May 22, 2018:
After the April 27 meeting between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea the two Koreas presented the news to their people differently. South Korea has a free press and there was no single analysis of what comes next or even what happened at the meeting at the DMZ. It took a few days for North Koreans to decide how to present the news to their population. The North Korean people were told that their leader had demonstrated what a great diplomat he was by convincing the South Koreans to agree to end the Korean War and work with the north to achieve reunification and a single Korean economy. The North Korean message played down the denuclearization angle and intrusive verification inspections. The government also increased efforts to keep foreign news out of North Korea. That is impossible but the government has proved adept at slowing down the flow of foreign news into and throughout North Korea. At the same time, the government is seeking to convince the top few percent of the population (key people and their families) that their continued prosperity depends on supporting government policy. Most of the “few percenters” do believe but a growing number do not and more and more are getting out of North Korea and disclosing embarrassing details of how North Korea is run (into the ground).
Many of these new defectors are officials who run into financial problems while engaged in corrupt activities. In these situations, it is often a matter of “run or die.” The government is also cracking down on officials who make a lot of money via smuggling or other semi-legal activity and do not share enough of it with the state. Another problem is donju (free market entrepreneurs) using their wealth to pay the necessary bribes that will get a friend of relative into the lower-level government jobs and then, over a few years, promoted because of more bribes. While most of this infiltration is to make it easier for powerful donju to do business senior North Korean officials see this as a setup for a potential coup or revolution. Those fears may be exaggerated but when you are running a dictatorship a certain amount of paranoia is mandatory. This is especially true when you realize that the growing number of economically successful “defectors” were found to be smuggling a lot more cash into North Korea for a variety of reasons not all of them family related. In North Korea foreign currency, especially Chinese yuan and American dollars, can easily be weaponized. Chinese moves are also increasingly suspect. Kim Jong Un has often indicated that he feared China more than South Korea or the Americans. China is now the main conduit for imports and exports. Essentials like food come mainly from China but so do smuggled goods (both the items the North Korean government wants and those it forbids). Currently North Korea is trying to keep out news about the negotiations between North Korea and America (as well as South Korea). In North Korea the government wants to control news about those negotiations and if too much truthful information gets in there is more unrest. Yet China has quite deliberately made it easier for smugglers on the Chinese side.
No CVID (Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearization) Wanted
For North Korea denuclearization means no more American nuclear powered warships visiting Korean ports or even entering Korean territorial waters. North Korea also wants a guarantee that the United States will never use nuclear weapons against North Korea for any reason. At the same time, the North Korean people are still told that North Korea will never give up their nukes. The other complication is that while most North Koreans would like to live like South Koreans (having seen the videos of South Korean films as well as TV news and entertainment shows), their government does not want to go that far. North Korean leaders are against a merger as are most South Koreans (especially the younger ones). North Korean leaders already live well but would lose their power if there were a unification. South Koreans understand that a merger would mean an enormous rise in living standards in the north. This would be paid for by South Koreans who would face over a decade of much higher taxes.
The next step in this peace process is the meeting between Kim and the American president on June 12th in Singapore. If there is a deal at the June meeting then comes working out the details of the denuclearization agreement and how it would be monitored. The North Koreans have cheated often in the past and unless there are adequate monitoring safeguard there will be no deal. The U.S. has made that clear and there is general agreement with that demand in the U.S., South Korea and Japan. China will have a veto over any deals, mainly because China has been, and will probably remain, North Korea’s main trading partner even after sanctions are lifted. The problem here is that North Korea is unlikely to allow American style verification (where there are no “off limits” areas). This is the dreaded CVID clause that is especially repugnant to the North Korean leadership. That’s because up north there are many secrets, especially ones North Korea leaders know could result in war crimes prosecutions. North Korea would offer a compromise in which the north would pretend it got rid of its nukes and the U.S. would pretend it has verified that and believes it. This may seem possible to the North Koreans but in the United States and South Korea, it would not work. A free media means it is impossible to hide such things for long and both the Americans and South Koreans are well aware that they were deceived several times by North Korea since the 1990s.
Most North Koreans know nothing of all this. For decades all North Koreans were told was that the United States was an implacable enemy of Korea and particularly North Korea. While North Koreans were told much about the unprecedented April meeting between leaders from both Koreas they have been told little about the planned June meeting between the North Korean and American leaders. North Koreans have not been told the date (June 12th) or location (Singapore) much less anything about how crucial the Singapore meeting is. The American president is a skilled negotiator and has already demonstrated that many times. The North Koreans have been told, openly and in confidential meetings, that if their leader is not willing to make a deal the American president will thank them for the effort and walk away. The North Koreans have not been told about the pressure China has put on North Korean leaders to make a deal or else.
