Korea: Somewhat True Confessions Up North


October 12, 2022: In North Korea, security personnel on the Chinese border are now rotated out of their locations as frequently as every three months. This practice began earlier this year when it was noticed that border troops took a few months to develop close relationships with locals and become liable to accepting bribes to allow smuggling in or out of the country to take place. In some parts of the border, it is now customary to rotate company (100 men) or platoon (30 men) size units out of smuggling hot spots randomly every three to six months. Commanders are told to keep their troops segregated from local civilians as much as possible. That is difficult because the border guards know of the economic possibilities and manage to contact locals and arrange bribes to allow smugglers to operate.

People with enough cash are increasingly desperate to get out of North Korea. This is especially true for those living outside the relatively well-fed capital (Pyongyang). In some provinces, deaths from starvation, disease (especially covid19) and suicide are impossible to conceal, despite the government-controlled media ignoring the situation. That means most people rely on rumors, which tend to exaggerate the losses. New rumors keep appearing because reality caught up with earlier rumors.

The government response to these rumors, and the reality behind them, is to increase educational programs that stress the importance of supreme leader Kim Jong Un. The general idea is to elevate the status of Kim Jong Un to the point where he is above all the problems North Koreans are suffering, and shift the blame to evil subordinates who cause the problems. This effort to glorify Kim Jong Un seeks to have him regarded as blameless and, “if the supreme leader only knew”, the problems would not have occurred. This is why Kim is constantly making public appearances at trouble spots announcing that something is now being done for a problem. Some additional resources are then allocated to that problem. As the economic problems escalate, the “additional resources” amount to less and less. So does the magical presence of the supreme leader. Kim Jong Un’s actual response to this trend is to exercise more care in who gets what from the dwindling resources available to keep key groups (senior officials) and organizations of the security forces loyal.

Fever Relief

Covid19 vaccines are finally available in North Korea. The government does not call the Russian and Chinese vaccines “covid vaccines” but rather drugs capable of dealing with the annual outbreak of influenza and deadly fevers in general. The government announced in August that the covid19 threat was over as no new cases were reported since the end of July. The new anti-fever drugs were first administered only in provinces where there were still a lot of people with “fever”. North Korea then announced that the actual covid19 vaccine would be available starting in November. Meanwhile new “anti-fever drugs” required two injections, with the second one coming several weeks after the first. That was typical of most covid10 vaccines. Those receiving the vaccines don’t care what they were called as long as they work.

North Korea only admits to 74 deaths from covid19. Foreign medical experts estimate that China actually suffered two million dead from covid19 while North Korea suffered nearly 40,000, if not more because of the severe shortages of medical care and food. Most East Asian nations kept their covid19 infection rate low. Democracies like Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea produced verified results that showed how a disciplined response can keep covid19 infections and deaths at very low levels. While most Western nations reported covid19 death rates of 800 to 1,600 per million, South Korea reported 31, North Korea falsely reported only 3 per million, while Japan provided a verified report of 59, as did Singapore with five and Taiwan 0.4 per million. China claimed it suffered only three deaths per million population and much less economic disruption than other industrialized nations. The lower economic disruption is obvious. South Korea suffered much less than other industrialized nations, seeing its GDP shrink only one percent. The only nations with better performance were Norway, which suffered 0.8 percent contraction and China claimed 2.3 percent GDP growth. China admits it has a problem with the accuracy of economic and other data.

It will take a few years before economists and other researchers can discover what really happened in China during 2020. Unofficial reports from China indicate that Chinese covid19 deaths were much higher than reported. Even with that most Chinese were confident enough to go back to work and to large public gatherings like mass transit or movie theaters. To maintain this covid19 advantage China still sharply restricts Chinese from travelling outside the country and quickly quarantines any areas where more covid19 appears. The lower infection and death rates are the result of populations accustomed to acting in a unified and precise manner when confronting an emergency. North Korea has a long border with a populous and industrialized region of China and what happens in northeast China gets into North Korea and the rest of the world via cell phones and the Internet. Reports of local covid19 outbreak lockdowns in northeast and other parts of China continue to happen and that’s why covid19 is still active in North Korea.

