As the new government in the United States seeks to get North Korea to halt its nuclear program by offering some relaxation of sanctions, the Americans are running into problems with some key allies in the region. Japan and South Korea point out that North Korea shows no intention of giving up its weapons program and providing the North Koreans with any sanctions relief will just provide North Korea with more money to spend on nuclear weapons. South Korea and Japan also remind the Americans that they are a lot closer to the problem and will suffer sooner and more extensively than the Americans if North Korea uses their nukes, or just missiles with non-nuclear warheads.
At the moment North Korea is not interested in talking. In mid-2020 North Korea declared there would be no more disarmament negotiations with the United States, including meetings with the American president, as long as the U.S. supported economic sanctions on North Korea. North Korea was not interested in getting rid of their nukes or allowing regular on-the-spot inspections to confirm any compliance. The reality was that inside North Korea the official word (distributed to key officials and leaked) was that North Korea had no intention of getting rid of the nukes and was going through the motions convincingly in order to get the Americans to ease the sanctions a bit because North Korea was continuing to negotiate while not actually doing anything to denuclearize. This became obvious in early 2019 when a meeting between the North Korea leader and the American president ended with the Americans refusing to ease sanctions unless North Korea made some real and verifiable progress on denuclearization. The next day China asked the UN to ease up on some of the sanctions because the North Koreans were at least making an effort. The current North Korean position is that they will not even talk to the Americans unless there is some easing of the sanctions first.
Despite being the long-time patron and protector of North Korea, China is losing patience. China is demanding that North Korea partially reopen its borders if they want additional food aid and other favors, like accepting North Koreans arrested for being illegally in China. Then there is the problem of all the additional border security on both sides of the border only slowing down the smugglers and North Koreans desperate to get out. Meanwhile North Korea continues to insist it has no covid19 infections despite continuing to impose more lockdowns and other restrictions to halt the spread of a disease that officially does not exist in North Korea.
So Many New Problems
In March 2021, North Korea ordered another crackdown on black market activity and after a month of effort the results appear to show that the black-market vendors won. The vendors had a lot more popular support than the police and that made it easier for the vendors to gather a crowd of local civilians to confront, or even attack, the police. This was not surprising.
Police have long shown a willingness to carry out orders to shut down illegal (“grasshopper”) merchants operating near legal markets. The grasshoppers avoid paying fees or bribes and are often working a second job while still officially employed in a state-owned operation (like a farm) that needs him in the fields not an illegal (but more lucrative) second job. The grasshoppers rarely resisted the police, but now they do because it’s a matter of life or death.
This breakdown in police control of the North Korean population has been going on for over a decade. There has been growing incidence of crime in general (robbery, burglary, rape, murder, assault) as well as appearance of vigilante groups, especially in rural areas, that protect themselves and people in general where the police are often the criminals and too busy taking care of themselves. The farmers, despite a poor harvest this year, have more incentive to guard their crops and harvested food from the growing number of thieves and the decline in police efforts to deal with the problem. This resistance now applies to marauding soldiers. For over a decade, civilians living near military bases suffered growing theft by soldiers from nearby bases. In some areas the “foraging” became so bad that civilians abandoned their farms and businesses for somewhere experiencing less of this theft. In 2020 the government moved more soldiers to the Chinese border and was unable to supply these border guards with enough fuel, food and housing. Even though some of these troops were from elite infantry units, they began stealing from the locals.
April 25, 2021: In North Korea it’s apparently time for the annual effort to halt the use of
foreign currencies (mainly U.S. dollars and Chinese yuan) taking over the economy. The North Korean won is avoided by North Koreans whenever possible because of government manipulation.
The latest scam involves trying to persuade North Koreans to keep their foreign currency in a government-controlled bank. That makes it possible for the government to steal those foreign currency holdings declaring all foreign currencies illegal and demanding that North Koreans convert their foreign currencies to North Korean currency. This would be done at the official exchange rate, which is much lower than the unofficial market rate. Most currencies value relative to each other is regulated by market forces. That way international trade allows nations with different currencies to make allowances for the constantly changing relative value of different currencies. Dictatorships, especially communist ones, apply fixed exchange rates, which benefit only the government and not their people.
Because of the increased sanctions and continued government mismanagement of the economy there is less foreign currency getting into North Korea. Despite this more and more businesses and consumers in North Korea prefer to use U.S. dollars or Chinese yuan for all transactions. The North Korean currency is usually losing value each year because the government keeps printing more of the won than the economy can handle. This creates inflation and even domestic markets prefer to sell goods for dollars or yuan. The yuan is preferred by many customers at markets because it is easier to get your change in yuan because many get yuan in small bill denominations across the border. The use of dollars at markets is technically restricted and usually reserved for major purchases. The government has tolerated this and knows that if they enforce bans on the use of foreign currency a lot of North Koreans will quietly defy the ban and the government will appear weaker.
