South Korea has become a major manufacturer and exporter of modern weapons. Because of the war in Ukraine, its weapons sales have more than doubled this year ($17 billion as of November) compared to 2021 ($7.2 billion). Most of the increased weapon’s orders were from NATO countries supplying the Ukrainian military effort with modern weapons. In 20### South Korea was the eighth largest arms exporter in the world. For 2022 South Korea will move to fourth place. South Korea weapons are seen as comparable to what the U.S. and European nations produce, but cheaper and available more quickly. South Korea exports tanks, artillery, guided missiles (like the U.S. HIMARS/GMLRS), aircraft and warships (including submarines). South Korea began developing this capability in the 1990s to supply its own forces with more advanced weapons than North Korea owns. For over a decade South Korea has been seeking export sales and was seen as a ready source for modern weapons when the Ukraine War began in February.
North Korea obtained more modest (worth less than a billion dollars) munitions orders from Russia. Because of that, North Korea has been able to import a lot more food from Russia. This has been going on since October. The food arrives by train and in addition to grain, for the first time Russian cooking oil, cheese and butter was coming in. The cooking oil was made available to the general population but the cheese and butter was reserved for the military. North Korea also imports refined petroleum products and LPG (Liquefied petroleum gas). Most of the fuel goes to the capital and the military.
Since October North Korean ammunition factories have been working overtime (three shifts a day, every day) to produce artillery, mortar shells and grenades. These munitions are usually shipped in their long-term storage containers because they were part of the army munitions reserve. The military normally uses its older munitions first. This new production was shipped for immediate use and these munitions were apparently going to Russia via the Trans-Siberian railroad. International sanctions on North Korea prohibit the export of munitions or weapons, so it all goes by rail from North Korea to Russia and all the way to the borders of Ukraine. The Trans-Siberian rail line has not been maintained well or upgraded during the last two decades and that often leads to delays, which some of the North Korean munitions shipments are experiencing.
Despite that, the Russians are paying for the munitions with increased exports to North Korea of food and fuel, all of which also goes by the Trans-Siberian railroad. The thousands of additional workers hired by the North Korea munitions factories are also supplied with more food and fuel to keep production going. It is not known how long these munitions ordered from Russia will last but the payments in food fuel arrive at a time when they are needed. Experienced workers are needed and the government offers three- or four-month contracts to former or retired men with experience in munitions manufacturing. Over the last few years production had been reduced and many workers lost their jobs. The military needed food and fuel, not additional munitions. The Russians wanted recently produced munitions, not older items from the North Korea war reserves. Some of the war reserve munitions are over a decade old and not as reliable as new production.
Exports to Russia, usually coal, are sent by ship. North Korea is also sending more workers to Russia but not all of them are for enterprises in the Russian Far East, instead going to Russian-occupied portions of Ukraine where the local Ukrainian and Russian men are being conscripted into the Russian army. Many North Korean workers are also going to other areas in Russia where there are labor shortages.
North Korea has long provided workers to Russia, where they are better fed and housed than in North Korea and paid well. The North Korean government keeps most of the wages but enough is passed on to worker’s families to make foreign work tolerable to families. The several thousand workers needed for service in Ukraine and Western Russia are working on two-year contracts and able to keep more of their pay for their families. Even with the better pay, the longer contracts and work in a combat zone discouraged a lot of North Koreans from applying for these jobs. Usually, the government can be selective in selecting men for work in Russia. With these new contracts the government had to accept men who normally would not be considered because they were single and seen as less politically reliable. Those rules have been waived and the first contingent, selected in early November, is already in Russia and two more groups are being processed.
Most North Koreans are going hungry and more are dying from epidemic diseases (covid19, influenza) as well as starvation. North Korea lavishes money on nuclear weapons and missiles while failing to take care of the general population. South Koreans continue to be far better off and that is not going unnoticed in North Korea, where a growing number of people are risking imprisonment or execution by obtaining and viewing videos of South Korea films and TV shows.
December 18, 2022: North Korea launched two more medium range ballistic missiles from the east coast. North Korea later reported that the two missiles each carried a prototype of a new spy satellite. North Korea released two low-resolution satellite photos of the North Korea capital and Inchon, the port near the South Korean capital. North Korea claims its final version of its spy satellite will be ready for launch in April 2023. Today’s activity was the first North Korean missile launch for December. So far this year North Korea has fired more missiles into the sea (at least 42) 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.
