South Korean intelligence officials believe that North Korea has executed at least fifteen prominent government employees so far this year for things like espionage or disagreeing with government policies. Supreme leader Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather, is paranoid and demanding. Thus it was no surprise when he recently formed a special “guard” unit of several hundred men and women who would spy on the rest of his bodyguards, senior officials and the secret police, all of which have shown signs of taking bribes and otherwise misbehaving. The punishment for such misbehavior among the most trustworthy is execution. The new “guards” can arrest anyone they deem guilty or suspect. The new guards report directly to Kim Jong Un.
For those not worth a bullet the north has introduced frequent surprise inspections of railroad passengers. This is to discourage attempts to get to the Chinese border and leave North Korea illegally. The trains are the cheapest and easiest way to get to the border, in part because railroad officials can be bribed to allow travelers without travel documents (you need government permission to travel outside your province) to board. It’s cheaper to bribe railroad conductors than to go after local officials who provide travel documents. That’s because the corrupt local official could more easily be identified and shot if you get caught. The government has called on the army to organize special “RRFs” (Rapid Reaction Forces) to trusted troops to make these surprise inspections of trains. The troops get off base and there’s some opportunity to engage in a little looting while searching luggage. The RRFs are not popular, but then neither is much of anything the government does.
North Koreans know that any Chinese who visits, be they business travelers or government officials, are also spies and will report anything they learn (officially or, especially, otherwise) back to Chinese intelligence. So the North Korean government is restricting the number of Chinese business visitors. Unlike Chinese tourists, business visitors can go lots of places tourists are barred from. Despite the fact that this further discourages Chinese firms from investing the government feels it is worth the cost. That’s because entirely too many state secrets are getting out. Meanwhile Chinese have been backing away from investing in China for several years now, mainly because of all the corruption (among government officials) and poor infrastructure (decrepit roads, railways and inadequate and unreliable electrical supplies). Travel restrictions is just one more aggravation on a long list.
Meanwhile the United States is continuing a decade old effort to reorganize its remaining forces in South Korea. This now involves expanding the only remaining U.S. Army division (the 2nd Infantry) with the addition of a South Korean mechanized infantry brigade. This gives the division two combat brigades, the other one being American. South Korean officers and troops are also being added to division headquarters. The division will still be commanded by an American and the South Korean brigade will still belong to the South Korean Army but will serve as part of an American division rather than a South Korean one. This form of cooperation is actually part of a trend that has been underway for a long time. American troops have been in South Korea for over sixty years and the U.S. has always said it would stand by its South Korean ally. But the U.S. has had to constantly adapt to doing that with fewer troops. At the end of the Korean War, in 1953, there were over 350,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. Within a year, that shrank to 223,000, and by 1955 it was only 85,000. By the mid-60s it was 63,000 and a decade later there were only 42,000. There it stayed for over two decades. Then came the September 11, 2001 and the war on terror. By 2004 the U.S. force in South Korea was down to 37,000. In 2006 that dropped to 30,000 and in 2008 it went to 28,000.
May 1, 2015: Chinese police are investigating the murder of three rural Chinese near the North Korean border. It is suspected that the killers were North Korean soldiers. There was a time, a few years ago, when China and North Korea kept incidents like this quiet. No longer, mainly because it is happening more frequently and China believes the North Koreans are losing control with desertions in their military and security services on the rise. The last such confirmed incident was in December 2014. There are often no announcements of these murders in Chinese media but the diplomatic protests are usually news outside of China and despite Chinese Internet censorship news of these murders gets into China and spreads rapidly. Since at least 2008 North Korea has been trying to do something about the growing number of soldiers who are deserting and fleeing to China. There are always some troops who desert and just disappear inside North Korea. But more of these deserters are being found in China, and South Korea. Those who make it to South Korea report that the troops are now going hungry, and senior officers are stockpiling food and attempting to move their families to China. The worst desertion incidents are the ones where the deserters take firearms with them and rely on robbery to survive. This is especially bad if they do this while still wearing their North Korean uniforms. Both China and North Korea have increased their border security but the number of people, armed or not, trying to get out of North Korea increases faster and the escapees are more desperate and resourceful. China also announced the formation of a civilian militia along the North Korean border to watch the border and promptly alert border troops if anything suspicious is seen.
April 28, 2015: For the first time in five years South Korea has approved a proposal by a private aid group to send up to 60 tons of badly needed fertilizer to North Korea. It appears that the government up there pledged to not divert the aid for government programs (like sending it to China for sale in order to obtain foreign currency).
April 27, 2015: Russia reported that there are 20 percent more North Koreans working in Russia now than a year ago. This is mostly in parts of Russia near the North Korean border, where there is a shortage of Russians for jobs in factories, construction and lumbering operations. Russia reported that 47,364 North Koreans were working in Russia at the start of 2015. 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 over 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.
April 26, 2015: The U.S. has again warned its citizens to be careful if travelling to North Korea and to avoid doing so in the first place if at all possible. The warning repeated past cautions about the lawless and unpredictable behavior of the North Korean government when it comes to foreigners.
