Korea: The Chinese Threat


April 16, 2012: The U.S. and most other nations have reacted to the North Korean rocket launch by withdrawing existing offers of food and fuel aid. The launch also revealed that North Korea largely improvised this attempt to put a satellite up. While North Korea has been building and designing ballistic missiles for nearly 40 years, most of this work consisted of modifying and improving old Russian SCUD missiles (which was an improved German World War II V-2). The North Koreans tend to just fake it a lot. This may seem like a bad joke to outsiders but it is deadly serious inside North Korea, where laughing at this farce can get you executed.

The failed satellite launch cost the North Koreans several hundred million dollars that they could have used to feed their people or revive their economy. The main goal of the North Korean leadership is not to "serve the people" but to maintain themselves in power. That is growing more difficult as shortages (of everything) become more common. The food situation is apparently getting worse, with growing shortages of fertilizer, an essential item of North Korean agriculture because so much of the farming is done on marginal land. There's also a growing shortage of farm labor. The great famine of the 1990s led to a decline in births and many of those born were smaller and weaker than earlier generations because of malnutrition while growing up. These kids are a growing component of the farm labor force. The growing market economy in the cities has made student "volunteers" less energetic when sent to do their mandatory farm labor assignments several times a year. Add to that the growing shortages of spare parts and fuel for tractors and other equipment and it seems certain that local food production will decline this year.

With that in mind, the ceremonies accompanying the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sungs birth included, as they always do, a "distribution" (of food and consumer goods) to all (or most) North Koreans. This is a big deal, and this latest distribution was more generous than most. Weighing over 13 kg (19 pounds) it included rice, soybean oil, pork, condiments, fish, snacks, eggs, fruit, vegetables, soap, and toothpaste. Provincial officials are responsible for ensuring that the proper amounts reach the people. The government has warned provincial officials to get it right. This is another way of warning officials to cut back on corruption, which sometimes means many people receive little or nothing at all. The government is aware that morale is low and with the failure of the satellite launch and other big construction projects, some good news, especially if it will help with the hunger, is welcome.

China has apparently changed its policy towards North Koreans refugees and is allowing more of them to move on to South Korea. This is apparently a form of punishment for North Korea, which has ignored Chinese advice on how to revive the North Korean economy. Slowly, North Korea is allowing more Chinese investment (on terms generous to the Chinese), and where this happens the local North Koreans become more prosperous. For the North Korean leadership this produces unwelcome enthusiasm for the Chinese (like Japan, a traditional foe of Korea). China has a lot of friends in North Korea, including among the senior leadership. But the North Korea leaders are split on whether to take Chinese advice and allow for a market economy or keep the economy centrally controlled. While the Chinese advice is correct in theory, in practice economic growth would not come as quickly as it did to China beginning in the 1980s. That's because China still had a lot of people who remembered what it meant to be entrepreneurial. That is not the case in North Korea, where time, and a more brutal dictatorship, has crushed entrepreneurial spirit. Ideally, this could be overcome by allowing South Korean businessmen. But China opposes that, as China does not want a united, democratic, prosperous Korea on its border. So China forces North Korea to allow more and more Chinese businesses to set up shop in North Korea, where the economic activity is welcome but the return of Chinese dominance is not. As a result, the "maintain the dictatorship at all costs" faction continues to dominate in the north. But these Korean nationalists know that the pro-China faction grows stronger every day.

The much touted (in North Korea) effort to improve economic and living conditions in time for the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth has been a failure. Naturally, little is said about this, but the construction efforts were in public places and the failure, in the form of half-built or poorly built structures is there for all to see. Another example of this could be seen in the recent ceremony celebrating the completion of the Heechon hydroelectric power plant. This plant was supposed to produce 300,000 kw, mainly for the capital (where embarrassing electricity shortages are increasingly frequent). There was a problem with Heechon in that the new generating equipment was not working because some key components had not yet arrived and, worst of all, there was not enough water behind the dam to turn the generators anyway. These failures are widely known but not mentioned in the government controlled media.

April 15, 2012: In North Korea, a parade to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea's first dictator, Kim Il Sung, featured what appeared to be the first public view of a new long-range rocket. The mystery rocket seemed to be a bit larger than the one that failed to launch a satellite two days earlier. Kim Il Sung's grandson, Kim Jong Un, the new leader, had his first public speech, in which he invoked all the usual clichés in honor of his grandfather's memory. The speech stressed the need to keep the army strong and the North Korea government in power. The crowd cheered when ordered to do so (usually via recorded cheers played through the loudspeakers).

April 14, 2012: South Korean and Japanese warships searched the waters between Korea and Japan for any wreckage from the failed North Korean satellite launch. Japan openly warned North Korea not to interfere with this search.

April 13, 2012: The North Korean satellite launch failed. After 81 seconds the rocket could be seen exploding and breaking up, 150 kilometers off the South Korean coast. North Korean officials remained silent for five hours, then reported that their satellite had failed to reach orbit and pointed out that this frequently happens when other nations attempt to launch satellites. North Korea had apparently expected a successful launch, as it had invited foreign journalists to North Korea to witness the launch. Not directly, but from a conference room in a North Korean hotel.  

April 12, 2012:  North Korea began fueling its satellite launcher rocket.

April 10, 2012: North Korean technicians mounted their Kwangmyongsong-3 camera satellite on the fully assembled Unha-3 rocket.

April 8, 2012: South Korea intelligence analysts have discovered North Korea is digging another tunnel for nuclear tests. The new tunnel appears similar to the ones created for the first two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. These two tests do not appear to have been completely successful, but that has not stopped North Korea from declaring itself a nuclear armed nation. North Korea had agreed to halt work on nuclear weapons in return for food and other aid. Apparently the north had no intention of carrying out their part of the deal, which is normal for North Korea.

April 7, 2012: North Korea announced that it would punish anyone who tried to shoot down its satellite launch rocket. South Korea and Japan, with the help of the United States, are moving ships capable of doing that into position.

April 4, 2012: North Korea began moving components of their satellite launcher rocket (the Unha 3) to the launch pad.

South Korea reported that it had lost track of four North Korean submarines that had recently left their east coast bases.

April 2, 2012: North Korea has reduced the minimum height for soldiers by three centimeters (1.2 inches) to 142 cm (55.9 inches, or 4 feet 8 inches). That's because the generation of recruits now being conscripted were born in the 1990s, when the Great Famine (that killed ten percent of the population) was underway. Many children that survived were stunted because of malnutrition. South Korea has been noticing this for the last few years.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close