September 13, 2011:
South Korean officials believe that the North Korean economy has collapsed and cannot be revived by the current communist government. Chinese assistance won’t work, and many Chinese officials, and business people, agree. When Kim Jong Il dies, his heir (the youngest son, Kim Jong Un) won’t be able to hold it together, and the North Korean government will fall apart. South Korean officials believe that South Korea will be in a better position to take control up north. But current Chinese policy opposes that, and when crunch time arrives, so will Chinese troops in North Korea. Current North Korean ruler Kim Kong Il is apparently aware of this scenario, and does not trust China because of it. Then again, when it all plays out, Kim Jong Il will be dead.
The UN has issued more warnings about famine in North Korea. This report is based on UN staff observing severely malnourished North Korea survivors of recent floods. The Great Hunger in North Korea has reached the military. Videos are showing up, in China and South Korea, of hungry looking North Korean soldiers describing months of food shortages in their units. While officers and NCOs get more, there isn’t much variety (rice, potatoes and some vegetables) and the most junior troops are hungry all the time. There is much anxiety about the coming Winter, with fuel shortages, and even greater hunger. Morale isn’t a problem, because there isn’t any. Officers and NCOs, who have made the army a career, appear concerned, and confused. Many of the younger troops want to flee the country, but the security forces are constantly on the lookout for deserters, and getting caught means death (either immediately, or more slowly in a labor camp.)
One little mentioned reason for the current famine in North Korea is the sharp reduction in rice shipments from Myanmar (Burma). Lots of rice has been arriving from Burma over the last five years, but in the last year or so, those shipments have sharply declined. The reason is apparently because North Korea was paying for the rice by exporting weapons. This can be done via China (although it's more expensive than sea shipments), but American efforts to ban North Korean arms exports have been increasingly successful, even for stuff going overland via Chinese or Russian railroads.
Japan is increasingly nervous about North Korea lashing out, and firing ballistic missiles at Japan. The Japanese are also concerned about growing Chinese and Russian military power. As a result of all this, decades of growing popular opposition to American troops in Japan is declining. Most Japanese now want American troops to remain; even as there is growing popular pressure in the United States to bring those troops home.
A recent UN report accuses North Korea of using known black market suppliers to obtain equipment for processing uranium into nuclear bomb material. North Korea had previously developed most of the tech it needed to produce plutonium material for bombs. But in the late 1990s, North Korea promised to stop plutonium processing, and secretly switched to uranium.
A month ago, several hundred men from the Escort Bureau (the personal security force for the ruling Kim family) were assigned to the Chinese border. There, the Escort Bureau troops went after police and border guards who were taking bribes to allow people (and goods) to enter or leave the country. Previously, everyone sent to “clean up border security” has become corrupted. Those selected for the Escort Bureau are supposed to be the most loyal (to the ruling Kim family) and reliable. But given the extent of corruption in the upper echelons of the ruling class, members of the Escort Bureau were familiar with how their bosses get rich and powerful. For several weeks, the Escort Bureau men were the terror of the border region. But once their departure date approached, many of the Escort Bureau men began soliciting bribes. While the Escort Bureau troops had arrested many security personnel and civilians, they were still corruptible in the end. In response to this, or simply to follow up on the success of the Escort Bureau troops, the government has now sent a special “Unit 828” to ensure honest border security. This outfit was recruited from the propaganda staff of the most senior government propaganda organization. Unit 828 will be there to seek ways to halt the flow of South Korean culture into North Korea. Most of this traffic is in the form of videos, usually on DVDs. This stuff is very popular in North Korea, but its depiction of a wealthy, happy South Korea, undermines decades of North Korea propaganda.
North Korean morale took a big hit this year because of the difficulty people had in obtaining extra food for the annual Chuseok harvest festival (on September 12). The government made an official announcement asking people to tone down Chuseok feasts this year. That was something of a warning, but the reality was that there was a lot less food out there, even for those who could afford to buy what they wanted in the free markets.
September 9, 2011: In the North Korean capital, a huge parade was held to celebrate the 63rd anniversary of the founding of North Korea. On these occasions, much food is distributed to those who will march, or attend, the parade. This keeps everyone from looking emaciated, and ensures that all are genuinely happy to be there.
September 6, 2011: In a bid to earn more foreign currency, North Korea has converted a coastal ferry into their first cruise ship. The maiden voyage, with journalists and Chinese tour operators aboard, revealed that the conversion was hasty and incomplete. Accommodations were minimalist and often defective. Undismayed, the Chinese tour operators believed they could sell tickets to an “adventure cruise” for Chinese vacationers looking for something different. Most Chinese consider North Korea a freak show of a country, and that creates a certain exotic charm. Interesting place to visit, but no one would want to live there.