In North Korea, news of American estimates that North Korea launched $70 million worth of ballistic missiles on November 2nd reached civilians living along the Chinese border. Stories like this are nothing new but this one came at a time and place where it might be a sufficient spark to set off a lot of hungry and impoverished North Koreans with growing outrage over waste and corruption in North Korea. The number, $70 million, is the value of what North Korea imports from China each month. This includes food shipments which prevent mass starvation in many parts of the country. In an uncharacteristic move, North Korean state-controlled media released news that the numerous missile launches between the 2nd and 5th were necessary and successful in discouraging America and South Korea from attacking North Korea. This was an often-used explanation of obviously large military expenditures that appeared to serve no rational purpose. There was a similar reaction in the capital (Pyongyang) when the recent completion of the Taesongsan Ice Cream Factory. The government said ice cream production would begin next year and this facility was built by leader Kim Jong Un to demonstrate his love for the people. People in the area where this facility was built complained that what good was an ice cream factory when they were no longer getting as much food as they used to receive. Apparently, this means that government fairy tales delivered as news are no longer acceptable to most North Koreans and the people were speaking out as never before with their observations and complaints.
Crimes And Punishments
Most of the “crime” in North Korea is caused by desperation over insufficient food, clean water, medical care or any number of items that should not be in short supply. The government is unable to meet these needs and seeks to placate an increasingly angry and anti-government population. The security forces are increasingly susceptible to bribes or, in the case of local police, intimidation. One government solution is more public executions of “criminals” that are arrested and seem unwilling to stop what they are doing. In one recent case a man was publicly executed for providing medicines that government medical services cannot or will not supply. For example, the government considers Chinese medicines inferior even though that is not the case. Drugs smuggled in from China, or basic drugs made locally from local or Chinese ingredients are all most people can obtain. People who persist in providing these drugs, and getting arrested for it, are subject to public execution.
Another economic problem is that food is scarce and other necessities are expensive. 2022 grain harvests were lower than usual and that means North Koreans are more dependent on goods imported from China, but food and other necessities are not a priority when it comes to imports. It is no secret that the government exports so much coal to China that domestic prices have soared and scarcities of coal for any purpose are crippling the rest of the economy. To make matters worse, North Korean coal exports to China are illegal because of sanctions and must compete with legitimate Chinese coal imports. Chinese coal brokers consider importing North Korean coal risky and offer low prices to justify the risk. Currently the brokers only pay one tenth what legitimate coal imports cost. North Korea needs the export income and exports so much coal, even at these low prices, that there are shortages in North Korea, where coal costs a little more than what the government receives from Chinese brokers. All this means food and fuel will be scarce and expensive for North Koreans during the next three months of cold weather.
With all this government misstatement and the suffering that it produces, it is not surprising that North Koreans are becoming more open about their anger towards the government. The government response is usually more propaganda and punishments.
South Korea was recently hit by another major North Korean hacker campaign. South Korea was able to detect this effort quickly and limit the damage. With all the import and export sanctions North Korea is subject to, sources of hard currency income are few. Successful hacking campaigns are still an option, despite increased efforts by potential victims to avoid the hacks.
Over the last few years North Korea has been putting more effort (personnel, educational resources and cash) into its hacking operations. These activities have been more profitable that all other forms of smuggling and illegal exports. With the increased sanctions on North Korea the hacking income is even more important. On the downside, the global banking and financial community is now on high alert to the North Korean threat, particularly because of past significant financial successes by North Korean hackers. North Korea is vulnerable here because its hackers operate outside North Korea and are vulnerable even though these foreign locations include China, Russia and Iran.
Several months ago, the United States announced cash rewards of up to $10 million for information on members of North Korea hacking groups including Andariel, APT38, BlueNoroff, Guardians of Peace, Kimsuky, Lazarus Group and others to be named when their activities are discovered. This increases to $20 million in rewards for information of North Korean hackers.