April 23, 2021: China has complained to North Korea about North Korean border guards firing on Chinese near the border who are suspected to smuggling. This is often Chinese seen in shallow river waters close to the North Korean side carrying goods apparently meant for a North Korean to come and get. At other times the border guards are opening fire on Chinese in boats on the rivers that define most of the Chinese/Korean border.
In late 2020 North Korean border guards
border guards were issued more ammo and ordered to shoot on sight anyone seen crossing the border and ignoring orders to halt. That was later changed to “shoot on sight”. This new policy did not apply to the entire border, just those areas where the most smuggling was taking place. By early 2021 over a dozen smugglers or defectors had been shot and killed or wounded. Some of the casualties turned out to be local civilians out colleting firewood or edible plants. Now the border guards are expected to fire on anyone near the border, which is difficult to determine when the border runs down the middles of river. Firing bullets so close to the border, especially at night or bad weathers means a lot of those bullets are still moving fast enough when they reach the Chinese side to wound or kill. In the past troops were issued blank rounds to be used for warning shots and if live ammo was used the troops were supposed to fire warning shots in to the water or ground near the smugglers.
The government can ignore complaints from North Koreans but Chinese displeasure is another matter. For example, North Korea has banned public criticism of China or Chinese, especially the several thousand Chinese who legally live in North Korea, usually to tend to trade with China. Many of these Chinese did not or could not leave when North Korea shut the Chinese border over a year ago. Many North Koreans consider China part of their problems, as in support of the current North Korean government and as the source of covid19, and other epidemic diseases that reach North Korea via China.
April 21, 2021: In North Korea the government is trying to divert more of the luxury goods and new housing to North Koreans who have done exceptional work in all fields rather than Workers Party officials. New housing can be built without imported components and the lack of imports has made new, high-end apartments and houses valuable rewards for key North Korean personnel. Covid19 did what a growing number of
sanctions could not and reduced luxury imports to reward senior government and workers party officials. In 2017 such imports cost about $50 million dollars a month. Analyzing Chinese customs data it was found that about half the money spent since 2012 went for consumer electronics, a third went for luxury cars. The rest went for items like liquor, non-electronic consumer gadgets, high-end appliances, luxury home furnishings, clothing (fur coats and quality materials for custom made suits and dresses), cosmetics, luxury watches and jewelry. The North Korea capital has the Taesong Department Store where such goods can be purchased as well, for dollars only.
North Koreans are hungry in part because of these imports. If, in 2017 North Korea had diverted the luxury imports cash to basic foods that would have tripled the tonnage of rice imported. One reason more North Koreans are not enraged by these luxury imports is that over half the senior officials and their families live in Pyongyang, the capital, which has always been the modern looking and affluent area in the country. Most North Koreans never get to visit the capital and personally witness all that wealth. Residence in the capital requires official permission and that is difficult to get. Police are constantly tracking down and arresting those living in the capital without permission.
April 19, 2021: In North Korea the first new labor camp is nearing completion. In late 2020 North Korea decided to expand labor camp capacity and prepare more of camps to be built in order to house the many North Koreans arrested in China and stuck in Chinese jails until the North Korean border is reopened. Another reason for the new camps is that the inmates are increasingly being used as slave labor in government owned enterprises that cannot afford to pay their employees. There has been a problem a growing number of the slave laborers dying of starvation of malnutrition related diseases. Outside work is often more strenuous than what is none inside the camp. The camps are not getting more food for this, or not enough to keep the slave laborers going. This is a growing problem in government owned coal mines where the work is not only very strenuous but requires training and learning how to follow safety rules.
The government tried sending recently discharged soldiers to work in the coal mines. The army will offer to help find discharged troops jobs, which is usually seen as a fringe benefit. But coal mining was not popular with soldiers and most either quit soon after experiencing actual life in the mines, or turned down the offer.
