In the north the government is fighting a losing battle against the more popular culture of South Korea. You can see this in the capital, if you have an eye for clothing. Lots of people (especially younger ones) from high-status (ruling class) families can be seen wearing South Korean clothing. Not new stuff but usually second hand and smuggled in from China. The government tried to outlaw these imports over a decade ago but the continued popularity of South Korea culture saw the secret police turn to more pressing problems than policing what the children of the senior bureaucracy were wearing. The government has also given up trying to police the language so it is more common to hear North Koreans using South Korean terms, especially when it comes to commerce. Simple things, like addressing people as “mister” or “miss” rather than comrade can be jarring for a foreigner who has not visited North Korea since the 1990s.
The rather obvious presence of better made and more fashionable South Korea clothing in the run-down and drab North Korea is just an obvious example of what has happened in the north. Foreign visitors, especially the many Chinese who do business in North Korea, report that few North Koreans believe the official histories of Korea since 1950 and North Koreans are now well aware of the fact that they and their nation is in bad shape and being kept down by a brutal, family run, police state. At the same time North Koreans are pragmatic. If they can’t get out they play along and try to survive. The best way to do that is to find a job in the newly legalized free market. The lowest paying jobs in the free market earn you more than what most skilled workers in state own industries get. This trend, which has been growing since the late 1990s, has reached the point where state owned industries have a labor shortage and have had to offer much more pay for many jobs. A growing number of state firms are also renting out space to private businesses, a practice that is technically illegal but tolerated if the bribes are right. All this makes North Koreans realize that the government no longer controls the economy and that makes the secret police and people running the country uneasy. Even satellite photos show this trend as it is common for the nearly 400 “free markets” in North Korea stand out by all the new construction in the vicinity. All that money makes the local police and government officials wealthier and because of those bribes a lot of technically illegal items (all South Korean goods and some Chinese ones, like cell phones that can handle Korean) are for sale. The government knows that the legal markets also provide a lot of illegal items but has backed off from trying to shut this down because those efforts hurt the legitimate market trade and that cuts government income (from taxes and fees) and causes popular anger. The government also noted that those supplying the black market can bring in things the government needs but is forbidden from getting legally because of sanctions. The black markets also provide a steady supply of foreign currency (especially American and Chinese). In short, the legal markets have become too essential to the government to shut down.
The North Korean government needs all the help it can get. Trade between North Korea and China declined nearly 14 percent during the first six months of 2015 (compared to 2014). Part of this was due to the stalled Chinese economy but mostly it was all about Chinese anger at North Korean refusal to eliminate their nuclear weapons program. That’s why Chinese investment in North Korea has declined over 80 percent since 2013 (the last time the north conducted a nuclear test). The Chinese also have problems with the Americans over this as the U.S. insists that China is not doing enough to get North Korea to get rid of its nukes. China won’t admit it officially but it is understood (by many Chinese and American diplomats and intel analysts) that the only option the Chinese have left is to take over North Korea via a coup or outright invasion. Both options are expensive, embarrassing and risky. China and North Korea are both socialist police states and they go way back as allies. It would be embarrassing to the Chinese government to take over its “socialist brother” and that will be avoided until the North Korean nukes become a more immediate threat to China. The Chinese also advise Americans, and Westerners in general, to take into account that with China now unfriendly, North Korea has no useful foreign allies. There are countries like Iran and Cuba but there are not very useful. North Korea is still obsessed with the United States and China believes that when the North Korean leadership gets desperate enough they will be willing to do a real (enforceable) nuclear disarmament deal with America. Unfortunately the U.S. is not as patient as China in these matters and this bit of advice is not valued much by the West.
There has also been a reduction in trade between China and South Korea. That trade is more than a hundred times larger than the North Korea-China trade and the drop is all economic (the stalled Chinese economy). This is much less of a problem in the south than in the north where the reduction in Chinese trade is a matter of life or death for some North Koreans.
November 9, 2015: South Korea brought two more nuclear electricity generation reactors into service. These two will provide three percent of the electricity used in South Korea. That will mean that over 30 percent of electricity in South Korea is now provided by nuclear power. In contrast none is produced in North Korea and in China nuclear power plants only provide about two percent of electricity. China wants to increase that in order to reduce pollution (80 percent of current electricity is produced by burning coal) and South Korea is building nuclear plants in China to help reach the goal of six percent of electricity from nuclear plants by 2020. Meanwhile nuclear power produces 20 percent of the American electricity and 74 percent in France.
November 5, 2015: North Korea cell phone jammers have become more powerful and turned on more frequently along the Chinese border. As a result the jamming has disrupted cell phone use across the border and that has become enough of a problem that China has complained to North Korea. In response North Korea said it would cut back on the jamming if China paid North Korea a large fee. China was not pleased with this response and is devising a suitable response. One specific local complaint that got the government involved was the fact that people on the Chinese side of the border are increasingly victims of North Korean criminals (often soldiers) crossing to rob and steal. That jammers make it difficult or impossible for victims to call for help. This is particularly embarrassing as the government helped people on the border organize local security groups which depend on cell phones.
