In the last few years, many secrets have been revealed in the north, and this has been a disaster for the ruling class. Many North Koreans now know of the separate economy that has been established for the few hundred thousand people at the top of North Korean society. They have separate, gated, compounds to live in. They have separate stores, which carry Western and Chinese goods. They have many servants (who gossip much more than in the past), and special organizations that attend to their security and comfort. An extreme example of this is the organization that operates North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's train. Kim will not fly, and travels everywhere by train. There are actually six trains, using a collection of 90 customized railroad cars. The ones that Kim actually travels on are armored, and quite luxurious (satellite communications, flat screen TVs and so on). When Kim goes some place, there are actually three trains involved, including one carrying security personnel. Kim's automobiles are carried on the train as well. There are over twenty train stations built exclusively for the use of Kim's trains, which have been used a record 130 times, so far this year.
For decades, North Korean propaganda pounded away about how horrific and unappealing foreign movies and TV shows were. But as North Koreans gradually encountered this media, they discovered the stuff was very entertaining. The North Korea elite (less than a million people with access to outside stuff) always had access, and knew that Western (and South Korean and Japanese) videos were quite entertaining. But they also knew that these vids made it clear that North Korea was no "worker's paradise." So access was banned for ordinary North Koreans. Over the last decade, the ban has crumbled, and these videos are destroying state control of a starving population.
South Korea intelligence officials have reported that North Korea is increasingly using the Internet to get to and steal South Korean commercial and military secrets. The North Korean hacking capability has been slowly growing over the last decade, and now has reached the point where it is a real, and growing, threat. China is also engaging in this sort of theft, and South Korean diplomats are spending more time trying to get the Chinese to back off on the illegal practices (which include jailing South Korean businessmen who are having commercial disputes with their Chinese counterparts.) South Korea, and the U.S., are also trying to convince China to stop sending North Koreans, who have escaped to China, back to North Korea (where they are sent to labor camp, and often die there.) The Chinese are reluctant to forego their outlaw practices.
North Korean officials are asking small aid organizations (that normally don't get a lot of press attention) to organize food shipments to the north. The food situation up there is dire, and over a million people are at risk of dying from starvation and related illnesses before next June. Officially, the North Korean government says they don't need outside food aid. So the begging is being done quietly, so as not to contravene the party line that everything is fine.
South Korea and the United States have updated their disaster plans. The new OPLAN 5029 pays particular attention to making sure that North Korean nuclear weapons technology will not get into the wrong hands (the U.S. will deal with this), and that preparations are in place to deal with the North Korean army falling apart, or millions of hungry North Koreans trying to move into South Korea (South Korea takes care of this). There are also plans for dealing with natural disasters that do a lot of damage to both countries.
Reports from the north indicate declining morale, discipline and readiness among the north's 1.1 million member armed forces. This could lead to chaos, or civil war. Then there is the question of what China would do if the government broke down in the north. Apparently China has its own OPLAN 5029, but the precise details of all these plans are secret. All will not be revealed until there is a disaster, and the plans are implemented. The U.S. has only 28,500 troops in South Korea, which in turn has 655,000 troops on active duty (and over a million reservists who can be mobilized.
November 10, 2009: North and South Korean warships clashed on the west coast. Over a dozen bullets struck the South Korean ship, but the North Korean ship suffered one dead and three wounded. For most of this year, North Korean coast guard forces have been more active in this area, apparently in preparation for encounters with South Korean patrol ships, over disputed water boundaries. This has led to skirmishes (and casualties) in the past. South Korea responded to this threat by sending more sailors and marines to the coastal areas just south of the border. The North Korean warship crossed the disputed frontier early today and was fired on. The North Koreans returned fire, but soon turned around, in flames, and limped back to its base. There have been similar clashes in 1999 and 2002. The dispute is over fishing areas that would be very valuable to North Korea, if they could assert authority. Apparently, someone in the North Korean military was pressured to "do something" about the fishing grounds dispute. Getting a North Korean patrol boat shot up may have satisfied the order to "do something."