Korea: Borders Reopened, Famine Averted


November 3, 2021: North Korea has ordered more scrap metal drives where cash or other goods are demanded if the scrap quota cannot be met. Children as young as six are now expected to participate. The need for scrap metal is critical to keep production of vehicles, tools and all manner of equipment going. These scrap drives are normal, but in the last year there have been more of them.

North Korea does not have taxes in the normal sense but there are a lot of mandatory fees and “voluntary contributions” of goods or labor. In 2019 the government added new fees which try to raise money from people believed to have it. An example is the new fee levied on all women aged between 30 and 60 who do not have jobs. Previously most rural women were exempt but now all are expected to pay the annual fee because the government believes most of them are involved in free market activities. Local officials are responsible for collecting the tax, one way or another.

Many of these fees, which normally were small amounts most families could afford, have been going up and new ones are appearing. That means more and more families must reduce food, clothing and fuel purchases or risk imprisonment. The government has ordered many of these nominal fees increased to painful levels. The amounts demanded are supposed to be the same nationwide but in practice vary because local officials add surcharges which the local tax collectors keep. The national government has increased audits of how accurate local tax collections are and, in some cases, found massive fraud. Punishments are usually severe and increasingly include executions and sending entire families to labor camps for long, and often fatal. periods. Worse, this increased retribution no longer produces as much compliance as it used to. That’s because the corruption is so widespread that even auditors and prosecutors are more often open to discussing a bribe. Auditors are usually sent out in the expectation of bringing back a certain minimum amount of cash and guilty officials. More auditors are realizing that once they meet their quota, anything else is “profit” for them. Trying to collect taxes from people who can’t pay and are often destitute is a growing problem. The impact is visible as you see more abandoned children and elderly “retired” adults begging on the streets. Government mismanagement is the main cause and that becomes obvious when you note the growing shortages of electricity and increasing calls for voluntary contributions.

Over the last five years North Korea has been trying to avoid food and other shortages by ordering more people to leave their regular jobs and spend more time (up to 30) helping with planting the rice crop. In 2016 that included university students. If you have the money, you can bribe your way out of this chore. About a third of the students manage to pay the bribe. That is annoying enough but then about a third of the students who go to the farms get out of about half the work because they are those who work as informers for the government. Nationwide about ten percent of the population work as informers for the police or secret police. Being an informer brings with it many economic, career and other benefits. The downside is the students sent to work (up to 14 hours a day for a month) on the farms quickly noted who the informers were because they did not work much (if at all) but made sure non-informers did. Since university students are the leaders of the next generation the government must have been quite desperate to send the students to the farms.

For non-students the bribes are not only expensive (up to $100 per person) but for the many who cannot afford them it means losing a month’s income from the non-government jobs more and more North Koreas now use to survive. Forced labor has been part of life in North Korea from the beginning. But now northerners are also being taxed in a more conventional sense but without regard to ability-to-pay. Like most communist police states, there was never a system for individuals and enterprises to pay taxes. Instead, the centrally controlled economy would “allocate” a portion of national income for various uses and people were paid with small amounts of cash plus allocations of food, housing, and other goods as well as favors. But now more and more North Koreans are surviving in the legalized market economy and the government has not accepted the need for income or sales taxes. Instead, they have periodic mandatory “voluntary donations” by all people in a province, city, or smaller area to pay for whatever the government declares must be built or repaired. Those who cannot pay must show up and contribute labor. For those dependent on a market economy job, it means weeks or months of lost income. The government does little to help those who cannot obtain enough food, fuel, or shelter because of this. While the more affluent government officials and market economy entrepreneurs can afford the bribes, which enable government officials to prosper and eat well, the majority of North Koreans cannot and the secret police report growing unrest among these people who now compare the government to the oppressive feudal rulers of the past. The communist promised to eliminate that sort of oppression but now it is returning, at least as far as the growing number of victims are concerned.

The South Korean Threat

China considers North Korea a bothersome burden while the combined military capabilities of Japan and South Korea are seen as a significant threat to Chinese domination of East Asia. The combined defense spending of South Korea and Japan is more than ten times what North Korea spends but only about a third of Chinese defense spending. What threatens Chinese military domination the most is the quality and quantity of the South Korean and Japanese air and naval power. Both nations are buying F-35 fighters and building their own submarines and aircraft carriers. Combine this with the military forces of other nations confronting Chinese aggression and expansion, a coalition that now includes India, Australia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and American forces in the West Pacific, and you get a better idea of the Chinese predicament.

South Korea has a larger army than Japan because South Korea must face the possibility of a land invasion by North Korea. South Korea also has a large and modern air force, including F-35s. Currently South Korea is buying at least 40 F-35s while also developing a modern jet fighter, the KF-21 for itself (about 120) and export. Many of the F-35s are needed for the DDH type (helicopter carrier) ships that can operate F-35Bs.

