Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bread, Circuses and Game Shows

President Obama finally offered his first, extended remarks on the VA scandal yesterday.  It was the sort of calculated, deceptive performance we've come to expect from the administration; the President expressed outrage at allegations of secret appointment lists and "cooked books" that kept many veterans waiting months for health care.  And just for consistency's sake, Mr. Obama said he wants to wait for "all the facts" before taking action and we've been told that the President first learned of the scandal from media reports.  Sound familiar?  It's the same reaction we've seen to virtually every controversy that has surfaced during Obama's time in office.  

Meanwhile, agency whistle-blowers claim at least 40 vets died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA alone, but the actual death toll is much, much higher.  The Dayton Daily News--in an investigation that has received far too little attention--discovered the agency has paid out over $36 million in claims to veterans where "delays in care" were cited in lawsuits against the VA.  And that's just the tip of the ice berg; the Daily News, working in partnership with other Cox media outlets, estimates that delayed appointments and other problems at VA medical centers may have contributed to the deaths of more than 100 veterans.  Over the past decade, the agency has paid out $845 million in malpractice claims, as the result of jury awards, or in out-of-court settlements.

Those types of horror stories demand immediate action, but Mr. Obama and the VA Secretary, retired Army General Eric Shinseki, seem content to let the wheels of bureaucracy keep churning along.  Shinseki is waiting for the results of an internal report, which may be ready sometime next month, and Mr. Obama emphasized that process during his remarks on Wednesday.   Just hours after the President's comments, Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill that would make it easier for VA managers to fire incompetent or criminal employees.  But General Shinseki has indicated that he really doesn't want that authority, and unions representing VA workers have claimed the measure would deny "due process."

If this response seems underwhelming, it should.  Scores of dead vets; ample evidence that VA indifference and medical mistakes contributed to their deaths, yet our "leaders" are content to wait for another internal investigation before taking action.  For those keeping score at home, there have been at least six separate inquiries by the VA, GAO and other organizations detailing these problems at veterans' medical centers, and the incoming Obama team was warned about problems at the agency during the 2008 transition.  But there was never any serious attempt to resolve these issues; as Charles Krauthammer noted last night, when it comes to accepting blame in the current administration, the "buck stops nowhere."

Why adopt such a feckless strategy?  Because it works.  Mr. Obama and his advisers know the best way to address any scandal is to delay the initial response, then profess "outrage" or "shock" at the revelations.  After that, order an official investigation--either by the agency in trouble, or their friends at the justice department--and proclaim that all relevant information must be gathered before taking action.  And when the "facts" are revealed months later, create the appearance of "toughness" and "action" by disciplining a few underlings, then restoring them to their jobs once the furor dies down.  Or, as an alternative strategy, simply push up the retirement date for some scapegoat who is already heading out the door. 

The approach works for a couple of reasons.  First, Mr. Obama's friends in the mainstream press are willing to play along, and secondly, the public's attention span is even shorter than the stenographers in the media.  If you don't believe us, check out the public's reaction on social media to the president's mid-morning remarks on the VA scandal.  According to the New York Daily News, there was far greater outrage over interruption of The Price is Right and The View than Mr. Obama's tepid comments, or the maddening bureaucracy that has killed dozens of American veterans. 

Secondly, vets are increasingly viewed as a marginal political constituency, particularly in Democratic circles. While the VA is a huge system, it only treats 8 million Americans.  The number currently wearing the nation's uniform represents only one percent of our population.  Overall, America's veteran population is about 22,000,000--about seven percent of the national population.  That number will decline significantly over the next decade, with the passing of the last World War II veterans, and more Vietnam-era vets entering old age.  In terms of electoral politics, it's a group that Democrats believe they can ignore, without serious consequences at the ballot box.  Put another way: most liberal politicians are more concerned about the people who work at VA facilities--members of public employee unions--than those being treated there. 

And the GOP is not without fault in this scandal.  The practice of cooking the appointment books was first identified in the Bush Administration, and despite the aforementioned studies and investigations, VA leadership never followed through on an offer by the agency's inspector general to implement required fixes.  President Obama campaigned on reforming the VA in 2008, yet the situation has grown worse under his watch. 

