Korea: Hope Versus Reality


January 11, 2022: North Korea carried out another ballistic missile test off the east coast. This missile was tracked by South Korea as it traveled 700 kilometers, after reaching a max altitude of 60 kilometers. South Korea pointed out that this was the second such test in a week and not the sort of thing North Korea needs to do if they are serious about negotiating a peace deal with the south and obtaining massive foreign aid as a result. South Korea has been witnessing these scare tactics for decades since 2010 has not had the desired effect. South Koreans are not going to respond well to these bullying tactics but Kim Jong Un is apparently not interested in trading his nukes and ballistic missiles for economic aid.

North Koreans are increasingly holding leader Kim Jong Un personally responsible for the growing list of calamities that are killing or impoverishing more and more people. North Korea is one of those places where the covid19 lockdown has killed more people than covid19, yet some people are still dying from covid19.

Another embarrassing development was that, despite the lack of imported fertilizer in 2021, food production increased a bit because there were no major storms and floods. Lockdown problems transporting food from provinces with a large surplus to provinces that need it led to more deaths from starvation related diseases or starvation itself.

The situation has become so desperate that North Koreans are risking their lives by accusing Kim Jong Un of being personally responsible for the sorry state of North Korea. This was seen recently (December 22) in the capital (Pyongyang) where a very visible bit of graffiti named Kim Jong Un as the main cause of the growing starvation and referred to Kim with a profane term (“son of a…). That sort of thing is considered a capital offense, punishable by lots of torture, to implicate others with similar attitudes, followed by a public execution. The culprit has not been found, possibly because he or she was from outside the capital. The scrawl appeared during a major Central Committee session that brought in many people from outside Pyongyang, where hunger is more widespread and often fatal. This was the first time since 2018 that graffiti appeared in the capital and the 2018 incident was traced back to a colonel on one of the military staffs that have long been resident in the capital. The colonel was executed and the exact circumstances of his involvement were never released.

The military has also become a source of discontent because the lack of food has now become a problem for conscripts, who are the ones dying from it, while the families of career officers are receiving less food and still subject to severe punishments if they bend or break any rules in an effort to get more food. Kim Jong Un has also ordered locations used for public executions be moved to less visible areas. South Koreans figured out where these new, less public, execution grounds are and publicized locations.

Nukes Not Negotiable

Some things have not changed. In 2019 North Korea admitted the obvious; it never had any intention of surrendering its nuclear weapons. The reality was that North Korea was attempting its traditional negotiating tactic of offering to behave, but wanted some economic aid first as a show of good faith. That tactic no longer works and now North Korea is back to making threats as well as initiating more peace negotiations and economic cooperation. Despite the 2022 strategy, nukes and military threats remain. North Korea continues falling apart economically and politically and that has led North Koreans to do the unthinkable, which includes openly criticizing the government, putting anti-government graffiti in public places and even attacking corrupt government officials, including police. North Korea is bankrupt and not getting better. Covid19 made matters much worse because North Korea was totally unprepared to handle it and responded by shutting its borders and restricting movement within North Korea. This crippled an already weak economy and efforts to deal with the threat of another fatal famine. Even the security forces were getting less food and the emergency military food reserve was used up.

Big Brother China is openly losing patience with its unruly neighbor. China is, literally, North Korea’s economic lifeline. China is the primary or only source for essentials like petroleum, food and all sorts of smuggled goods, past a long list of international sanctions. China will tolerate a lot of bad behavior in return for obedience and maintaining order along the Chinese border. North Korea failed in both categories.

Everyone looks to China because Korea has traditionally been a Chinese responsibility and, most of the time, a difficult one. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has obediently gone to China several times since 2018 to receive advice. Kim also met with the leaders of South Korea and the United States. So far lots of the right words but little action. China and everyone else fears that North Korea is going to try and scam its way out of another tight situation and risk the very real wrath of China while doing it. Inside North Korea the official word is that the nuclear weapons are essential and not negotiable. Unofficially, more North Koreans want a change of government or a way to get out. Meanwhile South Korea continues to visibly prosper, with GDP per capita that is more than 20 times larger than North Korea. Being caught viewing videos of life in South Korea or South Korean video entertainment, is now a capital (death penalty) offense in North Korea.

