September 3, 2021: In North Korea new border security measures have been given a priority previously only accorded to the nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Desperate to seal the 1,400-kilometer Chinese border, the government put more cash, and personnel, into building a wall and electrified fence along the rural portions of the border most frequently used by smugglers. This just drives up the cost of bribes to get across more vulnerable portions of the border.
The latest scheme is to form another elite, well fed and paid inspection unit to seek out corruption on the border. That has not worked to halt all the bribery temptations construction supplies encounter as the material is transported to the remote areas where it is needed. Growing hunger and poverty makes more people desperate. As a result, food supplies for those doing the construction work, many of them unarmed soldiers assigned to the task, are not arriving because growing corruption. That means less food reaches the workers on the border and even less reaches unarmed troops to work in areas recently flooded. In the past the troops sent to help were welcome but now they are seen as a swarm of hungry locusts that will consume whatever food is available in the disaster area. Despite the high priority, the new border wall construction is behind schedule.
Meanwhile North Korea is reviving some aspects of its stalled nuclear weapons and ballistic missile projects. Severe budget shortages meant that high-priority projects could no longer receive resources they were long accustomed to. This “revival” may be misleading and just an effort to preserve stalled work, not resume it.
The government has been building more quarantine facilities for soldiers suspected of having covid19, something that is a possibility along the border and a few other places. The government will not admit this threat exists and more troops who suddenly become ill are sent off to a special, guarded, facility. A growing number of them are dying, officially from anything but covid19. That does not convince families of the dead. Chatter about covid19 in the military has been growing and spreading since early 2020.
Another side effect of covid19 lockdown is the growing risk of starvation deaths. The government will send emergency food supplies to areas where starvation is an obvious threat. The emergency food supplies are well guarded and distributed by officials threatened with execution if the additional food does not prevent starvation deaths. This does not always work, and local officials have to come up with creative excuses for higher death rates.
In contrast South Korea has some economic problems because of covid19 but also one of the lowest rates of covid19 deaths in the world. Most of the population is receiving covid19 vaccines while in North Korea only a few senior officials have been vaccinated and that is being kept secret until the government can get enough vaccines from China to begin wide scale vaccinations.
September 1, 2021: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un now appears to be following advice from China. Until recently
China regularly and often openly criticized Kim for not adopting economic and political policies that have worked in China. Kim is no longer denouncing or simply ignoring Chinese advice that would lead to a more open and free economy as well as a more rational spending policy. There are still disagreements over the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile program. China wants to avoid North Korea ending up like the Soviet Union and other East European communist governments three decades ago, especially since most of those former communist police states are now democracies and either members of NATO or working to get in. Kim Jong Un, like the rest of the Kim dynasty, wants North Korea to become self-sufficient and independent of any foreign powers, especially Japan and China. because that has long been important to Koreans in general, especially when it comes to “Big Brother” China. Covid19 and continued economic pressure from China and the United States may have done what was long considered impossible and turned North Korean leaders into more rational rulers. For North Korea to receive aid from China and remain in China’s good graces, Kim Jong Un must obey the Elder Brother, something South Korea refuses to do because of its much stronger economy, military and democracy. That is something that scares both China and North Korea.
August 30, 2021: The corrosive effect of guard duty on the Chinese border continues to demonstrate that even the most trusted and seemingly loyal North Koreans will eventually succumb. As economic conditions in North Korea got worse, guard duty on the Chinese border became so popular that you had to pay a bribe to get a border security job. The corruption got much worse after the border was completely closed in early 2020 because of the covid19 threat. Desperate for a solution, in early 2020 Kim Jong Un ordered units of the elite 11th Army Corps to send battalions to the border, which they would not only guard, but also take care of other security tasks near the border. That worked, sort of. Recently a battalion of 11th Corps infantry lost most of its senior officers (who were transferred) and three soldiers caught stealing food from a government warehouse were discharged from the military. The entire battalion, with new leadership, was moved away from the border for retraining and reeducation.
