Korea: We Are Serious This Time, Really We Are


January 29, 2013: The proposed new UN sanctions brought forth the usual threats of massive retaliation and accusations of an American plot of destroy North Korea. After over half a century of such threats North Korea never made good on them. There have been some minor attacks, like a lot of commando operations in the 1960s, which evolved into kidnapping South Korean and Japanese civilians and landing spies via small submarines. Three years ago a South Korean warship was torpedoed and a South Korean island shelled. There have been a few minor incidents on the DMZ (demilitarized zone that separates the two countries) but that’s it. In short, the threats don’t have much impact and that makes North Korean leaders even angrier. The problem up there is that, since the end of the Cold War in 1991 (and the elimination of massive Russian aid), North Korea has slid into extreme poverty and gradual loss of military capabilities. This last item is top secret up there, but in the last decade a growing number of North Koreans (over 20,000) have escaped and reached South Korea. There they are debriefed by intelligence experts. This creates an accurate picture of the decline of the North Korean military. This explains the increasing North Korean efforts to build nuclear weapons. This is cheaper than trying to maintain the capabilities of their million man armed forces. North Korea could still launch a conventional attack on South Korea but their chances of success (conquering the south) are now zero. The only question is how much damage they could inflict. That’s a scary prospect for South Koreans because North Korea still has the ability to do major damage to Seoul (the southern capital where half the population and a quarter of the GDP are). South Koreans have more to lose than the northerners. Sprawling Seoul is 40-50 kilometers from the North Korea border. The city alone is 600 square kilometers, and the suburbs are even larger. There are over 17,000 people per square kilometer (45,000 per square mile) in the city. The southerners know the north has nothing to lose, are desperate, and heavily armed. What do you do? South Korea has responded by increasing its ability to quickly halt any rocket and artillery bombardment from the north. This would involve a lot of artillery and smart bomb use in a short time. Many North Korean targets would be destroyed but the south has much more to lose, even if the northern attack is cut short.

Despite the declining morale and discipline in the northern military, North Korea is still believed to have enough control over their forces to launch an attack on the south that would do lots of damage and kill thousands of southerners. Such an attack would be suicide for the northern rulers because the south has made it clear to North Korea and China that the retaliation would involve an invasion of the north. North Korea can no longer rely on Chinese guarantees of military and diplomatic intervention to stop the South Korean advance. China is getting fed up with the northern leadership resistance to economic reforms (similar to those that succeeded in China).

While North Korea does not have a usable nuclear weapon, they could have one in the next decade or so. Anti-missile defenses for South Korea would have a difficult time stopping the use of such a nuke because the north could launch hundreds of missiles and rockets at once and any one of them could contain the nuke. It might be over a decade before this scenario becomes a reality, and this is what keeps northern leaders going. But even the nuclear threat might not save the north because the economy up there keeps getting weaker, not stronger.

Google announced that it had coordinated the efforts of many volunteers to create a new, much more complete, map of North Korea for Google Maps. This sort of approach (“crowdsourcing”) is increasingly popular, especially with services like Google Earth that constantly produces vast quantities of new data. The new North Korean map shows locations of roads, prison camps, and military bases that North Korea had long considered secret information (a common practice in communist dictatorships).

Although the North Korean government has long produced methamphetamines for export, there is a growing problem with northerners obtaining meth and becoming addicted. This is a serious problem because most of the people with enough money to support a drug habit are from the small ruling class (and the growing number of market entrepreneurs). The government has ordered the security forces to crack down on drug dealers. Peddling this stuff is very lucrative, as a gram of meth goes for over $250 on the street. Addicts within the government are more prone to steal government assets or even sell information to foreigners.

A persistent drought (that reduced hydroelectric power) and fuel shortages (no cash for oil imports) have sharply reduced electricity supplies. That has reduced economic activity still further, with trains (85 percent of them electrified) and factories unable to operate and farms producing less because irrigation pumps or farm machinery have no power. There's also been a growing fertilizer shortage. Nuclear and missile programs have priority on energy and cash for imports, but this is in short supply as well. The American led arms embargo has been increasingly effective, and fewer missiles and other weapons are being delivered. Orders are down, as customers fear non-delivery or retribution by the United States for flaunting the embargo. The hydroelectric shortages are worse in the cold weather, when reservoirs are at their lowest. The electricity shortages are worst in the northeast and are so bad this year that many trains are not running at all.

While the new government of Kim Jong Un has promised reform, not much has been delivered. As a result the brief enthusiasm for the new 29 year-old leader is rapidly evaporating, especially among the younger generation.

January 27, 2013: Japan launched two more reconnaissance satellites (one photo and one radar) to keep an eye on North Korea military developments. While the resolution of these birds is not much better than Google Earth, it allows the Japanese to monitor specific areas of North Korea. Japan has been using its growing fleet of recon satellites to do this for over a decade.

January 24, 2013: North Korea announced that it would proceed with a third nuclear weapons test and more long range missile launches. The U.S. is now the official target for all this because North Korea believes the Americans are behind the increased economic sanctions. This is not entirely true, as even the Chinese back the sanctions and wants the north to back off and concentrate on their deplorable domestic situation.

January 23, 2013:  The UN agreed to increase the economic sanctions on North Korea in response to continued North Korean development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. The new sanctions name more individuals and North Korean firms that are engaged in foreign trade.

January 20, 2013: A senior executive of Google visited North Korea and was shown the limited access (some government and military officials and university faculty and students) to the Internet. Other North Koreans can only use a tightly controlled intranet (Internet-like system that does not extend beyond North Korea). The Google executive told North Korean officials that the lack of widespread use to the global Internet would seriously impede North Korean economic growth. This aided the faction within the government that has pushed for a censored form of Internet, similar to that in China.

January 17, 2013: South Korea announced that its investigation into a major Internet based attack on a South Korean newspaper (critical of North Korea) did in fact come from North Korea. The north has increased its use of the Internet to attack the south and is believed to have used their new capabilities to conduct espionage as well.

January 14, 2013: Foreigners are now allowed to bring their cell phones with them to North Korea but must buy a $67 SIM card to make calls in North Korea. There are about 1.8 million legal cell phone users in North Korea, plus several hundred thousand who illegally use Chinese cell phones along the Chinese border.

After lifting the ban on women riding bicycles last August, the government has suddenly revived it. While the old ban only involved a fine (about 60 cents, a lot for most North Koreans) the new ban involves seizing the bicycle after the first offense. Last August an attempt to come up with inexpensive things that would improve morale resulted in the repeal of the 1990s law that prohibited women from riding bicycles. This law was originally passed in response to the death of the daughter of a senior army general, who was hit by a car while on a bicycle in the capital. This law was very unpopular and women would often take their chances and pay the fine if caught. But if caught too many times, the bike (a valuable item) could be confiscated. One reason bikes were so expensive was because North Korea never produced them, they were all imported from China or Japan. This has long been another source of irritation for most North Koreans. In the last decade the law was generally ignored in the countryside but still sporadically enforced (as a source of income for cops) in cities (especially the capital). Apparently the police missed the fines and that hurt their morale. In the last year the government has ordered greater use of checkpoints, especially temporary ones, in order to catch illegal traders or those using vehicles for illegal business. This has not worked out well because the police quickly turned this into a new source of bribes. Being a policeman is now seen as a very lucrative job.


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