North Koreans still know little about what happened during the rare visit to China by Kim Jong Un in late March. It appears that those talks with the Chinese leader cleared the way for North Korea to make peace with South Korea and the West in general. The meeting was seeming at the request of Kim and China expressed satisfaction with the results (and probably suggested Kim make the request to begin with). China apparently showed its approval by loosening up the sanctions a bit. A few hundred North Korea female workers were allowed back into China and there were a few other minor concessions. Apparently China also relaxed its enforcement of sanctions when it came to sending all North Korea workers home. Everyone was optimistic and North Korea announced that it was willing to give up its nukes and officially end the Korean War. All this was possible if South Korea and the West (especially the Americans) provided some immediate help for broken economy in North Korea. The South Koreans and Americans indicated that was all possible. But the devil was in the details and those details were not known yet, especially the importance of CVID.
Historically, negotiating with North Korea has been difficult, if not impossible. In the past North Korean leaders would renege on the few deals they appeared to make and always asked for more than could expect to get. This time it appears to be different, even though North Korea appears to be using some of its traditional negotiating methods. Yet this time definitely is different. China is fed up with how North Korea is being run. Even with the Chinese censorship of their Internet some public issues (corruption, pollution, North Korea) to break loose and it is possible to see what Chinese really think. North Korea is one of those “we are fed up” issues in China. Meanwhile the Chinese have been pressing North Korea for over a decade to change and that eventually escalated to the current “change or else” level. New leaders in South Korea and the United States are unwilling to tolerate any more North Korean unwillingness to make peace. The world agrees and the UN has approved the recent expansion of sanctions and these sanctions are so extensive and strictly enforced that they are having an unprecedented impact on North Korea.
The most advantageous move for North Korea is to give up the nukes in return for economic aid and at the same time institute more economic reforms inside North Korea. Because North Korea has often rejected the most advantageous moves in the past there is no guarantee that North Korea will do what is in its best interest this time. Yet it appears that the North Koreans are ready and willing to actually help themselves for once. Then again the Chinese may have pointed out that North Korea cannot feed itself without access to Chinese food supplies and that China has many friends in the North Korean bureaucracy and the North Korean leader knows that because he tried, and failed, to get find and eliminate most of them. There were too many and often these pro-China officials had hidden their attitudes very well. China could replace the Kim government. It would be messy and expensive for China but it could be done. However, if North Korea had a lot of effective nuclear weapons (which they do not have yet) that could be an unacceptable threat to China. It also became clear to North Korea that for once the Americans, China and South Korea are all united in insisting that there be some fundamental reforms in North Korea. By the mid-June the meetings with South Korean and American leaders and Kim Jong Un will have taken place. A deal will have been agreed on, or not. If there is a deal it will require verification and that can be implemented quickly, as can the delivery of economic aid. So within two or three months, it will be clear if all this is a major change for North Korea or more of the same old mistakes. That in itself is progress of a sort.
Tax Farmers Getting Rich
In North Korea, the growing shortages have led to the national police becoming the most corrupt government official most North Koreans encounter. The police are responsible for ensuring public order. The main function of the police is not to protect North Koreas but to ensure they follow the rules. There are a lot of rules and the police have, over the last decade, become increasingly corrupt as the government has made more demands on the population for free labor and “contributions” (of cash or goods) for special projects. The contributions are mandatory and the local police enforce this. The police have become increasingly adept at finding ways to extort additional payments from people and the government has adopted the policy of not interfering as long as the police ensure the free labor and contributions keep coming without any breakdown in public order. This is similar to the ancient custom of kings appointing “tax farmers” to go and collect cash or goods from the population and take a cut for themselves. Greedy tax farmers were the cause of many revolutions throughout history.
North Korean leaders are aware of the backlash their “tax farming” is causing and have been legalizing more free market activities as quickly as they feel is prudent. The resulting “donju” (entrepreneurs) class have been told that if they remain loyal and useful (pay high taxes and large bribes) they will be free to do what they do. As a result, Kim has kept the economy growing, slowly, despite sanctions. This impressed the Chinese who nonetheless pointed out that there still a lot of hunger and privation in North Korea and that will cause more unrests, especially with much more prosperous Chinese and South Koreans for neighbors. North Korea must do something to lift the sanctions as well as living standards and the Chinese apparently told Kim if that meant really giving up the nukes then so be it, or else (China turns really hostile and supports a coup or worse).