The cause of it all was the declining quality of food supplied to the 11th Corps troops on the border. As an elite unit, the 11th Corps has not had its food supplies cut, which is what happened to the rest of the military. But the quality of their food was getting visibly worse. Local farmers and civilians in general were going hungry and had nothing to steal. But there were some food warehouses that had higher quality food provided to senior officials in the area. The three soldiers were caught taking some of it, not to resell for profit, but to improve morale in their unit. The rest of the army has long tolerated such food thefts, as long as the troops hurt no one or caused property damage. Angry victims of these thefts who could identify soldiers responsible would be told by officers that the thieves had been “punished” which in North Korea could mean anything from years in a labor camp to a discreet execution. In practice the punishment was that the guilty troops were restricted to their base indefinitely, which was a warning to other troops to not get caught or identified while seeking some food to supplement the shrinking army rations.
The 11th Corps troops don’t have hunger problems but they do spend more of their time training and are the best treaded troops in the army. Most of the 200,000 North Korean special operations troops belong to the 11th “Storm” Corps. Special operations troops are usually light infantry that train intensively to master one special skill. There are twelve light infantry brigades, three sniper brigades, three airborne brigades and a marine brigade. The most elite units are the 25 reconnaissance battalions, most of them trained to sneak through the DMZ and make surprise attacks early in a war.
As Kim Jong Un ordered more and more Strom Corps troops to the Chinese border, it became painfully obvious that these units were not as special as described. Years of less food and less time for intensive training became apparent on the Chinese border where Strom Corps patrols were often sloppy and there were obvious discipline problems. In the last decade, even the special operations troops have lost much of their specialness. Only about 20 percent of these troops retain their “special” skill levels. They do receive better food and have better barracks than the rest of the army. That does not exempt them from the electricity shortages and the knowledge that the rest of the military, and most North Koreans in general, are in worse shape.
The decline has been going on for some time. In 2010 the government began providing special food bonuses for their secret police and special operations troops. The latter force has been increased from 120,000 to 200,000 after 2004. These elite troops have to be well fed, and kept loyal, to be effective. The rest of the military began getting less food from government supplies and were ordered to spend more time farming or being rented out to commercial firms.
Foreign food donors noted that the hungriest North Koreans were not getting a lot of the food aid sent. Much of it was diverted to the military or sold to raise cash for the government. The donors understood that the North Korean government, as a communist police state, would look after its own interests first and make sure the security forces were fed first. That was one of the reasons less free food aid was offered to North Korea. The food shortages have gotten much worse since 2020 and even the formerly well-fed North Koreans in senior government jobs were getting less free food but they had the cash to access the black market. The black market was not an option for most special operations personnel so their rations were never cut, at least in terms of quantity. This year the quality of the rice provided declined and some of the rice was replaced by maize (kernels of corn). Civilians had been making that switch years ago because the alternative was going hungry. Special operations troops have higher standards.
September 2, 2021: North Korea turned down the UN offer of 2.9 million doses of the Chinese Sinovac covid19 vaccine. The official excuse was that North Korea has kept covid19 out and the free vaccine should go to nations in greater need. Earlier North Korea has refused to accept smaller quantities of a Western vaccine from South Korea for the same reasons.
North Korea has not been able to obtain covid19 vaccine it can use mainly because North Korea does not have sufficient refrigeration equipment nationwide to distribute covid19 vaccines, some of which require very expensive refrigeration equipment for transportation and when switched to distributions can be stored in consumer grade refrigerators. North Korea also lacks reliable electrical supplies in many parts of the country. North Korea has experienced cases of covid19 but has prevented spread of the virus with the strictest lockdown in the world. This has crippled one of the weakest economies in the world to the point where death from starvation or hunger related diseases is more of a threat than covid19.
North Koreans were long told that locally made medicines were superior to Chinese or Russian imports and insisted on obtaining a covid 19 vaccine that suits its needs; does not require refrigeration and preferably easy enough to manufacture that North Korea could do it. That has been difficult, mainly because of the difficulty outsiders encounter in dealing with North Korea. South Korea obtained enough local and foreign vaccines to achieve herd immunity (70 percent of the population vaccinated) by the end of 2021 and will have that many receiving at least one (of two) doses of a vaccine by the end of September.
