Korea: Fear Factor


March 19, 2012: Just about everyone in North Korea now understands what the situation is. Most North Koreans are no longer ignorant of the outside world. For most of the population this means fear, resignation, and resentment. That's because North Koreans know how economic reform has brought prosperity to neighboring China. Like North Korea, China is a police state, so why don't the northern leaders just do what the Chinese do? The reason is fear. Too many in the northern leadership fear they would lose control and thus their privileged positions (and even their lives) if they allowed a market economy. And then there's South Korea, where other Koreans live even better than the Chinese. That's because the southerners use this incomprehensible form of government called democracy. Thus South Korea seems to be some kind of fantasy but years of looking at videos, especially of South Korean TV news shows (that often show ordinary South Korean's doing ordinary things) has convinced most northerners that the south is real but difficult to understand. China is more familiar and easier to comprehend. All would be well if North Korea could be more like China.  

In some parts of the north officials are extending the mourning period for Kim Jong Il. This is causing a lot of resentment because that means many businesses, especially the traders (at least the legal ones) cannot operate. You can operate illegally but that means you have to pay bigger bribes to the police if you get caught. That appears to be the point.

The anti-cell phone campaign is also having problems with corruption. The secret police have, since Kim Jong Il died, increased their efforts to halt cell phone use along the Chinese border (within range of Chinese cell phone towers). The northern secret police have cell phone jammers but not enough to cover the entire border. So the cell phone detector units work the areas where there are no jammers and the jammers are moved around, so no place becomes permanently jammed or un-jammed. This maximizes pain among the people. It also maximizes bribes the police can extract from cell phone users they catch. By definition, a cell phone user usually has wealth and can pay to stay out of labor camps. The senior commanders of the secret police are finding that halting the growth of corruption among their subordinates is very difficult. In fact, it's impossible. That means, with enough cash, any North Korean can evade the secret police and do all sorts of mischief. You can even get out of jail. Families of those imprisoned, especially for "economic crimes" or using cell phones are increasingly getting approached by government officials before those holidays when the government issues amnesties and frees a few people from prison. Those amnesties are now for sale, apparently to the highest bidder. Even the special anti-corruption units organized last year have succumbed, and a growing number of these "incorruptible" secret policemen are being arrested for taking bribes. All this is causing sleepless nights at the top of the North Korean bureaucracy.

In the north, border guard units are now being swapped to different locations in an attempt to reduce bribery and smuggling. At least 5,000 border guards are on the move, being sent to other, distant sections of the border. This means all those relationships border guards had with local smugglers, and their Chinese counterparts, have to be reestablished. This takes time, and meanwhile there is less smuggling of people and goods across the border. All this moving of border guards is expensive and bad for morale. But the government sees the smuggling as a major source of information (especially the videos from South Korea) and goods (especially from South Korea) that poison people's minds with thoughts of a better life.  

In South Korea years of analysis of what it would cost to unify north and south Korea has concluded that it would cost South Korea at least three trillion dollars. That's more than twice the annual GDP of South Korea. The unification costs would be spread over one, or more likely, two decades. The high cost of unification has made many southerners less enthusiastic about it and more likely to tolerate China taking over North Korea. But when the collapse up north finally comes, nationalism will take over in the south and most southerners will call for unification. How ugly, or expensive, that gets remains to be seen.

The U.S. aid deal for North Korea is still stalled because the north has not provided guarantees about verification (that their nuclear and ballistic missile programs will halt). Then there's the recent North Korean announcement that they will launch a satellite next month, which is a typical northern way to cheat. This time, the United States is not falling for it, at least not yet. The North Koreans are aware of domestic American politics and know how to spin the American media.

March 16, 2012: North Korea announced they would launch a space satellite on April 15, apparently to celebrate the 100th birthday anniversary of Kim Il Sung (the founder of North Korea). The world sees this as a blatant ballistic missile test and a violation of a UN ban on such activities. North Korea now says it will invite foreign observers to the test but no one believes this is anything but another deception.

In a rare public display of displeasure with their North Korean ally, China officially criticized the North Korean plan to "launch a satellite."

The U.S. announced that it would not ship free food to North Korea as long as the North Koreans proceeded with their "satellite launch."

South Korea believes the North Korean "satellite launch" is actually a test of their new, and untested, nuclear warhead for ballistic missiles. Making such a warhead work is very difficult. A ballistic missile generates a lot of stresses as it quickly moves up, and then down, at high speeds. Nuclear weapons have to be modified to handle all the stress and still function. Such a warhead is designed by sending it up without nuclear material but equipped with radio equipment to report back on how all the components worked.

March 14, 2012: China has begun delivering $95 million worth of free food and other supplies that were promised last month. This is meant to help the new North Korean leader buy some more loyalty.

March 8, 2012: In response to a recent outburst of threats from North Korea, South Korea uncharacteristically fired back that any such actions would be met with even more violence from the south. The northerners chose not to escalate.





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