North Korea has reached out to Russia for protection from UN war crimes prosecution. China, unhappy with North Korean refusal to give up their nuclear weapons, can no longer be depended on to protect North Korea from UN sanctions. Russia is desperate for allies, any allies, and has long worked to develop closer economic relations with North Korea. Now, in exchange for more economic opportunities in North Korea Russia will use its UN veto to try and protect North Korea from still more diplomatic problems (war crimes charges and more sanctions from the UN). North Korea was disappointed in its other efforts to gather more support to oppose the UN war crimes prosecutions. These efforts included releasing three American citizens they were holding, but aside from a “thank you” the U.S. did not take the hint and do anything for North Korea in the UN. Nice gestures were made to several other Western nations, all without benefit. China apparently promised to be useful in the UN if North Korea resumed the six nation talks over North Korean nuclear weapons. At the same time Chinese diplomats and spies inside North Korea report that Kim Jong Un was not willing to halt his nuclear program under any circumstances. Kim Jong Un sees the nukes as his ultimate defense against all his diplomatic, economic and internal (as the result of poverty, corruption and greater knowledge of the outside world) problems.
In response to the UN sanctions threat North Korea mobilized media denunciations of the UN charges along with “popular” mass demonstrations. The denunciations include reviving old charges of American troops massacring 35,000 Korean civilians in 1950. This was one of many similar charges invented by North Korean propagandists over the years. When North Korea is really angry about something, they will revive one of the many major atrocities they have invented in the last sixty years. North Korean propaganda has long accused the United States as responsible for whatever problems North Korea night encounter (internal or external).
American and South Korean analysts are getting a more detailed picture of Kim Jong Un, who came out of nowhere to become the leader up there in 2012. The picture is not good. Kim Jong Un is more ruthless and unpredictable than his father. This is not surprising as he is younger than his father when he took power and his father had a lot more preparation. Kim Jong Un is quick to punish (via labor camp or execution) and for the least infraction (aides using his ashtray or elevator). In this respect he is similar to his grandfather, the founder of the Kim dynasty and a big admirer of infamously murderous and paranoid Russian dictator Josef Stalin. The big fear is that Kim Jon Un might be paranoid and unstable enough to start another war. His efforts to gain some protection from Russia is encouraging, but is unwillingness to give up his nukes is not. Meanwhile North Korea is developing more formidable Information War (Internet based) combat capabilities as well as maintaining North Korean special operations (commandos, small submarines and aircraft for delivering them to South Korea in wartime) capabilities. The rest of the armed forces may be falling apart but not these two capabilities. Then there are the chemical and biological weapons no one likes to talk about. Add to that long range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads and everyone in East Asia gets worried. China is the ultimate solution if North Korea becomes so threatening that war seems likely. Only China has enough allies inside North Korea and military forces that can quickly (without having to battle through a fortified DMZ) go in and replace the Kim dynasty with a more accommodating dictator. China does not see force as a desirable option. The fiscal, diplomatic and human cost is too high. Then there is the risk that Chinese forces will not perform well against North Korean troops who resist. This would expose the weaknesses in Chinese military leadership that many senior Chinese officials are aware of but would prefer to keep the rest of the world unsure of.
China has another, less discussed, reason for wanting a change of government in North Korea. That would be the growing quantity of illegal drugs (opium, heroin and methamphetamine) being smuggled, by the North Korean government, into China, where it sells for more than twice what it does in North Korea. These drugs are illegal in North Korea, but some get into circulation anyway. Some methamphetamine is produced privately. It’s a dangerous way to get rich, as those caught doing this are executed, often after torture (to ensure they have revealed all they know). The government produces and exports these drugs in large quantities to obtain foreign currency. North Korea had agreed not to export them to China, but since China has halted free passage of North Korean contraband (weapons, drugs, counterfeit U.S. currency) through China (to force North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program) to other markets, North Korea has been smuggling the drugs and currency into China for sale in China. North Korea denies this to the Chinese government so the Chinese have increased their security on the North Korean border, with emphasis on catching illegal goods being smuggled in.
Despite the Chinese anger at the North Korean drug smuggling, China still allows North Korean secret police to operate against North Korean and Chinese smugglers who operate out of northeast China. These smugglers are seen as criminals by the Chinese because North Korea refugees are not all many of them deal in. Meanwhile North Korea is even more obsessed with halting smuggling of goods into and people out of North Korea. The latest policy is to declare certain border areas, known to be heavily used by smugglers, as “high crime areas” and saturate them with more police patrols and inspections of people going about their business. This increases the number of people smugglers have to bribe to get their work done and that increases the cost of smuggling for North Koreans. All this means more risk for smugglers, but higher fees as well. The police get more bribes and the government is stuck with more expenses and not a lot to show for it except a growing number of police getting caught taking bribes and being executed or condemned to a lifetime of slave labor. The spread of corruption within the North Korean security forces, and bureaucracy in general, is another problem the government realizes is critical but has so far resisted efforts to eliminate it.
