North Korea is more frequently treating the families of refugees the same as legal migrants who misbehave. This makes sense to North Korean leaders. After all the illegal migrants (refugees) are misbehaving (by not returning as ordered) in the same way as legal migrants so they should be punished the same way. The legal migrants are part of what amounts to a slave labor program that has become a major source of foreign exchange. This is basically the export of North Korean workers which has gone from 60,000 men and women in 2014 to 100,000 in 2015. 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. This is increasingly happening to the children of those who mysteriously “disappear” and are believed to have fled across the border. For most people sent to prison camps it means an early and unpleasant death. For this reason most of the exported workers are older men with children. But many of the refugees are younger and so far the government is only punishing adult (over 18) children of refugees. Meanwhile the number of workers outside the country is nearly triple what it was before since Kim Jong Un took over in 2011. 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. In effect the profits from all this forced labor help to maintain the economic rewards program North Korean leaders have been depending on more and more to guarantee the loyalty and efficiency of the bureaucracy (managers, secret police and intelligence operatives) that keep the Kim family in power.
A recent opinion poll among North Korean who had escaped and reached South Korea showed that 42 percent left to seek freedom (economic and otherwise) while only 28 percent left to avoid the possibility of starving to death. This reflects the fact that it is expensive (bribes and smuggler fees) to leave North Korea and only those who have accumulated (by North Korean standards) a lot of money can make the attempt. Meanwhile these refugees are critical of the South Korean government run resettlement training program. The refugees see this program as unrealistic and created by clueless bureaucrats (which North Korea has plenty of).
The North Korea government has decided, or been forced to, accommodate the growing corruption in its bureaucracy and secret police by tolerating certain forms of economic corruption. Thus officials (bureaucrats or police) inspecting the many legal free markets are allowed to keep much of the stuff they confiscate (because of some legal violation). There is a lot of leeway in to what extent taking bribes will get you sent to prison camp. The understanding is that these corrupt practices will be tolerated as long as the officials concerned maintain their loyalty to the Kim dictatorship and refuse bribes for things that threaten Kim rule. The downside of this is that many government employees (including low ranking soldiers, armed or unarmed) go around “enforcing laws” (they have no responsibility for) just to get bribes or “seize” illegal goods. This sort of behavior is causing more and more popular discontent.
Meanwhile North Korean bureaucrats continue to come up with new legal ways to destroy the economy. A recent example was the decision to apply more pressure (the threat of serious punishment) to local officials who do not meet higher quotas for the annual scrap metal drive. For years this program rewarded participants who scrounge up the largest amounts of unneeded metal for recycling. Worsening economic conditions prompted senior officials to push the quotas much higher and threaten local officials with severe penalties for not making the higher quotas. That resulted in metal that is definitely not scrap being collected as scrap. Thus a lot of equipment waiting for repairs (often because of a currently unavailable part) is now totally useless because it has been “scrapped.” This form of abuse has reached critical levels on farms where a lot of essential equipment was “scrapped” this year and even if spare parts became available a lot of farmers must now resort to pre-industrial methods (lots of human labor) to prepare the fields and plant crops. This will mean lower yields and physically exhausted (and very angry) farmers.
Another poorly thought out program is the reforestation effort. Since the 1990s illegal tree cutting has become increasingly common in North Korea as people sought fuel with which to survive the cold weather and increasing electric and coal shortages. 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 and thus able to halt the damage to forests. The problem in the north is that until there are real economic reforms and higher living standards reforestation will not succeed. During the cold weather people will continue to risk arrest to collect firewood from wherever they can to avoid death from intense cold.
Yet another source of tension between China and North Korea is North Korea arresting Chinese doing business in North Korea and accusing them of spying for South Korea. While some of those arrested may be guilty, most could also be considered spies for China. Any Chinese citizen travelling to North Korea can expect to be called in by the Chinese government to be debriefed by an intelligence analyst. To China this is normal, to North Korea it is espionage and that is punishable by death. The North Koreans are very aware of the network of Chinese spies inside North Korea. China long considered Chinese citizens immune from arrest and prosecution for spying but that is now changing, with the North Koreans using “they are South Korean spies” as an excuse to damage the Chinese intelligence network in North Korea. This, it is believed, would make it more difficult for China to stage a coup against a North Korean government that is increasingly unpopular in China.