But any administration can probably weather the storm when the American public is more interested in a game show that the plight of those who fought the nation's battles.  In support of that theory, we offer the following Tweet, submitted by a pilot named Ethan Narber during the president's remarks Wednesday morning:

"If Obama takes up one more minutes of my 'Price is Right,' I'm going to throw the remote at my TV." 

Bread, circuses, game shows and Twitter.  Pretty much all you need to mollify America in the 21st Century.                       


Monday, May 19, 2014

Why Shinseki Failed

We rarely agree with Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank.  But to his credit, Mr. Milbank nails it on the VA scandal and the need for Eric Shinseki to step down.  From his latest column:

"Reports have documented the deaths of about 40 veterans in Phoenix who were waiting for VA appointments — the latest evidence of widespread bookkeeping tricks used at the agency to make it appear as though veterans were not waiting as long for care as they really were. The abuses have been documented over several years by whistleblowers and leaked memorandums, and confirmed by a host of government investigators.

That’s bad enough. Worse was Shinseki’s response when he finally appeared before a congressional committee Thursday to answer questions about the scandal. He refused to acknowledge any systemic problem and declined to commit to do much of anything, insisting on waiting for the results of yet another investigation.

“If any allegations are true,” Shinseki told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, “they’re completely unacceptable to me.”

“If any are substantiated by the inspector general,” he said, “we will act.”


If, indeed.  Watching the VA mess unfold--and the secretary's reaction--has been a study in slow-motion buffoonery.  At this point, the only people who don't believe there are serious problems at the Veteran's Administration are General Shinseki, and Jon Tester, the imbecilic Senator from Montana who told an MSNBC audience that "vets love the VA," and overall, the agency is "doing a pretty darn good job."  Even host Joe Scarborough called him on that one, saying that Tester may be "one of the few people in America" who believes that line of bull. 

Of course, Jon Tester isn't running the VA--but Eric Shinseki is.  You would assume that a former Army Chief of Staff, West Point grad and two-time recipient of the Purple Heart would understand the gravity of the crisis at his agency and take decisive action.  Then again, you'd be wrong. 

What we're seeing with General is a toxic blend of incompetence and hubris.  First of all, a service academy pedigree and flag rank does not confer superior leadership abilities, regardless of what we're led to believe.  The U.S. military has produced its share of senior duds down through the years, and Eric Shinseki may fall in that category.  Put another way, I've met several retired Army officers and senior NCOs who were more impressed with his political skills than his generalship. 

But there's little doubt that General Shinseki has supreme confidence in his own abilities, and probably believes there isn't a problem he can't solve, or a crisis he can't weather.  He was taught a long time ago that the worst reaction to any crisis is to panic, or start lopping off heads "without the facts."  In his mind's eye, Shinseki is still gathering information and will make the right decision when he has all the data. 

And, as an officer who spent a number of years in the power corridors of D.C., Shinseki also understands the value of playing for time.  As long as he has the confidence of the President, the embattled VA Secretary believes he can stretch out the crisis, appoint a blue ribbon panel to recommend fixes, create the illusion of reform, and leave on his own accord. 

Unfortunately, that approach doesn't work well with 40 dead veterans and clear evidence of wrong-doing at various VA centers around the country.  Perhaps General Shinseki should take a leadership page from General George C. Marshall, who sacked hundreds of senior officers after Pearl Harbor because he knew they couldn't get the job done.  Obviously, it's far more difficult to get rid of incompetent bureaucrats than lousy generals, but the point is that Eric Shinseki hasn't even tried.  Faced with the latest crisis in the VA's long history--and there have been many--the man at the top is reacting in a manner that is completely wrong. 

Which brings us to another example from the annals of World War II.  Despite ample warning that an attack on the Philippines would follow the strike on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Commander in the Far East--the legendary Douglas MacArthur--reacted with confusion and disbelief.  He refused to let his air commander, Major General Lewis Brereton, launch pre-emptive strikes against Japanese forces on Formosa.  And when the enemy invasion came, MacArthur insisted on a "beach defense," instead of quickly withdrawing into more defensible terrain on the Bataan Peninsula. 