North Korean bad behavior has been recognized internationally in many ways. For example, FATF (Financial Action Task Force), an anti-money-laundering organization established in 1989 by the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, considers North Korea one of the worst offenders.

The FATF itself does not impose any punishments and is more like a credit rating agency. There are only three ratings; no evidence of supporting money-laundering, the gray list (some evidence of money laundering or financial support for terrorist activity) and the black list (much evidence and no efforts to deal with it). Currently only two nations are on the black list; North Korea and Iran. Both are considered outlaw states and not where anyone wants to send financial aid. Currently 23 nations are on the gray list. The next step is the black list and most nations spend a short time on the gray list, just long enough to clear up the criminal activity that got them gray listed. North Korea insists that it is being falsely accused.

January 6, 2022: In northeast North Korea (North Hamgyong Province) there was another emergency roundup of those suspected of having covid19. Special teams transport these suspects to isolation centers where, if they survive the quarantine period they are returned to their homes, which, along with their place of employment, had been disinfected. Lately, North Hamgyong has had fewer people put into quarantine but the current surge in cases is delaying plans to shut down all the provincial quarantine centers and use a few national centers. North Hamgyong is on the Chinese border and long known for the smuggling activity. Over the last two years border security has been markedly increased, but some people still get out although few or none are coming back from China. Most of the provincial border is covered by fences, some of it electrified. Some areas have minefields. Since 2021 border guards have had orders to shoot on sight and shoot to kill anyone too close to the river that marks the border.

At the end of 2021 there were still about a hundred thousand people in government quarantine facilities because they had symptoms similar to those infected with covid19. This quarantine policy has been going on since 2020. Mandatory quarantine and e xtremely strict lockdowns are considered necessary because in most of the country there is no treatment for those who catch covid19. This still happens, despite the strict lockdowns and border security. Those suspected of having it, because of flu-like symptoms rather than testing, are quarantined, often under armed guard, for two weeks or more. The only place that any covid19 treatment is available is in Pyongyang and a few provincial capitals.

The solution to all this is seen as a vaccine. Despite efforts to obtain vaccines, North Korea is one of the few nations that has not yet used nationwide vaccination. North Korea sought to buy the same British vaccine that South Korea used but could not afford it. South Korea can produce that vaccine locally (under license) and has offered it to North Korea at no cost. Refusing that, North Korea must import it from India. Vaccine deliveries have still not happened, except for small quantities of vaccines produced and used in Western countries. North Korea will provide the vaccine to senior officials and security forces first. Apparently, hundreds of senior officials and their families have quietly received Western vaccines.

Meanwhile the lockdowns are causing starvation and lots of privation and anxiety and there are still cases of covid19, often in quarantine centers where many victims get infected because of poor quarantine measures within the guarded facilities. The government has been sending inspection teams to military bases as well as the military quarantine facilities and issued fines to and demoted commanders of those organizations that were sloppy applying rules meant to prevent the spread of covid19. Some quarantine facilities were shut down completely.

January 5, 2022: North Korea carried out another ballistic missile test from an inland east coast base. The missile landed several hundred kilometers away in waters between North Korea and Japan. Several hours later Kim Jong Un met with his South Korean counterpart to break ground for a new rail line from South Korea into North Korea near the east coast port city of Goseong, which is connected to the North Korea rail network.

At the end of 2018 there was a similar ceremony on the DMZ to mark the reconnection of South Korean and North Korean rail lines for the first time since the 1950s. The ceremony was mainly for show since current sanctions prevented the two Koreas from going any further. Worse, it turns out that the North Korean rail network needed major upgrades and refurbishment before it could handle more traffic and do so at efficient levels, as in higher speeds by heavier rail cars for longer periods. In 2018 South Korean rail officials were allowed to make a personal inspection of key North Korean rail lines and found the conditions worse than expected. North Korea allowed South Korea engines and railroad cars to be used for tests. Since the 1990s much less has been spent in the north on repairs and maintenance and the North Korea railroads are increasingly unusable. Despite that, reviving rail links between the two Koreas has been a goal for nearly a decade. For both Koreas there are tantalizing trade possibilities. For example, an effective rail link could lead to business for North Korea by allowing South Korean goods to move through North Korea to China, Russia and (via the Trans-Siberian rail line) the rest of Eurasia. This is very concrete optimism for all three countries and is being backed by cash commitments from Russia and South Korea. It all depends on the northern leaders agreeing that economic reforms are the way to salvation. At the moment the northern elite fear any change because it might bring revolution. But the change is happening anyway and the more affluent neighbors are trying to explain it all to the perplexed northern leadership. The 2022 ceremony marks the start of construction in North Korea to improve their rail lines and build a rail line right up to both sides of the DMZ. Because of the failed 2018 talks, the 2022 ceremony is another triumph of hope over reality. Unless North Korea makes a serious effort at working out their problems with South Korea, getting sanctions lifted and making the cross-border rail line a reality will not happen.

