A major source of information about North Korea is obtained by South Korean intelligence experts interviewing the steady flow of refugees arriving in South Korea (via China and the South Korean embassies in neighboring countries like Thailand). For the last decade, over a thousand of these refugees have arrived each year. In the last few years China and North Korea have increased their efforts to reduce that number, which peaked at 2,900 in 2009, and was 1,500 last year. These determined and desperate people keep coming. Separate interviews are compared and checked against each other to obtain an updated and accurate first-hand view of life in the north. This also helps detect the spies North Korea tries (often with success) getting into the south via the refugee route. While the refugees detail the growing decline in living standards up north, it’s also become clear that there is a very real generational shift in loyalties in the north. The generation who grew up during the 1990s famine (that killed about ten percent of the population and starved most of the rest for years) no longer believe in the North Korean dictatorship. Many who came of age before 1990 still do, but for most everyone under 30 the state is the enemy and self-reliance, and not a benevolent dictatorship, is the only way to survive. The North Korean government has been fighting these attitudes more and more, as this generation of unbelievers grows larger each year. The more astute members of the northern leadership see this as a no-win situation. Eventually most North Koreans will be very hostile to the state and more adept at making money in spite of the government, or simply getting out of the country. Most of the leadership is still afraid of enacting Chinese style economic reforms because they believe a more affluent population would seek revenge for the decades of misrule and tyranny. The Chinese say that didn’t happen in China. The North Koreans point out that, as bad as the Chinese communists were in the 1950s and 60s (killing over 50 million people via starvation, labor camps, and execution), that was not as bad (proportionately) as what the North Koreans have suffered. Moreover, the North Korean leaders point out that, historically, Koreans have been a bit more excitable and brutal when aroused by misrule. The Chinese say times have changed but the North Korean leaders are not yet willing to bet their lives on that being the case.
The refugees report that most North Koreans understand that the police state up there is strong enough to suppress any uprising now or in the foreseeable future and that the only real threat to the dictatorship is intervention (openly or via a coup) by China. Refugees also report that it’s common knowledge that hundreds of North Koreans have died of radiation poisoning or been born with birth defects because of the uranium mining and working with nuclear materials. The government has responded by offering large cash bonuses to those who will work in the uranium mines. The refugees report in detail many other ways the Kim government abuses their subjects.
North Korea has apparently told China that it is planning one or two additional nuclear weapons tests this year. This indicates that the February 12th test was a success and that a few more will enable North Korea to perfect their design, and then sell it to Iran (and anyone else willing to pay) for a lot of money. China knows this and the Chinese leadership are unsure how they should proceed. They could order a coup in North Korea, to replace the Kim family with a pro-China group. But this is not a sure thing, as the Kim clan has been aware of China cultivating members of the leadership over the last decade. There are periodic purges of senior officials, sometimes accompanied by a death sentence. If a Chinese sponsored coup attempt fails, then China has to choose between military intervention or dealing with an even more hostile and unpredictable neighbor. The North Korean nuclear program is also causing popular unrest inside China. The Internet reaction, despite government censorship, was very negative, and there were even some unauthorized demonstrations (usually at large public festivities where the protestors can do this sort of thing and avoid arrest) against the North Korean nukes.
While North Korea is loosening up in some ways, it is cracking down in others. The secret police are more aggressive about illegal cell phones, which are the chief means for spreading news about bad things happening in the north. The government is also unhappy with people adopting South Korean clothing and grooming styles. These get in via video files and most North Koreans have some access to a device that can play these AVI, MP4, or whatever files on a TV set, computer, or smart phone. That’s usually illegal as well, and then there are the more frequent electricity shortages to deal with. While most North Koreans know to keep this forbidden knowledge secret, some of it gets expressed in the way young North Koreans dress and look. So the government has banned “South Korean clothing styles”. Part of this is a ban on foreign (South Korean) hair styles for women. The government recently released photos of the 18 officially approved hair styles for women. Violators may be sent to a prison camp, where untimely death is a lot more likely than outside the camps. This crackdown is accompanied by more medals and cash bonuses (and access to imported Western goods) for those who succeed in serving the state. This includes those involved in recent ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests, as well as officials running more mundane operations. The government is making it clear that if you succeed in pleasing the dictatorship you will prosper but that if you fail, you face the prospect of an untimely death.
February 25, 2013: The first tweet was sent from a cell phone in North Korea, to note the activation of the first high-speed (3G) cell phone service, which becomes available to customers March 1st, in North Korea. These new capabilities were created mainly to extract more money from foreigners (tourists, commercial travelers, and diplomats) and to boost the morale of senior officials and their families. The security services will monitor what happens on this new network, but it is a major change from before. Until this year foreigners could not use cameras without official permission and cell phone use was heavily restricted. But embarrassing cell phone pictures got out anyway and then there were those damn commercial photo satellites supplying Google Earth with all manner of embarrassing images. So North Korea has decided to roll with it, take their chances, and get paid. The typical foreign visitor will end up paying several hundred dollars for the privilege of bringing in their smart phone and being able to use it. For example, just getting the phone in costs nearly a hundred dollars and calls to the United States are eight dollars a minute (but it is much cheaper for most other countries). The secret police will pounce if anyone tries to tweet really embarrassing photos and what exactly qualifies is a moving target.
South Korea’s newly elected president was sworn into office and pledged to try and work with North Korea to improve the lives of all Koreans but will not tolerate aggression or violence from the north. Park Geun Hye (or, in the western style Geun Hye Park) is the first female South Korean president and a conservative one at that. She was elected in part because South Koreans want to continue a policy of not tolerating violence from the north or extortionate demands for foreign aid.
February 22, 2013: North Korean media noted that the Libyan government (dictator Moamar Kaddafi) was overthrown because he abandoned his nuclear weapons program. This is a fantasy but a convenient one for North Korea, and especially the leadership, who fear ending up like Kaddafi (dead in a ditch, shot by angry victims of Kaddafi’s police state).
February 20, 2013: In response to calls in the UN to halt its nuclear weapons, North Korea responded with threats to destroy South Korea. UN officials noted that this threat was a violation of international law but was actually pretty normal for North Korea. Such threats have been made regularly for decades. Some UN members are trying to limit North Korean participation in UN affairs, this being one of the few punishments left.
February 19, 2013: The EU (European Union) has agreed to a new list of sanctions against North Korea. This matches many of the American ones. But as long as Chine will not cut off access to North Korea, all these sanctions simply make it a little more expensive to get what they need to develop and build ballistic missiles and nukes.
February 15, 2013: Three Chinese warships entered waters near the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by China and Japan (which protested the actions of these three ships). China is becoming increasingly aggressive in pressing its claims.