North Korea Loses Another Insider
Amidst all the news about peace in Korea, one bit of news got overlooked. In April it became known that another senior North Korean official had defected, apparently to a NATO (European) country. The defection apparently took place in February when a North Korean counter-intelligence officer named Kang, while stationed in northeast China, slipped away and took a lot of top secret documents with him. The North Korean government responded by ordering seven agents into China with orders to find Kang and execute him immediately. These seven agents failed, apparently because they were unable to obtain sufficient assistance from their Chinese counterparts. Another three more experienced and better financed agents were then sent after Kang, wherever he was, with the same “execute on sight” orders. That details of this case have been leaked indicates the Kang has arrived in a nation willing to grant asylum and also protect Kang from the North Korean assassins (who will always be out there for a defector of Kang’s stature.) Unfortunately, colonel Kang’s family was not so lucky. After a 2016 incident in which Thae Yong Ho, a senior North Korean diplomat, escaped with his family (wife and two sons age 19 and 26) to South Korea North Korea ordered that senior officials posted abroad could no longer take their immediate families with them. This did make it more difficult for senior officials to defect but Kang had an additional incentive. His son had recently been accused of corrupt activities and was apparently going to be punished. Despite the fact that Kang belongs to one of the most revered (high status) families in North Korea he knew how things worked now and took off with a lot of embarrassing (to North Korea) information on how North Korea deals with China and Russia. This knowledge apparently helped Kang get to Europe with his treasure trove of documents.
Now North Korea must come up with another way to prevent defections like this. There have been several of these in the last few years and when Thae defected in mid-2016, while in Britain, it resulted in extreme measures to prevent more of this. Thae was the number two man at the North Korean embassy in London and was one of the most senior North Korean officials to defect. Thae said he was fed up with the rule of the Kim dynasty, especially the current dictator Kim Jong Un. While Thae got his immediate family out any other kin still in North Korea face loss of all privileges. Added to that some are likely to end up in a prison camp and die there. Thae spent several weeks in Britain being debriefed by British intelligence and later did the same in South Korea. North Korea has never really responded to this defection. Such high-level defections are often described as “kidnappings” but North Koreans know otherwise as the families of the “kidnapping victims” tend to be punished severely and that is difficult to keep secret.
The American and South Korean presidents met in Washington to coordinate their approach to North Korean negotiating tactics. This is the fourth such meeting and the South Koreans and Americans seem to be in agreement that North Korea will go through its usual playbook of last minute demands, threats and so on. North Korea has been using these tactics from the beginning (late 1940s) and apparently believe that they will work again. But this negotiating playbook is well known in the West and some North Koreans have noted that these ancient tactics have lost a lot of their usefulness in the last decade. That, plus the fact that the current American president has a reputation for successful, and often unorthodox, negotiating. This has led to a lot more media attention and speculation about how it will all turn out.
May 21, 2018: North Korea is demanding that South Korea curb groups in South Korea that openly and loudly call for the overthrow of the Kim dictatorship. South Korea has again refused. North Korea is also demanding that South Korea forcibly return some of the recent defectors (North Koreans who managed to escape and reach South Korea) and that demand has also been ignored. Meanwhile, North Korea is charging foreign journalists $10,000 each for visas to attend the ceremony commemorating the closure of the North Korean nuclear weapons test site. The real reason the site is being closed is because the numerous underground nuclear explosions have made the ground unstable and led to radiation leaks. North Korea downplays that and tries to portray the event as a magnanimous gesture,
May 19, 2018: Off the west coast of South Korea two North Koreans in a small boat were picked up by a South Korean naval patrol. The two North Koreans wanted to defect. One of them was an army officer, the other a civilian.
May 18, 2018: In North Korea Kim Jong Un again reorganized the senior military leadership. This time there were not a lot of dismissals but instead, a lot of senior commanders were moved to other senior military posts. Kim has been wary of the generals ever since he took power in 2012. Ge was the youngest national leader ever in North Korea and many of the old timers doubted young Kim could handle it. Kim soon executed a number of senior generals and retired many more. But he still seems wary of disagreements from the military. Kim should be concerned as the military is falling apart despite getting a large portion (a third or more) of GDP. The problem is that given the size of the military (over a million troops in a country of 26 million) and expense of supporting all those people. This is especially true as more resources were diverted to the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs since the late 1990s. More severe food and energy shortages are now making life uncomfortable for most troops. The progress of this decline can be seen more clearly now given the proliferation of high-resolution satellite photos available from commercial (not classified military) sources. The satellite photos show, over more than a decade, that there are very few lights on at night in North Korea and major military bases are more frequently as dark as nearby towns and villages. More land on military bases is devoted to crops and civilian farmers near military bases are moving away because of soldiers raiding their crops during harvest time. Kim is now talking about how denuclearization would, if carried out, make a lot more money available for the conventional forces. Many generals do not believe Kim would actually give up his nukes because it would take years (nearly a decade) of increased spending to restore the military to its Cold War glory and in the meantime, without nukes, North Korea would be very vulnerable. Another sad fact is that few North Korean military personnel even remember the glory days (the 1980s) of the Cold War when Russia (as the Soviet Union) was supplying new weapons and support for older ones and the troops had fuel for training. All that disappeared in 1991 and the North Korean military is still suffering massive deprivation.
