Foreign food aid, via the UN, is expected to end completely next month. Contributions, of food and cash to this program have dried up, mainly because of North Korean nuclear weapons tests, and North Korean government interference in the program (diverting much of the food to the military, or selling it in markets to raise cash). Despite these problems, the UN program got some food to the needy. But while about a quarter of the population is desperate for food aid, the UN program has only been reaching about 15 percent of the needy lately. North Korea is trying to persuade China to send more food, but China also wants North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program, and North Korea refuses to do this, even if it means another round of famine deaths.
For the last six months, North Korean efforts to promote Kim Jong Il's youngest son (Kim Jong Un) as his heir apparent, have been growing. Kim Jong Il is believed to be unwell, even dying. The current propaganda campaign is trying overcome growing opposition, in the streets, as well as the North Korea leadership, to continuation of the Kim dynasty. Most worrisome is Kim Jong Il's approval of a propaganda campaign that promises to solve all the economic problems by 2012. Most northerners are aware of the greater prosperity, and general contentment, in the south, and the North Korean government has, in effect, promised its citizens much better lives within two years. This can only happen if the northern government can cut a deal to shut down nuclear and ballistic missile programs in return for enormous bribes of food, fuel and cash. But northern leaders don't want to give up their nukes, and the five nations negotiating with the north (South Korea, China, Japanese, the U.S. and Russia) are not willing to pay as much as North Korea needs to meet the 2012 promise. The northern government apparently believes it can handle any popular discontent it might encounter in two years. There's not much food up north, but there's plenty of guns and ammo in the hands of security forces.
North Korean government officials are admitting, in discussions among themselves, that North Korean forces sank the South Korean warship Cheonan. North Korea officially denies having anything to do with the loss of the Cheonan, but most North Koreans accept the fact that North Korea did the deed, and northerners are proud of that. It's about the only good news northerners have had recently. The economy up there continues to collapse, and food prices are going up. The government is hoping China or South Korea will come through with food aid, quickly. But that food is apparently not on the way.
North Korea allowed UN experts in to examine the health system. What the UN found was a system that had plenty of doctors (one for every 500-1000 people), but little medicine or medical equipment. The UN team found malnutrition, but an otherwise healthy population that had access to basic medical care and first aid. However, except for senior officials, who had access to fully equipped hospitals, any advanced care was not available to most of the population.
North Korea has been releasing some rice from its military reserves, to try and stave off mass starvation until more foreign food aid can be obtained. Unlike the 1990s, where the government was successful in shifting blame for the famine onto foreigners (South Korea and the United States in particular), this time northerners know it is their own government that is screwing up.
Northerners, especially those who suffered heavy losses during the currency reform late last year, are not happy. While most of those entrepreneurs who were wiped out by the currency change are scrambling to rebuild their enterprises, or get out of the country, all are finding the northern government even more unresponsive. The hardliners seem to be in charge now, with a growing number of public executions of government officials and company managers, who are being killed as a spectacle to try and placate the public. It isn't working, as most northerners know that the rot is at the top. But the police state is still intact and the hardliners in the security forces have been told to crack down. More people are disappearing into the deadly prison camp system, and that is being done to instill more fear. The secret police are also purging their own ranks, as much as they can, of agents who have been taking bribes or running businesses on the side (often as a silent partner).
South Korean investigators have concluded that the Cheonan was apparently sunk by a small submarine, basically a torpedo with a diver to drive it, that went beneath the Cheonan and detonated. The explosion that sunk the Cheonan did not involve a torpedo hitting the hull before the warhead exploded. While there are torpedoes that will go off as they pass beneath the hull, the South Koreans had intelligence of a North Korean unit that possessed these manned torpedoes (a weapon that first appeared during World War II).
South Koreans are not surprised by the North Korean attack on the Cheonan, and denial that they had anything do with it. North Korea has a long history of this sort of thing. In 1983, a North Korean terrorist bomb killed several South Korean officials in Burma. In 1987, North Korean agents planted a bomb on a South Korean airliner, which was then destroyed in flight. In 1996, a North Korean spy submarine ran aground in South Korea, and for days, North Korea denied that it was theirs (the passengers and crew had been ordered to abandon ship, head inland and not be taken alive). There have been many lesser incidents, leaving South Koreans to conclude that the north is capable of anything and cannot be trusted.
May 1, 2010: Despite North Korean threats of reprisal, South Korean activists and refugees from the north launched ten more balloons, carrying leaflets, DVDs and cash, for the poor inhabitants of North Korea. These balloons annoy the rulers up north, but South Korea is not willing to pass laws outlawing the practice. Too many South Koreans back the balloon campaign.
April 29, 2010: Funerals were held for the bodies of South Korean sailors found in the recovered wreckage of the warship Cheonan. Military leaders vowed vengeance, but political leaders are not inclined to risk war over this. There is, however, growing popular enthusiasm for some kind of retribution.
April 27, 2010: Investigators have concluded, from examining the recovered wreckage of the Cheonan, that the ship was not sunk by a mine (either from the north or south). But the ship was sunk by an external explosion.
April 24, 2010: The first tourist train from China entered North Korea for a four day trip. This is a new arrangement, meant to obtain hard currency for the hard pressed North Korean government. Meanwhile, the north has seized the South Korean tourist resort that the north ordered closed last week. This is the sort of thing North Korea does to show it is angry and wants something (lots of money, food and fuel) that it can't have.
April 23, 2010: South Korean leaders indicate that they will not attack the north if it is proved conclusively that North Korea was responsible for the loss of the warship Cheonan. Meanwhile, investigators are going through the recovered wreckage of the Cheonan, looking for fragments of the weapon that sank the ship. Some of these fragments may have been found, and the source of the metal and plastic is being sought.
April 22, 2010: North Korea demanded international recognition as a nuclear power, and negotiation of a peace treaty with the United States, to replace the 1953 armistice. What the north really wants is lots of food aid, quickly, to avoid starvation, and wider public unrest.
April 20, 2010: South Korea announced that they had caught two North Korean assassins, sent to South Korea disguised as refugees. The two men were looking to kill a prominent (former North Korean government official) refugee living in South Korea. The government also pledged not to resume peace talks with the north if it was proved that the north had attacked the warship Cheonan. Few believed that the government would stick to this pledge.
April 15, 2010: The aft part of the warship Cheonan was recovered, and returned to land for closer examination. The international (America and Australia have sent shipwreck experts) investigation team will need up to a month to thoroughly examine the wreckage and conclude what, and who, destroyed the ship.