Korea: The North Blinks And Backs Off So Far


August 23, 2015: Ten hours of talks between officials from north and south ended at 4 AM with the announcement that the discussions would resume in 11 hours. The south refuses to turn off the DMZ loudspeakers until North Korea admits that it sent soldiers across the DMZ to plant landmines. The south wants the north to apologize for this, especially since two South Korean soldiers were wounded and it is unclear how many landmines were secretly emplaced. This land mine stunt was apparently another North Korean “protest” against the regular military training exercises held in the south. So far the north is denying everything yet the talks continue, indicating that the north may be seeking a face-saving way out of the mess it created.

The “peace talks” between north and south exist because the north is trying to make the best of a bad situation and has apparently turned the talks into high level (both sides have sent very senior officials to the talks) discussions of important matters (disarmament, foreign aid). The north wants to get something out of this because otherwise the whole situation has been a humiliating defeat. This all began when the north made its usual protest against joint training exercises by American and South Korean forces. These training exercises are held regularly by professional and well-funded military organizations and the U.S. and South Korea have long done this sort of thing. 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. These protests have been a favorite North Korean diplomatic ploy for over half a century. It goes like this, North Korea concentrates on building up their military forces, but keep details secret and insists they are all for peace. But at the same time, democracies, which have a free media, are criticized for the size and disposition of their armed forces, and for holding training exercises. If the U.S. or South Korea point this out to the north then North Korea denies everything and insists what goes on in North Korea i's none of your business. As absurd as this sounds, it's what's been going on for decades. This drill has become part of the media landscape and isn't really noticed by the locals any more. But occasionally it gets violent. In the 1950s and 60s, North Korea would attack American intelligence ships and aircraft outside their air space or coastal waters (as recognized by international law) for "spying." It's the old "what's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable" ploy taken to a deadly extreme.

But after 2010, when North Korea sank a South Korean warship with a torpedo and fired artillery at a South Korean island, the south refused to play by the old rules. In 2013 the South Korean government made the new rules public; in the future the south would shoot back before offering to talk and was prepared to escalate as much as necessary. This was calling the bluff of the north which, since the 1990s had seen its military fall apart while in the south forces were modernized and upgraded to the point where the Americans considered South Korea troops pretty much equivalent to American ones in terms of training and equipment. The only edge the Americans retained was extensive combat experience because of over a decade fighting Islamic terrorists. North Korea never admitted this new situation publicly, not until August 21st when they threatened war and backed off. Most North Korean leaders understand that South Korean leaders and voters are not afraid of the north anymore and are increasingly angry at the northern behavior and threats. The old North Korean tactics no longer work and are having the opposite effect. This is still a dangerous situation and many southern officials and political analysts believe that there are enough irrational people in the North Korean leadership to lead to another war. The north would lose, but the south would pay a high cost in lives and economic damage.

Meanwhile there are some positive aspects to all this. For example now it’s easier to get an accurate reading on what is happening in the north. That is largely because there are a lot more foreigners in the north these days, and most of them have cell phones which they use regularly. Thus it is easy for international media to get a quick update on how North Koreans are reacting at the moment. Right now the northerners are quite calm, despite all the propaganda about war and preparations for war. People in the north have heard all this before and know that it is all for show. Near the DMZ and Chinese borders troops are seen more frequently armed and outside their bases. Some overenthusiastic local officials near the borders have ordered evacuation drills for civilians. These are very unpopular with residents especially since they realize that the local official is trying to look good for his bosses and nothing else. North Koreans also know that if their government went to war with the south that government would be destroyed because it is no secret in the north, where young men are conscripted for up to ten years of military service that the military is in terrible shape. Many northerners, after a lifetime of propaganda from their own government have no doubt that the current crises is all the fault of the south, but they also know enough about the sorry state of their own military, especially compared to South Korean and American forces, that war is very unlikely unless the south starts it.