May 14, 2018: Former North Korea diplomat Thae Yong Ho, who defected in 2016, has written a memoir, which was published today. The first edition promptly sold out and will apparently be a best seller. Thae is of the opinion that Kim Jong Un will never give up his nukes and can pretend to be reasonable but has proved since he took power in 2012 to be vindictive, paranoid and ruthless in eliminating (usually via execution, most of them done in secret) real or imagined threats. Thae presents many other reasons why Kim will not/cannot accept CVID (Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearization.) Thae, as a member of the senior bureaucracy had access to the most knowledgeable gossip about Kim and he shared it all with those who have helped keep him and his family safe.
May 13, 2018: In South Korea an army colonel, a loudspeaker manufacturing company executive and 18 others were indicted for corruption in the procurement of loudspeakers for use on the DMZ to broadcast music and news into North Korea. The corruption involved bribes paid to the colonel to overlook the delivery of substandard equipment.
May 1, 2018: South Korea began removing loudspeakers installed on the DMZ to broadcast music and news into North Korea. These loudspeakers were installed in 2011 and became operational in 2015 as North Korea continued to be hostile to South Korea.
April 28, 2018: South Korea complained to China that another Chinese military aircraft had violated South Koreas’ ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone). South Korea is also seeing more ADIZ activity because of Chinese intrusions. In 2013 China announced a new ADIZ that overlapped South Korean, Philippine and Japanese air space. China demanded that any foreign military or commercial aircraft request permission before flying into this zone. South Korea and Japan protested while the United States quickly flew some B-52s into the disputed zone without asking for Chinese permission. China protested and the United States ignored them.
April 27, 2018: The leaders of the two Koreas met personally for the first time. The meeting took place at the “Peace Village” on the DMZ. This had long been the scene of fruitless negotiations over disagreements between the two Koreas. North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean president Moon Jae In met and agreed that the Korean peninsula should be free of all nuclear weapons. The two also agreed that there should be an official end to the Korean War, which has been suspended (by an armistice) since 1953.
April 25, 2018: Indonesia received the second of three South Korean built diesel-electric submarines. South Korea is becoming a major supplier of warships to East Asian nations. South Korea is trying to do the same thing with warplanes. In 2016 South Korea officially began an effort to develop and build their own jet fighter (KFX) to replace its aging U.S. built F-4 and F-5 fighters. The KFX is intended to be an aircraft somewhere between the F-16 and the F-35 and will have some stealth capabilities. The KFX is expected to enter service in the late 2020s now that the government has found the cash and foreign partners to make it happen. Indonesia agreed to be a major partner in this effort by contributing 16 percent of the $8.5 billion required. South Korea will buy at least 120 KFXs while Indonesia will buy up to fifty as the first export customer. Indonesia will also get access to some of the technology and build some of the components. Lately Indonesia has indicated it might exit this partnership because of better offers from other nations. So far this is just speculation.
April 24, 2018: China allowed several teams of researchers to go public with the results of studies on radioactive fallout coming from the North Korean underground test site, which is in northwest North Korea near the Chinese border. The increase in radioactive fallout began after the last North Korea nuclear test in September 2017. The Chinese scientists concluded that the mountain had suffered a massive internal collapse and was now unstable and at risk of collapsing still further and emitting a lot of radioactive fallout that would drift across the border into China. This conclusion was apparently reached by the end of 2017 because at that point the Chinese began installing radiation monitor along its North Korean border that immediately detects increased radiation and report it. China admitted that was to deal with North Korean nuclear weapons research and testing facilities near the border, some of which have released large quantities of radiation in 2017. Some Chinese civilians had already figured that out using their own radiation detectors. As a result of this the government also had portable radiation monitors distributed to villages along the North Korean border. The official story was that these were to be used if there was an American nuclear attack on North Korea. The monitors will alert local officials when it is time to evacuate because of highly radioactive fallout. After the release of this report the Chinese suggested that if North Korea agreed to get rid of their nukes it would be nice if the Americans agreed to pay the cost about doing something to contain the potential radioactive fallout leaking from the test site. The Americans may well prefer that the Chinese pay for that. It is also suspected that the North Koreans were the first to figure out the test site mess. North Korea has not allowed Chinese scientists to visit the site, which could mean the situation is worse than suspected and that may have prompted North Korea to offer up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for some massive foreign aid. If there was a massive leak of radioactive fallout from the test sight and it showed up in China North Korean and Chinese officials would have a massive public relations problem on their hands because they would have a hard time blaming all this on the Americans.
April 20, 2018: North Korea announced it would suspend nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile launches. This will apparently last until negotiations with South Korea (in April) and the Americans (in June) are concluded.