North Korea considers all these F-35 purchases a hostile act and direct threat to them. That about sums it up. In the event of a war, the U.S. plans to bring in over 200 more air force and navy F-35s for use against North Korea or China, depending on who is the aggressor.

South Korea and Japan are also building Aegis destroyers and more AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) powered submarines. Both Japan and South Korea are beginning to use lithium-ion batteries on subs, which are superior to current submarine batteries. Japan pioneered this use of lithium-ion batteries.

During the last decade, as North Korean and Chinese military threats became more obvious, Japan and South Korea have been increasing defense spending each year. North Korea openly complains about how unfair and unfriendly these increases are, but they are a direct result of the increasing threat from North Korea. Both Japan and South Korea each have annual defense spending that is more than a third larger than the annual GDP of North Korea. That is one reason North Korea spends about a third of GDP on defense compared to 1.2 percent for Japan and nearly three percent for South Korea.

November 2, 2021: Railroad traffic between North Korea and China has resumed. For most of 2021 there were rumors that the rail traffic would soon resume but now it has finally happened. Until now the only freight movement between North Korea and China or Russia was moved by boat. Last week there were indications that the rail lines were to open soon because Chinese exporters were suddenly stockpiling goods near the North Korean border that were normally exported to North Korea. Yesterday those goods were loaded onto trains that crossed the bridge to North Korea before the end of the day. The 22 month long North Korean shutdown of cross border trade is over. North Korea says that they have defeated covid19, enabling the border to reopen. North Korea has not defeated covid19 and lockdowns of movement within North Korea are still in force. China is still suffering outbreaks of covid19, some of them near the North Korean border. North Korea may have decided that the lockdown of trade and much of their economy was doing more damage that covid19 could. Decisions had to be made and convincing explanations created. That was not going to happen unless the foreign trade was resumed. Shortages of fuel, fertilizer, and spare parts to keep farm machinery going have contributed to widespread food shortages and the reappearance of starvation deaths, something not seen since the 1990s. Life must go on if the current North Korean government is to survive.

The border reopening means thousands of legal North Korean workers in China can return home. Many of these workers were often idle because the Chinese factories they worked in had no orders. This year has been a lot busier with some North Koreans finding themselves working on clothes for South Korea. Back in North Korea any association with South Korean fashion or culture is a criminal offense. North Korea is unlikely to complain about what their foreign workers produce because North Korea taxes their wages at rates as high as 80 percent. Even with that the North Korean workers make more than they would back home and eat better and have better living conditions, especially regular heat and electricity. A labor shortage in China has led to wage increases for North Korean workers, who still get paid less than Chinese.

Recently there have been blackouts in some factories because mismanagement of anti-pollution programs has led to widespread shortages of coal for power plants. The blackouts are less frequent and better managed in China. The North Korean workers don’t seem to mind because the workload has been heavier than it has been for years with many workers enduring mandatory overtime.

November 1, 2021: Without any official announcement or prior notice, the U.S. and South Korea began a major joint air training exercise involving over 200 warplanes. These exercises are regular events, held annually. In 2020 fewer aircraft were involved because of covid19 restrictions. The exercises are usually announced in advance and North Korea regularly condemns them as a provocation. This year few details of the exercises were released, but the large number of American and South Korean warplanes suddenly becoming very active was hard to hide. Apparently, these exercises will last until the 5th. The aircraft appear to be covering the usual list of missions, including air defense, ground support, long-range (into North Korea) airstrikes and SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses).

October 29, 2021: South Korean intelligence believes that Kim Yo Jong is now in charge of diplomatic national security affairs in North Korea. In September Kim Jong Un promoted his younger (34-year-old) sister Kim Yo Jong, to the State Affairs Commission, a group that includes her older brother and is often consulted by Kim Jong Un for advice on how to proceed with key decisions. This promotion is seen as confirmation that Kim Yo Jong is now the chosen successor to her brother. Kim Jong Un apparently has three children aged between 4 and 11. Because of that his able and trusted younger sister has been seen as a potential heir. Kim Yo Jong stepped up when her brother underwent heart surgery in early 2020 and was out of action for several months. Kim Yo Jong was decisive and suitably vicious in the Kim tradition. During that period, she received several promotions and was portrayed as a senior official who was making a lot of decisions. Now she has more promotions and a better relationship with China.