April 7, 2015: American defense officials believe that North Korea has mastered the technology to build a nuclear weapon that will work on a ballistic missile. The Chinese apparently agree as in 2013 China joined the international effort to ban weapons exports to North Korea. In particular this was directed at the nuclear weapons program in the north and was expected to delay, at the very least, the development of a working warhead. The Chinese ban meant that many industrial items North Korea needs to make a workable nuclear warhead are no longer easily available from Chinese manufacturers. This was critical if North Korea was to “weaponize” their nuclear device design to work in a missile (or even an aircraft bomb). Russia had earlier made it very difficult for North Korea to obtain Russian warhead tech. In the past Russia had allowed older ballistic missile tech to be sold to North Korea, but since 2010 has stopped allowing any nuclear warhead stuff out. The same with technical assistance from Pakistan, which was helped by China to develop its nuclear warhead equipped missiles. The Chinese have apparently persuaded the Pakistanis to rebuff North Korean offers to buy warhead tech. For North Korea the biggest obstacle to having a useable nuclear weapon is a reliable warhead design. Testing such a design without actually firing a live nuke into the ocean requires another bunch of tech (and high-performance computers) that North Korea does not have. The North Koreans have been resourceful about situations like this in the past and were apparently able to build some of the banned industrial items themselves. That did not take as long as earlier estimated. Illegally obtaining some key chemicals and high-tech electronics was also apparently done more quickly than anticipated. Before the recent announcement it was believed it would be another 5-10 years before they would have a working warhead for their missiles, or at least one compact and reliable enough to be dropped from an aircraft. The new revelations indicate that the North Korea weapons smuggling operation has again succeeded in obtaining forbidden tech. Then again, maybe not and it may all be paranoia in high places. There is no real proof North Korea has a working nuclear warhead that can survive use on a ballistic missile.
The U.S. also believes that the North Korean the Taepodong (KN-08) ICBM is ready for service and is launched from a large truck. This mobility makes it more difficult to find and destroy. The Taepodong has a range of 9,000 kilometers, meaning it can reach the west coast of the United States. While mobile the Taepodong is a three stage liquid fueled rocket and that means hours are needed to get one ready for launch. The North Korean has long sought to develop an ICBM that can hit the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. In response to that the United States has already deployed an anti-missile system in Alaska specifically to stop any such North Korean attack. For the North Koreans to launch a successful attack they would need at least a dozen Taepodong missiles and be able to launch them simultaneously. If that happened, one or two might get through. But since the Taepodong is a liquid fueled missile, the lengthy launch preparations would alert the United States, who could then use ICBMs or bombers to destroy the Taepodongs before they were ready to go. Thus as a threat to the United States, the Taepodongs are a failure. But the next stage of ICBM development involves using solid fuel rockets, which can be launched without any warning. That is what North Korea is working towards. Ally Iran has made considerable progress in developing large solid fuel rocket motors and that technology would be available to North Korea. Iran got this tech from Pakistan, who got it from China who got it from Russia which stole it from the United States.
April 5, 2015: South Korea has regained its leadership in shipbuilding. In the first three months of 2015 South Korean firms received orders for 2.31 million tons (CGT or compensated gross tonnage) while second place Japan received 1.62 million tons and China 1.35. In 2012 South Korea lost its decade long battle with China to retain its lead in shipbuilding. That was because of a five year depression in the world market for shipping. This caused South Korean ship exports to fall 30 percent in 2012, to $37.8 billion. China, helped by government subsidies, saw ship exports fall only 10.3 percent, leaving China with $39.2 billion in export sales. The Chinese government has also been giving its ship builders lots of new orders for warships, which made its yards more profitable and better able to beat South Korea on price. The Chinese government also provides its ship builders with more loans, allowing the builders to offer better credit terms to customers. South Korea was still ahead of China in total orders for ships. China was not able to keep its lead as South Korea not only builds cheap but also does more complex work to higher quality standards. Chinese shipyards have been laying off workers because the new orders have been falling. Meanwhile South Korea, which always had the lead over China in building high-tech ships, is getting more orders for these more expensive (and profitable) designs.
April 3, 2015: North Korea test fired four unguided rockets out to 140 kilometers off its west coast. This follows similar “rocket tests” the day before. There has been an increase in this sort of thing in 2015. In mid-March they fired seven surface-to-air missiles off its east coast. This followed the firing of two SCUD ballistic missiles on the 2nd. These firing were supposed to be a form of protest against joint training exercises by American and South Korean forces that end on the 24th. These training exercises are held regularly by the most capable military forces and the U.S. and South Korea have long done this. That bothers North Korea a lot because since the 1990s North Korea has been too poor to keep up in the training department. These days its nearly one million troops spend most of their time growing food and working for civilian enterprises to earn money to pay for fuel and other supplies the government can no longer afford to provide. North Korea announced these recent missile “tests” as they usually do without mentioning that they have a growing number of missiles that are reaching their expiration date (when too many aging components make the weapon unreliable) and conducting all these missile and rocket firing “tests” off the coasts is largely a case of “use it or lose it” combined with “let’s try and scare our enemies.” But this sort of thing has been going on for so long that it no longer has much shock appeal, but it is good training for the troops who operate these missiles and good for morale when these launches seem to go well. What is never revealed is if the guidance systems of these missiles were still functional. The guidance systems are components most vulnerable to aging and it is believed that many of these elderly missiles are launched with the guidance systems disabled so that a guidance system failure would not turn the missile firing into an obvious failure (as the missile careened about under the control of a failing guidance system).
