May 24, 2012: North Korea has always depended on economic and diplomatic support from China. As the international sanctions on North Korea increase, along with the internal economic problems, this Chinese support has become a lifeline. The Chinese connection not only provides enough food to prevent mass starvation deaths but also abets the smuggling in of luxury goods for the leadership and special tools (like cell phone detectors) for the security forces. China does this because it does not want Korea united, nor does it want the flood of refugees that would occur if the North Korean dictatorship lost control. So China keeps North Korea on life support. There is some hope that the North Korean leadership can be persuaded to adopt the Chinese model (a communist dictatorship with a market economy). But North Korea is more nationalist than communist and the idea of "opening up" economically is not popular with the several hundred families that run the place. They fear that the people would become unmanageable. So China keeps supporting whatever government the North Koreans can muster. As long as Korea remains divided and the northerners quiet, that is satisfactory for China.
What is not satisfactory is North Korean nuclear weapons. China tolerated all sorts of weapons production and smuggling (often assisted by allowing it to go through China). Ballistic missiles and chemical weapons are one thing, but the prospect of smuggled nukes is unacceptable. Apparently there have been increasingly sharp discussions between Chinese and North Korean officials over the nuclear issue. This is one subject where the North Koreans tell the Chinese to back off and Chinese threats do not change the situation. China can understand the North Korean strategy here. The nukes make it easier to extort aid from the rich countries (South Korea, Japan, and the West) and gives North Korea something very valuable to sell on the international black market. But the nukes also risk a military response from the West, which fears North Korea nukes could end up in the hands of terrorists. China does not believe the North Koreans are that rash but then China has more intel agents and friends inside North Korea and has a better sense of what the North Koreans are really thinking. Apparently China now believes that North Korean desperation is reaching the point where selling nukes to the highest bidder is a possibility. China is still at the talking stage but moving towards action (cutting the North Koreans off).
Inside North Korea there is growing popular unrest and dissention within the ruling families. There are coalitions of families, based on what portions of the military, secret police, or economy they control, and they are constantly maneuvering to survive or get ahead. This is a contact sport, with occasional fatalities. An increasingly useful tool to maintain popular support is manufacturing artificial foreign threats. All that North Korean rhetoric about imminent war with South Korea and attacks on the U.S. or Japan (but never China) has to do with distracting most North Koreans from their hunger and deprivation. This doesn't work as well as it used to but it works better than the other standbys. These include the secret police, who are increasingly easy to bribe or intimidate, and government distributions of "gifts" (sacks full of food and simple consumer goods, given to nearly every family in the country, or a province).
For the first time in three years satellite photos show work being done at its Musudan-ri launch facility. North Korea has begun construction around this place. The North Koreans don't do this just for show (they can't afford the electricity or the spare parts), and when they do it's usually a sign that something is about to be launched. There are also signs that preparations are being made for rocket assembly and launch at Musudan-ri. The pace of work is slow, and at the current rate it might be a year or more before the site is ready for an actual launch.
The North Korean government has a special program to prevent starvation deaths but not starvation. Local officials have been told that they will be severely punished (like being expelled from the bureaucracy and forced to scramble for survival like most North Koreans) if there are "excessive" (as defined by senior officials) starvation deals in their area. The chief method of preventing those deaths is to supply the severely malnourished with a few kilograms of grain (usually low quality corn/maize), which is usually enough to prevent death but not enough to help the famine casualties recover. The North Koreans are determined to, if nothing else, have an orderly mass starvation.
The army has been ordered to help scour the country side for edible wild plants, to provide some additional food for the starving. The troops in the hardest hit areas are demonstrably better fed than the locals and are also there to emphasize that resistance is futile.
Despite the growing hunger in the north, many are still mesmerized by the lifestyle in South Korea. For a long time most North Koreans knew nothing about the south. But as the government (out of desperation) allowed legal markets, the simultaneous development of cheap video players, using CDs then DVDs, and now memory sticks brought South Korean TV shows and movies to many in the north. This, more than anything else, has caused great unrest and willingness to oppose the government. The most visible aspect of this is northerners wearing southern clothing styles. This is now illegal in North Korea but people keep doing it. The style differences are often subtle and the materials of these Chinese or local knockoffs are inferior to what the South Koreans use but it's the thought that counts. The North Korean government doesn't like that thought, but despite arrests and severe punishments, northerners continue to walk the streets wearing their rebellious attitudes.
May 20, 2012: North Korea has freed several Chinese fishing boats that were seized by a patrol boat, for illegal fishing, on May 8th. North Korean officials demanded that fines of $189,000 be paid for the release of the boats and their crews. When the Chinese government refused the amount was cut 25 percent. But the Chinese saw this as another North Korean scam and told the North Korean government to release the boats and crews or there would be halts in aid shipments and problems with North Korean officials visiting China. That works. Increasingly, North Koreans are trying to shake down Chinese for additional money or goods. Sometimes the North Koreans get away with it. But if they go too far the Chinese government growls and the bandits back off. If the freelancing officials succeed they must, of course, share with their superiors.
May 18, 2012: South Korea has put off signing a military cooperation treaty with Japan. Over the last decade, partly in response to new North Korean weapons developments, Japan and South Korea have increased their military cooperation. For many decades this was not possible because of Korean anger at savage Japanese behavior during the Japanese colonial occupation (1905-45). But when it came time to sign a more formal agreement, many South Koreans regained their historical memories and hatred of Japan. South Korean leaders postponed the signing. There will follow intense government efforts to remind South Koreans about what a good neighbor Japan has been for the last sixty years. Then another attempt at signing the deal will be made. Meanwhile, the cooperation, formalized by the treaty, will continue anyway.
May 16, 2012: Satellite photos have revealed that North Korea is again working on its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. It might take a year or two before this facility is producing nuclear weapons material.
May 14, 2012: In the north the annual 40 day "total farm mobilization" is underway. Since 2006, the government has insisted that all students and most non-farm workers go work on farms during the planting season. This year the secret police have been going around arresting anyone they find in non-farm areas and sending them to the nearest farm. This makes it difficult for local officials to take bribes to allow people to avoid farm duty. It also annoys the farmers, who find most of these town and city dwellers just get in the way. But the government makes this into a major media event and insists.
May 13, 2012: The North Korean jamming of GPS signals in South Korea stopped, after 16 days. The impact was felt largely by aircraft and ships operating around Seoul, the largest city in the south. North Korea denied that it had anything to do with the jamming, despite the fact that the signal could be easily traced to North Korea.