Kim Yo Jong will apparently take over dealing with negotiations regarding nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and economic sanctions. There is much more for Kim Yo Jong to do and more of those problems are showing up in the capital, which is no longer isolated from all the miseries common in the rest of the country. Kim Jong Un is still the supreme leader even if he was incapacitated for several months during 2020. The only thing holding North Korea together is the dictatorial power of the Kim dynasty and if Kim Jong Un lives his sister can only borrow some of that power some of the time. Doing otherwise could be fatal for the younger sister. She has apparently assured everyone that she would be a loyal and able heir to a dynasty that is fading fast.

October 27, 2021: In North Korea the government program to build more new housing in the capital is crippled by a shortage of some materials. One type of new housing is getting priority and that is the novel (for North Korea) townhouses being built outside the capital. These are apparently for wealthy donju (entrepreneurs) and Chinese in the country to handle commercial matters. Government officials prefer guarded compounds or apartments in high-rise buildings.

October 21, 2021: In North Korea the demand for people to work in Russia has run into problems. The growing food shortages and unemployment because of the covid19 restrictions has made it more difficult to find enough physically fit North Korea men for strenuous jobs in Russian logging camps. Apparently about ten percent of applicants are too thin and weak for pass the physical exam require for logging jobs. There was another problem because there was a delay of several months between the physical exam and departure for Russia. A growing number of those approved for logging jobs arrived in and were soon discovered to be too underweight and weak for the work. Some of these men had much less to eat after passing the physical. Sometimes this was a byproduct of paying large bribes to the worker selection officials to get a job in Russia. In other cases, these thin workers scrounged up enough food to make the weight, but the cost of the bribes left him and his family broke and hungry and the man going to Russia arrived in substandard condition. This was a violation of the three-year labor contract and the worker was sent back to North Korea. This was a disaster for those sent back. North Korea has changed its screening rules, requiring a second physical exam just before departure.

There are far fewer North Korean workers in Russia and China because of increased sanctions. There was even more intense competition in 2021 to get selected and bribes of up to $2,000 were demanded. The bribes enable the North Korean officials running the foreign worker program to make a lot of money, if they pass enough of it around to the MSS (secret police) and senior officials to prevent prosecution for corruption.

In parts of Russia near the North Korean border there is a growing shortage of Russians for jobs in factories, construction projects, and lumbering operations. Some of the employers are not treating their North Korean workers well and over the last decade more and more dissatisfied North Koreans were running away, even though escape means family members back in North Korea will be punished. The legal North Korea migrants are part of what amounts to a slave labor program that has become a major (up to $2 billion a year) source of foreign exchange for North Korea. The export of North Korean workers went from 60,000 men and women in 2014 to over 100,000 in 2015. The number of workers outside the country nearly tripled from what it was before since Kim Jong Un took over in 2011. The North Korean government takes up to 90 percent of the wages these men and women earn outside the country, mainly in Russia and China, and holds the workers’ family hostage in case the worker does not return home when ordered. If someone does not come back, their families are sent to prison camps. More enforcement of sanctions has reduced the number of North Koreans working in Russia and China by more than half. North Korea recently offered a $10,000 bounty for anyone in Russia who will aid in the capture of a North Korean worker who is attempting to escape from his labor contract and going back to North Korea.

October 17, 2021: For over a decade North Korea has been seeking more information on which North Koreans living in South Korea have close family still in North Korea. With that information North Korea can threaten defectors more effectively and attempt to persuade some to return to North Korea and provide propaganda about how disappointing life in South Korea is, to discourage more defections, or become spies for North Korea. Those goals have proved elusive but telling the families of known defectors what dire punishments North Korea kin face if the defector in South Korea keeps denouncing North Korea in the media. This often works and now North Korea has set up a program where officials can go to families of “missing” people and threaten them with punishment for being related to a North Korean in South Korea who has become a public critic of the north. These intimidation efforts tend to backfire but succeed often enough to seem worthwhile to North Korea. Some defectors are persuaded to go silent in South Korea when they get word that North Korea has found their family members.

There are over 31,000 North Koreans living in South Korea and the number arriving each year has declined since Kim Jong Un took power in 2012 and greatly increased security on the Chinese border. A growing number of those defectors are going public with their criticism of the North Korean government and support of North Koreans who are risking their lives to get out. Most North Koreans who get into China, go no farther. They can find some safety within the large ethnic Korean community in northeast China. Currently there are also about 50,000 North Korean workers in China legally and despite heavy security and the threat of retaliation against families, more of these North Koreans are risking everything to get free of their North Korea security guards and out of China. There is a growing network of local Koreans and even some local Chinese who provide information to North Korean workers considering making a run for it.

October 15, 2021: North Korea test fired a SLBM (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile) from an underwater platform. North Korea implied a submarine was used but satellite photos show that the North Korean sub being built for that purpose is not yet ready. In 2016 North Korea used a small (1,500 ton) diesel-electric sub modified t0 include a ballistic missile launch tube in the sail. This Gorae (Whale Class) was one of a kind and used for the North Korea Polaris SLBM, a copy of the Russian Cold War R-27 but with a solid fuel motor. The Gorae is still in service.