North Korea does have allies in its battles with anti-hacking and anti-smuggling efforts. For example, recent UN efforts to impose new sanctions on North Korea for continued missile tests and preparations for more nuclear weapons tests were blocked by Russia and China. Also blocked was a proposal to add a North Korean hacker group to a hacker blacklist because the group has been hacking banks worldwide and plundering depositor accounts. The cash is used to buy and smuggle in items North Korea cannot afford or banned from importing legally. Until 2022 China and Russia supported sanctions on North Korea, especially because their borders on North Korea suffered radiation sickness and some deaths from the last round of North Korean nuclear tests. Russia is more likely to do whatever China asks because China is Russia’s trade lifeline to the outside world given all the sanctions imposed on Russia for invading Ukraine.
South Korea is a frequent target for North Korea hackers. There is a positive aspect to this. Earlier in the year South Korea became the first Asian nation to join NATO’s CCDCOE (Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence). South Korea has a lot of experience dealing with North Korean and Chinese hackers. These hacking operations have become an increasing threat to NATO nations. East Asian nations like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore, along with Australia and New Zealand, have been increasingly cooperative with NATO nations because they have a common enemy in China and its smaller sidekick Russia.
When Too Much Isn’t Enough
There is one North Korean action, nuclear weapons tests, that China and Russia sometimes agree is worth cooperating with the rest of the world in opposing. North Korea is currently preparing to conduct its seventh nuclear weapon tests. This is unpopular with everyone except the senior leadership in North Korea. For example, last year North Korea was discovered building a new camp near the uranium mines and nearby uranium concentration plant, where workers are increasingly difficult to find after a 2017 nuclear weapons test that released a lot of radiation into the atmosphere. A year later North Korea officially closed its troubled (by tunnel collapses and radiation leaks) nuclear test site in the northeast at Kilju (North Hamgyong Province). This province is largely rural and undeveloped, one reason for putting the nuclear test site there. Chinese radiation monitors on the North Korean border recorded levels were up seven percent a week after the September 3rd 2017 test and were apparently much higher in North Korea after the 2017 test. This data was released because the population along the border know that they face some health risks if radiation levels increase too much for too long. There have also been unreported accidents while digging these test tunnels. In one recent incident a tunnel construction accident in Mantapsan Mountain near Punggye-ri left a hundred workers trapped and eventually dead. Another hundred tunnel workers sent to rescue them died when a second collapse occurred. This all makes the nuclear weapons program appear to be a threat to North Koreans as well. This confirmed what a lot of workers in the uranium mines had long suspected, that decades of working in those slightly radioactive mines had long term health consequences. The government denied this. But contradictory information from foreign sources, and now the 2017 radiation disaster, made the threat real enough for a lot of miners to avoid the better paying jobs in the uranium mines. This came at a time when China was seeking more North Korean uranium ore, to be delivered despite sanctions. Obtaining North Korean uranium is one thing, suffering from weapons test radiation is not acceptable.
The United States, South Korea and Japan all agree that they will have a unified response to a seventh North Korean nuclear test. Finding a new response is difficult because North Korea has survived numerous rounds of sanctions. North Korea fears that the only option left is attacks on North Korea. This resulted in North Korea announcing in September that it now will use its nuclear weapons without warning if it believes an attack on North Korea, especially the senior leadership, is imminent. For a long time, North Korea believed that just the possession of nuclear weapons would be sufficient to intimidate hostile nations (the U.S., South Korea and Japan) to provide North Korea with economic aid or else. The potential victims of this nuclear blackmail came up with another response as in an overwhelming combined non-nuclear military response aimed primarily at North Korea leaders as well as their nuclear weapons. Since 2013 North Korea has had an “official” policy of only using its nukes to retaliate against an attacker.
