North Korea continues to refuse calls to halt their nuclear weapons and long-range missiles program. That stubbornness has resulted in a growing list of international trade sanctions. In response the north has threatened war with South Korea in increasingly hostile terms in the last few months. War would hurt South Korea but it would destroy North Korea, and no one is quite sure what North Korea is up to. China is among the perplexed. It appears that the North Korean leadership is split on what to do about the continued economic and social problems. Although GDP has increased by 25 percent in the last decade, most of that increase went to the military and the few thousand families that run the country. They have flat screen TVs, new cars, and impressive homes (visible on Google Earth) outside the capital. Inside Pyongyang there is a lot of new construction, including stores selling luxury goods. In the rest of the country all you see is a poorly maintained slum with frequent electrical blackouts and growing shortages of fuel for heating and transportation. The GDP growth comes largely by allowing Chinese firms to operate mines and factories, using cheaper North Korean labor. The government seizes most of the profits from this increased economic activity, leaving most North Koreans with less than they had a decade ago. This has caused growing unrest, including anti-government graffiti (unknown a decade ago) and more people fleeing to China and from there to South Korea with details of the hell up north. China has been urging North Korea to allow economic freedom, as China did in the 1980s. But many in the North Korean leadership believe this would lead to revolution and catastrophe for them.
North Korea has put more restrictions on travel to the Chinese border. Like most old-school communist police states, everyone must carry an internal passport at all times and you need a permit to travel outside your home town. For those travelling to areas near the Chinese border, additional permissions and documentation must now be obtained. This puts pressure on the government and secret police officials involved because for everyone they approve who disappears (and is presumed to have fled to China) the responsible official is in trouble. Too much of that can get you sent to prison. Despite the risk, $50-100 in bribes will get you past all the document checks as you get near to the Chinese border.
One reason for this crackdown on travel to the Chinese border is increased hostility towards the North Korean government by China. This is expressed in several ways. For example, Chinese officials will not meet with their North Korean counterparts. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently sought to arrange a visit to China but his officials who went to China to arrange the trip last month were snubbed and came back without meeting any senior Chinese officials. At the border crossings Chinese border guards are interfering with North Korean government exports of drugs and counterfeit U.S. currency, as well as blocking some imports. China is sending less fuel and food. China is unhappy with North Korean threats of war and this is how China sends the message. So far North Korea has not responded in a dramatic fashion, but it has been gradually toning down the threatening gestures (long range missiles readied for launch, additional troop activity along the DMZ, and anti-South Korea propaganda). Officially North Korea is still getting ready for war.
The North Korean government is trying to find new jobs for the workers at the recently closed (by North Korea) Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea. This put over 50,000 North Koreans out of work. The South Korean government is providing help with the losses suffered by the South Korean companies that operated the Kaesong factories. North Korea has blamed South Korea for all this and is quietly trying to get jobs in China for some of the unemployed Kaesong workers. Most of the workers and their families brought to Kaesong to work in the South Korea factories are being sent back to the other parts of North Korea that they came from. Shutting down Kaesong cost the North Korean government a lot of money, since the wages of the Kaesong workers were heavily taxed. North Korea has long exported workers to China and Russia, as long as the workers were housed in dormitories where they could be watched by North Korean secret police. Any of these workers who tried to defect would be putting their family into prison, which was a death sentence for the very young and very old. North Korean workers don’t like working outside the country when they have to leave their families behind. But working in Russia and China was at least a job and you got enough to eat.
South Korea has lost more than money with the closure of Kaesong. The South Korean managers have long been a good source of intel on the north. One of the last bits of such intel received was North Korean officials fearing that the 50,000 workers at Kaesong were learning too much about the higher standard of living in South Korea and were beginning to question the mismanagement of the North Korean economy. Apparently this has been a problem for several years but the decision to shut down Kaesong was delayed because of all the cash it was bringing in for the North Korean government. The North Korean government is also trying to ensure that the former Kaesong workers do not pollute other North Koreans with impure thoughts. To that end, these workers are being forced to attend two hours a day of indoctrination and reminders that North Korea is the worker’s paradise and that South Korea is evil incarnate. The workers are unhappy with the mandatory indoctrination sessions and the sharp drop in income.