After the ceremony North Korea announced that the ballistic missile test before the border ceremony was the new North Korean hypersonic missile. There was no evidence of that but it is the kind of theater North Korea uses in place of serious peace negotiations.

January 4, 2022: In South Korea one of their new F-35A stealth fighters suffered an electronic malfunction while trying to land. The landing gear would not deploy and the pilot made a “belly landing” without the landing gear. This damaged the aircraft but the pilot was able to walk away from his aircraft and the damage was limited and repairable. Software monitoring systems on the aircraft confirmed that it was software or electronic equipment that caused the landing gear to malfunction. South Korea received their first F-35As in 2019 as part of the initial order for 40 aircraft.

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. South Korea plans to order twenty F-35Bs, the vertical takeoff and landing version that can operate from carriers.

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.

January 1, 2022: near the east coast of South Korea a North Korean man who had made it to South Korea walked across the DMZ (the most heavily guarded border on the planet) at night. It’s not unusual for some North Koreans who make it to the south to be overwhelmed by the different culture and the way they stand out, to return to North Korea. It is rare for such a returnee to illegally walk across the DMZ at night. This incident caused an uproar for different reasons in both Koreas. In the south there was outrage that once again the soldiers guarding the DMZ had not detected someone. Despite efforts to improve security on the DMZ the South Korean military continues to see these incidents occur. Security is tighter on the North Korean side, but not perfect. This time the returning North Korean man was spotted as he was leaving the DMZ and put into quarantine because he might have covid19. Unlike earlier incidents, this one was kept secret and units along the DMZ had permission to use a special encrypted radio system to report the incident to the capital and Kim Jong Un. At the same time North Korean troops in the area where the returnee crossed were all issued with ammunition and put on the highest alert level, as if this returnee was infected with covid19 and secretly sent across the DMZ to start an outbreak of covid19 before an invasion from the south. This is seen as absurd in the south but in the north is just another conspiracy theory that is taken seriously.

This is the second such returnee on the DMZ since July 2020 when a North Korean that had been in South Korea for three years and returned by swimming off the west coast past part of the DMZ and crawling through a drain pipe to get into North Korea. He got across the DMZ without being noticed on either side and later turned himself in to North Korean police. South Korea investigated this incident and found it was real and that the defector was being sought by South Korean police because of accusation by a female defector that the returnee had raped her. The North Korean man was identified as a 24-year-old from Kaesong City (the southernmost North Korea city and within walking distance of the DMZ) who got to South Korea in 2017 but had problems adjusting to life in the south and had caught covid19. The announcement of this “first case” of covid19 in North Korea was followed by additional travel restrictions in towns and cities near the South Korean border, starting with Kaesong City. North Korea says this man has covid19.

For over a decade before covid19 showed up North Korea was 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. Efforts to entice returnees were paused after covid19 showed up. The program to entice defectors to return has not worked out well. The government did continue telling the families of known defectors what dire punishments North Korean kin face if the defector in South Korea keeps denouncing North Korea in the media. This sometimes works and in the last few years North Korea 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. North Korea does continue trying to eliminate this network.

December 31, 2021: In North Korea supreme leader Kim Jing Un declared 2022 was the year of economic reform and more food. What happened in 2021 made it clear what must be done if the Kim dynasty wished to remain in power. This declaration was subsequently found to be much less helpful than implied. Kim subsequently ordered tighter restrictions on movement within the country and more crackdowns on illegal black-market activities, especially those involving food. This increased hunger and more starvation deaths have been attributed to the government making control of the population a higher priority than keeping them alive. The reality is that 2022 is the year of more arrests, torture and punishment of those caught moving from one province to another or having a Chinese cell phone. Little is revealed about efforts to obtain more food, only activity concentrating on keeping bad news from spreading, especially outside the country.

