Korea: Some Things Never Change


September 15, 2010: North Koreans are becoming more outspoken in their criticism of Kim Jong Il, cursing him in public. This occurs most frequently in places hit hard by the recent floods. But now, the first Party Delegates’ Conference in three decades has been called, but an exact date has not been set. That's because Kim Jong Il is in poor health. He had a stroke two years ago, never really recovered, and is now declining. The latest word is that the conference will go forward, soon. Apparently the conference is to announce that Kim Jong Il has chosen his youngest son, Kim Jong Un to be his successor. This is not popular with many in the North Korean leadership. But Kim Jong Il's recent trip to China apparently got China's backing for the succession.  What bothers many about Kim Jong Un is the speed with which he is being prepared to take over (less than two years). Kim Jong Il spent sixteen years being groomed to take charge, and even then, it was a shaky business. Kim Jong Un is in his late 20s, and in East Asia, national leaders are expected to be at least twice as old. Then again, Kim Jong Un may be the guy to make big changes up north, as he is young and unpredictable.

In the meantime, the police are preventing farmers from getting their rice to markets. For something like a major government conference, security is tightened and traffic is scrutinized and harassed. Thus at a time when rice prices should be falling, they are rising. North Koreans are blaming Kim Jong Il, and police are not bothering to arrest anyone. A decade ago, saying anything rude about Kim Jong Il would mean arrest and a trip (often one-way) to a prison camp. Now, even the police have been heard muttering dissatisfaction with the government. Moreover, all of Korea is unhappy with this seeking of approval from China for a new national leader. For over a thousand years, the Chinese emperors insisted, often with an invasion, that they had to approve major political changes in Korea. And throughout this period, Korea was split into two or more kingdoms. Some things never change, and Koreans don't like it.

The new banking sanctions against North Korea are uncovering secret accounts in many (at least 14) countries. Several of these accounts are for "Department 39" (Kim Jong Il's personal fortune.) The accounts are being blocked, making it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for Kim Jong Il to access some of the billions of dollars he is believed to have stashed overseas. He uses this money to buy goodies for his key followers. So now, even the North Korean elite are feeling the pinch, which is what the new sanctions were meant to do.

North Korea has launched yet another "offensive" against illegal drugs. Since the late 1990s, pharmacists and other medical personnel have been manufacturing methamphetamines, and selling the stuff to Chinese dealers across the border. This was a vital source of income in an area, and time, where starvation is an ever present danger. But in the last few years, more and more of the methamphetamines have been sold inside North Korea, to the children of the ruling class. Angry, and very influential, parents, are the main cause of the current crackdown. Most of the methamphetamines are produced in towns near the Chinese border, but distributors have been found in the capital, and some other major cities. Many of those caught are executed. The government is also cracking down on underground churches, executing any clergy or church leaders they can find.

Wholesalers inside North Korea are pricing all their goods in dollars, mainly because the North Korean government has flooded the economy with won (the North Korean currency) in the aftermath of last year's disastrous currency revaluation (which wiped out the savings of traders). In terms of won, rice now costs more than 40 times what it went for before last Fall's revaluation. People have more cash to buy rice, but not that much more. The official exchange rate for the dollar is 100 won per dollar. But on the open market it's 1,500 won. In effect, the won has become worthless for foreign trade, while inflation is out of control. China is a major trading partner, and is demanding dollars, not won, for payment.  

September 14, 2010: South Korea has joined in the new sanctions against Iran, and South Korean firms are halting shipments of things like automobiles and machinery. This will hurt the South Korean economy (but not a lot), and force the Iranians to get needed goods elsewhere (probably from China, who provides lower quality goods at about the same price.)

About a hundred former North Korean soldiers, who escaped to South Korea, held a public demonstration in the South Korean capital, where they announced a campaign to use cell phone connections along the North Korea/China border, to connect with current North Korea soldiers and organize a revolution against the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. The demonstration included a simulated firing squad executing someone dressed up as Kim Jong Il. This scheme may not work, but it does scare already nervous North Korean leaders.

September 13, 2010: In response to a rare North Korean call for aid (because of recent floods), South Korea said it would send 5,000 tons of rice and 10,000 tons of cement (for rebuilding). In response, North Korea offered to resume negotiations regarding reuniting families split by the 1950-53 Korean war.  This generosity was facilitated by unofficial, and secret, meetings between officials from the north and south since late last month. Despite its bombast, the north is in a bad way, economically and politically. Four years ago, South Korea sent 100,000 tons of rice for similar floods. Now, the food situations is worse, and even soldiers are not being fed regularly. Aid donors are angry at how the North Korean government does not distribute food to the starving, instead stockpiling it for the military or selling it in markets or to China.

September 8, 2010: In an unusual move, North Korea publicly asked for foreign nations to provide food, and other aid, to assist the thousands of North Koreans made homeless by recent floods. Most foreign aid had been cut off, partly at the request of North Korea (in an attempt to show they didn't need it), and partly as a result of a South Korean warship being sunk by a North Korean submarine last March.

September 1, 2010: North Korea announced closer military ties with China. This was apparently one of the things Kim Jong Il discussed during his recent trip to China, along with succession matters (getting assent for his son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him). China is the protector of North Korea, especially if there is a widespread outbreak of civil disorder. North Koreans are very unhappy these days, and getting angrier as more things go wrong. China is urging North Korea to allow a market economy, and Kim Jong Il may have agreed to do that, in return for Chinese protection for his government, and his heir, Kim Jong Un. But the North Korean economy may be too far gone for a simple switch to market economics (freedom to establish businesses). China has apparently suggested allowing Chinese firms to invest in North Korea, and run companies, without any interference from the North Korean government.

August 30, 2010: Areas of North Korea were hit by heavy rains in the last few weeks, which led to flooding. At least 7,000 homes were destroyed, and thousands of tons of food crops.

August 26, 2010: One of Japan's four spy satellites, and its only radar satellite, stopped working. These four satellites were developed and launched in the last decade to better keep an eye on North Korea and China.

August 25, 2010: Kim Jong Il made another trip to China, his second in three months. There was no publicity. More unusual was the fact that his train passed through Manpo, on a freight only line that his private train has never used before. There are only three rail lines between North Korea and China, and the other two carry passengers and freight. Kim Jong Il spent nearly a week in China, an unusually long stay.





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