In 2019 North Korea quietly dropped its opposition to Chinese and Russian medicines that were being smuggled in. That meant it was no longer a crime just to be caught with these foreign meds. Technically South Korean and other Western meds were still forbidden but the 2019 move implied that all foreign meds were no longer a crime to possess. Up until 2019 the government was actively 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. The government periodically issues descriptions of new programs that will improve medical care nationwide but it never happens. For most North Koreans there is no more government supported medical care of any kind or even reliable local production of medicine and medical supplies. If you get sick you must have 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 country, improvised medical care is all you can hope for.
August 26, 2021: The North Korean deadline for improved barriers along the Chinese border being completed by October 10th led to the 10th Corps, which is responsible for the northeastern Yanggang Province portion of the Chinese border, to take extraordinary measures. Dozens of Majors, Lieutenant Colonels and Colonel were sent to the border to personally supervise the construction work and monitor the troops already there to prevent more criminal activity. There were also problems with morale, because food supplies for the army in general had declined for two years in a row and there was no additional food provided to the troops doing the heavy labor of building major border barriers similar to those that have always existed, as the DMZ, along the South Korean border. Food is in short supply throughout the landlocked province and local police have been discovered taking bribes to ignore illegal food transport and sale in illegal markets within the province.
In late 2020 four soldiers were executed by firing squad in Yanggang Province because of widespread criminal activity. Although closed to the public, a soldier and officer from each company in the 25th Border Guard brigade was ordered to witness the execution. The four guilty soldiers were from a company in the 251th Regiment that had been exposed as a criminal enterprise, with officers and troops participating in smuggling and other illegal enterprises. Those executed were the company commander and his political deputy commander and two NCOs. The border guard company these men were from was disbanded and the 251th Regiment was transferred from Yanggang province and numerous officers and troops throughout the brigade were transferred to other units. Two thousand elite troops from the 11th (Storm) Corps were brought in to temporarily replace the transferred border guards and enforce a 20-day lockdown throughout the province.
For decades Yanggang has been notorious for the amount of smuggling that goes on along its lengthy Chinese border. Much of that border is in unpopulated areas. In 2029 Yanggang was where illegal border crossers from China brought covid19 into North Korea. Several line crossers who were later caught were tested for the virus and if they had it, they were quietly executed. The province also has lots of illegal pleasures available for those who can afford it. This includes senior government officials as well as donju entrepreneurs and career criminals. There was gambling, prostitution and all manner of videos or live entertainment.
August 20, 2021: A request from China for any information about a missing Chinese fishing boat caught at sea during a storm on July 25th led to North Korea replying that the boat had come ashore on an island off the coast of
North Pyongan Province. The three fishermen were apparently not sure where they were and when they encountered several North Korea soldiers they were shot on sight and killed. The soldiers on the island were following the same “shoot on sight” border guards along the Chinese border.
August 17, 2021: China has increased the pace of building a new petroleum pipeline between China and North Korea. The existing one was built in 1975 and has long needed replacement because it runs under the Yalu River. For most of 2021 China had slowed or halted construction work as a way to pressure North Korea to do what China tells it to do.
August 11, 2021: In the northeast (Yanggang Province) border guards discovered a young man near the Yalu River dividing North Korea and China and following the new rules (since August 2020) fired about twenty bullets at the civilian, went to make sure he was dead and then moved on. The two soldiers reported the shooting, which was required for any civilians or even domestic animals, found within two kilometers of the border. Troops must immediately fire without warning. Because of fears the corpse might be infected with covid19, troops are required to leave the body where it fell. The two soldiers reported the incident, it was double checked by an officer and the two soldiers were given a commendation and 15 days of leave. The dead man was eventually identified as a civilian brought in from another province to do mandatory volunteer work on local construction. The victim apparently got lost while going to a local town to try and buy some food. It is unclear if he asked the soldiers for directions before they opened fire.