In the north the secret police and intelligence agencies have been ordered to do more to prevent people from fleeing the country. This time around more attention is being paid to families that have a member who is missing and believed to be in China. There are over half a million of these “missing” North Koreans, and the intelligence services have done the math and realized that once a family losses one member to the lures of China or elsewhere (especially South Korea), more tend to follow. The government is particularly keen to halt people from going to South Korea. This is the main goal of the new program. North Korea has also asked China to crack down on such defections and the Chinese are cooperating, at least a little bit.
The new plan to halt defections is to pay more attention to disloyal groups. North Korea has long assigned every family to one of 51 social classes. Most (29) of these classes were composed of people considered either hostile to the government or leaning that way. These new lower classes included business people, the most successful farmers, professionals, and, well, you get the picture. Some 80 percent of the population falls into these 29 social classes and they are getting increasingly hostile to a government that seems to do nothing but create one disaster after another. The people are hungry, the soldiers are hungry, the secret police are stealing whatever they can get their hands on, and the senior officials are planning their escape routes. The highest caste people, who have long come to regard themselves (quite accurately) as a hereditary aristocracy, are growing more corrupt and fearful of revolution. Many of these high caste families do have talented people but a lot of those selected for the top castes were chosen because they were loyal communists and willing to be brutal and do whatever they were told. Not the entrepreneurial type at all, which is why they are so wary of all these newly rich lower caste business people.
When news of two North Korean warships sinking last month in training accidents leaked out, the government ordered the navy to “rectify” its problems. The main problem with the North Korean navy is that most of its 700 ships and patrol boats are too old and there is not enough money available for refurbishment or fuel to send these vessels to sea much. Thus the officers and sailors tend to be inexperienced when at sea, particularly in bad weather, and the two lost ships were the tip of the iceberg when it comes to at-sea mishaps and near misses. It is not a good time to be in charge of the North Korean navy.
The obvious problems in the navy came at the same time that the northern government openly admitted that discipline in the armed forces was becoming a problem. For several years now news of the problems with the North Korean military have been getting out via people fleeing the country and reaching China and South Korea. The problems in the military included incompetence by the leadership and a growing breakdown in discipline. Hungry and angry soldiers are not just talking back, they are often attacking their superiors and sometimes killing them. Rebellious soldiers usually desert after these acts of defiance.
Morale is low in the military, largely because there is less food and fuel and cold weather is approaching. The northern government has been aware of these problems and discreet criticism of military leaders, and replacing a lot of these leaders, has not worked. The public show of concern by leader Kim Jong Un is largely symbolic and intended to give a boost to the morale of the angry troops and their stressed (from pressure to fix or control the problems) superiors. What the troops really want, especially with the cold weather coming on, is more fuel (for heat), food, and materials for repairing their decrepit barracks. Some of that may be forthcoming to give the troops hope. But when the hope runs out the government will have to deal with some very angry and unhappy troops. This is not a new threat and North Korea has always kept weapons and ammunition locked up when troops did not need it for training, which is most of the time. Soon it will be nearly all the time, at least as far as letting the troops handle weapons and ammo at the same time.
North Korea’s neighbors are trying to help the northerners fix their economic problems. Russia has managed to have it both ways, by negotiating trade deals with both Koreas and, in effect, getting South Korea to quietly invest in a Russian project to refurbish and expand long-dormant rail links between Russia and North Korea. Reviving rail links between the two Koreas is also a trade possibility which could lead to business for North Korea by allowing South Korean goods to move through North Korea to China, Russia, and (via the Trans-Siberian rail line) the rest of Eurasia. This is very concrete optimism for all three countries and is being backed by cash commitments from Russia and South Korea. It all depends on the northern leaders agreeing that economic reforms are the way to salvation. At the moment the northern elite fear any change because it might bring revolution. But the change is happening anyway and the more affluent neighbors are trying to explain it all to the perplexed northern leadership.
China and South Korea have agreed to work with North Korea to revive the northern forests. Especially since the 1990s illegal tree cutting has become increasingly common in North Korea as people sought fuel with which to survive the cold weather. Satellite photos show the sharp difference between forestation in the north and south. South Korea is the only nation on the planet to have succeeded at artificial reforestation since World War II. Other nations (mainly in the West) have regrown depleted forests but usually as a result of rural populations moving to urban areas over many decades and allowing forests to regrow in abandoned fields and settlements. But in areas where huge areas have been stripped of trees, that solution can take centuries, not decades, to work. Both Koreas were heavily deforested in the last two centuries, but South Korea fixed the problem while in North Korea it got worse. Even North Korea recognizes this and is willing to adopt the techniques South Korea has used and try to replace its depleted northern forests. China is taking the lead here in order to make North Korea less of an economic basket case. China sees North Korea as within the Chinese sphere of influence and wants to reduce the economic risk of having to bail out the shaky North Korean economy in the future.
South Korea is buying another 112 PAC-2 (MIM-104E) Patriot anti-aircraft missiles. These will cost about $3.7 million each. South Korea hasn’t had to pay that much for Patriot missiles in a long time. That’s because back in 2008, South Korea received a billion dollars’ worth of second hand German Patriot anti-aircraft missiles. The Germans didn't need as many Patriot batteries since the Cold War ended in 1991. So they sold South Korea all the equipment for three Patriot battalions and several hundred PAC 2 missiles. South Korea wanted the Patriot in part to improve their defenses against North Korean ballistic missiles. The PAC-2 can knock down the SCUD type missiles that North Korea has hundreds of.