April 1, 2015: In Pakistan police arrested two North Korean diplomats who were caught illegally selling alcoholic beverages. In most Moslem countries the sale of alcoholic beverages are forbidden to very restricted. North Korea diplomats in Pakistan were caught selling alcohol in 2013 as well. Since the diplomats have diplomatic immunity all the host country can do is expel them. North Korea has to deal with this a lot. In March North Korea apologized to Bangladesh after a North Korean diplomat was caught trying to smuggle in 27 kg (59.4 pounds with $1.5 million) of gold into Bangladesh. The senior diplomat had diplomatic immunity and apparently hoped that would protect his luggage from inspection. In this case it didn’t. North Korean diplomats are notorious crooks and since the 1990s have been caught smuggling or distributing drugs and counterfeit currency as well. More recently they have used their diplomatic immunity to smuggle illegal items (it is illegal to bring more than two kg of gold into Bangladesh without declaring it and paying a fee). In most countries where North Korea ganger diplomats are most active local police pay special attention to the North Koreans in general. Other nations react by severely limiting the number of North Korea diplomats admitted and given diplomatic immunity. In severe cases the North Korean embassy gets shut down and all North Koreans expelled. This keeps North Korea on good behavior, or at least urging its diplomats to try harder to not get caught. But the gangster diplomats are still a major source of foreign currency and useful contacts with powerful foreign gangsters so they remain at work.
March 31, 2015: Japan is extending its economic sanctions on North Korea until 2017 because North Korea continues to delay the promised release of details on Japanese citizens North Korea kidnapped in the late 20th century.
March 30, 2015:
China rejected the North Korean effort to join the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). South Korea also applied and was accepted on March 26th. The AIIB is part of a Chinese effort to build an alternative to Western dominated financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank. The AIIB would serve as an option especially for friends of China in Asia. But the North Korean economy was seen as too far gone even for the AIIB. This Chinese decision was also seen as a message to North Korea to do what China wants or continue to suffer for it. North Korea has been increasingly hostile to Chinese investments in North Korea, which is counterproductive since North Korea needs the foreign exchange. Chinese leaders cannot understand this self-destructive behavior. South Korea, in contrast, has been very receptive to Chinese investment and Chinese investors have responded enthusiastically. For example a Chinese firm paid over a billion dollars in early 2015 to obtain a controlling interest in a major South Korean insurance company.
March 29, 2015: South Korea has flown most of its citizens (including diplomatic personnel) out of Yemen, where a civil war has gotten more intense and there is no government control in most of the country.
March 26, 2015: It is the fifth anniversary of the 2010 “war” in which a North Korean submarine sunk a South Korea corvette (eight months later North Korean artillery fired on a South Korean island and inflicted casualties, something the north takes credit for). North Korea still will not take credit for the torpedo attack but South Korea brought up the sunken ship and displayed fragments of the torpedo that clearly indicated it was North Korean. North Korea said it was all a conspiracy to make them look bad.
March 21, 2015: After three years of bickering officials from South Korea, China and Japan once more met to discuss what to do with an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable North Korea. The three also worked a growing list of other disputes (mainly territorial and economic). The most divisive issue has been Japanese refusal to admit that it behaved badly during World War II and the first half of the 20th century. That issue remains unresolved.
March 20, 2015: The North Korean ambassador to Britain said on TV that his country had a nuclear warhead for its missiles and would use them if threatened. This may all be a colossal bluff but it is an increasingly convincing bluff.
March 19, 2015: South Korea has openly called on China to stop using diplomatic threats and economic bribes in an effort to get South Korea to halt the installation of an anti-missile system. South Korea wants this American THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system for protection from North Korean missile attack. The Chinese would not come right out and say it but they object mainly because THAAD would also make South Korea less vulnerable to intimidation by Chinese ballistic missiles. South Korea openly refused to comply with the Chinese threats and South Korean public opinion became even more enthusiastic about the high tech and very expensive (over $100 million per launcher and associated equipment) THAAD system. China sees South Korea more of an ally of the United States and a potential wartime foe than as an ally in attempts to keep North Korea from doing anything that would cause major economic and diplomatic problems (like starting a war).
An American navy official said that North Korea is apparently developing a ballistic missile that can be fired from a submarine. The U.S. Navy calls this new North Korean missile the KN-11.