South Korea has more serious problems than the North Korean nukes and armed forces. 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 a growing number (approaching 20 percent) of children are overweight and the boys often are physically unfit for military service when they hit 18. The widespread affluence and access to fast Internet access has also 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. It gets worse, as not only are the kids fatter but there also fewer of them. This situation has been improving slowly (too slowly) over the last few years but only 193,000 were born in South Korea last year. Like other wealthy nations, South Korea's birth rate is below (1.297 per woman compared to 1.24 four years ago) the replacement level (2.1). 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 million now to 44 million in 30 years and eventually disappear. It’s worse in Japan and even China is below replacement level. It’s the affluence disease where the birth rate goes down as economic conditions improve. Thus, bankrupt and desperate North Korea produces an urge to have more children in order to ward off extinction that is lacking in the south. If economic conditions dramatically improved in North Korea the birth rate would fall.
While South Koreans are having fewer children, they seem to be having more sex. At least that’s the impression you get from all the news stories about illicit liaisons and general debauchery. Even the prestigious Military Academy is doing its part by producing a string of stories describing rape and prostitution involving cadets.
Both Koreas do share some problems, the main one being drug addiction. 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 and it costs a lot less than that to get it from corrupt officials in the meth production operation. Addicts within the government are more prone to steal government assets or even sell information to foreigners. Tribal drug lords in northern Burma are the other big source of meth, which has become hugely popular in China and throughout East Asia.
South Korea has another form of addiction to worry about, video games. Online games are the most addictive, including those available on smart phones. Moreover, among families with money up north the kids are getting hold of video games from South Korea and these are proving just as addictive in the north as in the south. Drugs are much less a problem in the south, largely because the drug laws have always been strict and energetically enforced. North Korea also has laws against drugs but it also has a lot more corruption and a much more desperate population.
For most northerners video games are only a rumor and meth is too expensive for most to use regularly. What most northerners are taking pleasure in these days is the recent reduction in “voluntary” meetings, rallies, and civil defense exercises that have long been used to keep people occupied and under control. The leadership has finally paid attention to years of warning from local officials that the response to these mandatory activities was becoming more reluctant and surly. There were growing incidences of passive, or even violent, resistance to these demands. So the government earned some momentary popularity by cutting back on the drills and rallies, leaving people more time to scrounge around for food or just starve in peace.
There is a growing feeling among the northern leadership that the corruption of the security forces has reached the point of no-return and some fundamental reforms (like the Chinese have long been suggesting) may be necessary. The latest warning can be seen along the Chinese border where more secret police and border guards were deployed to try and reduce the smuggling and people escaping. An analysis of intelligence reports revealed that fewer smugglers were being caught yet Chinese organizations (legal and otherwise) that buy and sell to the smugglers report business is booming. North Korea has long had a large informant network in northeast China and the data was indicating that the latest attempts to curb smuggling had been defeated. Vigorous interrogation of some newly affluent border guards revealed that the crackdown simply provided more opportunities to demand bribes from smugglers, and larger bribes at that. Some border guards have gotten extremely greedy by informing on those who bribed them in order to curry favor with the secret police units that are supposed to get all captured smugglers for interrogation. When the secret police heard more and more stories of the double crossing border guards they concluded that all was not well on the border.
South Korea has joined China and sent its first merchant ship into the Northeast Passage. This is the ice free sea route along the north coast of Russia. There is now an ice free route for four months a year from Alaska to Norway. Research has shown that this route has been ice free in the past but this is the first time in the modern period when that has happened. Russia is encouraging the use of the Northeast Passage, as it cuts the time it takes to get from East Asia to Europe by a third (from six weeks to four). Time is money in the shipping business and this is a big deal for nations like China, Japan, and South Korea, as they are all major exporters of goods to Europe. If the Northeast Passage remains open dependably these three countries alone could end up sending thousands of ships a year along that route.
It was recently revealed that in April Turkey had intercepted and seized a shipment of weapons (1,400 rifles and pistols and 30,000 rounds of ammo) and gas masks (number unspecified) on a Libyan ship. The captain of the ship eventually admitted he had picked up the military cargo in North Korea and was trying to deliver it to Syria. U.S. intelligence has tipped off the Turks.