So far this year North Korea has fired more missiles into the sea (at least 40) than in any previous year. More than half of these (23) were fired on one day (November 2nd). This was meant to intimidate South Korea, Japan and the United States. All these missile launches certainly alarmed the intended victims but not sufficiently to justify the cost of all these missiles, which is estimated to be nearly a hundred million dollars. On further examination it was discovered that at least one of the North Korean missiles was a seven-ton Russian S200 anti-aircraft missile. This was revealed when South Korean recovery ships recovered debris from the North Korean missiles and found it was not, strictly speaking, a ballistic missile. South Korea regularly seeks to recover debris from North Korean missiles fired into international waters. Sometimes the identifiable debris is too deep or two scattered to be found. But in the case of the S200, identifiable components were recovered. Using air defense missiles as ballistic missiles against ground targets is sometimes done. That latest example occurred in Ukraine several months ago when the Ukrainians revealed that Russia was beginning to use its 1.8-ton S300 (SA-10) SAMs as SSMs (surface to surface missiles). The allegation was based on neighboring Belarus revealing that they had recently tested S300s used as SSMs. The S300 was known to have been designed with SSM capability. That means one of the launch options includes SSM mode. There are two major limitations to using a SAM as an SSM. One is accuracy at longer ranges. Russian SAMs are guided to the target using a ground-based targeting radar that guides the S300 to aerial targets up to 150 kilometers away. SAMs are programmed to self-destruct if they miss their target so that the missile and its small (100-200 kg) warhead does not land on friendly territory. Used as an SSM the self-destruct is disabled and the guidance system aims the missile at a ground location, but with less accuracy than against aerial targets. Russia has apparently modified the SSM option to include a GPS option that directs the SAM to a specific ground location. The GPS option works, but not as accurately as expected. Ukraine believes that the Russians were running out of SSM missiles and using S300s as SSMs because there is not much need for their SAM capabilities, especially with the more recent and capable S400 now available. The Ukrainian prediction was apparently correct.
The Ukrainian incident was based on recent events involving SAMs as SSMs. Israel had some recent experience with this when a Syrian S200 missile was deliberately used against a military facility deep inside Israel. This took place in early 2021 when a missile from Syria landed a few kilometers from the Israeli Dimona nuclear research center. There was no damage because Dimona is 300 kilometers south of the Syrian border in a rural desert area. First thoughts were that this was another Iranian attempt to carry out some credible revenge for the recent Mossad operation that destroyed the underground Natanz nuclear fuel enrichment facility. If this was a deliberate missile attack, it failed, but it meant Israel spends a lot of money firing expensive ABM (anti-ballistic-missile) missiles at more Syrian anti-aircraft missiles that cross the border either accidentally or on purpose. Israel is trying to solve this problem by modifying its ABM fire control software to discriminate between the trajectories of SAMs that are not headed for civilian or military targets and those that are. The Israeli Iron Dome system has long used such a method to only shoot down targets headed for targets that must be defended.
Initial examination of the impact area debris near Dimona revealed it was a S200 (SA-5) SAM, a SAM that had been accidently landing for years after missing intended aircraft targets. For example, in 2017 Israel used an Arrow 3 anti-missile missile to intercept a Syrian S200 that had been fired at Israeli jets bombing a target in eastern Syria near Palmyra. Apparently several S200s missed the Israeli jets and instead of detonating anyway, as these missiles are programmed to do, continued into Israeli air space and an Arrow 3 ABM missile was fired just in case the incoming threat was a ballistic missile. At the time it was suspected that Syria might have deliberately modified some of their seven-ton S200 missiles to operate as surface-to-surface missiles. This has been done before with Russian SAMs, usually as an unofficial (and crude) modification by Arab users.
There have been several existing SAMs with a built-in surface-to-surface mode. This was done for the U.S. Nike-Hercules SAMs that entered service in the 1960s and some are still around. Other users of the Nike-Hercules (like Taiwan and South Korea) improved this SSM option and produced an accurate, if expensive, surface-to-surface short range ballistic missile. The Nike-Hercules was designed for potential use as a surface-to-surface weapon. The U.S. Navy has added a SSM capability to their SM-6 SAM and recently tested it successfully against stationary targets. This mod is meant to give SM-6 an anti-ship missile capability. Earlier U.S. Navy SAMs also had this SSM capability.