By the time MacArthur recovered, it was too late.  In April 1942, MacArthur was ordered to evacuate to Australia and what was left of his command surrendered to the Japanese.  FDR awarded MacArthur the Congressional Medal of Honor for his "conspicious gallantry" in leading his forces against the invaders.  During those desperate, early days of World War II, the President decided that America needed heroes, and MacArthur fit the bill.  Talk about his indecision after Pearl Harbor (and the tactical blunders that followed) was either ignored or dismissed. 

Watching Eric Shinseki before Congress last week, I saw that "deer-in-the-headlights" look that General Brereton and other visitors to MacArthur's penthouse witnessed in 1941.  But unlike General MacArthur, there won't be a medal or promotion for Shinseki--just the wreckage of his own career, destroyed by arrogance and indecision.                      


The Rebels Strike Back

The past few months have not been kind to Syria's resistance fighters. 

Less than two weeks ago, hundreds of rebels were forced to evacuate from the city of Homs, after a year under seige from forces loyal to President Bashir al-Asad.  Homs was considered the "cradle" of Syria's civil war, so the exit of opposition fighters gave the government a strategic and political victory, just ahead of the nation's presidential election, which Mr. Asad is expected to win easily.

The retreat from Homs was accompanied by a dire warning from one of the senior leaders of the Syrian opposition.  Ahmad al-Jarba, President of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, recently told an audience in Washington that rebel forces need "advanced weapons" that can neutralize aerial raids by Asad's forces, and change the balance-of-power on the ground. 

"Advanced weapons" is shorthand for state-of-the-art, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (MANPAD SAMs), a prospect that opens a veritable Pandora's box for the world community.  On one hand, modern MANPADs could lessen Asad's aerial dominance, but giving those weapons to rebel factions--some linked to Al Qaida--raises the spectre of missile transfer to other terror groups, who could employ them against civilian airliners.

Meanwhile, at least two Syrian groups with Al Qaida ties are busy fighting each other, and not the Asad government.  According to the Jerusalem Post, elements of Jabhat al-Nusra (the official Al Qaida affiliate in Syria) are battling with a breakaway group (Levant), which is trying to control territory that stretches from Syria's oil region into Iraq. 

But just when you think opposition forces are going down for the count, they manage to pull off a major operation that surprises observers, and suggests they're far from defeated. 

Media outlets and human rights groups are reporting that the general in charge of the nation's air defenses has died from wounds suffered in a battle in Mleiha, on the outskirts of Damascus.  Lieutenant General Hussein Ayoub Ishaq was one of the highest-ranking Syrian officers to die in the country's three-year-old civil war. 

There was some confusion as to how Ishaq died; as The New York Times observed, air defense officers typically don't lead formations on the ground.  There was some speculation that Ishaq was inside a bunker or command post when he was wounded by insurgents.  If that is correct, it would suggest that rebels penetrated several layers of security and managed to detonate a bomb inside Ishaq's command center. 

Air defense sites have been frequent targets for opposition forces during the Syrian conflict.  Many of the raids have focused on capturing weapons that can be used against Asad's attack helicopters and fighter-bombers.   In recent months, those aircraft have been used to deliver "barrel bombs" against rebel targets, including civilian population centers.  The weapons are typically packed with enough explosives to level a small building, or spray shrapnel across a broad area, killing or wounding scores of people.

There is a large Syrian air defense base in Mleiha, so it seems likely that General Ishaq died in an existing facility, rather than during a visit to a field-deployed unit.  That makes the rebel operation even more impressive, since ranking Syrian officers--particularly those serving in or near contested areas--have extensive security details.  Getting to Ishaq was no easy feat, and it would indicate a level of planning and execution that insurgents have demonstrated only rarely in the past. 