November 4, 2015: China and South Korea both approved an agreement for a communications hotline. This enables either side to quickly contact the others military headquarters to sort out any incident involving the armed forces of one or both countries. A hotline like this is quicker and more accurate than waiting for the usual diplomatic channels to be used (and having to depend on the mass media in the meantime.) China and North Korea have long had the equivalent of a hotline in that senior Chinese military leaders could always pick up a phone and call their North Korean counterparts. This is something that dates back to the Korean War, when Chinese forces saved the North Korean military from certain destruction and kept the Korean War going for another 30 months until the ceasefire. This cost China over half a million dead, something China has not forgotten. Meanwhile South Korea already has a hotline with the United States. China and South Korea have been haggling over hotline details since last July.
November 1, 2015: The leaders of South Korea, China and Japan held a rare meeting (in South Korea) to discuss matters of mutual interest. The meeting was brief (less than two hours) and covered things like trade disputes and joint action on the growing threats from North Korea. They also agreed to put these meeting back on an annual basis, like they used to be. Since 2011 the meetings were suspended because of the many issues that divided the three. That eventually led to all three leaders agreeing that there were still enough mutual problems that regular meetings like this would be useful. Apparently the meeting today was a success, so far. This meeting was apparently to confirm agreement on recent improved diplomatic and economic ties. There are still disagreements over Chinese territorial claims off its coasts and in the South China Sea.
October 31, 2015: South Korea announced that a new version of its Remoeye-002A UAV (Remoeye-002B) was entering front line service with army and marine units on the DMZ. There these mini-UAVs would be used to keep an eye on North Korea forces across the five kilometer wide DMZ. Remoeye-002B is a 3.4 kg (7.5 pound) UAV with a 1.8 meter (5.8 foot) wingspan. It can stay in the air for 70 minutes per sortie and has a max speed of 80 kilometers an hour. It can operate up to 10 kilometers from its operator and carries day and night vidcams that can transmit real time video. The smaller (two kg) Remoeye-002A entered service in 2006 and it was so successful that development on the larger B model began in 2012. An improved version of the 002B is in the works but the B model is expected to remain in service until 2017. It was only in 2014 that South Korea military admitted that it had put two locally developed and built UAV designs in service several years earlier. This revelation was in response to the discovery of Chinese made SKY-09P UAVs used by North Korea to spy on South Korea. These were 12 kg (26 pound) delta wing aircraft with a wingspan of 1.92 meters (6.25 feet).
October 30, 2015: South Korea recently sold a hundred of its locally designed and made K9 155mm self-propelled howitzers to India for about $7.5 million each. South Korea has already sold 350 K9s to Turkey and 120 to Poland. While superficially similar to the American M109 the K9 is a heaver (46 tons versus 28 for the M109), carries more ammo and has twice the range (up to 56 kilometers in part because of a barrel that is a third longer). There is more automation on the K9, so it has a crew of five versus six on the M-109. South Korea thus joins Germany in their effort to build a suitable replacement for the elderly M109 design. The chief competitor for the Indian contract was Russia which offered its similar 42 ton 2S19. The K-9 won on the basis of technical capabilities, field tests and a South Korean reputation for quality and reliability.
October 27, 2015: The government announced a new program to expand food production by the military. Troops will now be able to raise pigs as well as the usual vegetable and grain crops. Meat has been in particularly short supply for the troops in the past few years and hungry troops are becoming a problem. Many military units don’t have enough to eat, either because the food was not to be had or, as is more often the case, corruption (someone in a position of power stole it.) This led to more soldiers stealing food from civilians or selling military clothing and equipment on the black market so they can buy food. Soldiers have opportunities to steal food and sell stolen goods when they are off their base doing construction or farm work. This is how troops spend a lot of their time and they receive no extra pay or food even when the outside work requires heavy (and calorie consuming) labor. All this is illegal, but commanders are not eager to punish hungry soldiers. Commanders appealed to their superiors and the answer appears to be for troops to spend more time being farmers and less time being soldiers.
October 26, 2015: South Korea is increasing its defense spending four percent in 2016 to $34.7 billion. That is down a bit from the nearly five percent increase for 2015. South Korean defense spending has more than tripled since 2000. In part this is because of the continuing growth of the South Korean economy but also the result of the continued, and increasingly violent, threat from North Korea and the growing aggressiveness of China. In addition there is continued popular pressure in South Korea to eliminate conscription and move to an all-volunteer force. All this is expensive. In 2008, the South Korean defense budget went up 3.6 percent, but the military had called for a 7.9 percent increase. After the North Korean attacks in 2010 the annual increase ended up closer to ten percent and the annual increases remain higher than before 2010. Defense spending currently takes up nearly 15 percent of the national budget.
October 25, 2015: Off the west coast a South Korean patrol boat fired warning shots (with a heavy machine-gun) at a North Korean patrol boat that had crossed the maritime boundary between the two countries. After 18 minutes the North Korean boat turned around and crossed back into North Korean waters. The North Korean government complained but that was all.