In the north all the talk of agricultural reforms (letting farmers compete and keep much of any profits their efforts create) suddenly disappeared and information on the proposed reforms was removed from briefings for government officials. These briefings are supposed to be kept secret and are meant to prepare the bureaucracy for upcoming changes. Apparently there was a dispute at the very top over the need for the government to retain control over food supplies until more sources of free foreign food aid could be obtained. This caused a halt, but not elimination, to agricultural reforms. The original briefings caused a lot of enthusiasm in rural areas, and this made it clear that the reforms would, in the long run, be the way to go. China has long pointed out that its own agricultural production got a big boost from similar reforms three decades ago.
The government has several choices. They can go along with Western proposals to halt missile and nuclear weapons work in return for (lots of) free food and oil. The other option is to keep the weapons and institute Chinese style economic reforms. This would create more wealth and make it possible to buy enough food to avoid another major famine. A third choice is to change nothing. That means declining food supplies and little prospect of economic growth. Even the hard core communists accept that central planning has not worked. But many North Korean leaders fear a wealthier population would turn against the government for enforcing poverty and starvation for so long. They may be right but if some changes are not made, and fast, the creaky economy will collapse altogether and chaos will ensue. Making no decision looms as the worst decision of all.
Another reform, expanding education from 11 to 12 years and splitting it into vocational and academic tracks, is moving forward. Notices are being posted calling for more people to volunteer for teaching jobs. A major inducement is more food "distributions." Such inducements are necessary because a lot of the most capable people are seeking jobs in the growing (legal and illegal) market economy. This has resulted in more lectures to the population about the dangers of speaking to foreigners. Doing so without official permission can get you arrested. The "foreigners" include Chinese workers and businessmen who are increasingly common in North Korea. It's discussions with Chinese visitors that are most dangerous, as escaping to China is an increasingly popular goal for many desperate North Koreans. The food shortages in the north are believed to be worse than they were in the 1990s, when starvation killed over a million people and stunted a generation of children. The electricity shortages are getting worse and that forces economic activity even lower.
It's not just foreigners the government is worried about. Despite an extensive system of informers, North Koreans are passing on forbidden information to each other. The most compelling of this stuff is CDs or DVDs containing pictures and videos of life outside North Korea, especially in China and South Korea. There are enough TVs equipped to play these discs up north to reach much, if not most, of the population. Seeing how much better people live in neighboring countries is very demoralizing but also encouraging as it shows a way out of all the misery. Even more damaging to North Korean morale is the growing number of pictures showing how well the North Korean leadership lives. As with most dictatorships, North Korea is controlled by a few percent of the population, who are kept happy with a much higher standard of living than other North Koreans and a growing flow of gifts (mostly Western consumer goods) handed out (often personally) by the most senior leaders. The UN recognized this as a key element in making the North Korean tyranny work. That and continued North Korea development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons led the UN, in 2006, to impose an embargo on shipments of luxury goods to North Korea. The U.S. later instituted additional prohibitions. But neither effort had much impact, mainly because China would not enforce it. Luxury goods entering North Korea have gone from $272 million in 2008, to $584 million last year. The rapid increase in such imports is another sign of how nervous the leadership is getting. The growing starvation and economic collapse in North Korea is hard to hide and even the people in charge fear for the worse. But a new iPod or flat screen TV can make you forget, for a while anyway. These luxury imports are one of the most important weapons used to maintain control of the threadbare millions in the north. Yes, men with guns, prison camps, and relentless propaganda are the most obvious tools of control. But the most important element in all this is assuring the loyalty of those who wield the tools of control. That's what all the iPods, foreign cars, and flat screens are for.
In the northeast China is expanding the use of electrified barbed wire on its border fence along the narrow Tumen River. This 500 kilometer stretch of border is in a rural area (next to the 17 kilometer border with Russia, also defined by the Tumen). Because of more Chinese border patrols along the rest of the border, more smugglers and escapees are using the Tumen River portion of the frontier. The Chinese began using electrified barbed wire over the last decade, at first in areas where most illegal crossings were detected and for only a few hours a day. But now the juice is on 24/7, at voltages that can kill and is being built in more remote parts of the border.
October 7, 2012: South Korea announced that its 2001 defense agreement with the U.S. had been modified to allow South Korea to make ballistic missiles with a range of up to 800 kilometers. The previous limit (a vain attempt to encourage the north to stop developing long range missiles) was 300 kilometers. The north responded to this announcement by boasting that it had missiles that could hit the U.S. mainland. This is doubtful, and American officials responded that the north would be better served if its leaders worked on feeding its people. North Korean officials don't like to talk about that.
October 6, 2012: A North Korean soldier stationed on the DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone) separating North and South Korea killed two of his superiors and fled to the south. He said he feared for his life. This makes three such escapes in the last two months. The August incident had a defecting soldier crossing in daylight waving a white flag so that South Korean soldiers would not fire on him.
October 2, 2012: A North Korean soldier stationed 50 kilometers from the DMZ fled to the south. He crossed the heavily guarded border and sought asylum. What the initial news reports did not mention (because the government kept it a secret) was that the defecting soldier had crossed the DMZ undetected and then entered a military camp and had to pound on doors in two buildings just before midnight until he found someone to surrender to. The government ordered an investigation of how the security along the DMZ was run.
Four years ago, after a year-long test, South Korea halted plans to replace human guards along portions of the DMZ with electronic sensors and armed robots. The sensors were neither sensitive enough nor reliable enough to detect refugees, or North Korea troops, trying to cross the five kilometer wide DMZ that separates the two countries. The human guards have a hard time paying attention as DMZ duty is incredibly boring. Until quite recently crossing attempts were extremely rare (one every few years along the 253 kilometer long DMZ) but now there is more desperation in the north. The October 2nd defector got over three fences and through two minefields, all of which were supposed to be watched by armed troops on both sides.