One new camp is being built near the uranium mines and nearby uranium concentration plant, where workers are increasingly difficult to find after a 2017 nuclear weapons test that released a lot of radiation into the atmosphere. A year later
North Korea officially closed its troubled (by tunnel collapses and radiation leaks) nuclear test site in the northeast at Kilju (North Hamgyong Province). This province is largely rural and undeveloped, one reason for putting the nuclear test site there. Chinese radiation monitors on the North Korean border recorded levels were up seven percent a week after the September 3rd 2017 test and were apparently much higher in North Korea after the 2017 test. This data was released because the population along the border know that they face some health risks if radiation levels increase too much for too long. There have also been unreported accidents while digging these test tunnels. In one recent incident a tunnel construction accident in Mantapsan Mountain near Punggye-ri left a hundred workers trapped and eventually dead. Another hundred tunnel workers sent to rescue them died when a second collapse occurred. This all makes the nuclear weapons program appear to be a threat to North Koreans as well. This confirmed what a lot of workers in the uranium mines had long suspected, that decades of working in those slightly radioactive mines had long term health consequences. The government denied this. But contradictory information from foreign sources, and now the 2017 radiation disaster made the threat real enough for a lot of miners to avoid the better paying jobs in the uranium mines. This comes at a time when Chins is seeking more North Korean uranium ore, to be delivered despite sanctions.
Over a year of lockdowns, economic recession and the strictest ever border restrictions has led to a lot more people getting arrested. There are currently believed to be four main camps and a few smaller ones, holding at least 100,000 inmates. A decade ago, there were twice as many inmates and a lot more inmates.
Since 2015 the North Korean labor camp system has come under increasing scrutiny as a “crime against humanity.” It wasn’t until 2014 that North Korea officially acknowledged the existence of labor camps. This was in response to a UN investigation of the camps and the release of a report on that in early 2014. Until 2011 these "labor camps", which kill a large number of inmates via malnutrition, violence or disease, were overcrowded and getting worse for inmates. Normally built to hold about 150,000 enemies of the people, by 2011 there were closer to 200,000 inmates. The further growth in the prison population was controlled with less food and more violence. About 60 percent of those under arrest in North Korea are serving multi-year sentences in labor camps. Many of these inmates do not survive their sentences and hundreds each year are executed rather than being sent to camps. Until 2011 one percent of the North Korean population was in these labor camps, and 5-10 percent did not survive their time there. By 2015 North Korea had reduced its labor camp population to under 100,000 prisoners. This was the result of a higher death rate among prisoners since 2011 and not a policy of sending fewer people to prison and closing the unneeded camps. Some of the deaths were the result of more executions, but most were caused by food shortages. With growing hunger among civilians and military personnel, the government sought to obtain more food wherever it could. Cutting the already skimpy rations for prisoners was one such desperate measure and it meant more prisoners dying of starvation and disease. Since 2015 more people have been sent to the camps and living condition got worse and death rates increase.
For decades the UN looked the other way, under pressure from many powerful member nations like China and Russia, when it came to the North Korean “labor camps.” But since the 1990s too many former inmates escaped North Korea and testified about what they went through. As a result, the UN could no longer ignore the situation. This led to a formal investigation and documenting what went on, and apparently still goes on up there. Since the late 1990s the UN has become increasingly critical of conditions in North Korea but there was little the UN could do except publicize these problems. This bad publicity finally got to the point where North Korea decided to admit the camps existed and try to spin that news in their favor. The growing criminal activity in North Korea has brought back the need to arrest and jail or execute more people. Getting sent to labor camps is also now more likely to kill you. There is a major expansion of labor camp capacity, including building new camps. The government is planning on arresting a lot more North Koreans.
April 18, 2021: China has told North Korea that it can no longer afford to jail North Korea caught in China illegally and because there is no more space in local jails for this. Since late 2020 North Korea, in a desperate effort to halt smuggling across its Chinese and Russian borders, made arrangements with China and Russia to allow North Korean secret police capture teams in to hunt down Korean smugglers and the brokers they work for. The North Korean agents turned over anyone they caught to local police, to be held until the covid19 crisis was over and these prisoners could be transferred to North Korea for further interrogation and punishment.
It is not known what North Korea has offered in return for this cooperation. North Korea has used these tactics several times previously in China. Russia accounts for less than five percent of the smuggling but North Korean leaders have become obsessed with curbing smuggling and information leaks. Many incoming smugglers were executed if they were thought to have the virus. North Korea sought to keep this quiet but the information broker network based in China found out. The information brokers have long operated a profitable business by reporting chatter, or verified details of what is going in in North Korea.