November 15, 2022: North Korea has withdrawn one of its special operations battalions from the Chinese border because a growing number of soldiers and officers in the unit were suspected of border guard related corruption. It was in early 2020 that Kim Jong Un, in a desperate move to seal the Chinese border, began sending thousands of elite special operations troops to the border because all other types of troops and secret police detachments had failed. Most of the 200,000 North Korean special operations troops belong to the 11th Storm Corps. These are largely light infantry that train intensively to master one special skill. There are twelve light infantry brigades, three sniper brigades, three airborne brigades and a marine brigade. The most elite units are the 25 reconnaissance battalions, most of them trained to sneak through the DMZ and make surprise attacks early in a war.
As Kim Jong Un ordered more and more Strom Corps troops to the Chinese border in 2020, it became painfully obvious that these units were not as special as described. Years of less food and less time for intensive training became apparent on the Chinese border where Strom Corps patrols were often sloppy and there were obvious discipline problems. In the last decade, even the special operations troops have lost much of their specialness. Only about 20 percent of these troops retain their “special” skill levels. That does not exempt them from the electricity shortages and the knowledge that the rest of the military, and most North Koreans in general, are in worse shape.
The decline has been going on for some time. In 2010 the government began providing special food bonuses for their secret police and special operations troops. The latter force has been increased from 120,000 to 200,000 since 2004, These elite troops have to be well fed, and kept loyal, to be effective. The rest of the military began getting less food from government supplies and were ordered to spend more time farming or being rented out to commercial firms. Foreign food donors noted that the hungriest North Koreans were not getting a lot of the food aid sent. Much of it was diverted to the military or sold to raise cash for the government. The donors understood that the North Korean government, as a communist police state, would look after its own interests first and make sure the security forces were fed first. That was one of the reasons less free food aid was offered to North Korea.
Without the extra food and other necessities, the special operations troops lost a major incentive to do their job. On the Chinese border, with all the temptations to make a lot of money and improve your diet, many troops of one battalion became particularly notorious for their financial self-improvement activities.
November 14, 2022: In South Korea, there were more covid19 cases in a week than any other nation in the region. Covid19 deaths, however, were very low, even lower than the death rate in early 2020. The current outbreak is the result of the end of shutdowns and the appearance of new covid19 variants that are less lethal but spread faster.
November 13, 2022: South Korea has agreed to supply the United States with 155mm artillery shells and other munitions with the understanding that the United States would ship any of it to Ukraine. That works because the U.S. has sent much, but not all, of its 155mm artillery shells to Ukraine. Sending any more would leave the U.S. with insufficient quantities to deal with a crisis in another part of the world, like South Korea if North Korea attacks. The U.S. produces 155mm shells, but an annual rate that is unable to replace recent shipments to Ukraine. All Western nations that produce these munitions are increasing production to deal with the Ukrainian demand. South Korea is a major manufacturer of 155mm shells because of the threat from North Korea.
November 12, 2022: North Korea agreed to sell 152mm artillery shells and large caliber unguided rockets to Russia but insisted on doing so indirectly, delivering the munitions via third countries where North Korea and Russia both had trading relationships. Western governments are trying to find out where this is being done and how much ammo North Korea is providing. Ukraine has not publicized finding North Korean made ammo being used against them. That may be because the North Korean ammo has not reached units in Ukraine yet or not enough has arrived in Ukraine to be detectable, usually by examining fragments of shells or rockets that detonated or intact munitions that failed to explode.
October 31, 2022: In provinces along the Chinese border the government has been cracking down on “grasshopper”, street merchants who offer goods that are in short supply and often sell at lower prices than the state-run stores charge. The grasshopper vendors had a lot more popular support than the police and that made it easier for the vendors to gather a crowd of local civilians to confront, or even attack, the police. This was not surprising. Police have long shown a willingness to carry out orders to shut down illegal merchants operating near legal markets. The grasshoppers avoid paying fees or bribes and are often working a second job while still officially employed in a state-owned operation (like a farm) that needs him in the fields, not an illegal (but more lucrative) second job. The grasshoppers rarely resisted the police, but since 2020 they do because it’s a matter of life or death for them and their customers.
October 28, 2022: North Korea is preparing to implement new emergency quarantine efforts in case a new covid19 variant gets across the border.
