December 1, 2011: North Korean media is taking an ominous turn. For much of the year, the big story was that everything would change in 2012, with new housing and more of everything. That failed, as it is obvious to all that the 2012 promises are not going to be fulfilled. The new pitch urges North Koreans to eat less and save food. That military is being praised, as is the artillery attack on South Korea (Yeonpyeong Island) a year ago.
The most visible aspects of the 2012 promises (and the centennial of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung) are many new construction projects in the capital. This effort is not only way behind schedule, but is putting up poorly built structures and killing hundreds of students and others who have been conscripted as unskilled labor. The government puts a positive spin on the construction, but darker views get around, despite government efforts to control the news.
While North Koreans are warned about hunger, the government is silent on why they are going to be cold. The government has greatly increased coal exports to China, meaning prices have doubled in some parts of North Korea. The government denies that exports are up sharply, but won't say anything about the rising prices. Meanwhile, illegal tree cutting is increasingly common as people seek fuel with which to survive the cold weather. Satellite photos show the sharp difference between forestation in the north and south. Foreign aid groups believe that at least three million North Koreans are in danger of starvation. Many more North Koreans are eating less. But many North Koreans are living better. The market economy, both the legal markets and the black market, increasingly thrive.
In the last few years, the sharp decline in the economy and sharp increase in market activity has greatly changed the way things work in North Korea. The government constantly tries to halt the decline in reliability in the security forces and the military. Nearly all the secret police are taking bribes, and soldiers are increasingly becoming a public menace (stealing food and anything else they can sell). Talented young men no longer seek to join the military or secret police, but to become businessmen, even if that is illegal. The ability to bribe your way out of trouble, and the opportunities to become rich, has changed everything.
The North Korean government is increasing fearful of an invasion from the south. This is something that is not even mentioned publicly. But the northern leadership is aware of how their armed forces have deteriorated in the last two decades. The decline has accelerated in the last few years as the troops have lost their faith in North Korea. Part of this was hunger, for in the past the troops always had food. But most troops are conscripts, and they are coming from families who have known only increasing deprivation. The troops also noted that their senior officers live very well. The northern leadership is also aware that the South Korean armed forces have loyal, well-armed and trained troops. North Korean military experts point out that the southerners are strong enough, especially if their American allies help out, to invade the north. Of course, the south has no interest in doing this. The only talk of moving into North Korea is to restore order after a government collapse up there, or a civil war. But the northern leadership doesn't care what the reason the southerners use to invade, just that they are planning to move north, and that they could get away with it.
November 30, 2011: North Korea announced that it was making good progress in building another uranium enrichment plant. Foreign aid donors are refusing to send free food and fuel as long as North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons. But the northern leadership feels that the only way to deal with a foreign invasion is to have nuclear weapons. Despite two underground nuclear weapons tests, it appears that the north has not yet perfected its nuclear weapons design and does not have nuclear warheads for its ballistic missiles.
It's increasingly apparent that the northern leadership is also unwilling to accept the young heir, Kim Jong Un, as the true ruler when his father, Kim Jong Il dies. The government propaganda experts are working very hard to turn Kim Jong Un into a heroic figure. Kim Jong Un was recently promoted to full general (about 30 years ahead of schedule, compared to most officers of that exalted rank). This did not have the desired effect, as the number of jokes about Kim Jong Un are increasing, as is graffiti mocking the "youth captain" (what the propagandists have nicknamed Kim Jong Un, a title now made obsolete by his recent promotion.) Because of this succession problem, there is fear of chaos when the current ruler (who is quite ill), Kim Jong Il, dies. In the north, there is an atmosphere of impending doom.
The number of North Koreans to make it to South Korea has increased 19 percent over last year. Over 2,300 have arrived so far this year, and nearly 23,000 of these refugees currently live in the south. Such migration only went into high gear in the last decade. Wealthy North Koreans (either corrupt officials or market entrepreneurs) are getting out, and organizations able to move the refugees through China to Thailand (the most common way station to South Korea) are larger and more efficient. South Korea is asking China to relent and allow North Korean refugees to go directly from China to South Korea. China has always honored North Korean demands that illegal migrants must be arrested and returned (to labor camp, or immediate execution). China has increasingly tolerated these illegal migrants, and is fed up with the North Korean government, perhaps to the point where North Korea escapees will become legal, and allowed to continue on to South Korea. The downside of this is that such a policy change could trigger a flood of refugees from North Korea. The negotiations with South Korea on this matter probably include haggling over how much the South Koreans will compensate the Chinese for the expense of dealing with the flood.
November 25, 2011: North Korea media threatened to specifically go after the South Korean president if South Korean "aggression" (in the form of military training) did not cease.
November 20, 2011: In an effort to calm down the increasingly paranoid North Korean leadership, the south has sent more medical supplies, and halted groups who release balloons (carrying propaganda items) that fly into the north. But the truth of the matter is that the only thing the south could do to placate the north is to disappear.
November 19, 2011: South Korea has arrested another North Korean refugee and accused the man of being a North Korean spy. Until five years ago, there were very few cases of this kind of espionage. But North Korea has been increasingly using fake refugees to get spies into South Korea.