December 17, 2022: Japan announced that over the next five years it is gradually increasing its defense budget from one percent of GDP to two percent. That means the 2027 defense budget will be about $73 billion, the third largest after the United States and China. Russia currently spends more than that because they are at war in Ukraine. This Russian spending is temporary because much of it is borrowed money and unless the economic sanctions on Russia (because of the war) are lifted, sustaining that high defense spending is not possible. For Japan, most of the additional defense spending is being spent on missiles for retaliating against North Korea, Russia or China. This counter strike capability is a major change in Japanese defense strategy. South Korea sees this as a welcome but worrying change in Japanese defense policy. There is some concern that Japan might be too aggressive in reacting to a possible threat. Both Koreas are still angry at
Japan because Korea was a brutally treated Japanese possession from 1910 to 1945. The four decades of Japanese occupation were very cruel. Think how bad the Nazi occupation of conquered countries was during World War II and realize that the Japanese occupation of Korea was much worse and for much longer. The Japanese don’t help with their post-World War II attitude that Japan was a victim because it was forced into World War II by evil Westerners and was only trying to help its neighbors by occupying them and treating them badly. Japanese have a hard time understanding how their victims don’t appreciate all that Japan tried to do for them. What the foreigners do remember is what the Japanese did to them, something the Japanese tend to downplay or deny outright.
December 14, 2022: In North Korea the government declared a week of mourning in observance of the deaths of Kim Jong Il on December 18 2011. Kim Jong Il was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Um. The government ordered two of those mourning days to include no drinking of alcohol or entertainment of any kind. Violators will be punished.
December 12, 2022: Because of the North Korean censorship it took a while for news and videos of the widespread protests in China against the covid 19 lockdowns. Many North Koreans were surprised at this because Chinese are better off economically than North Koreans and China is supposed to be able to suppress large scale protests. Some North Koreans talked among themselves about similar demonstrations in North Korea but none acted on it.
December 10, 2022: In North Korea, an air force officer responsible for founding a unit that maintained and operated UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) was executed when a surprise inspection in October found four UAVs were inoperable because of poor maintenance. Enlisted airmen of the unit complained that the government never provided sufficient resources to enable the unit to maintain and operate all the UAVs they had. Commanders had to improvise to keep as many UAVs as possible. These UAVs were equipped with explosives and meant to be used as cruise missiles against South Korean targets. The government decided to kill the officer rather than take responsibility for resource shortages that were leaving much military equipment and weapons in bad shape and often inoperable.
December 9, 2022: The frigid North Korean winter season has started and two years of covid19 shutdowns have left many North Koreans without enough money to buy fuel (usually coal) or warm clothing. Many rural people can barely buy enough food and starvation deaths have already occurred. Coal is more expensive because so much of it is being illegally exported for hard currency to keep weapons programs going. Provincial officials report more homeless people living on the street or simply searching for food scraps. More orphaned or abandoned children are seen begging on the streets. There are supposed to be orphanages for these kids but there is not enough space for the growing number of children on the streets. The homeless often gather near train stations in the evening where they can take shelter from the weather in unheated spaces.
December 6, 2022: North Korea fired another hundred artillery shells from its east coast to waters near the maritime boundary with South Korea.
December 5, 2022: North Korea fired about 130 artillery shells from its east coast to waters near the maritime boundary with South Korea. This was a protest against joint U.S.-South Korea military training exercises.
December 4, 2022: Avian influenza showed up in several North Korean provinces where a lot of chickens and other birds are raised for food. The meat is often sold to restaurants and the military. Normally when the birds get sick they are killed and destroyed. That was not done in some locations because of food and money shortages. It was believed there were so many other diseases out there that bird flu would not be noticed and traced back to the source.
December 3, 2022: Poland has purchased an unspecified number of South Korean K239 system rocket launchers and guided rockets. These have been in use since 2015. K239 is similar to HIMARS and uses two sizes of guided rockets (239mm and 400mm) which have ranges of 80 km and 290 km. South Korea based its K239 on GMLRS and HIMARS, which they were familiar with. Poland is also buying GMLRS/HIMARS.
November 30, 2022: A family of four in rural (Yanggang Province) North Korea committed suicide when the parents concluded that they and their two young children would starve to death. Many school age children in Yanggang Province have been staying away from school because school administrators are demanding money from families to buy fuel. These demands have been going on since early October. Schools were previously provided with fuel to heat classrooms from the government and the organizations where the parents worked. That has ceased this year because of shortages of cash to buy fuel.
November 26, 2022: Two North Korea n college students were prosecuted for watching South Korean movies and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Some 500 of their fellow students were ordered to attend the trial. These films are smuggled into North Korea on memory cards and quietly distributed.