April 28, 2012: Russia and China are trying to get North Korea to calm down but the government there continues to be unpredictable and self-destructive. China is trying to rescue North Korea's decrepit economy with a program that allows Chinese companies to set up and run operations there. While China has the clout (threat of invasion or backing a coup) to force the North Korean's to leave the Chinese companies alone, this has not stopped the North Koreans from trying to extort or steal from the Chinese firms. Russia, which created North Korea, backed away after the Soviet Union dissolved (in 1991) and Russian financial support for North Korea ended. But the two countries are still neighbors, and as the Russian economy bounced back from the post-Soviet collapse there have been efforts to invest in North Korea. In particular, Russia wants to build a natural gas pipeline through North Korea to supply the much larger South Korean market. Similarly, Russia wants to extend its railroad network (which can reach the huge West European markets) into South Korea. But the North Koreans are so unreliable that a deal with the Russians has not been possible, yet.
It's the economic disaster created by the North Korean dictatorship that worries the Russians and Chinese most. The starvation and privation means the entire ramshackle North Korean state could collapse and leave the neighbors facing a flood of refugees. The DMZ enables South Korea some opportunity to control refugee movement but the borders with China and Russia are more open. So these two countries have been desperately searching for a way to sort out the situation in North Korea. One result of this has been occasional agreement between Russia, China, America, Japan, and South Korea over North Korea. Everyone agrees that North Korea should not have nuclear weapons and does not need all those ballistic missiles, or a million man army. North Korea needs to pay more attention to the needs of its people, but the North Korean leadership doesn't agree. The North Korean leaders are not stupid but they are scared. They now must fear a pro-China coup by officers and officials who would go along with the Chinese free-market economic (as China has used for the last few decades) solution. This coup threat looms larger every year, but so far no one has pulled the trigger. An example of how real coup fears are in the north can be seen by the rumors that quickly appeared after the failed April 13 missile launch, saying that the missile was sabotaged by government factions that opposed Kim Jong Un and his refusal to adopt Chinese style economic reforms. These rumors also speculated that several other economic disasters, like growing electricity shortages and water supply failures (nothing comes out of the tap, mainly because there is no power to run the pumps) throughout the country (even in the capital).
Meanwhile, the North Korean government continues its attempts to extort economic aid from its neighbors and the West. Over a decade of threats and extortion has turned off the donors and the free food and fuel is not coming. This time around the north has increased the frequency and intensity of the threats, especially those directed at South Korea. This year seems likely to be filled with hunger and economic stagnation up north. That's not good but it's not unusual up there either.
The North Koreans are upset that their usual press releases, threatening war and massive destruction, are increasingly ignored or mocked. The North Koreans do occasionally get violent when they are ignored but never anywhere near as violent as they threaten to get. The North Koreans have been making these threats for decades and refuse to believe that the world is just tired of it. More ominously, the usual victims (South Korea, the United States, and Japan) have made it clear that if the North Koreans try anything violent again there will be quick retaliation and a lot of it.
This disregard for North Korean threats was spotlighted when missile experts examined the photos of the new long-range missile shown during the April 15th parade (on what appeared to be a Chinese made vehicle). Details of the missile did not make sense, and some missile experts declared that it was not real but a mock-up created for propaganda purposes. That would not be anything new for the North Koreans, who boast of their prowess at deception.
Another surprise from the April 15th parade was the origin of the 16 wheel TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher) carrying what appeared to be a three stage ballistic missile. A TEL is an unusual vehicle, specially built to carry, then erect and survive the launch of a ballistic missile. The North Korean TEL was unlike any seen in the north before but the cab was similar to a Chinese heavy transporter. A Chinese truck manufacturer soon admitted that they had sold North Korea the vehicle but that it was not a TEL, unless the North Koreans turned it into one. The truck was designed to haul non-military cargo but, as is the case with many "dual-use" technologies, can easily be adapted to military use. The Chinese manufacturer added that the truck in question was an excellent vehicle and there were many satisfied users. Large trucks modified to be TELs are often not real TELs. There are a lot of manufacturers out there who build huge (12-20 wheel) trucks, and these are often used to carry military equipment (like 60 ton tanks). A 12-50 ton ballistic missile is no problem but installing the hydraulic gear and controls to erect the missile to a vertical position is tricky. Even more difficult is hardening the rear of the vehicle to minimize the damage from the rocket exhaust. This last bit can be dropped if you only expect to use these TELs once for a live fire. The 16 wheel North Korean TEL may have been one of those "use once and abandon the trailer" models.
The Chinese truck being used as a TEL was not the only new Chinese truck to show up in North Korea lately. In the last few months cell phone photos appeared of Chinese made jeeps being shipped (by rail) into North Korea. These were apparently to be part of the distribution (of gifts) for the April 15th celebrations. The thousand or so jeeps were gifts from new leader Kim Jong Un to select military officers. In the past year China has sold (or given) North Korea some 4,000 military trucks. These were not sold as military equipment but as trucks (that were often seen being shipped across the border already painted in the colors of the North Korean Army).