August 24, 2013: Still more problems for a North Korean effort to build a ski resort. Foreign firms that supply the ski lifts and associated equipment have refused to sell to North Korea because of the embargo. This is just the latest setback for the ski resort being built in the northeast (at Masikryeong near Wonsan). Earlier this year landslides wiped out a lot of the work already completed. The landslides were caused by earlier cutting down a lot of trees on slopes for the ski runs. That effort removed all vegetation that held soil together and when the monsoon rains arrived in mid-July they were heavier than usual and the denuded slopes turned to mud and then slid down the side of the mountain. Repairing all this damage will take up to a year and delay the planned opening of the resort. The mudslide also did a lot of damage to farms down in the valley and more soldiers have been called in to help with that. Leader Kim Jong Un considers this one of his pet projects and wants it ready by the end of the year. That is unlikely at this point. Meanwhile, the government has increased security in the area and tried to keep information about the extent of the damage from getting out. But the large number of students and soldiers drafted to help with repairs has made that difficult. The ski slope area has heavy snow from November to March and the completed ski resort is meant for foreigners as well as North Koreans who can afford it (senior officials and the wealthier entrepreneurs). The Masikryeong resort has been getting a lot of play in state media, as an example of how hip new leader Kim Jong Un is. The resort is also meant to be another perk for the ruling class and a way to extract more cash from tourists and North Korean entrepreneurs. All this attention means a lot of North Koreans are curious about what goes on up there. There are already some ski runs in North Korea, but these were built for military training or to help athletes prepare for international competitions. The big competition will be with their South Korean counterparts during the 2018 Winter Olympics that will be held in South Korea (which already has lots of ski resorts and many medals from the Winter Olympics).
August 23, 2013: North Korea has agreed to resume negotiating how much food and fuel the south will pay for North Korea, allowing more reunions of families separated by the Korean War (1950-3). These reunions were halted three years ago because of southern anger at extortionate demands by the north. The north promises to be reasonable in how much food and fuel aid it will demand from the south to make another round of reunions happen. Negotiations will begin on September 19th.
August 22, 2013: South Korea put its first radar imaging satellite into orbit (via a Russian launcher). The 1.4 ton KOMPSAT 5 satellite uses a radar that can detect objects and landforms as small as one meter (39 inches) across. This satellite is mainly for obtaining geographic (land and sea) information, disaster response, and environmental monitoring. Military use was not discussed publicly.
August 21, 2013: For the first time Japanese and South Korean warplanes trained together. This occurred at a U.S. training site in Alaska as part of the international Red Flag exercises the Americans host regularly. Both countries are trying overcome a century of antagonism (over the brutal 1910-45 Japanese occupation of Korea) to establish joint training of their forces as part of a mutual defense arrangement (against North Korea or China).
South Korea has selected a Canadian firm to provide new acoustic processing systems for ten of its P-3C maritime patrol aircraft. The new systems will make it easier to detect North Korean subs operating in coastal waters.
August 20, 2013: The South Korean capital was the site of a public UN hearing on North Korean prison camps. Former inmates testified about regular torture, executions, and horrid conditions in general. For decades the UN had looked the other way (under pressure from many powerful member nations like China and Russia) when it came to the North Korean “labor camps.” Too many former inmates have escaped North Korea in the last decade for the UN to ignore the situation. Thus the formal investigation and documenting what went on, and apparently still goes on, up there. In the last two decades the UN has become increasingly critical of conditions in North Korea but there was little the UN could do except publicize these problems.
August 16, 2013: Recent North Korean claims to have designed and begun manufacturing a smart phone (using the Android operating system) are being dismissed. Foreign experts believe this is another publicity stunt and that the phones are actually manufactured to order from one of the many Chinese firms that do this. The North Korean smart phones are apparently modified to make it more difficult for users to do unauthorized things like make international calls or access the Internet outside North Korea.
August 14, 2013: Cuba recently revealed that in the 1980s North Korea gave Cuba 100,000 AK-47s and lots of ammo for free.
While there is an agreement to reopen the factories in Kaesong, no actual reopening date has been announced. Negotiations on this are under way. The Kaesong Industrial Complex (in North Korea but financed and run by 123 South Korean firms employing 53,000 North Koreans) was shut down by the north in April, as part of a diplomatic snit over foreign hostility to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Then in June China told South Korea that the northerners were eager to make nice and repair some of the damage northern belligerence had created in the last few months. China had leaned on North Korea quite a bit and apparently pointed out that shutting down Kaesong cut off a major source of income for the northern government and that was a shortfall China was not going to replace with more aid. In fact, China threatened to further reduce food, oil, and other shipments if the North Koreans didn’t calm down and at least make an effort to get their economic act together. So the north agreed to let the South Korean companies revive production at Kaesong as soon as they can.
August 12, 2013: South Korea announced it is equipping its AH-64E helicopter gunships with all-weather targeting systems.