May 19, 2011: The rulers of North Korea are scared, very scared, and are not afraid to show it. For example, there are suddenly a lot more things people can be arrested for. The prison camps are filled with a record number of prisoners (over 200,000), because a lot more of those arrested are deemed a danger to the government and locked up or executed. The extent of this paranoia can be seen in the growing effort to stop people from singing, or just whistling the theme song from a 1980s "Robin Hood" type movie. The ban dates back to the late 1990s, but now a lot more people are violating the ban and getting arrested for it. It's all about growing resistance to the communist government. This is taking many forms. More people are openly telling jokes mocking the government and its leaders. Women are not only whistling forbidden tunes, they are also wearing jewelry (earrings, long condemned as capitalist decadence). Religion is showing up more in the north (where it is forbidden). Clergy are being executed and unrepentant believers are shipped off to prison camps. An even scarier media development is the use of official slogans (to defend the state or obey the ruling Kim family) in slightly twisted ways to justify taking bribes and stealing. Communism is, after all, a big user of, "the ends justify the means."
The government is trying to keep news of the outside from getting in. This means an increased effort to round up illegal cell phones along the border. More cell phone detectors have been imported and put to use. This has been a bonanza for the police, who can extract a bribe (from those who can afford it) from the owners of detected phones. A larger bribe will allow the offender to keep their phone. Otherwise, the phones are taken and resold on the black market. As long as the police bring in their quota of phones, and victims for the prison camps, their commanders are content. It's the same deal with border security in general. The government is obsessed with cutting off unauthorized crossings (either way, because those coming in bring forbidden news). The government is getting doctored reports and the border guards are getting rich. News of rebellion in the Arab world and economic plenty in China and South Korea continues to get in anyway. It's not "the people" the government is worried about, but the few percent of the population who control the rest. It's the party loyalists and secret police that are being polluted, and whose loyalty is increasingly open to question. More of these folks are sneaking out.
The economy continues to collapse. Electricity shortages are more frequent. The national currency (the won) is increasingly ignored, mainly because of continued inflation. The government keeps printing money, not obtaining it via taxation. This is how you cause inflation, and the government feels it has no choice. The people have, in effect, gone on the dollar standard, with the won-dollar exchange rate determining what the won is really worth. Currently that's over 1,500 won to the dollar and headed up. China is still the source of a lot of goods, and those suppliers want dollars, or won at the current dollar exchange rate, plus a little extra because of the unpredictability of what will go wrong next in North Korea. Hunger is growing, and more people are selling what they own to buy increasingly expensive food. More people are eating corn instead of rice. Starvation deaths are not a major source of deaths yet, but malnutrition is a growing public health problem, and increasingly obvious. Public order is breaking down in more obvious ways. Anti-government graffiti is more common, in addition to illegal drug sales. Government employees are increasingly demanding bribes to do their jobs.
North Korea still has some foreign friends, particularly China and Russia. Both nations benefit economically from trade with North Korea. Russia gets a lot of cheap labor, which is preferable to letting Chinese in to do needed work in the resource rich, but thinly populated, Russian far east. Russia still expects to get paid, as does China. Both countries try to reduce international pressure on North Korea's illegal arms trade. China also keeps pressuring the North Korean leadership to make economic reforms. But too many in the North Korean leadership fear that this sort of thing will only fuel a revolution. However, increased poverty among the rulers, and their enforcers, is liable to produce a palace revolution. That is an increasingly common topic of discussion in North Korea, even if such talk is strictly forbidden.
To further complicate matters, Kim Jong Il is getting healthier. Two years ago, after a stroke, and other health complications, Kim felt compelled to speed up plans for selecting and grooming his successor (youngest son Kim Jong Un). The successor had some different ideas from his father, and more people in the leadership began to shift their thinking. The kid is more amenable to reforms, but less able to control those in the leadership who disagree with him. To deal with this, and because the old man is still able to walk and talk, the succession process is being slowed down. But the decline of the country, and communist rule, continues to accelerate.
May 10, 2011: In South Pyongan province (west central North Korea), police finally caught up with a vicious robbery gang, which had committed dozens of thefts in rural areas over the last two years, including seven murders. All the robbers belonged to a gang of high-school students. By North Korean standards, these kids were from well-off families, but money has been tight, and the kids began to stage robberies in rural areas. All those caught, no matter what their age, were sent to prison camps. This gang struck a nerve in the north, as it made clear how widespread the privation, and lawlessness was.
May 1, 2011: South Korea exports set a record in April. The South Korean economy is booming again, while in North Korea the economy continues to decline. This has social implications because the decades of prosperity has changed South Korean culture and attitudes. Similarly, decades of decline, repression and poverty in the north has changed attitudes there as well. The impact of this is best seen in the difficulty refugees from the north have in the south. Even the increasing number of well-off northerners (technical specialists, managers) who are leaving, have a hard time adjusting in the south. The north is run like a large prison, while the south is like, well, what all Westerners take for granted. It's quite a culture clash, and many on both sides of the border fear the results of large scale culture shock after the collapse of the communist dictatorship in the north, and reunification. That's assuming the Chinese allow reunification. But that's another problem that most in the south don't want to dwell on.