Korea: The Kids Are Not All Right


November 2, 2010: Ominous signs in the north. Open criticism is more apparent every day. For example, it's become popular to change the lyrics in approved popular songs, to deliver an anti-government message. Even children's songs are getting new lyrics, usually making fun of the ruling Kim family (usually describing them all as greedy and stupid). If the secret police catch kids singing this stuff, they often beat them, adults caught using the new lyrics can go to jail. The anti-Kim activity has increased as the North Korean propaganda praising Kim Jong Un has increased. Hardly anyone up there believes the praise heaped on the young heir. But the jails are filling up with people caught writing anti-Kim graffiti, telling anti-Kim jokes or singing anti-Kim songs. Police commanders have been told to put priority on economic crimes (black market, smuggling) and espionage (which can be interpreted as having an illegal cell phone). There are so many things up north that are crimes. What's a cop to do?

Despite the looming famine and spreading shortages of everything, there has been an increase in work on the ruling Kim family estates in the north. The Kims have over thirty palace size homes, and even more smaller ones. Over a $100 million year is spent on building and maintaining them. Because Kim Jong Il does not like to fly, all must be reachable by rail, meaning railroad lines have to be built to even the most remote of these official residences. Local people are drafted into working, for free, on these projects, alongside thousands of soldiers.

This forced labor is unpopular, and news of how unhappy people are about is getting out of the country. Regional, especially South Korean, news organizations are sending people to China, to the North Korean border, to work with North Koreans recruited and trained to record (on tiny vidcams) and report (often via illegal Chinese cell phones) what they see. Those reporters caught, can be killed. But there is no shortage of volunteers. Meanwhile, news is still tightly controlled in North Korea, and it's easier for outsiders to find out what's happening in North Korea than for many North Koreans.

Kim Jong Ils 39 year old eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, lives in exile, in China, and rarely visits North Korea. But he apparently keeps in touch with many inside North Korea, and believes that the government is near collapse. He doesn't hold press conferences to announce this, but does speak freely about it.

Kim Jong Ils youngest son, and heir apparent, 29 year old Kim Jon Un is reported to have agreed with Chinese officials, while visiting China recently with his dad, that North Korea's priority should be "food, not bullets." This has long been heresy in the north, and Kim Jong Il won't say it, but many North Koreans will, and now so does the crown prince.

The North Korea government, apparently recognizing the growing desperation of their situation, are now offering to negotiate economic and arms reduction deals. That's not a lot, because the North Koreans tend to lie and cheat when making these deals. But it's something.

While children in the north are painfully thin, with over a third of them undernourished (and many of those actually starving), the opposite is happening in the south. There, 14 percent of the kids are overweight. The percentage of southern children who are overweight is increasing about a percent a year (as in going from 11, to 12, to 13 and 14 percent). The widespread affluence and access to fast Internet access, has created high rates of addiction to online video games. Thus the kids are not getting as much exercise as they used to, and increased consumption of sweets means more dental problems. The kids may be fatter, but they are also fewer in number. Like other wealthy nations, South Korea's birth rate is below the replacement level (1.24 per woman). It's 1.85 in the north, and the world average is 2.52. Only one other nation (Bosnia) has a lower birth rate that South Korea. At the current rate, the South Korean population will decline from 48.5 million now to 44.07 million in 30 years, and eventually disappear.

As South Korea continues to plan for the collapse of the communist government in the north (and negotiate with China over who will take over, and how) they are encountering some pretty difficult social problems. This was recently highlighted when a survey of North Korean refugees, living in South Korea, revealed that 30 percent of them would like to leave South Korea and live somewhere else. The most common reason was discrimination. Most South Korean see North Koreans as different, more passive and less economically successful. This is not unexpected by government planners. This social distance was a big problem when East and West Germany were reunited in the early 1990s. The easterners had lived under communism for 45 years, and that made them different, and not in good ways. The western Germans often avoided, or mocked east Germans. These tensions still exist, two decades after the unification.

October 19, 2010:  Three high school students were caught trying to smuggle 10 kg (22 pounds) of explosives in from China. While there is some commercial use of explosives in the north, increasingly the stuff goes into bombs for attacks on the ruling Kim family, or other prominent government officials. This sort of thing is kept secret, and the police spend a lot of their time running down such plots.

October 18, 2010: The North Korean government began a crackdown on the use of commercial vehicles for private gain. It works like this. Because of the growing electricity shortages, fewer trains (which are often electric powered) are running. There are not enough busses to take up the slack. So enterprising employees of organizations with trucks or busses, pass bribes around to the right people and use the organization's vehicles to move cargo and passengers for pay. All this is complicated by the fact that private individuals cannot own motor vehicles in the north. All of these vehicles have to be owned by one organization or another. When managers of state owned organizations go along with these illegal deals, drivers of vehicles can obtain the right paperwork to justify the people, or cargo, that is being carried. So now the cops are going to scrutinize driver paperwork, and try to sort out who is legal and who is entrepreneurial. Good luck with that. The cops, and even the various secret police agencies, are becoming increasingly corrupt (willing to take a bribe.) Year by year, the state owned companies (every large economic enterprise up north is state owned) become more corrupt. The centrally planned communist economy doesn't work, and people are improvising to survive. The well fed secret police used to be good at halting illegal behavior. But now the secret police are more intent on making lots of money, stashing it in China, and planning to make their own escape before the police state they work for collapses.




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