In the north the state controlled media has tried to spin the recent (mid-March) removal from office of the elected South Korean leader. Most North Koreans don’t really care as just getting enough to eat occupies all their attention. But for the donju (entrepreneurs) and members of the ruling class the events down south are disturbing because the South Korean people legally removed a corrupt leader from power. This was done, for the first time in Korean history, via impeachment. In mid-March the South Korean Constitutional Court approved the impeachment vote by the legislature. This impeachment was a popular move because president Park had been found guilty of corruption, something she pledged to fight against while campaigning for office. Northerners are having a hard comprehending all this. Back in 2012 news that 60 year old Park Geun Hye had won the South Korean presidential election spread quickly through North Korea and what amazed most northerners was that a woman, and the daughter of a disgraced dictator at that, could become leader of South Korea. Now the amazement continues and in the north those who have the time quietly discuss among themselves the fact that the Koreans down south are not only rich (something northern propagandists denied for decades) but also have political power unimaginable in the north.
What happened with the South Korean impeachment story backfiring on northern propagandists was not unique. Equally disturbing is the popular reaction to all the propaganda stories about the continued ballistic missile tests and development efforts. Impoverished and hungry northerners can do the math and realize that fewer rockets would mean more food and fuel for the people who need it. The secret police dutifully report this shift in popular opinion but the senior leadership is having a hard time adjusting. For decades the North Korean government depended on threats to maintain control and no one can conceive of any realistic alternative to what has become a losing strategy.
Bad news is being reported more accurately in the north because earlier in 2017 the government investigated senior secret police officials suspected of corruption and found more bad behavior than expected. Leader Kim Jong Un ordered punishment for the guilty (or suspiciously affluent). This consisted of demotions or worse (execution) as appropriate. One of the senior officials purged was Kim Wong Hon, who was in charge of monitoring the popular mood. He had gotten himself into trouble by delivering inaccurate reports that hid the degree to which most North Koreans had lost faith in their government. Kim Wong Hong was basically a greedy thief who thought he could mask his embezzlement by delivering positive (but fabricated) reports of popular opinion. Many senior officials had other sources these of attitudes on the street and began to compare notes. Particularly disturbing was the deliberate underreporting of the growing tendency of North Koreans to openly criticize the government and mock officials, including secret police, they deal with. The attitude is; “you are killing us anyway so why not talk back.” Kim Wong Hong apparently thought reporting this accurately would reflect poorly on the leadership of the secret police.
Now that Kim Kong Un is getting all the facts about popular opinion he may wish he wasn’t. The secret police and border guards have been ordered to stop news of the recently deceased Kim Jong Nam from getting into North Korea and spreading. Details of how Kim Jong Un murdered his older brother Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia are getting into North Korea the usual way, via Chinese and North Koreans legally crossing the Chinese border on business. North Korea cannot seal the border completely because the nation would soon starve. So the best the secret police can do is slow down the flow of news and take notes on what people are saying.
The bad news here is that most North Koreans believe it is shameful for a brother to murder his older brother, especially when the elder brother was not a real threat to the younger one. All the older brother wanted to do was get out of North Korea, which is what most North Koreans want to do. Thus the details of what happened to the older brother are big news in North Korea, even if it can only be discussed in whispers. Many North Koreans were not surprised that the older brother was murdered in Malaysia on February 14th using droplets of VX nerve gas. North Koreans are amazed at the lengths the younger brother has gone to try and suppress the details and get the body back to North Korea for a yet unknown fate. At the moment most North Koreans see Kim Jong Nam as the tragic victim of a paranoid and vicious younger brother, who happens to be the hereditary ruler of North Korea. Kim Jong Un is apparently unsure how this will all work out. But noting what the Koreans down south recently did to their leader, Kim Jong Un and a lot of other North Koreans are dreading where all this is going.
Some North Koreans are taking action. For example secret police recently entered a home near the Chinese border without a warrant. The secret police were checking a report that someone in the area was using a Chinese cell phone to call outside the country. The woman attacked the policemen when she discovered they had no warrant. The police disarmed and arrested her and did not report the incident because you are supposed to get a warrant these days. Word of this incident got out and quickly spread.
This is bad news because at the end of 2016 Kim Jong Un ordered that the secret police cease searches of homes without a warrant. Obtaining a warrant is a minor hassle for the secret police but this new order was meant to reduce the incidence of secret police threatening to search an affluent looking home and making it clear that a cash bribe would make this go away. The warrants leave a paper trail of such activity and was well received by the growing number of entrepreneurs who are supplying a growing portion of vital foreign currency for the government. This new rule was popular and now it is being ignored by secret police seeking to keep bad news out of the country.
The Neighbors Agree
One thing Chinese, Japanese, South Koreans and Americans agree on (according to recent polls) is that North Korea is dangerous and unpredictable. Opinion surveys in the United States show over 60 percent of Americans feel that way and current Chinese policy is being driven by the fact that Chinese popular opinion turned against North Korea before the government did and government efforts to use their vast propaganda bureaucracy to manipulate that opinion did not work because the anti-North Korea attitudes were too entrenched and proved impossible to change. For that, and many other reasons, the Chinese leaders are now seriously considering how to remove the Kim dynasty and what to replace it with.