On the North Korean side of the border there have been growing efforts to curb cross-border cell phone use. More cell phone detectors have been put into use and they are moved around to make more people vulnerable to arrest. But the secret police are finding that people living along the border are adapting to all these efforts. In 2013 the crackdown on illegal cell phone use near the Chinese border turned around for a bit with the arrival of new German detectors that had longer range (up to 500 meters) and greater sensitivity. Moreover the government has brought in so many of the new detectors that they could constantly monitor even remote areas for anyone using a Chinese cell phone. Before that people were able to defeat the imported cell phone signal detectors by using an earpiece and walking around or cycling in a crowded areas. That was not working anymore. Those who are caught find the special secret police personnel brought in for this duty are willing to take a bribe most of the time, but not always. Meanwhile word got around that if you kept your calls very short (under five minutes) the detectors could not pinpoint your location, so the secret police are finding easy arrests declining. Information continues to get in from China and the world, just not as much or as frequently. The growing and continuing war on cell phone use is causing a lot more anger among many North Koreans this time around, something the secret police have noted and reported to their superiors. About two million North Koreans (more than ten percent of adults) own legal cell phones.
Another new money making idea for the government is holding some visitors in isolation for 21 days to make sure they do not have Ebola. In November North Korea began forcing most foreign visitors to remain in quarantine for 21 days after arrival. This is a scam to extract more money from visitors as they have to stay in designated hotels for the quarantine period and pay for it. Most business and all official visitors are not be subject to the quarantine. No cases of Ebola have occurred in China or Korea. China is considered vulnerable because there are over a million Chinese living in Africa, with over 100,000 living in areas where the Ebola deaths (over 5,000 so far) have been highest. China has made preparations to deal with an Ebola outbreak in China and has experience in dealing with infectious diseases like this.
One very obvious change in North Korea has been the arrival of more foreign tourists. Currently over 6,000 foreigners are arriving each year and North Korea is opening more facilities (like a recently built ski resort) to accommodate them. While some tourists have been imprisoned, or even killed, North Korea is generally safer than most non-Western tourist destinations because there is virtually no crime. If you stay away from politics (the cause of most tourist problems) you are quite safe. Of course North Korea is very expensive as the government overcharges for everything and visitors are escorted everywhere. But for the very adventurous and affluent, North Korea is the place to be. North Korea needs the foreign exchange and have noted that many nations have turned into major industries (often accounting for ten percent or more of GDP and accounting for most foreign exchange. It’s unclear how the Ebola quarantine is going to impact this growth in tourist traffic.
Another growing foreign exchange source is slave labor. This is basically the export of North Korean workers. The government takes up to 90 percent of the wages these men and women earn outside the country (mainly in Russia and China) and holds the workers’ families hostage in case the worker does not return home when ordered. If someone does not come back, their families are sent to prison camps> for most of them this means an early and unpleasant death. For this reason most of the exported workers are older men with children. There are over 60,000 of these workers outside the country now, a 70 percent increase since Kim Jong Un took over. Inside North Korea there is also a lot of slave labor in the form of prisoners rented out to firms. The most common source is the Labor Training Camps. These are for those sentenced to short (under six months) sentences for minor crimes. Usually these prisoners are rented out to work on construction sites or farms. But now the drought has caused a severe electricity shortages (because so much power comes from generators at dams) has led to emergency measures. So more coal is needed for the coal fired power plants. Prisoners are being sent into the mines. This is often a death sentence because it is a lot more dangerous down there than on a construction site or farm. Despite this effort to increase coal production the reduction in hydroelectric power is so great (about half what it was last year) that the largest iron ore mine in the country recently shut down because of the electricity shortage. This is catastrophic because this mine supplies North Korean steel producers as well as Chinese customers. The iron ore exports are a major source of foreign currency and steel production in North Korea will have to be largely shut down to keep iron ore exports from falling too far.