In the north some local officials along the Chinese border do have reason to be nervous. That’s because despite well publicized efforts to improve border security and prevent people from escaping North Korea, over a dozen people are known to have gotten out very recently. This is because most of these people were from two families with kin already in South Korea who helped plan the latest escape. These escapees are apparently on their way to south China so they can get to a South Korea embassy in Southeast Asia and then reach South Korea. The North Korean government may order executions among officials who are supposed to be preventing these escapes. This pressure from above and increasing incidents of violent resistance from North Koreans the police are ordered to deal with is causing a growing number of police to quit their jobs and find work in the growing private sector. Until quite recently this sort of thing was unheard of. Welcome to the rapidly evolving north.

Meanwhile China has allowed North Korea to expand the use of North Korea secret police in China as long as these agents speak fluent Chinese and wear Chinese police uniforms and try to act Chinese. There are believed to be nearly a hundred of these agents in China looking for North Korean illegally in China. When such people are found Chinese police must be called in to make the arrests and then send the escapees back to North Korea for punishment. The North Korean agents are also expected to report anything of interest (to local police or intelligence) to China and to behave themselves. In return these North Korean agents are allowed to go anywhere in China, which allows the agents to pursue North Koreans travelling south to get to an South Korean embassy in Southeast Asia when enables the one to ask for asylum and be moved to South Korea.

August 22, 2015: The North Korean deadline has passed for South Korea to turn off its loudspeakers broadcasting uncensored news into the north.  The loudspeakers are still at it.

August 21, 2015: North Korea orders its troops to prepare for war. South Korean media point that this is meaningless as the north does this all the time when it is upset for the slightest thing.

August 20, 2015: South Korea and North Korea fire artillery at each other. It began when the north fired an artillery shell at a South Korean base close to the DMZ. The return fire from the south was more intense (over 30 rounds) and accurate and the north fired back with machine-guns for a while then stopped.

August 15, 2015: North Korea, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II announced that it was returning to the standard time (30 minutes behind current time) used by Korea before the Japanese took over in 1910 (until 1945). South Korea will stay on the UTC +9 zone time along with Japan, eastern Indonesia and central Australia.

August 14, 2015: South Korea again sent many (about a hundred) police to prevent dissidents (North Koreans who had escaped to South Korea) from sending balloons into North Korea. In April the south finally acceded to northern pressure and began blocking these protests. At first South Korea had asked the dissidents to refrain, especially since the April 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 in 2014 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 were headed for the border. There is still a lot of support for the protestors in the south and that may lead to the government leaving the protestors alone.

August 12, 2015: Several thousand South Korean and American troops began their long planned (and much protested by North Korea) joint training exercises.

It was revealed that another senior North Korean official (a vice-premier) was quietly executed earlier in 2015 for disagreeing with the policies of North Korean leader (and hereditary dictator) Kim Kong Un. This makes at least fifteen such senior officials executed in the north this year by the 30 something Kim Jong Un. Since 2011, when Kim Jong Un took power, there have been at least a hundred executions of people disobeying or otherwise offending the new leader.  

August 11, 2015: South Korea concluded that the landmine that went off on the south side of the DMZ on the 4th (seriously wounding two of four soldiers patrolling the area) were North Korean. Other mines were later found in the area. At first it was thought that the mines were old ones which had “migrated” because of time and weather. Mines like this show up occasionally near the DMZ, where millions of mines have been planted (and most removed) since the 1950s. But on closer examination it was clear these were recently manufactured North Korean mines.

August 10, 2015: South Korea resumed news broadcasts from large speakers on their side of the DMZ. In a 2004 peace deal with the north both sides agreed to halt the use of loudspeakers on the DMZ as well as attacks on each other. These attacks are almost all North Korean operations but the north was willing to make this deal in return for some desperately needed economic aid. According to the south the north officially broke this deal in 2010 with two very public military attacks on the south. As a result eleven loudspeaker systems were installed on the DMZ but were not turned on until today. A week later the north resumed using loudspeakers on their side of the border, but these are mainly to cancel out the message (uncensored news, South Korean pop music and such) coming from the south. The northern broadcasts features praise for North Korean leaders and the superior lifestyle of the north.

August 8, 2015: In the north the government issued new orders banning unauthorized public meetings of three or more people. The government is responding to growing public complaints about poor economic conditions and low living standards. In reality this new rule is another opportunity for the police to collect bribes.



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