North Korea has been experimenting with building a Cold War era SBB (diesel-electric ballistic missile sub) that can launch a smaller ballistic missile North Korea already has. There have been five successful test launches from an underwater barge containing the launch tube and at least one test using a smaller SSB with only one launch tube.

North Korea obtained all or parts of a Russian R-27 SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile). This was 1960s vintage tech that was replaced in the 1970s by more modern designs. But many of the 492 R-27s produced were recycled for scientific research until 1990. After that it is believed that all or much of one missile was illegally sold as “scrap” to North Korea. This was deduced from the fact that after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 North Korea bought a lot of discarded Russian weapons for scrap (none of which was supposed to be operational stuff) and it was later discovered that some of the scrap was remilitarized by the North Koreans. For example, the new North Korean SLBM looks a lot like the R-27. Typically, a SLBM is tested from land facilities before it is tested from a submarine. North Korea received ten decommissioned Russian Golf class SSBs in 1993, to be recycled as scrap. The Golf class boats used the R-21 SLBM, which was slightly larger than the R-27 that replaced it in the first Russian SSBs and SSBNs, in the late 1960s. North Korea has launched its SLBM several times and the missile appears to have a range of at least 450 kilometers.

The recent North Korean SLBM test follows the September 15th South Korea test firing a new SLBM, one that was launched from the first of nine new 3,400-ton KSS-3 class submarines. The first KSS-3, the Dosan Ahn Changho, officially entered service in August and this missile test was planned some time ago. The Hyunmoo-2B ballistic missile has a range of 500 kilometers and is launched from one of the six VLS (Vertical Launch System) tubes the new sub is equipped with. The VLS tube can also launch Hyunmoo-3C cruise missiles (1,500-kilometer range). During its sea trials Changho broke the record for the time an AIP (air independent propulsion) equipped sub spent underwater. The duration of this feat was not released but since the current record is 18 days, the Changho had to stay under at least that long. It was implied that the South Korean sub remained submerged for over three weeks.

Early Russian SBBs were soon replaced by SSBNs (nuclear powered ballistic missiles subs). The U.S. developed VLS technology in the 1970s and VLS tubes began showing up in destroyers and cruisers in the 1980s. Most NATO navies adopted it followed by China and Russia.

South Korea is building nine KSS-3 subs in batches of three. The second and third batches will each contain upgrades over the previous batch. All KSS 3 are high seas boats with endurance of 50 days, a 18,000 kilometers range and top speed of 37 kilometers an hour underwater and 22 kilometers on the surface. These boats are built to regularly operate throughout the Pacific. The KSS 3 boats are highly automated making it possible to get by with a crew of fifty. All are armed with eight 533mm torpedo tubes, four of them capable of launching Harpoon anti-ship missiles. KSS-3 Batch 1 has six VLS tubes for South Korean developed missiles while the last six subs will have ten VLS tubes.

VLS tubes on diesel electric submarines are rare. China built an experimental Type 32 class boat in 2012 that had nine VLS tubes, three for ballistic missiles and six for cruise missiles. So far there has been no further work in that by China.

South Korea is the only country with diesel-electric subs equipped with VLS tubes as standard. The U.S. pioneered the development of VLS and using them on the nuclear subs.

October 14, 2021: In North Korea regular imports of Chinese consumer goods appear to have resumed. Chinese goods have been largely absent for about 18 months causing prices with what was available to increase so much that only the wealthiest could afford these goods. Since mid-2021 this appears to have changed in some areas and that trend has continued ever since as more cities and provinces are seeing more Chinese goods at affordable prices. This imports policy was not announced by the government, they just did it.

October 13, 2021: A coal shortage in China has led China to encourage more North Korea coal exports, especially if they are to commercial firms in China rather than government owned companies. The commercial firms can arrange and carry out such deals faster than employees of state-owned firms. Inside North Korea there has been increased demand for coal because drought has reduced hydroelectric electricity generation and coal is being used as a substitute, no matter how imperfect. There is a shortage of experienced coal miners and the mines have been desperate to get new employees. Since early in the year the government has cooperated by sending recently discharged or still serving troops to coal mining duty. Older children from orphanages have also been used.

October 8, 2021: In North Korea, police in areas near the Chinese border have been ordered to arrest at least ten people for curfew violations in order to encourage compliance. This comes after curfew hours were extended from 8 PM-5 AM to 6 PM-7 AM. The police, not wanting to anger the locals, instead arrested anyone from outside the area. These curfew violators are sent off to labor camps for short periods. Despite the increased security along the Chinese borders, people are still taking big risks to get into China.




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