China is visibly losing patience with its ally North Korea. China apparently ordered North Korea to make peace with South Korea and get moving on economic reforms so that they were not such an embarrassment (and economic burden) to China. South Korea has told the north that peace (and aid) talks will only resume if the north shows some sincerity and stops the game playing and theatrics that have been the hallmarks of North Korean diplomacy for over 60 years.
North Korea is having problems dealing with its growing prison population. The labor camps are receiving more prisoners than they can handle because the government is cracking down on the growing number of defectors and dissidents. To make this work in early 2012, the northern government turned over control of border security to the NSA (National Security Agency, the secret police). NSA agents have been very enthusiastic, and more resistant to bribes, in searching for traitors (cell phone owners, potential defectors, and traders selling goods above the government mandated prices). The new authority of the NSA gives them an edge when competing (to find people to send to labor camps) against military intelligence and police investigators. For example, the families of those who escape into China are more frequently just disappearing, usually overnight. These midnight visits and arrests are meant to terrorize the population as a whole and are an NSA specialty. These new responsibilities spread the NSA thin, especially with so many of their members succumbing to corruption. But the NSA is judged on the number of people it arrests and sends to the labor camps. Corrupt or not, the NSA is producing prisoners and the camps are exceeding their capacity of about 200,000. It’s not just the defectors but those arrested for all sorts of misbehavior (including anti-government graffiti and other forms of disrespect). It is feared that the government will resort to summary executions of existing prisoners to make space available for newly arrested people.
Kim Jong Un has made it clear that he likes what the NSA is doing. Over a year ago he ordered more imported (and very expensive) monitoring gear for the NSA to use and increased the authority of NSA agents. This came despite the fact that some senior NSA officials have been arrested for taking bribes to enable people to escape to China. This level of corruption was unprecedented, as the NSA is considered the ultimate guardian of the North Korean government. But for the last few years, a growing number of rumors described many NSA officials as "approachable" (could be bribed).
Despite the large number of questionable NSA personnel, they are still considered the best. This was decided in mid-2011 when agents from two competing agencies (military intelligence and the NSA) were sent to help fight corruption along the border. The agents were ordered to watch their rivals for signs of someone being bribed. Apparently, Kim Jong Un believed that the NSA has been sufficiently purged (the purgees are usually executed) and was the more reliable organization. NSA agents were seen being far more diligent in late 2011 when looking for traitors (cell phone owners, potential defectors, and traders selling goods above the government mandated prices). Kim Jong Un is known to be friends with several senior NSA officials and is increasingly dependent on the NSA.
Morale among North Korean military personnel continues to slide. This can be seen by the growing number of complaints from refugees who suffered thefts from their homes and farms by soldiers sent during the planting or harvesting season to help out. Because soldiers have had their rations cut in the last few years, there have been growing incidences around military bases of soldiers stealing food. While most military units maintain their own farming activities, this is not enough to provide all the food required. The troops sent to help out on farms get fed by the locals, which means the military uses up less of its own shrinking food supplies. The farmers are adept at withholding food from the government and hiding it for their own use or sale on black market. This is what the soldiers search for and the farmers don’t like it. This is partly due to the fact that the police do little to pursue or punish the thieves, who can’t really be prosecuted for stealing food that does not officially exist. The government also sends groups of recently discharged (and usually unable to find a job) soldiers to the farms as “volunteers” that the farmers cannot refuse. These men are even more hungry and desperate and experienced at stealing from local farmers.
South Korea believes that the north has 3,000 trained and experienced Internet engineers who can be used to monitor the growing number of Internet users in the north, or carry out Internet-based espionage and attack operations. These men (and a few women) work for the army or are in the army as part of the Reconnaissance General Bureau. Most North Koreans with Internet access are monitored and warned to avoid sites that might be considered anti-North Korean. Access to the international Internet carefully is monitored and there are less than a hundred web sites within North Korea. While South Korea has over 40 million Internet users, North Korea has fewer than 10,000.
June 20, 2013: North Korean media broadcast threats of assassination against unnamed North Korean defectors who published (via the Internet on June 17th) a story describing how Kim Jong Un distributed copies of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” to senior officials last January. This translation of the 90 year old book was meant to provide advice on how a dictatorship could rapidly revive a dysfunctional (post World War I German) economy. North Korean leaders have frequently looked to the situations other dictatorships (especially Hitler and Stalin) have faced for tips on how to survive or what not to do. But the North Korean leaders know that this approach does not make them look very appealing in the West and plays it down. But hundreds of North Korean defectors have provided accounts of how this tyrant-admiration works in the north. North Korea denied that the Mein Kampf incident even occurred, but it probably did and the North Koreans are furious that one of their secretive meetings sprung a leak.
June 19, 2013: In yet another effort to discourage people from escaping to China and South Korea, North Korea put nine teenager defectors on TV. The nine had gotten as far as Laos before North Korean secret police persuaded (no doubt with cash) Laotian police to allow the nine to be taken back to North Korea. The nine teenagers were made an offer they could not refuse: appear on TV and claim they were kidnapped and rescued before they could be delivered to South Korea and that anyone thinking of defecting should keep that in mind. Few North Koreans believe this and various stories are circulating at the grass roots level about how the secret police pulled this off and what it might mean for others seeking to reach South Korea via China and southeast Asian countries with South Korean embassies (who take in the defectors and get them to South Korea).
Meanwhile, Chinese officials publicly called for de-nuclearization of Korea. This came after a meeting in China with North Korean diplomats.
June 16, 2013: North Korea offered to hold direct talks with the United States regarding the nuclear weapons program in the north. American and South Korean diplomats see that as another meaningless propaganda ploy and that only Chinese pressure can coerce the north into halting their nuclear weapons program.
June 12, 2013: China was harsh in their treatment of a North Korean delegation visiting to explain why the north had abruptly halted planned peace talks with South Korea. In some of the meetings North Korean officials were openly humiliated and made to understand that their government’s recent behavior was not acceptable to China.
June 11, 2013: North Korea abruptly cancelled tomorrow’s peace talks in South Korea because South Korea refused to meet a last minute demand that the South Korean delegation be led by a more senior official (a government minister and not a vice minister). For many South Koreans this was just another example of North Korea playing games with South Korean efforts to negotiate better relations. North Korea denied that it was at fault, blaming the cancellation on South Korean “provocations.”
June 10, 2013: In northeastern North Korea (North Hamkyung province) police are desperately seeking two men who beat to death an armed police officer on a crowded street in board daylight. Few witnesses have been found as most people in that area fear and despise the police. But that attitude has not, until now, resulted in police being murdered in this way. Now the cops are feeling the fear, a rare occurrence in North Korea.