While Ishaq's death will have little impact on the tactical situation, it is a major embarassment for the Asad regime.  Syria's internal security forces will spare no effort to discover how the rebels managed to take out the air defense commander.  And it's a safe bet that President Asad and his lieutenants have a few more security officers around them today--just in case.
ADDENDUM:  While General Ishaq was a relative unknown outside Syria, he became a national hero in the early 1980s, by scoring the Syrian Air Force's only air-to-air kill against Israel during the Bekka Valley campaign.  For those keeping score at home, the IAF's final kill ratio against Syria was a stunning 82:1.  Given those sobering figures, it's no wonder Ishaq became a celebrity and jumped on the fast-track to flag rank. 


Friday, May 16, 2014

Helping "Bradley" Become "Chelsea"

When Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning was convicted last year of passing reams of classified information to Wikileaks, we predicted that the former private wouldn't simply disappear into a cell at Leavenworth: 

"Just hours after his conviction, Bradley's defense attorney turned up on the "Today" show and issued a statement, announcing his desire to "live as a woman."

"As I transition into this next phase in my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel and have felt since childhood, I want to start hormone therapy as soon as possible," the statement read.

The statement also asked people to use the feminine pronoun when referring to Manning. It was signed "Chelsea E. Manning" and contained a hand-written signature.

Almost as quickly, the Army released its own statement, noting that the military does not provide sex reassignment treatments or surgery, implying that Manning will serving his sentence as a man.

But don't expect Manning to give up without a fight. By declaring himself a woman, the former intelligence analyst will create headaches for the military, in terms of where Manning will be incarcerated and how we will be housed in the prison population. The military prison at Leavenworth accepts only male prisoners; female military inmates are housed at the Naval Consolidated Brig at Miramar, California.

While the Leavenworth complex has been modernized in recent years, conditions at the Naval brig are considered "better," and Manning probably believes he would be safer in that environment. However, such claims are specious, at best. Security at Leavenworth is extremely tight, and attacks on prisoners are extremely rare. Put another way, Bradley Manning will be far safer in Leavenworth than he would be in the general population at an equivalent civilian facility.

But it doesn't take a defense lawyer (or corrections expert) to see the real motive behind Manning's actions. Faced with a long prison sentence, Manning and his supporters hope to make him the biggest "problem" in the military corrections system, based on unreasonable demands and perpetual legal appeals. Various LGBT groups and the American Civil Liberties Union are lining up behind Manning, claiming the military cannot deny medical treatment to help him become a woman. And somewhere, there is probably a federal judge who might agree, assuming that Manning's lawyers can get his case out of the military system. If that happens--and it is very much a long shot--Manning could wind up at a civilian facility, undergoing gender-reassignment treatments, on your dime."

Now, just nine months later, "Ms." Manning is very close to getting her wish. Earlier this week, it was revealed that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has approved an Army proposal to "evaluate potential treatment options for inmates diagnosed with gender dysphoria."   Those options might include transfer to a civilian federal prison, where Manning could receive "treatment" ranging from dressing like a woman; harmone therapy or even sex reassignment surgery.

The military has maintained it does not have the capability to treat dysphoria, but Manning's attorney is demanding treatment at an armed forces facility.  He claims the former private's safety could not be assured at a civilian prison.  The attorney David Combs, accused the military of "transphobia," and criticized service leaders of failing to develop an adequate plan for Manning's care.

Let's get this straight (no pun intended).  Bradley Manning joined the Army as a man, never telling recruiters that he was "really" a woman inside.  Did someone say fraudulent enlistment, since transgender individuals aren't allowed to enlist.  Then, he proceeds to pass thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks, causing grave damage to national security.  Sentenced to 35 years in prison, Manning and his defense team quickly change to focus to his gender crisis.  Not only does the media comply (they now refer to him by his preferred name of Chelsea), so does the Army.  Even the service now calls him "Chelsea," and Hagel's directive suggests they are taking his identity issue seriously.

Whatever happened to punishment?  Manning's supporters would claim that living in the wrong body is hellish, but they ignore a rather inconvenient point: the only barrier to "Chelsea" completing his transformation, is...Chelsea Manning.  Whatever his/her desired gender, Manning has a debt to pay, and there is nothing in the constitution that says the taxpayer must provide reassignment treatment, just so those decades in the slammer are a bit easier.  