October 26, 2022: North Korea resumed freight train service with China a month ago. Initially, most of the imported cargo consisted of construction materials and medical supplies. During the last few weeks more of the cargo has been food, which is less available this year because of poor harvests.
October 20, 2022: North Korea recently replaced its radio signal detectors along the Chinese border with upgraded equipment. It remains to be seen because North Koreans continue to find ways to use Chinese cell phones to call outside North Korea from border areas where you can get a signal from Chinese cell towers. In 2020 the government brought in more cell phone detectors and more trustworthy security officials. Many of these elite guards succumbed to bribes, to the point where bribes were offered to get assigned to border duty. Rotating new border security personnel more frequently was expensive and had little impact because the word was out that a border guard could get rich up there by catching people using Chinese cell phones and demanding bribes. That business is not as lucrative as it used to be because covid19 restrictions have fewer people on the border with Chinese cell phones or much cash for bribes. Now that covid19 restrictions have been lifted more Chinese business travelers are back in North Korea and many are offering to rent their cell phones for fixed periods. Prices are high, to cover the post of possible bribes or phone confiscation and payable in American or Chinese currency. Dollars are preferred. More Chinese commercial visitors also bring more Chinese cell phones for sale, again, North Korean currency not accepted. These phones are in demand because North Koreans find that renting them is lucrative and are relatively risk-free. After years of efforts and millions of dollars’ worth of expensive Western cell phone detectors, cross-border calls are still a regular occurrence. Most of the calls are about business or family matters but enough of them involve gossip so that the outside world can keep up on North Korean internal affairs and North Koreans know what is really happening in the outside world.
October 15, 2022: A soldier on night duty along the Chinese border was found sleeping by an officer assigned to check for such misbehavior. The soldier had recently been conscripted and had not only fallen asleep but was intoxicated. All this angered the officer, who beat the soldier. Such physical assaults are not unusual but it this case the victim died. Other soldiers nearby rushed to the scene and witnessed the young soldier fall unconscious. The officer was arrested and the young soldier later died. This caused local civilians to openly criticize the army for such behavior. Such criticism is a problem because there is more and more of it and the army is suffering from a manpower shortage. Conscription is unpopular in North Korea and was recently reduced from nine or ten years to eight for new male conscripts. North Korea does not want to reduce the size of its military because of the shortage of new recruits. Initially they extended the time conscripts serve to as many as 12 years. This made military service even more unpopular. Morale and readiness have suffered and more young men avoided conscription. For those recently conscripted, there are often opportunities to desert, especially for those selected for guard duty along the Chinese border. A growing number of these troops simply go to China. This encourages more North Koreans to dodge the draft. This is more difficult to do in the north but if you have enough money to bribe the conscription officials it can be done. Another reason for evading the draft is that having served is no longer an asset in getting a good government job. Over the last decade bribes have become the key factor. More and more draft age North Koreans and their families have noted this and fewer young men are available for the army. The bribes often involve false documents showing that the young man was physically unfit for service. There were other ways to document lack of availability and conscription officials were making a lot of money at a time where that sort of thing was often a necessity for family survival. Meanwhile the state of the armed forces grows worse, mainly because of food shortages. Desertions are up as are the percentage of new conscripts physically unfit for service. The desertions include border guards, who are supposed to receive adequate food supplies but don’t and most of them are simply leaving their weapons behind and wading or swimming across the river into China.
October 14, 2022: In North Korea (Yanggang Province) the profit-sharing arrangement with donju (entrepreneurs) to run state owned retail shops in return for a share of the profits would end in November. Donju managers were ordered to just walk away, abandoning improvements they had made (with their own money) in the shops. Goods purchased by the donju were also to be left behind. The donju are quietly removing goods they bought for the shops. This order was made by local officials who saw an opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of the donju and local consumers. Provincial authorities have a lot of power in such matters and in some provinces that power is abused. These officials are appointed, not elected but the victims of such abuse remember and that makes it more difficult to establish similar programs in the future that solve problems the local officials could not deal with.