April 25, 2015: Chinese experts believe North Korea has at least twenty nuclear weapons and has managed to develop the complex tech to use some of these warheads on ballistic missiles. Previous Western estimates were for 10-16 nukes and none working while on missiles. While all this North Korean weapons tech is primitive by Chinese or Western standards, it will work. Because of the nationalist ideology used (some would say worshipped) in North Korea, China is portrayed as an ancient enemy that must be watched carefully no matter how friendly they pretend to be. Thus China sees itself at risk from these nukes, especially since the Kim dynasty that has ruled North Korea for 70 years has become more and more unpredictable and threatening to all its neighbors.
April 22, 2015: North Korea has built a military facility on an uninhabited island off the west coast near the maritime border between the two Koreas. This is the same area where North Korean rockets were fired at a South Korean island in late 2010. In this incident some 200 shells and rockets were fired at Yeonpyeong Island over a two hour period. Four South Koreans were killed and about fifty injured. Most of the shells and rockets appeared to land in the water. South Korea artillery on Yeonpyeong Island, after a getting permission from the Defense Ministry, began returning fire. It's since been discovered that the return fire was quite accurate, and ten North Korean troops were killed and dozens wounded. If the South Koreans had fired back right away (instead of waiting for their most senior leaders in the capital to give permission), the North Korea casualties would have been higher. The North Koreans are aware of this, and there was a big debate in the north over the wisdom of trying that sort of attack again. The South Korean return fire, and its accuracy, reminded the northerners that down south the troops are armed with much more modern and effective weapons. Since then South Korea has improved its ability to respond quickly and believe that the new North Korean island facility is either for observing nearby Yeonpyeong Island to ensure more accurate artillery fire next time, or to place some artillery weapons on the small island (or both). The new base also makes it easier to gather information on what the South Korean military is doing on Yeonpyeong Island, perhaps in preparation for a future invasion.
April 21, 2015: South Korean Internet security experts presented more proof that several widely felt Internet based attacks on South Korea were the work of North Korean hackers. The proof, again, was more of the text in the hacker software that could be traced back to North Korea.
April 20, 2015: North Korea made to another Top Ten list and is not pleased. This time it was a report on government censorship worldwide. The ten worst offenders were (very worst first); Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China, Burma and Cuba.
April 15, 2015: For the first time in five years Japan and South Korea held official defense cooperation talks. The delay was because of anger at Japan, which is unwilling to keep apologizing to China and Korea for atrocities during the war. Officially Japan is putting more effort into its defensive alliance with the United States. South Korea has regularly turned down Japanese proposals that both nations coordinate military policy against common enemies (China and North Korea). Such cooperation is still very unpopular in South Korea because of continued anger over 40 years of brutal Japanese occupation early in the 20th century. This the Japanese consider self-destructive as it wallows in the past at the expense of dealing with current and future threats. Meanwhile there is growing unofficial cooperation. This includes unpublicized joint training exercises and meetings between defense officials from both nations.
April 13, 2015: India accused North Korea of continuing to sell Pakistan ballistic missile technology. It is already known that North Korea paid renegade Pakistani scientists at least $3.5 million for nuclear weapons technology in the late 1990s and that technical cooperation between the two countries continued.
In Tripoli, Libya gunmen fired into the South Korean embassy compound, killing two Libyan security guards but caused little damage. ISIL is suspected.
April 9, 2015: North Korean believes that Mexican security forces are illegally holding a North Korean ship. The Mexicans replied that they are complying with United Nations sanctions regarding North Korea. The ship is owned by an internationally sanctioned (blacklisted) North Korean shipping company. In the recent past ships owned by the company were discovered carrying sanctioned goods like weapons, luxury goods and technology related to missile and nuclear weapons development programs. All this is because in July 2014 the North Korean vessel ran aground on a reef in the Gulf of Mexico east of Tuxpan while on its way home after visiting Cuba. The ship remains in Tuxpan. Yesterday North Korea accused Mexico of illegally holding the ship and threatened Mexico if it failed to release the vessel. When North Korea issues a threat, everyone thinks of either terror attack or military action. It is conceivable that North Korea could conspire with a violent drug cartel operating in Mexico.
April 8, 2015: The South Korean government finally succumbed to North Korean threats and sent dozens of police to prevent dissidents (North Koreans who had escaped to South Korea) in South Korea from sending balloons into North Korea. At first South Korea asked the dissidents to refrain, especially since the latest balloon release would carry 2,000 DVDs of a movie (The Interview) that made North Korea very unhappy. There was a lot of debate in the south over this because South Korea is a democracy and there is no law against the balloons and not a lot of enthusiasm to outlaw this. The dissidents then stopped announcing when or where they were releasing the balloons to float north. This was largely the result of South Korean opposition, not threats from the north. This began in 2014 when the dissidents 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 were 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 cannot be ignored because last year North Korean troops fired machine-guns into the south. While that did not kill anyone, artillery fire would be different. By the end of 2014 South Koreans living close to the border began blocking roads or calling on local police to stop people from releasing balloons. This was difficult to do and ultimately the police assigned some surveillance personnel watch to the dissidents and mobilized an interception effort when it was known that the dissident vehicles (a trucks and some cars) were headed for the border. The dissidents were halted 20 kilometers from the border and convinced to return home, for now.