Much of the news about North Korea lately has focused on the possibility that the country is getting ready to test a nuclear weapon. But recent social and economic developments seem to be making North Korea less isolated.
Developments inside North Korea are hard to gauge. But experts say one thing they have noticed is North Koreans are now able to enjoy a small degree of economic and personal freedom, which they did not have before.
Joe Winder is president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, DC. He says, "It's clear from reports from traders going across the border and defectors coming in and out of the country that individual North Koreans now have a much greater degree of economic autonomy than they had in the past."
The government now allows North Koreans to move more freely around the country and to operate small, private markets.
"The public food system broke down, the regime had to allow the development of private markets," says Mr. Winder.
North Koreans cross the porous Chinese border to find jobs and to buy Chinese goods to sell back home. These goods include copies of South Korean television programs which allow a glimpse of a richer world, and cell phones that provide contact with it.
Kirk Larson, a Korea specialist at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, says the regime does not view these officially forbidden contacts as a threat. He says, "It is the elite who have the most access to these forbidden forms of communication. Not only are they the ones who have access to the cell phones and television, but they're also the only ones who probably dare to look at these images because they feel insulated from the potential consequences of doing it. And, as a general rule, they are the ones who have the least interest in toppling the regime."
North Korean elites need cell phones to contact their Chinese business partners, and increasingly, people they know in South Korea -- where North Korean products are in high demand.
Trade between the North and the South has increased by 58 percent in the first three months of this year. And trade between North Korea and China is also rising rapidly. According to some sources, it has more than doubled in the past few years.
Professor Larson is watching these reforms. He says, "I think the long-term potential is significant where people eventually refuse to accept the demands of this totalitarian state and want a different life."
Joe Winder agrees. He says, "It's hard to see how a regime like this can continue forever. It's been going on for 50 years. It's isolated. It's a relic of the past, its ideology has been discredited everywhere else, and one would think over time, it would fall of its own weight."
However, he is not predicting the demise of the Kim regime any time soon. North Korea still receives a substantial amount of food aid from abroad including from the United States. The U.S. State Department describes human rights in North Korea in only the grimmest of terms.
A State Department official says only members of a very small class of society benefit from any improved economic activity and that the government still restricts access to Pyongyang where living conditions are better than in the countryside.