Korea: The Staredown


September 12, 2019: The North Koreane government has taken notice of the growing public hostility to the government and the Kim dynasty. To deal with that some unusual, by North Korean standards, measures have been taken to reduce the discontent. For example, secret police informer reports indicate that the many mandatory sessions to study Kim Jong Un speeches have led to people complaining about government misrule and the role Kim Jong Un plays in that. So the government decided to reduce the number of such mandatory study sessions. That alone would be a popular move, as North Koreans find all these “mandatory activities” tedious and pointless.

Another new program, depicted as an economic and public health measure, is an effort to curb worker gatherings to drink and gossip. Once enough alcohol has been consumed the talk tends to move recklessly into open criticism of the government. There is a lot more such criticism and it is increasingly visible in public places. That indicates more North Koreans are no longer afraid of their own government. This is the last thing a police state wants to happen.

The government has also ordered yet another crackdown on prostitution, which is more common and often quite obvious despite being illegal. Since 2016 a growing number of North Korean women have been operating openly as prostitutes, usually near border areas where there are more foreigners. These women get $20 or more per customer but get to keep less than 20 percent of that because the rest goes to bribes (for police) and “fees” to various middlemen (or women) who supervise it all. Thus it is not surprising that these young (from late teens to 30s) women will also offer to sell drugs (usually meth) to customers. Many of these prostitutes are married and some have children but no money to keep the kids fed and healthy.

There is more discreet prostitution in the capital as well, sometimes including daughters of a prominent family seeking some extra money and adventure. Aside from the way prostitution ruins the official North Korean image of itself as sincere, hard-working and righteous socialists, the presence of prostitution also makes North Korean officials more vulnerable to bribery if they deal with prostitutes and are secretly recorded on video. This is a favorite technique of North Korean intelligence and they do not like to be on the other side of this.

Economic Realities

It was not surprising that China and Russia were the principal obstacles to the release of a new UN report on North Korean sanction violations. China and Russia continue to tolerate North Korean evasion of the sanctions, although such tolerance is more restricted than in the past, especially in China. Even when complying with the sanctions China is still the largest North Korean trading partner. In the last decade the growing list of sanctions and increasing compliance has driven away most non-Chinese trading partners and now North Korea is more economically dependent on China than ever. Russia is a minor player, mainly because the Russian economy is much smaller and less efficient than the Chinese. Moreover the Russian economic and population presence in the region (the Russian “Far East”) is miniscule compared to China.

The new UN report got leaked and the contents documented the illegal economic support North Korea still obtains from Chinese and Russian sources. Not from the governments of China and Russia, but from the companies or criminal gangs in those two nations that make possible illegal imports and exports with North Korea. Having these operations described in a UN sponsored report that has been officially released puts pressure on UN members listed as working with North Korea to curb those activities. Russia and China are the biggest offenders and among the few UN members who have permanent use of a veto over UN decisions. Thus UN sponsored research like this usually has problems getting past Russia and China, which tend to have some of their people showing up as involved in whatever bad behavior is being studied. In practice it is mainly China the UN has to worry about because Russia is increasingly dependent on Chinese economic and diplomatic support to survive and can be pressured by China to do whatever China wants. In the case of UN sanctions on North Korea, the report shows how China is not bothered by blatant Russian efforts to help North Korea evade sanctions. This ranges from tolerating the North Korean use of Russian student visas to continue exporting workers to Russia (who have most of their pay taken by the North Korean government) to facilitating illegal exports (coal) and imports (oil). Russia says it will end these practices by the end of the year but Russian has said things like that before.

The UN study detailed how North Korea was continuing to carry out transfers of refined petroleum products at sea. This is being done by using smaller ships to take the cargo from Chinese or Russian tankers. These smaller ships are not required to have the most effective transponders (to show the position of the ship) and can more easily evade detection as they head back to North Korea with their cargo. In this way, North Korea has been importing about three times more refined petroleum products than sanctions allow. North Korea is also able to illegally export coal and other minerals using the same technique.


