More North Koreans are exposed to foreign media than ever before, and their resulting dissatisfaction with their regime may be close to a tipping point:
Since 2011, when Kim Jong Un came to power, the North Korean secret police have been warning their bosses that a growing number of propaganda efforts that worked for decades are now doing more harm than good. This is largely because people have access to cell phones and foreign media which provide contrary views of what is really going on in North Korea. This sort of thing leads to doubts and uncertainty among the population, even the senior leadership and their families. As a result there are more whispered anti-government (or anti-Kim Jong Un) jokes and, worse, the same message in graffiti. More North Koreans are openly complaining to government officials that they are hungry and cold not because of foreign enemies but because of bad government policies. For example a lot of free market activities are still illegal despite that fact that most people depend on access to the free markets for most of the essentials the state supplied until the 1990s. Implicit in this treasonous talk is a popular perception that most North Koreans survive in spite of the government rather than because of any assistance from the government.China is really, really pissed over the recent nuclear tests, and is starting to make bellicose threats against Jong-un's regime:
China has allowed its approved pundits (scholars and popular media personalities) to freely (without censors coming after them) discuss subjects like unannounced Chinese air or missile strikes on North Korea nuclear and ballistic missile targets....Many North Koreans see...an unprecedented new threat; a joint Chinese-South Korean (and presumably American) effort to go after Kim Kong Un. To reinforce that perception American B-1B bombers very visibly flew over South Korea a week after the nuclear test.The standard line is that China wants to preserve the North's regime because a collapse would send millions of starving refugees across their border. But that's not all. It's mostly a question of who'd take over, and there are no good answers for anyone. A Chinese or American occupation would vastly increase tensions, and South Korea would be seen as a proxy provocation by the US (plus, there are other issues with Korean Unification, per the next quote, below).
In reality, there is much China could do to get the attention of the North Koreans, but that would involve the possibility of making North Korean leaders more erratic and aggressive. Cutting economic (oil and natural gas) and food aid as well as halting unofficial aid to illegal North Korea exports (drugs, counterfeit currency, weapons) would hurt more than the current sanctions and might cause a collapse of the North Korean government. That is something China wants to avoid, because it would force China to confront South Korea and the West over Chinese plans to occupy North Korea in such a situation. China would call this peacekeeping but the rest of the world would call it an annexation. This could get very nasty. Another option is to back pro-Chinese North Korean officials in a coup to install a more obedient (to China) government. This is risky, as the North Korean leaders have been aware of this threat for over a decade and have regularly purged the ruling bureaucracy of anyone believed to be pro-China. A failed coup would be, well, messy.South Koreans claim to be pro-Unification (in the event of the North's collapse), but it's not true:
South Korea won't admit this, but most South Koreans know that absorbing North Korea would put a big dent in South Korean living standards. That is more unpopular than any other outcome. While all Koreans would like a united Korea, far fewer are willing to pay the price.....and South Korea is quietly setting the stage for a Chinese puppet state as the best-bad-choice option:
The Chinese do not want North Korea to merge with South Korea, nor do they want North Korea to collapse economically and politically because that would send millions of desperate and starving refugees into northern China. All the neighbors (especially China and South Korea) want North Korea to stay independent, and harmless. Thus China is willing to unofficially annex North Korea, knowing that the South Koreans would go along with this as long as the fiction of North Korean independence was maintained.