So far this year over 50,000 have died of starvation in North Korea. To keep the death toll down the government has ordered the military to provide food from the military food reserves in areas where many civilians were near death. But the troops have been going hungry as well (but not starving) in the last few years in order to maintain the military food reserves. These are the "rainy day" food stores, and once gone, the government has nothing to use for emergencies. The reserves were also dipped into to provide the food "distributions" that accompanied the recent centennial celebration of founder Kim Il Sungs birth. Such food distributions always accompany national celebrations, if only to put the people in a celebratory mood. Even the military is suffering now, and families have been encouraged (often via threats by local officials) to send packages of food and other goodies to kin in the military. If morale collapses in the military the North Korean government is doomed.
Iran has sent 65 tons of food aid. Iran has long been a customer for North Korean missiles and missile technology. The failure of the North Korean April 13 satellite launch was seen as a defeat for Iran, which is still dependent on North Korean missile technology. That's one thing that North Korea can still export, as the tech can be put in a USB memory stick and moved via diplomats.
April 23, 2012: In northeast North Korea, on the Chinese border, two border guards opened fire on other border guards, killing at least six of them and then fleeing into China. The Chinese police issued public warnings in the area (Changbai county) to be careful, as the two North Korean border guards were considered armed and dangerous. Armed North Korean soldiers, police, and border guards fleeing into China is becoming increasingly common. These men often become armed robbers and cause more anti-Korean sentiments in China.
April 20, 2012: Japan said it would not impose new sanctions on North Korea, in part because there are few sanctions left. Japan, like most other neighbors of North Korea, has imposed just about all possible sanctions. The North Korean government ignores them and continues threatening retaliation as they slide into an economic abyss.
April 19, 2012: In response to the April 13th North Korean attempt to launch a satellite using a long-range ballistic missile, South Korea released a video showing launches of an unidentified South Korean cruise missile and a ballistic missile. The cruise missile was apparently the Hyunmoo 3, the ballistic missile remains unidentified. This was meant to show North Korea that the south had weapons that could reach anywhere in the north. The video was also meant to reassure South Korean voters, who are increasingly fed up with northern belligerence. South Korea is usually secretive about its battlefield missiles. Three years ago South Korean media reported that a new cruise missile, with a range of 1,000 kilometers, had secretly entered production in 2008. The missile, called Hyunmoo 3, has since been superseded by the Hyunmoo 3C missile, which has a range of 1,500 kilometers and is being deployed along the North Korean border, aimed at ballistic missile, nuclear weapons, and other strategic targets to the north. For the last 30 years the United States has been discouraging South Korea from developing long range ballistic and cruise missiles. This was done to try and halt an arms race with North Korea, but the north never took the hint. Meanwhile, the U.S. assured the south that America would show up for the fight if the north attacked. Despite American opposition, South Korea began developing, but not mass-producing, ballistic missiles in the 1970s. South Korea certainly has the technical expertise and manufacturing capability to produce a more modern ballistic missile with a range of 300 kilometers, as was shown in the recent video. South Korea has signed an international treaty agreeing to not build ballistic missiles with a range greater than 300 kilometers, but public opinion in the south is calling for that limit to be broken, in order to make all of North Korea vulnerable to ballistic missile attack from the south.
April 18, 2012: Satellite photos (available from commercial photo satellites) show that work in North Korea continues on a third nuclear test. North Korea really hasn't got an effective nuclear bomb design yet. The current design has apparently been tweaked and needs to be tested. Two years ago a deep tunnel was seen being dug for a third nuclear test, apparently for 2011. That didn't happen, but earlier this month South Korean intelligence noted that work had resumed on that tunnel and has continued. So another nuclear test seems possible. Even if that one is successful, it would be several years before a militarily useful weapon was available. The third test could take place this month because the tunnel work appears largely done.
North Korea declared that its agreement to halt nuclear weapons development was over, mainly because the U.S. said it would not ship the promised food because of the April 13th North Korea ballistic missile test.
April 17, 2012: In the north the government has turned over control of border guards to the NSA (National Security Agency, the secret police). This came despite the fact that six months ago some senior officials of the NSA were arrested for taking bribes to enable people to escape to China. This was unprecedented, as the NSA was considered the ultimate guardian of the North Korean government. But for the last few years a growing number of rumors described many NSA officials as "approachable" (could be bribed). Ten months ago North Korea sent agents from two competing agencies (military intelligence and the NSA) to help fight corruption along the border. The agents were ordered to watch their rivals for signs of someone being bribed. Apparently, Kim Jong Un now believes that the NSA has been sufficiently purged (the purgees are usually executed). NSA agents have been far more diligent in the last few months, looking for traitors (cell phone owners, potential defectors, and traders selling goods above the government mandated prices). The new authority of the NSA gives them an edge when competing (to find people to send to labor camps) with military intelligence and police investigators. Kim Jong Un is known to be friends with several senior NSA officials. But this new responsibility spreads the NSA thin, especially with so many of their members succumbing to corruption.