Indeed, Private Manning hasn't said if he wants to be a man or woman, which leads to another theory: could the gender crisis be little more than a legal ploy, aimed at securing a felon's freedom?  Manning's maneuvers clearly have the Army off-balance; just nine months ago, military officials were telling the press they didn't have the capability to treat gender problems, with a not-too-subtle hint that Manning could deal with the issue when he regains his freedom--in the year 2048.  Now, Secretary Hagel has the brass scrambling to figure out a way to get the turncoat to a civilian prison.

Given the Army's apparent change-of-heart, it's quite likely that Manning's defense team will keep pushing their case.  As the poster "boy" for LGBT prisoners, Manning has become a media figure, and a headache for the Pentagon.  At some point, Chelsea's lawyers believe they can browbeat the government into some sort of deal.  After all, we're talking about the Obama Administration, a group that is hardly unsympathetic to the LGBT cause.

Against that backdrop, it's easy to envision Manning being transferred to a civilian prison for treatment, while attorneys work on a clemency petition.  The request would be granted in the final days of the Obama administration, as a final sop to one of his most important constituencies.  That means Chelsea would spend another two years in prison, but it's a lot better than three more decades as Leavenworth.                  

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Ultimate Job Security one organization (other than the Mafia) where you can be involved in someone's demise and keep your job? 

If you guessed the federal government, give yourself a gold star and move to the head of the class. 

And by the way, we're not referring to the U.S. military.  It goes without saying that armed forces personnel, in the course of their duties, are sometimes called upon to kill the enemy.  No, we're talking about employees outside DoD, the intelligence community or federal law enforcement who contributed to accidental or preventable deaths, and managed to hang onto their civil service positions. 

The most current (and egregious) example comes from the Veterans Administration.  Congress and government investigators are currently looking into whistle blower allegations that staff and administrators at the Phoenix VA created secret waiting lists for veterans who were seeking care at that facility.

While the deception reduced patient backlogs at the facility--a key performance metric for administrators--it also kept vets waiting for needed care.  Two physicians who exposed the practice claim as many as 40 veterans died while on the waiting list; others spent up to a year waiting for an appointment.  Three senior administrators (including the hospital director) have been placed on administrative leave as the inquiry continues.   Yesterday, the leader of the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization, called for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary, retired Army General Eric Shinseki, and two senior aides. 

Sadly, the VA doesn't have a monopoly on tolerating incompetence. An investigation by WPIX-TV in New York discovered the Federal Aviation Administration has retained "a number" of air traffic controllers whose actions contributed to 15 fatal crashes that claimed 54 lives.  The string of deadly incidents cover more than 20 years (beginning in the late 1980s) and include the highly-publicized mid-air collision of a private plane and a sightseeing helicopter over the Hudson River in 2009. 

During their probe, federal investigators discovered that  controller assigned to monitor that airspace was involved in a personal phone call when the two aircraft collided:

"In its accident report, the National Transportation Safety Board stated that controller Carlyle Turner’s non-pertinent telephone conversation contributed to the crash. While on duty, Turner and an airport colleague had a conversation about a scheduled BBQ and a dead cat found earlier in the day on a runway. At one point in the more than two-minute call, the federally employed Turner even cracks a racial joke.


PIX 11 News found Carlyle Turner living a suburban lifestyle in Chesapeake, Virginia. He is now working out of the air traffic control tower at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, a frequent destination and fly-over zone for high performance aircraft from the military as well as commercial jetliners.
The story of Carlyle Turner resonates with Barry Newman. The Florida aviation attorney had a case from an October 26, 2009 flight where a Texas controller lost his focus, literally. “The controller was required by his FAA medical certificate to wear glasses while controlling traffic and he wasn’t wearing his glasses that day.”

The controller in the case, Mike Farrior, admitted to not having his glasses in a handwritten statement attained by PIX11 News. Additionally, Newman says his vision was not the only issue.