It is known that North Korea has been able to identify more information and smuggling broker personnel on the North Koreas side of the border. These brokers facilitate the communication between the clients and the broker network in China. Arrested North Korean brokers have been offered unprecedented concessions in return for revealing all they know about their fellow brokers inside China. Normally, broker personnel arrested in North Korea would have the cash, and additional help from the Chinese side of the border, to be let go. Sometimes these North Korean brokers would move to China because their identities were now known to North Korean security officials. This expensive “get out of jail” system has broken down because of the covid19 lockdown,
April 8, 2021: Iran released the South Korean chemical tanker they seized on January 2nd as part of a campaign to get nations holding sanctions related frozen Iranian cash to release it. Iran justified the seizure by falsely accusing the tanker of pollution. Iran initially implied it would not free the tanker unless South Korea releases some or all of the $7 billion in Iranian cash (payment for Iranian oil) frozen by American sanctions. South Korea convinced Iran that to release the cash was not possible without risking repercussions against South Korea. The extortion negotiations went on for three months and the result was Iran let the tanker go in return for an official visit two days later by the South Korean prime minister. This was rare and last happened 44 years ago. The South Korean leader apparently told the Iranians that South Korea would advocate for a lifting of the sanctions. Iran is desperate to get access to over $100 billion in frozen assets. South Korea holds so much Iranian cash because South Korea has long been a major customer for Iranian oil as well as friendly towards Iran. Neither country wants to endanger that relationship and releasing the ship without receiving the frozen cash is another example of that.
April 4, 2021: In the North Korea the government did something unusual when they announced the results of the nationwide primary and secondary school exams administered in February. This year the government did not publish the average test scores for the capital and the provinces. Instead, it just published the capital and provinces in order of how well their students did in the exams. Naturally, the capital was in first place, as it always is. While the media did not publish the average scores, the students and their parents received the scores and new soon spread that performance was way down, by a third or more, from previous years. This was the result of a year of covid19 related lockdowns and economic privation.
April 2, 2021: In North Korea the government has implemented a major change in how they will treat violators of covid19 restrictions as well as those possessing foreign media (videos and music) or Chinese cell phones used to make calls from the Chinese border to people outside North Korea. The new policy means that anyone who confesses before they are caught, and identify who they obtained material or information on how to carry out illegal activities, will be forgiven and noted as “loyal”.
The new policy seeks to deal with several problems. First, the nationwide network of official snitches, a feature of local life since the communists took over in 1945 has declined in effectiveness. Because of continued trade sanctions and covid19 lockdowns, the informers are suffering nearly as much as everyone else because of the growing shortages. Many of the informers have become unreliable because rather than passing on useful information on to the local party officials, they are using it to obtain bribes from locals they caught engaging in illegal activity. The informant network is huge and has it declined in effectiveness there was less incentive for the government to rewards them supplies of scarce food or anything else. Another problem is that since the 1990s more and more informers have quietly become anti-government because there were a lot more reasons to do that. The government is running out of ideas on how to deal with this dangerous trend.
A related government policy declared that people who concealed exposure to covid19, especially those who had the disease and survived it, could report that to the government without, as in the past, being treated as a criminal and often taken away and quietly executed. This new policy has not produced much response.
This new policy has been extended to soldiers who desert or simply do not return while on leave. Because of the long (six to ten years) term of conscription, soldiers are frequently allowed to go visit family for a week or more. In the last year more of these troops have overstayed their visits, often to help out parents who are hungry and struggling to survive. The government is also providing more benefits for retired officers. These men are generally still true believers in the myths of the superiority of North Korea over China, South Korea and everyone else. A growing number of North Koreans are going in the other direction and expressing that desertion, getting out of the country or showing public dissatisfaction for the government in the form of graffiti and openly defying the police and government directives in general.
While the government is trying to win back some loyalty inside North Korea, efforts prevent anyone from leaving continue with new border barriers, including concrete blocks as walls, more surveillance camera and even some electrified (3,300 volt) fencing on the Chinese border. The government wants to install the barriers, fences and cameras along the entire 1,400-kilometer-long Chinese border. It is unlikely there will be resources available for that.
One reason these expensive measures are needed is that the food shortages have reached the border patrol forces. That means more border patrol guards can be bribed with food or enough money to buy some. The food shortage on the border is partly the result of the government sending additional security personnel to the border for short periods of time, but not sending additional food or providing any help in providing living quarters on the border for the additional personnel.
To a certain extent the housing shortage can be handled by using the growing number of abandoned homes near the border. As life became more difficult along the border, more locals just left. When the hungry security troops began stealing from local civilians, that was sufficient incentive to just get out. The growing number black market suppliers of food have been regularly increasing their prices in 2021.
March 25, 2021: North Korea launched two short range missiles from its east coast into the Sea of Japan.
One missile went 420 kilometers while the other went 430 kilometers into the Sea of Japan. Japan protested to North Korea. These launches were the first since the new American government took power in January. North Korea and the United States are about to resume negotiations and the North Koreans have noted that the Chinese are treating the new American government with contempt and expecting he Americans to back down. Japan is another matter. Japan is going ahead with the delayed 2020 Olympic Games that are going to be staged in a few months. Foreign spectators will not be allowed in, just the athletes and their support personnel. The Japanese apparently told North Korea that they were not going to be intimidated by more missile tests or anything else and would retaliate if they had to. The North Koreans were hoping for some free food.