July 26, 2011:
Massive imports of rice, and other grains, from China have brought down the market price of food in the north. But that only matters if you have any money. About a third of the population has not got the cash to buy food. Most of these folks are out in the countryside, where foreigners are not allowed. But the proliferation of cell phones and MP3 players equipped with cameras are allowing more images of the famine to get out. Meanwhile, foreign donors are not rushing to supply food unless the north cuts back, or shuts down, their nuclear and missile programs. The north has quietly sent out diplomats to discuss this. But negotiating with the north is a frustrating exercise. Over the last 70 years, North Korean have proven themselves evasive and not trustworthy. But this time, the negotiators seem desperate. They should be, as the North Korean police state is coming apart. This is not like in the past, when there were often rumors of imminent collapse in the north. This time, there are more ways to get factual evidence of what is happening. That's been made possible by the establishment of the free markets and the growing number of Chinese merchants allowed in to supply them. The Chinese brought their cell phones, and the markets sell cheap DVD and MP3 players. Despite vigorous government efforts to maintain tight control over information, that battle has been lost in the last decade. So now the world can see how North Korea is continuing to fall apart. North Korean diplomats and negotiators have to operate with the knowledge that the world knows what a mess their country is in, and that there's no point in pretending otherwise.
Yet another source of unrest in the north is the current campaign against South Korean goods in the legal markets. The secret police simply seize any South Korean goods found, including Chinese fakes. South Korean consumer goods (everything from toiletries to small appliances) are popular in the north because of the higher quality (compared to the more common Chinese goods). The official reason for this ban is that South Korean goods are a bad capitalist influence (and evidence that South Korea is much better off). But North Korean merchants see it as another excuse for the state to steal from them. The secret police don't destroy the stolen goods, but take them for themselves or sell them off. There are plenty of buyers, especially of South Korean clothing. This stuff is all the rage in the capital, especially among the children of the ruling class. Their parents are not happy with this, thus the repeated raids on the markets for South Korean items. But the parents have been unable to make the secret police destroy all the seized goods, mainly because the children of the elite have access to cash, and the secret police. No wonder the communist leaders in the north are so afraid of the free markets. Even the secret police have been corrupted because of these markets, and apparently nothing can be done to shut down these markets.
Fearing that college students might become a source of unrest, the North Korean government is assigning them more extracurricular work. This ranges from construction to gathering medicinal herbs for export. Once they have reached their medicinal herb quota, students often keep gathering more to sell for some extra money. But students have less free time this Summer, as the state assigns more mandatory labor. Students risk expulsion from college and imprisonment if they refuse these assignments. The students have more to be unhappy about because of these work assignments. For example, last month over 100,000 students were ordered to report to construction sites in the capital. There, they are to help meet ambitious government construction (of new housing) goals. But the students have no work because the government cannot afford to buy construction materials. North Korean firms cannot produce many construction materials because of electricity shortages. The North Korean economy is crippled by this, and what little electricity that is available goes to producing weapons and other export goods.
July 22, 2011: North and South Korea agreed to resume negotiations (over economic aid and the north's nuclear weapons programs). North Korea has consistently cheated and lied during past such talks. Moreover, it is believed that North Korea is exaggerating the extent of hunger in the north, in order to get enough food aid to prevent starvation, and leave a lot that can be sold for cash. South Korean diplomats believe that, this time around, a useful and lasting deal can be worked out with the north. That's because of the flow of information out of the north. Everyone knows the north is in bad shape, and northern diplomats don't play rhetorical games as much as they used to.
July 19, 2011: South Korea has adopted a bunch of new rules and procedures to try and decrease the bullying and violence in the military. These practices were inherited from the Japanese during World War II (where many Koreans were conscripted for support jobs). For a long time, the rough atmosphere in the barracks was tolerated because it appealed to the macho attitude among South Korean men. But most of the troops are still conscripts, and parents, and their conscripted kids, are no longer tolerating all the violence.
July 17, 2011: At the football (soccer) Women's World Cup games, five members of the North Korean team were tested and found to be using steroids. North Korea said it was all a mistake, as the women were using a traditional medicine that must have had steroid-like components. That sort of thing is also forbidden, and the five women were banned.
July 15, 2011: Somali pirates, holding four South Korean sailors (taken in May) are demanding that the South Korean government pay them an undisclosed sum of "compensation" for eight pirates killed during a South Korean commando operation in February. In addition, the pirates also want South Korea to free five Somali pirates it has imprisoned. This is the second time the pirates have tried this tactic. Three months ago, similar threats were made against India, and the Indians folded. The South Korean government has not responded yet.
July 13, 2011: The South Korean Navy has ordered ten more PKG type patrol boats, in addition to the 24 on order. This is in response to the buildup of North Korean naval forces along the west coast, just north of the DMZ.