The destruction of the urban markets (via the currency change and again outlawing free markets) has reduced several hundred thousand people to poverty, with no money for food. Hunger typically reaches a peak in May and June (before the first crops come in), and this year the government fears a return to the 1990s horrors, when two million died. The big difference is that, in the 1990s, the population knew little of the outside world. At that time, the government got away with blaming "outside forces" for the famine. This time, the population knows that their government is to blame. Security forces are preparing for widespread violence, and the secret police are seeking out those who might take advantage of such unrest. This includes government officials. There is a review of loyalty, and ability to cope, within the government. Several key officials have recently been arrested, and at least three of them executed, for not performing as expected. The senior official (Pak Nam Gi), in charge of carrying out the disastrous currency conversion, was publically executed in a sports stadium a month ago, along with one of his aides. The government is trying to shift blame from Kim Jong Il, but most North Koreans continue to blame the people at the very top (but not Kim Jong Il).
North Koreans know about the outside world, and their place in it, and they are not happy with the news. The government is trying to halt the flow of information from the outside, but is unable to halt it completely. South Korea refuses, despite constant threats, to halt private groups from releasing balloons that carry leaflets, sometimes with dollar bills added, across the DMZ and into the hands of information, and cash, starved North Koreans. If the police catch you with one of these leaflets, or U.S. currency, you can go to prison camp (where you will die if you spend too much time there). The search of North Koreans using illegal Chinese cell phones on the Chinese border has increased. Those who are caught, can be publicly executed. At the very least, you go to prison camp.
North Korea continues to refuse to negotiate an end to its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. North Korea is believed to have as many as six nuclear weapons. These are crude, bulky, devices of questionable reliability. This may be giving North Korea a sense that their demands must be obeyed. But the outside world is not cooperating, and the North Korean leadership is confused about what this means.
Despite the growing popular anger and unrest, the North Korean government is still very much in charge. A large portion of the population remains docile, largely because of over 60 years of communist propaganda and indoctrination. A growing minority, especially among the under 40 generation, are more aware of the truth, and not happy with the mess they are in. Thus the population in the north is more unstable than it has ever been. But with ten percent of the population (military and security forces) armed, and fed, by the government, and the rest of the people unarmed, a popular uprising is unlikely. More likely is China backing a coup. China has long maintained very close contacts with senior, and mid-level, officials of the North Korean government and military. This displeases the North Korean leadership, but China is their most powerful ally (and one of the few they have), so this infiltration is tolerated. This does not enable China to just flip a switch and cause a coup. It does enable China to try, and the risk of failure is high. The resulting civil war would send millions of refugees into northern China, which is not a good outcome for China.
There are few good options up north, and the long term prognosis is not good. Things have gotten worse in North Korea over the last two decades, and show no sign of improving. Fearing loss of political control, the government recently shut down the legal markets it had allowed to develop over the past few years. That decision is still playing out. But the shuttering of the free markets, and refusal of foreign donors to supply food unless the nuclear weapons program is shut down, means there will be another big famine. The government enforcers and bureaucrats will get fed, but the other 80 percent of the population will go hungry, and a million or more of them could die. Many of those who have fled North Korea, believe that there is some chance of a popular uprising, but it is small. The people are, literally, hungry, and concentrate more on their next meal, than anything else.
Rumors of a North Korean submarine being responsible for the March 26th sinking of a South Korean corvette are growing more popular in the media. The South Korean Navy admitted that it can only keep track of about 70 percent of North Korean submarines that are at sea. Salvage operations on the corvette are not yet completed. When all of the wreckage is brought to the surface, the cause of the explosion will be known. Mines or torpedoes leave behind fragments (and a distinct blast pattern), and analysis will reveal where the weapons came from. It's just like an airplane crash investigation. Survivors of the explosion agree that the blast came from outside the ship. About half the hundred man crew survived.
April 13, 2010: North Korea ordered four employees of a South Korean resort to leave the country. North Korea is trying to pressure South Korea into providing more free food, and other aid. Foreign tourists had stopped coming two years ago, after a North Korean soldier had shot dead a South Korean tourist. North Korea is applying all the pressure it can to get the free food deliveries restored.
April 9, 2010: South Korea is sending another 95 troops to Afghanistan (where they do reconstruction type work, or provide security for it), and nearly a thousand soldiers applied to go.