement.)
One of the more damaging stories to spread through North Korea recently was the one about the several billion dollars Kim Jong Il has stashed in foreign banks. Bank secrecy laws in Europe, particularly Switzerland, have been under attack by major world economic powers, and it's been getting harder to keep money hidden. The fact that Dear Leader Kim has billions stashed overseas, while millions go hungry in North Korea, is not very good PR.
North Koreans everywhere are agitated by the looming revolution in their homeland. About a quarter of the 40,000 loggers, that the North Korean government rents to Russian firms, have fled their jobs, risking prison camp or execution back home if caught. The loggers see a collapse in North Korea possibly resulting in their being sent home. Few North Koreans, once out of North Korea, want to go back. At least not as long as the communists are in charge.
But the communists are still in charge, and several older ones are being brought out of retirement in an attempt to fix the current economic mess. The old school officials first act was to seize food stocks held by private traders. While these merchants had done much to keep many people fed, and bring a measure of prosperity to a new middle class, the old communists hated this sort of thing. Better to starve as a communist, than to live as a capitalist. The confiscated food was distributed, lowering prices on the black market (which is back in fashion now, as the legal markets are under attack). But that's the lull before the storm, as the government has no other sources of food. There's no one else to steal from, and the United States, South Korea, Russia and China refuse to provide more free food.
All this tumult has delayed plans to promote Kim Jong Ils' youngest son (Kim Jong Un) as his heir apparent. The health of Kim Jong Il is still an issue, as he is believed to be unwell. There is growing opposition, in the streets, as well as the North Korea leadership, to continue the Kim dynasty.
March 26, 2010: A South Korean warship suddenly exploded and sank off the west coast, near the maritime border with North Korea. Most of the 104 crew survived, but 46 apparently died. Given the nature of the explosion, and how it broke the ship in half, the most likely cause was a naval mine. And probably a mine of recent manufacture (the 3,000 laid during the early 1950s by North Korea have long since been found and disposed of). The media is rife with speculation, but since the 1,300 ton Cheonan (PCC-772) went down in shallow water, it will be salvaged. That means the cause of the explosion will be obvious eventually. It's also possible that examination of the wreck while underwater may make it clear what sank the ship. The Cheonan was part of the Pohang class of 24 ships. While armament varied a bit, the Cheonan had two 76mm guns, two 40mm autocannon, six torpedo tubes and 12 depth charges. Cheonan had sonar and was equipped to search for North Korean submarines along the coast. The Pohangs were all basically coastal patrol ships. Cheonan entered service in 1989.
March 16, 2010: The North Korea did not publicize it, but the senior official (Pak Nam Gi), in charge of carrying out the disastrous currency, was arrested and executed earlier this year. This was done to placate many other party officials, who knew that the real instigators of the currency program were non-financial types close to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. But the illusion must be maintained that the "Dear Leader" was betrayed, not that he screwed the pooch. It's all for show, however, because cell phones and a breakdown in discipline up north has resulted in everyone knowing what happened, and who was responsible.