In the north, it's been the coldest Winter in decades, with the temperature falling below zero (centigrade) for 40 consecutive days. This has frozen farmland deeper than usual, which is likely to delay Spring planning. The more immediate problem is the continued lack of heat on some military bases. Corruption is suspected, because fuel goes for a lot on the black market right now. Fortunately, the troop's weapons and ammunition are kept locked up most of the time, just in case. No telling what cold and hungry soldiers might do otherwise.
Even major economic symbols in the north are dying. For example, the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Works are the premier industrial facility in the north, employing 25,000 workers. But the extremely cold weather and growing shortages have left the complex running at less than 30 percent capacity. The workers not only lack work, they lack food, fuel and morale.
North Korea is urging the south to resume talks on "humanitarian" issues. This means negotiating how much food and fuel the south will pay for the release of northerners separated from their families during the 1950-3 war. But the southerners are angry at the north for decades of this kind of extortion, and refuse to resume these "Red Cross" talks. The south wants the north to get rid of its nukes and ballistic missiles, but this the north won't even consider. The northerners, at least the leadership, would rather starve with their nukes on. But the south has agreed to meet with the north on the 8th, to discuss details for negotiations on military matters. The south wants to work out ways to avoid more attacks from the north, and avoid accidentally starting a war. The north wants to find a way to get some food and fuel from the south.
Government officials in the north are nervous about February 15th. That's the birthday of leader Kim Jong Il, and it is one of the two days a year (the other is April 15, the birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung) when the government distributes gifts to all citizens. The goodies consist of food and hard-to-get consumer goods for the common folk, and more expensive foreign stuff (consumer electronics or fancy cars, depending on rank) for the bureaucrats. Over the last decade, there has been less money for these gifts, and growing corruption has meant that a lot of the stuff got diverted to the black market before reaching needy citizens. Even when the gifts were delivered, year-by-year the quality has declined. As the legal market places expanded up there, northerners discovered that there was better quality goods available, and what it cost. The two annual gift days have become something of an embarrassment, especially because of the corruption, but mainly because the declining quality of the gifts matches the falling prospects of North Korea. Polling the growing number of North Korea refugees shows the growth of disillusionment and open dissent in the north. The plunging morale and growing corruption in the military and security forces is particularly ominous. But the biggest problem in the north is a lack of any alternative leadership. The ruling Kim family is all you hear about. There are other alternative leaders, especially in the military and secret police, but they are rarely mentioned in state-controlled media. That means a change would most likely come from a coup, not an appeal for North Koreans to rally around a new leader. This is just one more reason, for most North Koreans, to get out of the country.
North Korea also has a problem with South Korea and the U.S. being united by common goals and methods for dealing with the north. In the past, there were a lot of differences. But now, after the two recent attacks, and years of lying and deception by the north, the south has become as hard line as the United States has long been. Intelligence agencies in South Korea and the U.S. marvel at the ability of the police state up north to keep the crumbling wreck of a country going. Year-by-year, more things (political, economic, ideological) stop working. It's not a question of if the north will collapse, but when and how. Will there be a coup first? Divisions in the northern government have prevented taking Chinese advice and making decisive economic reforms (as China did in the 1980s.) But the army has declined to the point where the generals are uncertain if they can rely on their hungry soldiers. The one thing there's a lot of up north is uncertainty.
February 1, 2011: Anti-corruption investigators in the central African nation of Burundi have discovered that 60 Chinese made .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine-guns sold to Burundi were defective, and actually came from North Korea. A Ukrainian firm bought the machine-guns from North Korea, and then jacked up the price so that large bribes could be paid to Burundi officials to accept the defective weapons.
January 26, 2011: South Korea achieved 6.1 percent economic growth last year, an eight year high. This is in sharp contrast to continued decline in the much (economically) smaller north. Worse, this kind of information now gets into North Korea, the censorship up there having been shredded by illegal cell phones and radios, and a more daring attitude among many people. Over a decade of DVDs and CDs of South Korean TV shows and movies has made it clear that North Korea has been truly screwed over the last half century.