North Korea is trapped between desperate economic conditions caused by its own mismanagement and more effective sanction enforcement by neighbors, and an official (according to internal documents) decision to hold onto its nukes. The current strategy is to stare down the Americans. In Korean culture, a decisive “stare” is an admirable trait and Korean actors are much admired for the power of their stare. North Korean hopes are that the American politicians will not be able “stare” as long and as decisively as North Korea. Like the Chinese, North Korea hopes the 2020 elections in the U.S. may bring a new government that has a less scary stare. The North Korean leaders so far show no real interest in giving up their nukes. As part of that North Korea has launched a hacking campaign against national and international organizations involved in North Korean denuclearization. The North Koreans appear intent on avoiding surprises.

Denuclearization is not the only threat to North Korea; time is also an enemy. North Korea has been able to stall another round of mass starvation but not eliminate the possibility. That would require the leadership to admit they have a problem and submit to verifiable monitoring of aid distribution and denuclearization. North Korea has insisted it would never do this. But time is not on their side and internal unrest grows as does the general breakdown in order and “discipline.” That means options for North Korean leaders are shrinking. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not yet capable of scaring anyone into submission. The North Korean military, in general, is run down and suffering from two decades of neglect because of economic mismanagement and higher priority nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

China is also a problem, as well as an opportunity for North Korea. The Chinese are under pressure from the United States in several trade and espionage disputes. China uses North Korea as a bargaining chip with the U.S. just as it uses the American threat to get more cooperation from North Korea. Currently, China is the only acceptable source of any economic assistance for North Korea and the North Koreans do not like being that dependent on China, which for centuries has interfered with what happened on the Korean peninsula.

The Americans say they will negotiate with North Korea and China for as long as it takes to achieve denuclearization, but only if there are no more nuclear tests. The economic sanctions will remain in force until a denuclearization deal is achieved. That means verification, something the north is very much against. North Korea is trying to get around that by persuading South Korea and/or China to press for a gradual lifting of sanctions as progress is made. The Americans are not eager to try that because in the past the North Koreans have extracted what benefits they could with that approach and then let negotiations collapse. China is willing to be flexible, but only if it is good for China; like putting pressure on the Americans about some other issue, like the current trade war and accusations of rampant Internet-based espionage. Meanwhile, China has been willing to see North Korea suffer from the sanctions that even China is now enforcing.

North Korea is also experiencing more criticism from within. North Koreans got their hopes up because of all the personal meetings between Kim Jong Un and the South Korean and American presidents. Nothing happened. Kim blamed the South Koreans and Americans but most North Koreans know, or figured out, the truth; that Kim would rather see his people starve than give up the nukes. Despite all the propaganda about how essential it is for North Korea to have nuclear weapons, most North Koreans, including many members of the senior leadership are not willing to suffer more privation for this. The criticism is no longer confined to private conversations. People will discuss it at public gatherings, not much concerned about getting arrested by the secret police. After all, the lower-ranking secret police are suffering as well, as their fringe benefits, like free food for families, have been cut. More secret police are being sent to the border to try and control the corrupt border guards. Secret police are also more concerned with bribery among senior officials while on the job. The problem is that the government can no longer eliminate bribery in any department or geographic area. The best you can do is drive up the size of the bribes. The corrupted consider that a “cost of doing business” and proceed as usual. The corruption has become so common in the security services that for purely “economic crimes” you are punished with a few months imprisonment and a “loss of reputation” (and lower promotion prospects). Political crimes can still get you executed or sent to labor camps for extended periods, often accompanied by your immediate family.

Open Secrets

The growing availability to higher resolution commercial satellite photos of all of North Korea, and the larger number of civilians who can scrutinize these photos and legally report what they find, has revealed many North Korea military facilities whose existence was previously only known to intelligence agencies, if at all. Many of these newly discovered bases are the ones long-range ballistic missiles operate from. These missiles are to be used during wartime against targets throughout South Korea and most of Japan. There are over twenty of these small bases, housing liquid-fueled missiles that require preparation time before launch. That means a relatively large number of personnel, who have to train regularly to maintain their ability to carry out the fueling process quickly before American, Japanese and South Korea smart bombs and guided missiles hit. This is why North Korea is trying to replace long-range missiles with solid fuel models that require no preparation other than having the launcher raise the missile into firing position. Conversion to solid fuel is going slowly because the solid fuel manufacturing is more complex and more difficult to master. The sanctions get in the way as well.

