While North Korea has made many overt attacks on the south in the last half century, there has never been a retaliatory attack on the north by South Korea. But now South Korea has openly pledged to strike back if the north attacks again. For the first time since the 1950s, the public mood in the south supports shooting back. Since the south is a democracy, politicians are under a lot of pressure to do what they say. The north is a police state, and could just ignore a southern artillery barrage or air strike. But the north is not the police state it once was. News gets around up there now, and the government would be humiliated if they tried to suppress news of South Korean warplanes dropping smart bombs on northern troops. While North Korea is a dictatorship, the rulers pay a lot of attention to public opinion, particularly in light of the poverty and unhappiness they preside over. There's only enough money up north to keep a few percent of the population living well (and remaining loyal to the state). The rest have to be controlled with guns, fear and propaganda. If the south appears to be attacking, the northern leaders are not sure they can depend on their own soldiers to defend the government that has provided only hunger and fear. In an attempt to improve morale among the common folk, North Korean TV featured some of the soldiers involved in last month's artillery attack on a South Korean island. The soldiers boasted of their heroic feat and there were smiles all around. Except among many of the viewers, who huddled around the TV, one of the few sources of heat. There is only electricity a few hours a day in most parts of North Korea, and important TV shows are scheduled for times when the most uneasy areas have juice for the tube. The capital, home to about 12 percent of the population (you need a special permit to live there) gets more electricity, and more of everything. But in the rest of the country, it's mostly dark and cold.
South Korean intelligence believes that there will be more attacks from the north next year, and the big question is will the north escalate and retaliate if the south shoots back. This could easily spiral into full scale war, or collapse in the north. Military and civil defense planners in the south are working late to try and be ready.
South Korean intel officers believe that the north is preparing another nuclear test for next year. The north has had two tests so far, both of them only partially successful. In other words, the north does not yet have a perfected nuclear weapons design. This has not stopped the north from loudly proclaiming that it is now a nuclear power. Its not, but pretending to be feels good.
In the north, the secret police have been telling smugglers this month that there will be rewards if defectors headed for South Korea are turned in. The reward could be not being sent to prison camp if caught smuggling. That could be a lifesaver this Winter, which is the coldest in 30 years. There is very little heat, or food, in the prison camps. Many prisoners do not survive the Winter. But defections to South Korea are up anyway, and this is both embarrassing to North Korea, and a growing source of accurate information on what is going on in the north.
Along the DMZ, North Korean troops have been observed wearing a combat uniform similar to the one worn by South Korean soldiers. To counter this, South Korea has speeded up the distribution of a new "digital camouflage" type uniform. China wears combat uniforms with a similar pattern. North Korea is believed to have over 100,000 troops equipped and trained to try and sneak across the DMZ, wearing South Korean uniforms. and cause as much disruption as possible. Thousands of these special infiltration troops are now showing up on the DMZ, dressed like South Korean troops, which is worrisome.
December 23, 2010: South Korea held scheduled military training exercises all week, which involved firing artillery into the sea off the west coast. Some artillery firing has been done every month for years, but this month, North Korea said it would be provocative. Actually, it was, as the south held more exercises after the regular artillery firing on Monday. But as the week went on, the northern protests disappeared. But at the end of the week, the northern rhetoric returned. All this makes little sense, but not much that goes on in the north ever does. But China senses danger, and criticized South Korea for carrying out the artillery exercise. The Chinese have more links to the North Korean inner circle, and all they will share is that things are not well up north, especially among the leadership.