South Koreans appear less concerned about the North Korean threat than many foreign countries (like the United States and Japan). That’s because South Koreans believe that, aside from all the hostile rhetoric, in the end the people of North Korea and South Korea are all Koreans and that something can be worked out. The alternative is fixating on another war, which benefits neither the north nor the south. Nevertheless, many South Koreans are beginning to wonder just how deranged and unpredictable the leaders up north really are.
Although North Korea has been receiving technical assistance on ballistic missile design from China and Russia for decades, it is obvious that not enough such help has been provided to enable the North Koreans to perfect their long range (over 1,000 kilometers) multi-stage rockets. Satellite photos of launch sites and some test results are public information. From this it is obvious that the North Korean long-range missile program is a low-budget operation that emphasizes spectacular propaganda events, not systematic development of useful capabilities. The North Koreans are trying to leapfrog the tedious development process used by the U.S., Russia, and China and ends up launching high-risk rocket designs. That’s why they have such a high failure rate. North Korea builds most of the rocket components itself and these are largely simple technologys that has been around for a while. The problem they have is assembling all the thousands of parts to create a workable and reliable long-range rocket. Even when they have a successful test, it’s doubtful that they have a very reliable design.
North Korea appears to have followed the same path in developing nuclear weapons. The three North Korean weapons tests conducted so far indicate a crude design. This would appear to mean North Korea had to develop the design largely by themselves. A separate question is whether Russia supplied technical help on adapting a nuclear weapon to handle the physical and electronic stresses of being launched by a ballistic missile. This is no trivial task and problems with warhead design continue to plague the existing nuclear powers. It would appear that the North Koreans have not yet “weaponized” their nuclear device design to work in a missile (or even an aircraft bomb). But the possibility of illicitly obtained Russian tech is always there, until evidence to the contrary is found. The same with technical assistance from Pakistan, which was helped by China to develop its nuclear warhead equipped missiles. In the end, the biggest obstacle the North Koreans face is a reliable warhead design. Testing such a design without actually firing a live nuke into the ocean requires another bunch of tech (and high-performance computers) that North Korea does not have.
May 4, 2013: South Korean pro-democracy activists (many of them refugees from the north) attempting to release balloons (carrying 200,000 leaflets and cheap consumer goods into the north) were stopped by police. Police have often tried to prevent these balloon launchings in the past and usually failed. But this time the cops shut it down at a park six kilometers from the DMZ. Police also halted a balloon launch last month. This time local villagers had complained to the police, fearing that this time North Korea would make good on its frequent threats to fire artillery at the launch sites. The North Korean artillery has never fired after these balloons floated north. When the balloons reach the north police and soldiers are sent out to seize the cargo carried by the balloons, lest northerners be polluted by this South Korean propaganda. Over the years, many of these downed balloons have been found by civilians and the word slowly circulated about what the message really was. China has long called for the two Korea’s to stop threatening each other over this use of balloons. This has been going on for years. To the north, this is a deliberate provocation by the south. But the reality is that many South Koreans want the North Korean dictatorship to collapse, and that is more likely to happen when more North Koreans know the truth about life in the two Koreas. For decades the North Korean government has restricted information in the north and smothered the people with propaganda, describing the north as the best of all possible worlds and the south as worse off. In the last decade, more and more northerners have learned the truth and this has caused confusion, fear, corruption, and calls for change. Many northern leaders believe some of their own propaganda and they don’t understand how a democracy works. They cannot comprehend people doing anything without first obtaining permission from a government official. The balloon releases must be a South Korean government operation. In the most recent case the north openly threatened military action if balloons were released again. Southern officials responded that the south would fire back if attacked, but in the end the southern government did ban the balloon release.
May 2, 2013: A North Korean court sentenced American Kenneth Bae to 15 years in prison, after convicting him of espionage and plotting to overthrow the North Korean government. Bae was a tour operator and advocate for more aid to starving North Koreans. The charges against him described setting up a network of anti-North Korea programs in China and smuggling anti-government literature into North Korea. No evidence was presented at the trial and Bae, who was said to have confessed, did not testify. This is the fourth American to be seized and prosecuted in North Korea since 2009. Bae was arrested there six months ago. The other three Americans were eventually freed after negotiations with North Korea.
April 26, 2013: North Korea refused a South Korean offer to negotiate a peaceful settlement of whatever complaints the north has. The south was particularly eager to reopen the Kaesong industrial park in North Korea, where 53,000 North Koreans work for 123 South Korean firms.