South Korea is not just buying military tech from the United States, it is selling their own stuff back. For example, Samsung, the world’s largest producer of smart phones, has developed software that enables their smart phones to be used by the military. This involves adding encryption and other security measures, as well as the capability of using American security software. Smart phones equipped in this way are being used by the South Korean military as well.
As North Korea allows more market economy opportunities, local officials are abusing the concept by charging people for things that the government had long paid for. This is particularly the case for newly built housing. It’s supposed to be free, but people getting the new apartments are told that they must pay some of the maintenance costs and that there is no guarantee that these costs won’t keep going. An added annoyance is that many of the officials who collect these fees pocket a portion of the money. Local party officials are also demanding that families make special payments to finance public works or industrial projects that are loudly described as “aiding the people.” Most of these projects have failed in the past and being asked to pay large sums of cash to finance new ones is particularly demoralizing for families that have a hard time getting enough to eat.
The growing shortages are hitting higher education hard. In theory, all education is free in North Korea, but budgets for education have been cut year by year because of the weak economy. Thus foreign (Chinese or Western) text books are often not available and students must obtain these themselves. The cost is often prohibitive and students must waste a lot of time sharing a few textbooks or hand copying material they need. Frequently a crucial textbook is not available when it is needed and students do less well in their studies.
In the north the more money you have the more you are expected to contribute to bail out the bankrupt government. The new entrepreneurial class is being hit hard by this and free market entrepreneurs are learning how to hide their success. What the government doesn’t know about they cannot try and steal. Entrepreneurs are also being asked to round up foreign investors, or else. Party officials admit to their bosses that all this pressure is causing unrest and falling morale.
Although North Korea loudly proclaims its eagerness to welcome and encourage more foreign tourists, it regularly hurts itself by abusing, or even killing, foreign tourists. The latest case involves an American tourist (Merrill Newman) who was taken off his airplane by police on October 26th and has been held in prison ever since. The American is a retired 85 year old businessman who had spent ten days visiting North Korea and was about to fly out of the country when he was arrested. North Korea refuses to say anything about the situation other than that they are holding an unnamed American. Since 2009, North Korea has arrested six American visitors, but all of these were religious or political activists, while Merrill Newman was neither. Best guess currently is that it was all a case of mistaken identity, because another Korean War veteran with a similar name who won a Silver Star for defeating a Chinese attack during the war is apparently considered an “enemy of the people” in the north. Merrill Newman also served in Korea during the war and had revisited South Korea as a tourist as well. The northerners may now realize their error and are trying to figure out a graceful way to back out of the mess. In the meantime, incidents like this do little to encourage foreigners to pay a lot of money (North Korea charges 1st class prices for 3rd class tourist services) to visit.
Speaking of money, Panama is demanding a million dollar fine be paid before a North Korean cargo ship is released. This is because of the illegal Cuban weapons found on the ship in July, 2012 were not “scrap” (as North Korea claimed) but were fully operational. The 250 tons of Cuban SA-2 anti-aircraft missile systems and MiG-21 components (including over a dozen jet engines) were buried under a cargo of sugar. The ship was trying to get through the Panama Canal. North Korea at first denied any knowledge of the weapons but eventually admitted that they were obtained from Cuba and not declared. Such weapon shipments are forbidden by international sanctions and were seized. Cuba tried to explain it away as a shipment of military surplus that was non-functional and basically scrap. Panama called in experts who concluded that the stuff was operational. Cuba was being paid over $100 million for these weapons and others already shipped. The North Korean ship and its 35 man crew must remain in Panama until North Korea pays, but the North Koreans are very short on foreign currency and losing a million dollars to fix this problem is a big deal. The Panamanians might end up seizing the ship and its cargo and selling it off to pay the fine. Then Panama could release the crew. North Korea is not visibly moved by that option.
November 23, 2013: China announced a new air defense zone that overlapped South Korean and Japanese air space. China now demands that any foreign military aircraft request permission before flying into this zone. South Korea and Japan protested while the United States flew some B-52s into the zone without asking for Chinese permission. China protested and the United States ignored them.
November 22, 2013: South Korea flew 500 soldiers and a lot of material to the Philippines to help with the aftermath of the massive typhoon that killed over 5,000 people on November 8th. South Korea and the Philippines have been allies since the Korean War, when the Philippines sent 7,400 troops to help repel the North Korean and Chinese invasion. Six percent of those Filipino troops were killed or wounded in Korea and the South Koreans have never forgotten.
November 20, 2013: Five men were arrested in Thailand recently, as they prepared to smuggle 100 kg (220 pounds) of 99 percent pure North Korean methamphetamine to the United States. North Korea has long been a major supplier of methamphetamine in the region. Because of the U.S. connection Thailand is extraditing the five (who are British, Filipino, Taiwanese, and Slovakian) to the United States for prosecution and, one presumes, intense interrogation.
November 15, 2013: In southern China the police arrested 11 North Koreans and their 2 ethnic Korean Chinese guides who were escorting the 11 out of China and into a foreign country with a South Korean embassy the 11 could apply for asylum in.
November 10, 2013: Over the last week word has leaked out that North Korea conducted public executions in seven cities on November 3rd. At least 80 people were killed by firing squad. In one case the execution was held in a Wonsan sports stadium in front of 10,000 local civilians. Such public executions used to be rare but are now becoming more common as the government seeks a way to halt the growing dissent, corruption and breakdown in discipline. The November 3rd executions were officially for the crimes of having a bible or viewing foreign videos.