For China the main threat from North Korea is economic. China wants to avoid chaos in North Korea because that would be bad for the Chinese economy and increase the threat of conflict with even more dangerous opponents like Japan, South Korea and the United States. The most extreme (but acceptable) measures China could try include literally taking control of North Korea (which China has done in the distant past). Staging a coup in North Korea has always been a possibility but the paranoid (for good reason in this case) North Korean leadership has made it difficult for China to recruit enough North Korean officials to make this feasible. That said, the potential is still there and China could still go this route. Many North Koreans believe that the Chinese will just move in and take over if it appears that the North Korean government is about to fall apart or otherwise becoming too dangerous to China. The Chinese takeover plan apparently includes installing pro-Chinese North Koreans as head of a new "North Korean" government, and instituting the kind of economic reforms they have been urging the North Korean to undertake for over a decade. Fear of this sort of thing is apparently a major reason why Kim Jong Un had his brother assassinated in February. The older brother had frequently let it be known that he had no interest in running North Korea.
The Chinese do not want North Korea to merge with South Korea, nor do they want North Korea to collapse economically and politically because that would send millions of desperate and starving refugees into northern China. All the neighbors (especially China and South Korea) want North Korea to stay independent, and harmless. Thus China is willing to unofficially annex North Korea, knowing that the South Koreans would go along with this as long as the fiction of North Korean independence was maintained. South Korea won't admit this, but most South Koreans know that absorbing North Korea would put a big dent in South Korean living standards. That is more unpopular than any other outcome. While all Koreans would like a united Korea, far fewer are willing to pay the price.
Socialism Follows The Money
In the north the government may be socialist in theory but in practice they follow the money. Thus a growing number of state run factories in North Korea have become market based enterprises. The police, and even the secret police, spend more time collecting taxes, fees and “contributions” from the growing number of donju (entrepreneurs).People are responding by devoting much imagination and energy to evading the demands (which keep growing) from a desperate government that is under increasing international economic pressure. The North Korean government is nothing if not adaptive, which is how it has survived for so long. So the secret police have now been ordered to not only collect more money but also to do it with minimal use of terror. Popular opinion and morale is important, even in a police state. It was never easy being in the secret police and with all the economic problems it just keeps getting worse. Yet compared to most other North Koreans, being in the secret police pays well and there is a degree of job security not found anywhere else in the north.
The tax collectors up north have a hard job. In the last year China has enforced the sanctions more than ever before. That suddenly put a lot more government enterprises out of business and forced over a million people to find a new source of income. State owned firms, particularly those producing military goods, were always seen as immune to nationwide economic problems. But China cutting off much of its trade hit the military factories hard and now there are desperate people seeking food and other necessities. Many of these newly unemployed did not expect it and there is an increase in suicides and petty crime in the areas where large state owned factories abruptly shut down in the last year. At the same time government officials are finding out that they no longer control the economy. That began during the 1990s when the government could no longer provide basic food and energy needs because decades of Russian economic subsidies were cut off. The growing power of the black market (and now legal free markets) means price controls no longer work either.
What it has come to is that the government will allow an illegal enterprise to operate as long as they pay the bribes and fees demanded by the government and do not engage in activities that threaten the Kim dynasty. While much of this additional income goes to the “special weapons “ (nukes and missiles) programs and gifts to keep the senior officials loyal a lot is spent on vanity projects that glorify the Kim dynasty. This is a problem when word gets around that work continues on these vanity projects (especially new, and very visible one, in the capital) while aid for reconstruction in northwestern areas hit by major floods is not arriving as promised. In the past the news of these shortages would not get around, but with the cell phones that is no longer possible.
The Bangladesh Bank Bust
Internet security network experts in many countries (including Russia) agree that it was most likely North Korean hackers, working for their government that recently hacked into the Bangladesh banking system and managed to get $100 million transferred before detected and shut down. The hackers were attempting to get a billion dollars transferred to dozens of accounts elsewhere in the world and use that cash to pay for imports, particularly illegal ones. Earlier and very similar attempts on banks in Vietnam, Gabon and Nigeria failed but were believed to be the work of the North Korean hackers.
Meanwhile this is not the first time North Koreans got into trouble for criminal behavior in Bangladesh. In early 2015 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).
April 9, 2017: South Korea and the United States made official announcements that the U.S. was not considering an attack on Kim Jong Un in an effort to replaced his government. Kim Jong Un is alarmed that on April 6th the U.S. bombed a Syrian airbase because Syria used nerve gas against its own people. Today an American naval task force (containing a large aircraft carrier and three destroyers armed with cruise missiles) was ordered to move immediately from Singapore to the Korean coast. What’s a paranoid dictator to think? The U.S. has also recently said that from now on it is ignoring all the “media theater” North Korea loves to broadcast and concentrating on concrete measures to remove nuclear weapons and long range missiles from North Korea. Kim Jong Un keeps issuing statements that war is imminent. But he and his predecessors have been doing that for a long time and there has been no war. These declarations no longer have any meaning and the Americans are calling out Kim Jong Un on that point. Everyone knows that if Kim Jong Un ordered a military attack on South Korea, Japan and any U.S. forces they can reach it would be the end of Kim rule in North Korea and probably the end of Kim Jong Un as well.