“The controller decided to set his preferences so that he had a bright blue screen which was the same color as the worst of the weather so the two blended together, where on a black background the worst of the weather would have stood out very brightly.”

In a federal lawsuit, attorneys argued that as a result the pilot flew into hazardous weather. The aircraft went down killing all four people on-board."

According to WPIX, the federal government has paid out at least $100 million in settlements or jury verdicts resulting from deaths in these--and other--crashes.  Amazingly, Carlyle Turner, Mike Farrior and other controllers remain on the job, despite their actions that contributed to these deadly accidents.

But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.  The FAA and unions representing airline pilots and air traffic controllers all declined requests for interviews.  Both Mr. Turner and Mr. Farrior served paid suspensions before returning to their duties as controllers.  That's a "testament" to the power of organized labor and our civil service system, where it's almost impossible to fire an employee, even if their actions contributed to the deaths of other individuals. 

True, Ronald Reagan cleaned house when air traffic controllers went on an illegal strike in 1981.  But since the new union has been certified (vowing to never walk off the job), labor issues have largely focused on finding replacements for retiring controllers (most are required to retire by the age of 56) and providing more rest periods for those on duty.  Controllers who run into disciplinary problems or encounter more serious problems (like Turner and Farrior) can still fight to keep their jobs, and in many cases, they win.

Most air traffic controllers are extraordinary professionals who excel in one of the worlds most demanding jobs.  But it's baffling that their union--and the federal bureaucracy--will go to bat for individuals whose carelessness contributed to past disasters in the sky.

One final thought: the Newport News-Williamsburg Airport is frequently used for touch-and-go training by crews from the 89th Military Airlift Wing, which operates Air Force One and other VIP jets.  It's a likely bet that Mr. Turner has been in tower when that distinctive Boeing 747 works the pattern during practice missions, but it would be interesting to know if he's allowed to control Air Force One or Air Force Two when President Obama or Joe Biden is on-board.

Preparing for the End?

It's something that has been studied, war-gamed and analyzed in Washington and Seoul for decades: how to handle the inevitable implosion of North Korea. 

To be fair, the tyrants in Pyongyang have (so far) defied expectations.  While serving as a military intelligence officer in South Korea more than 20 years ago, I reviewed a White Paper prepared by the ROK Ministry of Defense, outlining projected threats in the year 2010.  Atop that list were China and Japan.  North Korea didn't even make the cut, because the best minds in Seoul (along with their American counterparts) believed the DPRK would go kaput before the first decade of the 21st Century. 

Yet, North Korea still shambles along.  Not even the deaths of the Great Leader (Kim il-Sung), the "Dear" Leader (Kim Jong-il); mass famine, a failed economy and brutal purges have pushed Pyongyang beyond the brink.  Indeed, the third generation of North Korea's hereditary dictatorship has now consolidated power in the person of Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of Kim Jong-il, who is proving to be just as brutal as his father and grandfather.  He recently executed his maternal uncle (who provided critical support during Kim Jong-un's ascent to power), along with dozens of other regime officials. 

Based on outward appearances, it looks like business-as-usual in Pyongyang, and the newest dictator may remain in power for decades to come.  But Kim's allies in Beijing aren't taking any chances--or hedging their bets.  According to the U.K. Telegraph, Chinese leaders have been reviewing their own plans for a DPRK collapse:

China has drawn up detailed contingency plans for the collapse of the North Korean government, suggesting that Beijing has little faith in the longevity of Kim Jong-un’s regime.

Documents drawn up by planners from China’s People’s Liberation Army that were leaked to Japanese media include proposals for detaining key North Korean leaders and the creation of refugee camps on the Chinese side of the frontier in the event of an outbreak of civil unrest in the secretive state.
The report calls for stepping up monitoring of China’s 879-mile border with North Korea.
Any senior North Korean military or political leaders who could be the target of either rival factions or another “military power,” thought to be a reference to the United States, should be given protection, the documents state.

The fact that Beijing has such plans on the books is hardly surprising.  Living next door to a failed state, China is acutely aware of conditions inside the DPRK, and what might happen if the regime suddenly collapses.  Beijing has arrested (and returned) thousands of North Korean refugees who have fled the "workers paradise" over the decades, and understands that relative trickle would become a flood in the event of widespread civil unrest, or the complete failure of Kim Jong-un's regime. 