Border Guard Crises

North Korean border guards on the Chinese border have long been subject to opportunity, temptation and great danger. That’s because smugglers prefer to bribe border guards rather than try to evade them, and risk getting shot at if spotted. The government keeps trying to eliminate the bribery but that has proved impossible. The danger comes from the few security personnel working on the border who can’t be bribed because they are willing to turn in fellow border guards and be rewarded by the government with a promotion or better job. This has tempted corrupt border guard commanders to steal from their subordinates. That is done by not paying subordinates the agreed on share of bribe income. This has led to violence between officers and subordinates or, worst of all, desertions by disgruntled border guards. This can get even worse if the deserter crosses into China with his weapon and becomes a bandit. This is more of a problem on the Chinese side of the border, whose government has told North Korea that failure to deal with this will make it more difficult for North Korea to obtain cooperation in evading sanctions. Despite the resulting pressure on North Korean border guard commanders, the armed deserters are still showing up in China.

September 11, 2019: North Korea insists that the denuclearization negotiations with the United States and South Korea were still active. There was some doubt about that because of all the recent North Korean rocket tests. North Korea had promised no more long-range ballistic missile tests while the current high-level negotiations continue. Such tests are banned by UN sanctions, as are tests of shorter-range rockets like the 18 fired so far this year. North Korea says it did not promise to halt testing of short-range missiles. As for UN prohibitions, North Korea has been ignoring them for decades. Currently, the North Koreans are not ignoring the personal involvement of the American president in the negotiations.

September 9, 2019: On the east coast North Korea again, for the second time since late August, test-fired the new KN-25 600mm MLRS (multiple launch rocket system) that uses GPS guided rockets. The KN-25 was first seen in August. It has four missile storage/launch tubes and the test was apparently meant to have all four rockets fired in quick succession. Three did but one did not. The missiles that did launch landed about 330 kilometers off the east coast. This was the tenth North Korean rocket test in 2019, the first one occurring in early May after a 17 month test halt. Before that test moratorium one of the last tests, in early 2016 fired six of the new guided (by a GPS type system) 300mm rockets from a launcher vehicle. This new MLRS first appeared in a late 2015 parade. The North Korean 300mm rockets appeared to have a range of over 100 kilometers. The launcher vehicle was later identified as a Chinese ZZ2257M5857A 6x6 truck meant for civilian or military use. China had come under increasing criticism for allowing its manufacturers to export such “dual-use” vehicles to North Korea when it is clear that North Korea wants them only for military purposes. More disturbing was the fact that the new North Korean guided rockets were using technology that could also have been Chinese, as the Chinese introduced such a large guided rocket system in 2010. The new North Korea guided rockets are all remarkably similar to recent Chinese models. Then again the 600mm guided rocket is also similar to the American ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile Systems) guided missile that entered service in 1991 and was obtained by South Korea in 1998. This is a 610mm rocket that fits in the same size container that normally holds six 227mm MLRS rockets.

September 3, 2019: There are no sanctions on medical aid and North Korea is so desperate for medical help that it agreed to allow medical foreign aid officials to verify where the aid was going as well as assessing where it was needed most. Initial assessments were that hospitals and clinics are indeed in bad shape. But because the medical system has been starved for resources since the 1990s the foreign aid assessors concluded that many North Korean doctors no longer have the needed skills to effectively use a lot of the medical aid. Because the lack of medical care is being felt by many senior North Korea officials the government is apparently willing to take medical aid on the “verification” terms. The government has put restrictions on any new aid and ordered the UN to cut the number of inspectors (less than fifty) it currently has. North Korea will allow more inspectors once there is more foreign aid to check on.

Meanwhile, the government is no longer cracking down on people buying and using Chinese medicines rather than locally made items. The Chinese medical supplies are more reliable and less likely to make you sick instead of better. Another incentive to work with foreign aid groups is the toxic atmosphere. Air quality has been declining in the capital since 2012 but there is not enough money to deal with the problems. Same with medical care, even though the government periodically issues descriptions of new programs that will improve medical care nationwide. It never happens. For most North Koreans there is no more government supported medical care or even reliable local production of medicine and medical supplies. If you get sick you must have the cash to use the semi-legal and improvised private medical care. The availability of the private care system varies throughout the country. In the poorest parts of the country, improvised medical care is all you can hope for.