The other problem is the damage done to the economy because of covid19 and continued sanctions. North Korea has a miniscule GDP (about $25 billion in 2021), which is pathetic compared to South Korea’s $1.8 trillion that is one of the ten highest in the world. On a per-capita basis South Korean GDP is more than 20 times larger than North Korean. Per capita GDP of China and Russia is more than five times larger than North Korea. North Korea is an island of poverty in a sea of prosperity.

December 30, 2021: The Philippines has ordered two 3,200-ton corvettes from South Korea for $554 million. Exactly a year earlier a team of Filipino Navy officers and sailors completed their inspection of the second Rizal class frigates that were ordered in 2016. The second ship was declared in compliance with all contractual obligations and the South Korean crew that helped with the inspection, would take the ship to sea on February 5th for the five-day voyage to the Philippines. These frigates cost $169 million each and are smaller versions of the South Korean FFX (Incheon class) frigate. The Philippines has purchased aircraft and other military equipment fr0m South Korea and keeps ordering more.

December 28, 2021: North Korea launched its first new merchant ship since 2016. The 12,000 DWT (deadweight ton) ship is about 143 meters (455 feet) long and has a top speed of 25 kilometers an hour. Cargo holds have about half a million cubic feet of space. Crew size is about fifteen. The new ship is much larger than the last few North Korea built cargo ships, which tended to be 8,000 DWT or less. Most North Korean cargo ships are used for smuggling and North Korea prefers to buy second-hand vessels that are harder to identify as North Korean. Ships built in North Korea keep shipyard workers employed and provide some legitimate cargo vessels for legal trade.

December 23, 2021: in North Korea economic activity has declined so much that nearly 90 percent of current university graduates are unable to get a job. The problem is so acute that even bottled water, which only about ten percent of the population can afford, is in short supply. The black market can supply bottled water, for a higher price plus the risk of arrest, torture (possibly fatal) and years in a labor camp (more often fatal.) “I’d die for a drink of water” is no longer just a figure of speech.

December 20, 2021: Commercial satellite photos from October and several days in November and December, indicate that North Korea did attempt to launch an SLBM (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile) from their lone submarine modified to do that. This occurred in September, after a successful SLBM launch from an underwater platform. Meanwhile North Korea has apparently completed construction of a 3,000-ton diesel-electric sub that can carry three SLBMs. Satellite photos show that this boat has not yet been used for a SLBM test. North Korea has Gorae (Whale), a smaller (1,500 ton) diesel-electric sub modified t0 include a single ballistic missile launch tube in the sail. This sub was used as early as 2016 for SLBM tests but most SLBM tests were still launched from an underwater platform. North Korea used their smaller Gorae for a SLBM test in October and the test apparently failed, was not detected and damaged the sub. The damage has since been repaired. This Gorae sub was one of a kind and used for the North Korean Polaris SLBM, a copy of the Russian Cold War R-27 but with a solid fuel motor. The Gorae is still in service and work continues on getting the SLBM to work reliably while the new 3,000-ton missile sub awaits any last-minute modifications from tests carried out using the smaller Gorae.

December 11, 2021: Parts of North Korea are not only experiencing lots of hunger but also problems with their water supplies. The culprit is not lack of water but lack of electricity to operate the equipment that pumps water to homes and businesses. These disruptions begin as brief periods in which there is no power or tap water. These dark and thirsty periods are becoming longer and creating more health problems.

December 9, 2021: The government launched a major crackdown on black market money changers who refuse to accept the new, cheap looking, donpyo (5,000 won currency vouchers) that were introduced because North Korea could not afford the cost of special inks and paper to print more of the official currency. The government explained that the donpyo were temporary and the equivalent of bank checks. This further confused most North Koreans, who had never seen or used bank checks.

December 1, 2021: Kim Jong Un has granted his sister Kim Yo Jong, and heir apparent, the authority to inspect military supply activities on her own authority.


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