South Korean activists seeking freedom for North Korea are openly stressing the fact that the people in North Korea are no longer isolated. Thousands of North Koreans own Chinese cell phones, and use them along the Chinese border. The North Korean government tried to eliminate this sort of "information crime", but even with the help of cell phone signal detectors (and the execution of several cell phone owners they caught), the cell phone users adapted and survived. Some even organized a regular schedule of communication with South Korean activists across the border in China, allowing news to get in and out of North Korea. Over a million North Koreans own short wave radios, and regularly break the law by listening to foreign broadcasts. Thus North Koreans know what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. But as long as North Koreans believe that the security forces will open fire on any large demonstrations, there will be no public demands for freedom. The secret police continue to make arrests, and ship people off to labor camps (which many people do not survive) or worse (execution). In the last two years, the number of public (to intimidate the population) executions has tripled, and more and more secret policemen seem more interested in taking bribes.
Despite the threat of punishment, people will even steal from the government. For example, in Hambuk Dockyard, where mini-submarines are assembled, production has been constantly delayed as key components (especially electronics and expensive metal items) disappear. The dockyard workers have suffered power and food shortages, like everyone else, and morale is not good. Construction of commercial ships is strangely unaffected, largely because those jobs pay well, in terms of cash and food. Government work, not so much.
It is believed that only senior government officials, military personnel and residents of the capital are getting regular supplies of food. That means 80 percent of the population has to fend for themselves. About a quarter of the population works on farms, and these people are a little better off (even though the government tries hard to get control of all harvested crops). But over half the population has to depend on the markets to avoid going hungry. Deaths from starvation are becoming increasingly common, and are expected to grow rapidly in the next few months. Even discussing this in North Korea can get you arrested.
Military work continues to be a major part of the economy. For example, work is nearly completed, at Tongchang-dong (near the Chinese border) of another launch site for long range missiles. The site includes a 30 meter (93 foot) launch tower. North Korea has also been building a base for 70 or so hovercraft, on the west coast, within a hundred kilometers of some disputed islands.
February 16, 2011: Kim Jong Ils birthday celebrations today were a PR disaster. That's because the usual gifts for the people were notably diminished. People expected 5-30 day's supply (depending on one's rank) of rice and a few other edibles. But only a day's worth of food was handed out this year, and many people got nothing but a speech from local Communist Party officials. Government officials always have enough food, and are supposed to get consumer goods. Not this year. Many got nothing, or just some food items to supplement the smaller food allocations going to the ruling class (a few percent of the population.) This has caused grumpiness among officials, although those in the security forces have been collecting more bribes, and the markets (legal or not) are thriving. If you have cash, you can live well. People are scrambling to get cash anyway they can. Prostitution and theft are up, as is smuggling goods (and people) in and out of China. Kim Jong Il is having increasing problems getting his hands on sufficient hard currency to buy the consumer and luxury goods he provides to keep his key aides happy and loyal.
To deal with growing food shortages, North Korea has declared some suburban portions of the capital, no longer part of the city (transferring them to an adjacent province). These moves reduced the population from three million to under two million. Those living in the capital are always guaranteed sufficient food. In order to maintain that, the population of the capital had to be reduced. Only those with government permission can live in the capital.
Inflation is a growing problem in the north, with most prices doubling in the last few months. The government is printing a lot of money, used to buy a shrinking quantity of goods. The secret police have cracked down on large scale smuggling of goods from China, and the government is broke, and unable to buy stuff.
China congratulated Kim Jong Il on his 69th birthday, and openly approved of his rule, and plan to be succeeded by his youngest son.
February 10, 2011: Kim Jong Un was promoted to vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission. This puts the heir to power in a position where he can monitor military activities, and debate policy changes.
February 9, 2011: The new peace talks between North and South Korea immediately collapsed when the south demanded that the north admit to making two attacks on South Korea last year. The north refused to admit to the sinking of a South Korean warship 11 months ago. The north was also angry that the south did not immediately offer food and fuel aid. The situation is desperate up north.