While outsiders are perplexed at the sudden increase in outrageous threats from North Korea, people inside the country are not. In the last few years life has gotten much worse. Starvation deaths, suicides, crime, and divorces (official and otherwise) are way up. The North Korean leadership has less and less to work with. Their armed forces have been falling apart for two decades and little else works up there.
The North Korean leadership continues to be split between those who want to follow the Chinese path and allow economic freedom while continuing to run a dictatorship and those who oppose economic freedom for the masses because it might make them powerful enough to overthrow their tyrants. It appears that all this is part of a generational dispute over how to maintain the wealth and power of the few thousand families that control the country. No one is talking democracy here, just basic survival. There is much to be done, because the economy is a mess and the police state is losing its ability to control the population. Last year the government distributed, to thousands of senior officials, details of new economic reforms. Although not as extensive as China is advising, the new reforms would give entrepreneurial managers more power to compete and do better. This includes more economic freedom for farmers. Alas, the new rules also provide more opportunity for corrupt officials to steal and have not been implemented. The hardliners remain in control and continue to demand more repression and dependence on fear rather than prosperity (as the Chinese communist have successfully done).
While China has officially joined the many nations backing sanctions against North Korea, it has not cut off trade (China is North Korea’s largest, by far, trading partner) or aid. China is the only source of petroleum for North Korea and a major source of much-needed food imports. Even more crucial is Chinese connivance with North Korean smugglers. This allows North Korea to get its illegal exports (weapons, drugs, and counterfeit currency) out of the country and smuggled items (weapons components and industrial equipment, as well as luxuries for the leadership) in. China has long been pressured to crack down on this illegal trade. That pressure has increased since China finally agreed to back sanctions (at least the most recent bunch). Chinese diplomats listen to these pleas but have so far not agreed to apply its own sanctions, that would really put the hurt on North Korea. Inside China, public opinion, despite decades of pro-North Korea propaganda, has turned against North Korea. More ominously (for North Korea), censors and state controlled media are not hiding this anger. When the Chinese want to make a big policy change, they usually make a big show of popular support for the shift. This has made many Chinese businesses along the North Korean border visibly nervous. Trading (legally or otherwise) with North Korea has been very profitable for most Chinese businesses involved. The North Koreans will occasionally try to scam or steal from their Chinese suppliers and investors but the North Korean government only tolerates such bad behavior to a limited extent. Most actions that would drive away Chinese traders and suppliers are severely punished in North Korea. Those prohibitions have weakened over the last few years and Chinese suppliers have had to be more strict (as in all or part of the money must be up front in cash). The North Koreans complain but they go along with it. There is no other source for much of what China supplies. But even on the border, Chinese were upset at the February 12 nuclear test (which could be felt, as an earthquake in some parts of northeast China) and fear worse is to come.
March 9, 2013: North Korea responded to the new UN sanctions by saying this was not the way to deal with the disagreements over the North Korean nuclear weapons effort and that there would be more tests. What North Korea wants is more aid (food, oil, and cash) from the West without any strings attached. North Korea had little to say about the changes in Chinese attitudes towards them. Apparently Chinese diplomats and other officials are telling their North Korean counterparts that relations between the two countries can only get worse as long as the North Korean nuclear weapons exist.
March 8, 2013: In response to yesterday’s sanctions North Korea cancelled the nonaggression agreements with South Korea and said it has missiles equipped with nuclear warheads aimed at South Korea and the United States. This is very unlikely, as there is no indication that the northerners have overcome the technical problems involved in making a nuclear weapon that is small enough, and robust enough, to operate in a missile warhead. They might have sped up this warhead engineering effort with warhead secrets illegally bought from Russian missile experts. But that has only been rumored, and investigations have not turned up any proof. In any event, working warheads would not yet threaten the United States because of American anti-missile systems in between North Korea and North America. Moreover, North Korea has not yet successfully tested a ballistic missile that could reach the United States. South Korea, and American troops there, would, however, be at risk from existing North Korean missiles. North Korea also said it would strike first with its nukes if it wanted to.
March 7, 2013: With Chinese support (a first) the UN passed another round of sanctions on North Korea. This time cash transfers were forbidden as were a number of specific luxury goods. Most other imports to North Korea are already forbidden and the new restrictions go after the importing of many luxury items. These are used to reward supporters of the Kim dictatorship. This is the fifth UN sanction resolution since 2006, against the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
March 6, 2013: South Korea said it would fight back with all its strength if North Korea cancelled the 1953 ceasefire and attacked again.
March 5, 2013: North Korea threatened to cancel the 1953 ceasefire agreement that ended the Korean War (1950-3) fighting but not the war itself, which is still, technically, underway. This North Korean threat was apparently an effort to stop China from supporting a new round of UN sanctions. China had refused to back earlier sanctions.
March 1, 2013: A retired American basketball player and the Harlem Globetrotters (a comedy act composed of talented basketball players) visited North Korea and the four day event was given much coverage on North Korean TV. Leader Kim Jong Un (a known fan of American basketball) was shown cavorting with the American basketball players. This perplexed many North Koreans, because most of the players had tattoos and North Koreans are taught that tattoos are only worn by criminals and that nothing good comes out of America.
The North Korea secret police announced an amnesty for those who have left the country without permission and now live in South Korea. Those returning under this open-ended amnesty would not be punished. Any returnees (and there have been a handful) are great propaganda items.