What's unusual is China's decision to leak the information to the Japanese press.  In a country where revealing classified information is routinely punished by death, a revelation of this type is clearly a planned event, aimed at sending a signal to all concerned parties. 

For North Korea, the message is clear.  Beijing has grown tired of the refugee problem and Pyongyang's intransigence on a variety of other issues, including nuclear weapons.  With the North reportedly gearing up for another nuclear test, China has already issued a statement condemning the move and reinforced its disapproval by with-holding oil shipments during the first three months of this year.  Beijing would also like to see the DPRK embark on some sort of reform program, but it also realizes the odds of that happening are approximately zero. 

Beijing may also be signaling Washington and Seoul that it wouldn't be unhappy if North Korea suddenly disappeared, even if military action is required.  The plans leaked to the Japanese media are completely defensive in nature, with no mention of intervening to save Pyongyang, as it did in 1950.  Of course, the plan that found its way into the press may be nothing more than a border security operation, crafted apart from military contingency preparations.  Naturally, China would be resentful of any interference in an area considered its own zone of influence.  But as Tom Wilson writes in Commentary magazine, the tone of the planning document envisions--even seems to invite--a region without Pyongyang.

Mr. Wilson is also correct on a second point: if Chinese leaders the U.S. and South Korea are contemplating military action that would collapse the North Korean regime, they are sadly mistaken.  Over the past decade, Pyongyang has joined the nuclear club and staged a number of highly provocative acts, including the sinking of a ROK Navy vessel and the shelling of a South Korean-held island in the Yellow Sea.  In return, the North has been punished with economic sanctions, which were later eased.  Clearly, the DPRK believes it has little to fear from its adversaries in Seoul and Washington.  Meanwhile, U.S. and South Korean leaders are content to let North Korea collapse on its own, hoping that the implosion can somehow be "managed." 

The leaked planning document contained one other interesting tidbit: as refugees from the DPRK pour over the border, Chinese authorities will take steps to identify former North Korean officials and place them in special camps.  That move would (apparently) serve two goals: first, it would keep them beyond the reach of South Korea and the United States, and prevent them from using Chinese territory to launch a civil war on the reunified peninsula.  Clearly, there are details of the Pyongyang-Beijing relationship that China wants to remain secret, and rounding up members of the ruling clique is a good way to accomplish that goal. 

Does that mean Kim Jong-un will ultimately be a guest of the Chinese government, in some sort of labor camp?  North Korea's long-term prospects are dire (at best), but a lot of intel analysts and diplomats have been consistently wrong, betting against the DPRK's near and mid-term survival.  If China knows something we don't (in regard to Pyongyang), that should be a matter of grave concern given the millions of South Korea civilians who could be threatened by North Korea's collapse, and the thousands of U.S. military personnel who would be called upon to defend our ally.  As we've noted before, Pyongyang might choose to go out with a bang instead of a whimper, and the consequences would be catastrophic for all concerned.

On the other hand, the Chinese plans appear based in an abundance of caution--prudent steps taken by an emerging super-power which knows that North Korea will not last, and is preparing for that eventuality.  The real issue is why Beijing decided to leak its plans now, and if their timetable for the DPRK's demise differs significantly from our own.
ADDENDUM:  As another indicator of worsening conditions in North Korea, ABC News reports that a large number of wildfires are currently burning across the country.  Some of the fires were deliberately set, to burn off debris from last year's crop and fertilize fields ahead of this year's planting. 

But recent imagery from a NASA satellite detected larger fires in forested areas; wood is a precious commodity in the DPRK, a country that cannot exploit its own coal reserves due to shortages of fuel, equipment and a power grid that is down most of the time.  Ironically, some experts believe the forest fires may have been triggered by aging power lines that snapped and fell to the ground, igniting dry brush.  Not only is North Korea unable generate enough electricity to meet its demands, the distribution system may be more of a hazard than an asset.