April 7, 2017: Japan extended its 2006 economic sanctions against North Korea for two more years. Until 2006 one of the best sources of cash for North Korea was the 600,000 ethnic Koreans living in Japan. The Japanese Koreans long viewed North Korea as some kind of fictional paradise, especially because of North Koreas hostility to Japan. While the Koreans in Japan prospered (at least compared to Koreans in North Korea), they also continued to suffer discrimination from Japanese. But as word of the great North Korean famine of the 1990s leaked out, many Koreans in Japan lost faith in their dreams. North Korea was no paradise, no promised land. Some moved to South Korea, others got more comfortable with Japanese culture, and everyone was less willing to contribute cash to the cause up north. But even in 2006 there were still many Japanese Koreans willing to do business with North Korea but the sanctions put a large dent in that.
April 6, 2017: South Korea revealed that it had recently conducted a successful test of a locally made solid fuel ballistic missile with a range of 800 kilometers. This enables South Korea to hit targets anywhere in North Korea with weapons (ballistic missiles) that North Korea is not equipped to stop. This comes 18 months after the announcement that a ballistic missile with a range of 500 kilometers was successfully tested. That test ended decades of restrictions on South Korean ballistic missile development. In 2012 the United States halted its efforts to restrict South Korean missile development. The South Koreans tried for over a decade to develop warmer relations with North Korea and all efforts failed. The 2010 North Korea attacks (using artillery and a torpedo than sank a warship) on South Korea changed a lot of attitudes in South Korea, and the United States. North Korea is still a big problem but since 2010 South Korea has been free to try whatever it thinks will work.
April 5, 2017: For the second time since February North Korea conducted a test a mobile ballistic missile test in which the “Polaris 2” (or KN-15) was successfully fired from canister on a tracked vehicle acting as a TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher). The TEL used the same cold launch used by the North Korean “Polaris 1” SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile). The February test had the missile going 500 kilometers while the test today only went 60 kilometers, indicating a possible failure. The Polaris (or Pukguksong) 2 appears to be the same missile as the Polaris 1, except that it was fired from a canister on a TEL instead of a silo in a submarine. A mobile TEL carrying a ballistic missile that can reach all of South Korea and parts of Japan (and China), especially one armed with a chemical or nuclear warhead, makes North Korea a much more dangerous threat.
April 4, 2017: China is prosecuting two South Korean clergymen for assisting North Koreans to escape from North Korea and into China. These arrests are part of a crackdown that began in February when China expelled 32 South Korean Christian missionaries who were working along the North Korean border. The missionaries have long worked among the many ethnic Koreans living in the area. Most of these ethnic Koreans are Chinese citizens but a growing number are illegal migrants from North Korea. The two South Korean missionaries currently being prosecuted were apparently selected for this treatment as a warning to South Koreans in general.
April 3, 2017: South Korea, Japan and the U.S. began three days of joint military exercises. These mainly involved ships and aircraft from the three countries coordinating efforts to search for and destroy North Korean submarines.
March 31, 2017: In South Korea former (since March 10th) president Park Geun Hye was arrested and charged with corruption and related crimes that had made her the first South Korean president to be removed from office for misbehavior. In 2012 South Korea elected Park Geun Hye as its first female president. The charges she faces now could put her in prison for up to ten years.
March 30, 2017: Malaysia and North Korea announced an agreement in which the body of Kim Jong Nam, would be handed over to North Korea and in return North Korea would release the nine Malaysians detained (prevented from leaving) North Korea after Malaysia refused to turn over the body immediately. Malaysia will also allow three North Koreans, suspected of organizing the murder, to leave Malaysia. Apparently these negotiations have been going on since the first week of March. Malaysia had already arrested two North Koreans as suspects in the murder of Kim Jong Nam. Malaysia also wants to arrest two North Koreans who fled the country shortly after the murder. A North Korea diplomats believed involved in the murder plot was hiding out in the North Korean embassy along with a North Korean airlines official who is also a suspect. It is believed that North Korea will burn the body when they get it and insist that Kim Jong Nam died of a heart attack.
March 23, 2017: North Korea appears to be preparing to conduct another underground nuclear test. That would be the sixth such test.
March 22, 2017: North Korea conducted another long-range ballistic missile test with a large missile that exploded shortly after launch. The failed missile appeared to have been a Musudan, which first appeared in 2011. This missile is believed to have a range of up to 4,000 kilometers. That would put American bases in Guam (3,200 kilometers from North Korea) within range.
March 19, 2017: North Korea released photos of a recent ground test of a new rocket engine capable of powering a missile that could reach North America. The test was described as successful.
March 17, 2017: Japan launched another radar reconnaissance satellites to keep an eye on North Korea military developments. Japan has three photo and three radar satellites in orbit that allows the Japanese to monitor specific areas of North Korea. Japan has been using its growing fleet of recon satellites to do this since the 1990s. North Korea complains every time a new one is ignored and Japan ignores the complaints.