September 2, 2019: South Korea is paying more attention to the needs of its aging population of North Korean defectors. Many North Koreans have a hard time adapting to the very different free-market economy culture of South Korea and often have a hard time making a living or finding spouses. It has been noted that some of the older defectors are sliding into poverty and the government wants to avoid that.

September 1, 2019: North Korea has once more started to draw on military rice reserve stocks to deal with food shortages. Cell phone photos of rice being trucked from one such army underground rice reserve have been circulating and locals confirm that these trucks full of rice are not unusual, but not to this extent. Every year the stored rice is sold while recently harvested rice is put into the storage bins. This takes place during January and February, not August. The annual movement of rice in and out of these military storage sites ensures that the rice remains fresh. But this year the outflow of rice is far more than what was brought in. The trucks are showing up in areas where there has been unrest among workers who complain of food shortages. Some military bases are also receiving the additional rice. So far the withdrawals from the military reserves are relatively small, but they are continuing. That may be a result of recent storm damage in North Korea that reduced harvest expectations.

August 31, 2019: Chinese living near the North Korean border are again suffering from an increase in North Korean soldiers and civilians crossing into China to rob businesses or homes and then hustle back to North Korea. This has been a sporadic problem in the past but is becoming more frequent now because of the sanctions fueled economic recession in North Korea and the crackdown on smuggling and bribery of border guards.

August 30, 2019: Japan approved a record defense budget of $50 billion for 2020. That’s an increase of over $47 billion for 2019. This is the eighth year in a row that Japan has increased defense spending and it is all about North Korea and China. This comes after South Korea announced another increase in its defense budget. Between 2020 and 2024 South Korea plans to spend an average of $49 billion a year on its military. That’s nearly as much as Japan (with a much larger economy) spends. The 2018 South Korea budget had the largest increase (6.9 percent) in the defense budget since 2009. Although North Korea openly complains about how unfair and unfriendly these increases are they are a direct result of the increasing threat from North Korea. The annual South Korean defense budget is more than a third larger than the annual GDP of North Korea. That is one reason North Korea which spends about a third of GDP on defense compared to less than three percent in South Korea.

August 29, 2019: Intelligence analysts and civilian experts (who can comment publically) seem to agree that the about half the 18 or so short-range missiles tested by North Korea since May were new solid-fuel models. Both had ranges under 700 kilometers and one (KN-23) had a more elaborate flight control system (and flatter, more difficult to intercept) trajectory that is similar to the recent Russian Iskander. The other (KN-25) was simpler with GPS type guidance.

August 22, 2019: South Korea and Japan are once more feuding over past Japanese mistreatment of Koreans. The latest action is South Korea terminating the 2016 intelligence sharing agreement with Japan (and the United States) because Japan had halted shipments of vital components needed by South Korean electronics manufacturers. That was in response to a South Korean court demanding Japan pay more compensation for World War II era atrocities.

This feuding remains a problem, especially when it comes to cooperation in facing common threats from North Korea and China. 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. The Japanese consider this self-destructive as it wallows in the past at the expense of dealing with current and future threats. Yet Japan continues to ignore the fact that it’s post-World War II policy (documented in decrypted Japanese diplomatic messages sent out right after the Japanese surrender in August 15, 1945) of claiming to be a victim in World War II and guilty only of trying to liberate all Asians from Western oppression, is the obstacle. That “Japan as victim” view was never very popular with Japan’s neighbors, who saw Japan as no better, and often a lot worse, than Western imperialists. To the countries of East Asia Japan compounds these historical sins by continuing to insist that Japan is innocent of any wrongdoing. This made it difficult to unite to deal with threats from North Korea and China, but eventually both Japanese and South Koreans agreed to cooperate to protect their common interests, at least most of the time. The current dispute keeps escalating. The cancellation of the intel sharing agreement was accompanied by consumer boycotts in each nation, especially South Korea where over 60 percent of planned South Korea tourist trips to Japan were canceled by early September. By the end of August South Korean imports of Japanese consumer goods fell for the third month in a row.

August 15, 2019: Russia also making some extra cash via illicit dealings with North Korea. Russia largely ignores the sanctions against North Korea and tolerates all manner of schemes to evade the sanctions. One obvious measure is to issue student visas to North Korean workers who then attend “on the job” training at worksites throughout the Russian Far East. This is another source of foreign currency for North Korea because most of the pay these North Korean “students” receive goes to the North Korean government.




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