March 6, 2012:
Foreigners in North Korea believe the majority of people up there definitely feel in the need for change. A majority of northerners have become aware of the outside world, especially what's going on in China (several decades of free market economy) and understand that North Korea's problems are the result of poor leadership. There is hope that the new ruler, Kim Jong Un, will be the one who will make needed changes. If that does not happen, a growing number of North Koreans realize that they must either leave the country, risk their lives to change the government by force, or do nothing and stoically endure the growing hardships. A large minority is willing to take the third option but what scares the government is that the majority believes in radical change, not the official propaganda that the current situation is the best of all possible worlds.
North Korean leaders have been terrified of a popular uprising since 1989. While the communist police state, as perfected in the mid-20th century, is very effective at controlling populations, it is not perfect. The system collapsed in Eastern Europe and Russia between 1989-91. The system has had to evolve quite a bit to survive in China. Cuba is shaky as well. The North Korean rulers fear that mass spontaneity, where the population, and the security forces that guard them, suddenly turn around and refuse to continue and demand change, might happen at any moment. A growing number of North Koreans believe that their "1989" is going to happen soon.
In 1989 Romania, the revolution led to the murder of the most senior officials by the secret police. Because of this, North Korean leaders have been studying the Romanian experience ever since, and believe they have sufficient controls on their secret police and security forces to avoid the fate of their Romanian counterparts. But there are growing doubts about this.
There is also a shortage of guards. A lower birth rate in the 1990s, because of the famine (that killed five percent of the population back then) has reduced the number of 18 year old recruits for the army and security forces. So fewer exemptions are being allowed and more 17 years olds are being taken. North Korean men serve six years in the army, keeping them out of trouble for that time in their lives (18-24) when they are most likely to act out revolutionary fantasies. The military is really a large prison system. While the troops are trained to use weapons they get little ammunition for training and the weapons are locked up most of the time. Young North Koreans increasingly know how poor they are and in greater and greater detail. The soldiers born during the great famine of the 1990s are well-aware that they are physically much smaller than their South Korean counterparts. They also know that the average South Korean lives ten years longer and lives a much more pleasant life. All the more reason to limit the time North Korean troops can handle their weapons, especially when they have ammunition (which is actually very infrequently).
Three months ago in China, American and North Korean negotiators agreed that North Korea would cease its uranium enrichment efforts (thus halting the production of more atomic bombs) and, in return, the U.S. would send North Korea 20,000 tons of food a month for the next twelve months. The precise details are still being worked out. The U.S. wants inspection guarantees because the North Koreans have cheated on previous deals. The North Koreans are unwilling to provide the kind of verification the Americans insist on. Apparently the Americans want North Korea to stop peddling their nuclear weapons secrets to other nations. The North Koreans refuse to do this because they need the foreign currency in order to buy goodies to keep their ruling class happy. That's particularly crucial for those in charge of security because the North Korean people are becoming increasingly restless and uppity. The anti-government graffiti, sabotage, and growing dissent must be dealt with and those who take care of this must be kept happy.
Everyone (except North Korea) wants to halt work on miniaturizing North Korean nuclear weapons and making them rugged enough to operate in ballistic missile. This is, in many respects, more difficult than building the first nuclear weapon. Apparently the North Koreans are not cooperating in halting this work. North Korea has made it clear that it will not eliminate their nuclear weapons program, just slow it down in return for some food.
March 5, 2012: North Korea has been conducting artillery firing training off the west coast near the South Korean border. This is the same area where North Korean rockets were fired at a South Korean island in late 2010. In this incident some 200 shells and rockets were fired at Yeonpyeong Island over a two hour period. Four South Koreans were killed and about fifty injured. Most of the shells and rockets appeared to land in the water. South Korea artillery on Yeonpyeong Island, after getting permission from the Defense Ministry, began returning fire. It's since been discovered that the return fire was quite accurate and ten North Korean troops were killed and dozens wounded. If the South Koreans had fired back right away (instead of waiting for their most senior leaders in the capital to give permission), the North Korea casualties would have been higher. The North Koreans are aware of this and there was a big debate in the north over the wisdom of trying that sort of attack again. The South Korean return fire, and its accuracy, reminded the northerners that down south the troops are armed with much more modern and effective weapons.
Despite this new peace deal, North Korea continues churning out anti-American and anti-South Korean propaganda. This is believed to be part of the effort to persuade North Koreans to accept Kim Jong Un as their new leader. In reality, the people who most need to be persuaded, the senior officials in the government, are unaffected by the propaganda. This crowd is still split between staying the course (which has bankrupted the country and caused persistent hunger) and adopting Chinese-style economic reforms. The new food deal with the United States will boost Kim Jong Un's stature if he is able to get the 240,000 tons of food and then renege on the promise to halt work on nuclear weapons. This sort of thing is much admired up north.
February 29, 2012: The U.S. and North Korea announced that they had a deal to halt work on North Korean nuclear weapons in return for 240,000 tons of food from the United States. No word on the precise details.
February 28, 2012: China has allowed several dozen North Korean secret policemen to cross the border and seek out key members of people-smuggling gangs that help thousands of North Koreans a year to get out. Local Chinese officials were inclined (because of the bribes and other favors) to leave these gangs alone, but the North Koreans made a deal with higher authorities in China and now the North Korean agents are bringing their special brand of terror to China. Those North Koreans who are caught (Chinese members of these gangs are generally safe) get taken back to North Korea and die (either quickly or more gradually in the labor camps). Because of this, South Korea and Western nations have been pressuring China not to allow arrested refugees to be sent back. So far, only nine have been sent back and North Korea is demanding that over 30 more be sent as well. Another odd aspect of all this is that the North Korean propaganda concerning those arrested and brought back calls them "defectors" not the usual "traitors." Apparently the North Korean propaganda officials have finally realized that most North Koreans know about the large number of people illegally crossing the border. So it makes sense for the propaganda campaign to accurately label the condemned.