Strategy Page on internal affairs of North Korea in the early stage of Kim Jong Un’s leadership:
China remains the foreign power with the most influence over North Korea, but that isn’t saying much. When given unwelcome advice from China, which represents nearly 80 percent of foreign trade and the only source of free food and fuel aid, North Korea still tends to adopt a suicidal attitude. For the northern leadership, it’s “death before dishonor” and that means Chinese demands, even backed by threats of aid cuts, are ignored. For this reason, China is believed involved in the current reorganization of the senior North Korean leadership. China has long developed friends and relationships among the North Korean elite. As corruption became more of a factor in the last decade, China knew how to cope. China is awash in corruption, and Chinese leaders have learned how to use it (even as they struggle to lose it). In effect, China’s decade-long effort to overwhelm the “old school” faction in North Korea appears to have succeeded. But the “old school” crowd are still numerous, scared and armed. This could get messy. This does not bother China, which has plenty of experience with messy.
In the last month or so North Korea’s new leader (Kim Jong Un) has removed hundreds of military and government officials and promptly installed younger replacements. Un has made it clear, in public announcements, that it’s time for a new generation. Many of the dismissed older officials were seemingly loyal to and supportive of Un, so this appears to be more a desire to shake up the leadership, than to purge opponents. Kim Jong Un isn’t doing this by himself, as he has a small group of advisors he relies on a lot. This includes his uncle, Jang Sung Taek, who is married to Kim Jong Ils sister. Jang has long been a powerful government official, and is believed to be quite wealthy. That’s because Jang has a lot to say about how North Korea earns (by legal, or illegal means) foreign currency. In a country so extremely poor, the man who controls the most money has a lot of power. Jang, for example earlier this year ordered house searches of families believed to be hoarding foreign currency (Chinese or American), rather than, as the law demands, putting it in the bank. People do not want to put their foreign currency in the bank because the government pays you less for it (in North Korean currency) than the black market money changers (who give fair market value). Jang understands how the North Korean economy really works, and is trying to increase government control over the “new economy.” Yang and his wife have a lot more knowledge of, and experience with, the North Korea government and economy than their nephew Kim Jong Un and, for the moment, they have his ear, and trust.
[. . .]
The food situation in the north is getting worse, with food prices (in the growing number of free markets) at record levels. Government distributions of food are declining. Worse, the government is printing more money, increasing inflation (because there’s now more money chasing the same amount of food.)
North Korean censors finally caught on to the fact that young North Koreans had been taking South Korean or Western popular songs, adding new lyrics that have a double (anti-government) meaning in the north, and spreading them widely. North Korea doesn’t have much Internet access, but there are memory sticks, CDs and floppy disks. Stuff gets around, and now the police have been ordered to crack down on a list of over 500 subversive songs. The cops love this sort of thing, as it creates plenty of new bribery opportunities. That’s because many of those involved in this music conspiracy are children of ruling families, and can afford a fine (rather than anger their parents by getting arrested.)
Update: In the Guardian, Paul Watson says we’re all sheep and ignoring the horrific crimes of South Korea and vilifying the peace-loving, friendly, warm-hearted North Koreans:
Reunification and conciliation are usually portrayed as South Korean concepts, while North Korea is seen as a closed state, hostile to such talk on “idealistic grounds” – a view perpetuated by media outlets’ lack of interest in all recent North Korean initiatives. In fact it is almost impossible to find any piece of positive European journalism relating to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The days of cold war pantomime journalism and great ideological battles might be over, but North Korea remains an area in which journalists have free licence for sensationalism and partiality.
The lack of western sources in North Korea has allowed the media to conjure up fantastic stories that enthrall readers but aren’t grounded in hard fact. No attempt is made to see both sides of the Korean conflict: it is much easier and more palatable to a western audience to pigeonhole the DPRK as a dangerous maverick state ruled by a capricious dictator and South Korea as its long-suffering, patient neighbour.
These roles are dusted off whenever there are flare-ups, such as the Yeonpyeong Island incident of 2010 when North Korea was condemned for firing shots at South Korean military and civilians in an “unprovoked attack”. It was not widely reported that South Korea had been test firing artillery in a patch of ocean that North Korea claims ownership of or that North Korea’s repeated demands for an explanation were ignored. While military intervention may not have been wise, it was far from the random act of hostility it was made out to be.