North Korean officials have gone to Europe to quietly plead for food aid, pointing out that the country has just gone through the worst Winter in 60 years and, combined with poor harvests last year, put many people at risk until the first potato harvest arrives in two months. Food saved from last year's harvest is running out now. While it's true that people are starving in North Korea, it's not from a lack of food, but a lack of money, The North Korean government changed the economic system in the last few years, greatly reducing the distribution of food by the government (as part employee pay) and replacing it with a market system where state employees got a raise, to replace the food distribution and were encouraged to find jobs in a new market economy. But the government didn't have money to pay for all this, and just printed more. This caused inflation, and the raises ended up being much less than the real increases in food prices.
While there has been little foreign food aid for the past two years, there is food available from China (if the price is right) and an increasing tonnage of food apparently being stolen from the military reserves (the only known large reserve of food left in the country.) In the last few months, the price of food on North Korean markets has actually come down, as the value of the North Korean currency has stabilized against the Chinese Yuan. What this means is that if you have the cash, you can eat. But it's estimated that at least a quarter of the population lacks enough money to buy the minimum amount of food. These people are starving, some more quickly than others.
There is some new military activity up north. A new (longer and heavier) version of the Song (Tiger) coastal (300 ton) submarine has shown up, and is making a lot of training trips. The Song boats were originally designed mainly for carrying commandos, but some are equipped with torpedo tubes. There has been more activity by North Korean Navy warships and support craft (like amphibious ships).
Beginning earlier this year, all North Koreans were supposed to register their electronic devices (computers, flat screens, DVD players, PCs, laptops, USB memory sticks, MP3 players and so on). Anyone caught with an unregistered gadget can have it confiscated. As a practical matter, this makes it easier for security personnel to steal gadgets found on anyone they arrest, or whose home they search. These searches are often seeking forbidden items, especially cell phones. The government believes there are several hundred thousand illegal cell phones in the north (which are mainly used along the Chinese border, where signals from Chinese cell towers can be accessed.) Another forbidden item is recordings of South Korean TV shows (especially the soap operas, that show how South Koreans live, which is much better than northerners.) The police usually seize the USB stick, hard drive or DVD player the forbidden media was on or used to view. The northern government considers these soap operas to be extremely subversive and a major cause of the growing discontent. But there are other sources of discontent. The recent (and ongoing) uprisings in Arab countries have terrified North Korean rulers. An example of the extent of this fear is what happened to the 200 North Koreans who were working in Libya when the rebellion there recently broke out. While other nations evacuated their citizens working there, the North Korean government ordered these 200 North Koreans to not return home. Arrangements were made to send these expatriate workers elsewhere, as some kind of refugee. This was a futile gesture, something many North Korean officials refuse to recognize. The 200 exiles will get in touch with their kin back home. Despite government efforts to control communications entering and leaving North Korea, that effort has been futile. Along the China/North Korea border, there are smugglers who will move information, as well as people and goods, both ways across the frontier.
In the North Korean capital, security forces are frantically seeking the sources of anti-government printed material. This includes one page mini-posters and 60 page pamphlets. These items are not only professionally printed (apparently in North Korea), but written by skilled communicators (perhaps also from North Korea). The ruling Kim family has demanded that the publishers and writers of these treasonous, anti-Kim, materials be found. But after weeks of efforts, the police have come up with nothing. That is even more frightening for the northern rulers.
It's believed that the anti-government material got printed, distributed, and protected in part because of the growing criminal underground. The increasing amount of legal markets, and continued existence of black markets, has provided security forces and local officials with frequently irresistible temptations to become wealthy gangsters. The security people either run their own gangs (that control prostitution, gambling, drug distribution and access to legal and illegal markets), or get large bribes for ignoring gang activities. It's become obvious that things are going downhill real fast up north, and the best form of insurance is a pile of foreign cash. This is often Chinese Yuan, which is like a second currency in the north. Cash can buy you out of a lot of trouble. If it can't, it can assist if you have to run for the border. For a growing number of officials, cash is life, and everything is for sale.
April 9, 2011: The north has suspended the lucrative tour business that earned the North Korean government millions of dollars a year from South Korean tourists eager to see northern historical and cultural sites. Despite a fifty year contract, with a South Korean firm, signed in the 1990s, that guaranteed the needed access, the north has halted the tourist traffic until the south becomes more agreeable (stops demanding inquiries about dead or injured tourists, and provides more cash or other aid).
April 8, 2011: As usual, the north has threatened to attack if South Korea and the United States do not halt military training exercises. Given the increasingly violent behavior by the north in the past year, these threats are no longer considered harmless propaganda.
April 4, 2011: The South Korean government has approved private aid to North Korea. If North Korea will accept it, aid organizations in the south can send food and medical supplies to facilities in the north. Some of these goods may still be stolen by the government up north, but the total amount of aid is expected to be small (a few million dollars a year.)
March 23, 2011: North Korea has threatened war over balloons. In the south, private and government groups have been sending balloons carrying leaflets, video CDs, cassette players and tapes, and even food, across to the DMZ. This annoys the northern government a great deal, and is part of the reason why the north has amped up the war threats. The north is particularly upset at its people being told about the popular uprisings in the Arab world. Southern politicians asked that the military Information War operations to be carried out more discreetly (no more press releases, just keep quietly doing it.) No move has been made to halt private organizations.
March 22, 2011: In yet another effort to discourage people from illegally fleeing the country, the government is now forcing the families, of those who have "disappeared", to remote areas of the country where food is difficult to buy or grow. For those already weakened by poor diet, this can be a death sentence. But not always. People who flee North Korea, often with the help (financial or otherwise) from the rest of the family, are expected to get a job and send cash back to the family. There is an illegal banking system in place to support this. The North Korean government is also doing local officials in these poor areas a favor by sending in the kin of escapees. If the new arrivals are seen buying more food or better housing, it's time for the local Communist Party boss to go visit and demand a cut. Communism in action (from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.)
March 21, 2011: On the one year anniversary of North Korea sinking a South Korea warship, the north continues to threaten more violence if the south does not provide food and other aid.