Efforts to halt dissidents (North Koreans who have escaped to South Korea) in South Korea from sending balloons into North Korea have failed. North Korea has threatened and South Korea has asked the dissidents to refrain. But South Korea is a democracy and there is no law against the balloons and not a lot of enthusiasm to pass such a law. The dissidents are no longer announcing when or where they are releasing the balloons to float north. This is largely the result of South Korean opposition, not threats from the north. Recently the dissidents have had confrontations with local (to the balloon launch sites) residents who, joined by leftists seeking an end to these propaganda efforts against the north, forced the dissidents to back off. There has been a lot more balloons going north in 2014. The small helium balloons drift into North Korea with a variety of cargoes. It’s always something that annoys the North Korean government. The usual cargo is DVDs, one-dollar bills, sweets or pamphlets and leaflets providing accurate information on abuses in North Korea and life in South Korea. This sort of thing makes the North Korean government very angry and anyone caught with balloon delivered goodies can be sent to prison camps. In the south the threats of retaliation from the north, especially recent machine-gun fire has caused South Koreans living close to the border to block roads or call on local police to stop people from releasing balloons. This was difficult to do and ultimately does not work, mainly because the dissidents no longer announce their visits. The locals fear the north will fire rockets and artillery next and put them in great danger. That has not happened yet and if it does there will be even more pressure on the dissidents to back off.
The northern government is also losing its battle to keep South Korean culture out. South Korean music, TV shows, movies and consumer goods are all very popular, and illegal, in North Korea. People have been executed for watching South Korean videos (via USB memory sticks smuggled in via China). South Korean clothing is now hard to get, but Chinese manufacturers have found ways around a lot of the restrictions. Thus Chinese manufacturers make clothing of the same quality and style as South Korean clothing, but with labels and documents proving they are Chinese. Actually, some of these items are South Korean but with Chinese labels replacing the South Korean ones. Same deal with South Korean cosmetics, which are often labeled as coming from Southeast Asia. North Korean merchants insert the Korean language instructions after the cosmetics have gotten across the border. All this drives the government nuts, especially their inability to halt the purchase and use of this stuff by North Koreans (often wives and children of senior officials).
November 24, 2014: South Korean warships held training exercises on and around the Dokdo Islands (which are claimed by South Korea and Japan) in a well-publicized event that increased the tension in both countries. South Korea holds these exercises once or twice a year. While there is some training value this is also political theater as the two nations would never go to war over the dispute. But the political sensitivity (and centuries of ill-will) of the counterclaims makes settlement very difficult. Diplomats in both countries wish the situation would just go away, as it hinders cooperation, especially against Chinese and North Korean threats.
November 23, 2014: A South Korean shipyard has won a contract to build six corvettes for the Malaysian Navy. South Korea is becoming a major builder and exporter of warships. It has long been one of the largest builders of commercial ships in the world.
November 22, 2014: In France it was revealed that a North Korean college student in Paris, with ties to “enemies” of Kim Jong Un, escaped an attempt to kidnap him and put him on a plane to North Korea. The incident took place at a Paris airport in early November and the victim is now in hiding. The victim is one of ten North Korean students who came to France in 2012 under an exchange program. France is one of the few European countries to do this sort of thing with North Korea. But the victim is the son of an aide to the disgraced uncle of Kim Jong Un. Late last year all the blood relatives of Jang Sung Taek, the uncle of supreme leader Kim Jong Un, were killed. Jang was denounced in early December and executed on December 12th. After Jang was executed the secret police rounded up Jang’s siblings along with their children and grandchildren and killed them all. Some who resisted orders to leave their homes and accompany the secret police were shot on the spot, in front of witnesses. Those who had married into the family were spared and sent to live with their families. Such mass murder is an ancient custom and was once found all over the world. It persisted longest in East Asia, where has been less frequently used in the last century or so. The purpose was to prevent family members later seeking revenge for the execution of their kinsman. In addition to the family members, the secret police also went after key aides of Jang and sent them to labor camps. Apparently the secret police, or Kim Jong Un himself, decided that the son of an aide, studying in Paris, was a potential threat who must be returned to North Korea for punishment. It is not unusual for dictators to go after real (or imagined) individuals abroad who are deemed to pose a threat. The Soviets did this during the Cold War and Iran has carried out similar operations. North Korea has long sought to assassinate defectors in South Korea and elsewhere but has never been as active in this area as under Kim Jong Un.
November 20, 2014: In the UN Russia spoke out against moves to prosecute North Korean leaders for war crimes.
November 18, 2014: The UN voted 111 to 19 with 55 abstentions to condemn North Korea for abusive behavior against its own citizens and recommending prosecution of North Korean leaders for crimes against humanity. North Korea was not happy with this development and is scrambling to organize enough support in the UN to block the war crimes indictments.
November 17, 2014: Two South Korean warships (a destroyer and a ab armed combat support ship) are visiting India, after already making stops at Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. The two warships left South Korea on September 18th.
November 15, 2014: On the southeast coast the South Korean navy and marines conducted a large scale landing exercise.