In North Korea, a terror campaign is in progress. Security forces have been ordered to arrest anyone openly criticizing the government, or communicating with the outside world (via cell phone or just reading pamphlets from South Korea). Violators are increasingly being executed publically, and news of these deaths allowed to quickly spread.
Since a North Korea sub sunk a South Korean corvette last March, South Korean trade has been cut with North Korea. The foreign currency North Korea obtained from this trade was essential to maintain the dictatorship up north, and North Korea has responded by paying extra to have some of its exports (seafood and raw materials) passed through Chinese and Russian brokers, who then sold the stuff as not-North Korean. Some of the South Korean buyers knew better, but generally did not raise a fuss. But now the South Korean government is cracking down.
Until three years ago, when South Korea cut off aid to North Korea, that aid amounted to over $600 million a year (mostly food and fuel). That had been going for a decade, as the previous South Korean government sought to buy better relations from the north. Trade with South Korea raised that to about a billion dollars a year. For the last year there has been no aid or trade. That billion dollars mainly went to pay for goods imported from China. Aid from China only amounts to about $300 million a year. That's still coming in, but not the larger amount of goods bought from China (including a lot of food and fuel, but mostly industrial goods for the arms industries and the military.) The shortages have fallen largely on industry (lots more dark and empty factories) and the military (lots of army bases with less, or no, heat this time of year, and lower quality food as well.) There's less food and fuel for everyone, and for most of the country, there is electricity only a few hours a day, if that.
In response to the growing shortages, North Korea has been spending more on the military. It's is now believed that a third of the North Korea GDP (about $20 billion, compared to $1,000 billion for South Korea) goes to the million man armed forces. South Korea, with half as many troops, spends four times as much on its military. South Korea also has no expensive nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, which consume over a quarter of the military budget up north. Economists and intelligence analysts in the south look at all these numbers and can only conclude that economic conditions are going to keep getting worse up there. For the northerners, the worst aspect of this is the inability to heat the barracks or serve three meals a day to the troops. For a dictatorship, unhappy soldiers are a very bad sign. The situation has become so widespread that the government has announced that inspection teams have been sent to bases to see about these heating problems. But this has not resulted in any more heat, although additional communist doctrine study sessions have been ordered, and troops have been discouraged from going out and cutting wood or stealing from local civilians.
Theft and other crime is becoming more common, much of it committed by teenage boys who have left home (or been orphaned and fled to avoid an orphanage) and joined youth gangs. In the cities, these gangs survive because the cops are corrupt and lazy, and if you avoid high profile crimes, you can keep out of labor camps. Begging also works, although the kids often fight over the choice spots. The gangs are also responsible for a lot of the anti-government graffiti.
In response, Kim Jong Il, who is apparently in declining health, is pushing the replacement of older Communist Party (and government or military) officials with younger people. Kim Jong Il has also apparently ordered more propaganda about his heir, Kim Jong Un. But the younger Kim is the butt of a lot of the anti-government graffiti and street talk.
January 21, 2011: South Korean Navy commandos boarded a South Korean merchant ship held by Somali pirates, and freed the 21 man South Korean crew. Eight pirates were killed and five captured. One of the pirates shot and wounded the captain of the ship during the rescue. Back in Somalia, two pirate gangs holding South Korean sailors, moved their captives and threatened to kill them in revenge for the pirates killed by the South Korea commandos. This is all theater for the media. The pirates know that escalating the killing is bad for business. If the pirates kill captives, they provide an incentive for foreign troops to come ashore. On the South Korean side, the raid on the hijacked ship was risky, because a lot of deaths among the captive crew would have been bad news back home. But success provides a big morale boost for South Koreans in general, who are somewhat demoralized because of the two North Korean attacks in the last year. South Korean special operations troops are well trained, and the risk of failure was low. Most navies, especially European ones, prefer not to attempt such rescues, because of the bad publicity arising from any deaths (even of pirates.) But the ransom of a South Korean tanker last year, for $9 million, created a furor in South Korea, where many saw this high payment as just encouraging the pirates.
January 20, 2011: South Korea has asked the United States to change a 2001 treaty between the two countries that prohibits South Korea from developing ballistic missiles with a range greater than 300 kilometers, and warheads weighing more than half a ton. South Korea does not want to lose its defense ties with the United States, but it feels a growing need to build better ballistic missiles to deal with the north.
January 19, 2011: North Korea has agreed to hold military talks with South Korea. For decades, North Korea has insisted on negotiations with the United States, talks that would determine relationships with South Korea without participation by South Korea. North Korean propaganda has long portrayed South Korea as simply a puppet of the United States. The U.S. has always refused these North Korean demands, and the North Koreans would not, until now, back down.
January 17, 2011: South Korea ordered one of its destroyers, serving as part of the anti-piracy patrol in the Indian Ocean, to catch up with a 11,500 ton South Korean chemical tanker which had just been hijacked, along with a crew of 21, by Somali pirates. The tanker was taken when nearly 2,000 kilometers from Somalia, in the Indian ocean. Normally, the pirates take their captured merchant ships back to Somalia, and hold them, and the crew, for ransom. Several dozen South Korean commandos are aboard the warship in the Indian Ocean, and it's believed a rescue will be attempted.
January 15, 2011: North Korea has released a ten year economic development plan, that calls for $10 billion a year be invested to build infrastructure (roads, power plants, water and sewers) and industry. North Korea apparently expects foreign investors to supply the money. But given the bad treatment North Korea has inflicted on foreign investors in the past, no one is eager to invest in a crumbling communist police state. Well, maybe China is, but not to the tune of $10 billion a year. Meanwhile, China is demanding the right to station troops in the northwestern North Korean port of Rason. This would protect a Chinese owned port facility, and make is easier for China to quickly ship in more troops if the situation deteriorated in North Korea.
January 14, 2011: American military officials made it clear that they would be able to quickly destroy any North Korean ballistic missiles that appeared to pose a threat to any part of the United States. These missiles are liquid fueled, and that makes them very vulnerable to air attack. Putting them in silos doesn't offer sufficient protection from attack by multiple smart bombs and earth penetrating bombs.
January 13, 2011: North Korea has agreed to restore the Red Cross sponsored hotline across the DMZ. The north shot down this phone connection last year, to protest South Korean anger at North Korea sinking a South Korean warship.