South Korean Navy Changes Priorities

South Korea has quietly canceled plans to build one or more aircraft carriers for its F-35B stealth fighters. Money for this was simply removed from the naval budget. South Korea changed its F-35 order from F-35Bs to the land-based F-35As. The South Korean Navy is putting more money into new submarines, as these are more useful against Chinese subs and surface ships.

The situation was different three years ago when a 30,000-ton modified LPX II “amphibious ship” was added to the 2021-25 defense spending plan. Now called CVX, it would be similar but superior to the Japanese DDH “F-35B carrier” and would be able to carry up to 20 F-35Bs. While the designation LPX II indicates a larger amphibious ship, the LPX II will be built as a CVX aircraft carrier, without facilities for carrying marines and their equipment. For several years South Korean defense officials have discussed building one or more 30,000-ton ships that look like the Japanese DDH (destroyer helicopter carrier) and are modified to handle a dozen or more F-35Bs.

South Korean plans became more obvious when the second Dokdo class LPH (Landing Platform Helicopter) entered sea trials in 2020. As of 2020 South Korea now had two 19,500-ton Dokdo class large amphibious ships. These South Korea LPHs are similar in appearance and operation to the larger American amphibious ships. The LPH flight deck can handle helicopters, as well as vertical takeoff jets like the F-35B. Until recently Korea denied that Dokdos would be used with these jets, but the capability was there. The LPH normally carries 720 combat troops and their heavy equipment. Dokdos also carry fifteen aircraft; two V-22 vertical takeoff transports and 13 helicopters. Marado, the second Dokdo, has a redesigned flight deck that can handle two V-22s at once instead of just one. In addition to a more powerful 3-D surveillance radar for tracking aircraft, Marado has a Phalanx anti-missile system. Marado was apparently modified so it could more effectively handle six or more F-35Bs.

The Dokdo had a crew of 330 plus the ability to carry 720 marines. The ship’s crew includes pilots and maintainers for the helicopters. In contrast, the LPX/CVX II was to have a crew of over 500, including aviation personnel (pilots, planners and maintainers).

October 9, 2022: In North Korea, two more ballistic missiles were fired from the east coast towards Japan. These two missiles traveled about 350 kilometers. This is the seventh North Korea “weapons test” in the last two weeks. North Korea said these tests were a protest against the ongoing training exercises involving American and South Korean forces that were conducted during that period. So far this year North Korea has launched ballistic or cruise missiles at least 25 times. This involved about 40 missiles, one of them flying over Japan. Some tests may not have been detected.

October 6, 2022: North Korea sent twelve warplanes south, off the west coast, but these aircraft did not cross the maritime border. South Korea sent 30 warplanes up to intercept the North Koreans. This incident occurred two hours after North Korea fired two more ballistic missiles from its east coast.

October 5, 2022: In North Korea the government did not announce the recent ballistic missiles fired towards Japan. As the details of these missile launches reached North Korean cities the public reaction was muted because it was generally hostile. Most North Koreans feel the food shortages and economic problems and correctly assume that they would have more food if money were not spent on so many ballistic missiles. Openly criticizing the government for not feeding the population can get you arrested and sent to a labor camp. There, the chances of starving to death are even higher. This criticism is not new. Since 2020 North Korea has suffered persistent trade deficits (more exports than imports). In 2020 the deficit was $684 million and $549 in 2021. There will be another deficit in 2022 because internal lockdowns continue, although not as widely as last year. Nearly 60 percent of imports are petroleum products. Not enough other items, like fertilizer, are getting in, which increases the food shortages. Even imports of items for the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons have been reduced, but not eliminated. The state of the armed forces grows worse, mainly because of food shortages. Desertions are up as are the percentage of new conscripts physically unfit for service. The desertions include border guards, who are supposed to receive adequate food supplies but don’t and most of them are simply leaving their weapons behind and wading or swimming across the river into China.

October 4, 2022: American and South Korean forces each fired two American ATACMS short range (300 kilometers) missiles into the sea off the east coast. South Korea also fired one of its Hyunmoo-2C missiles but it failed after launch and landed in the South Korean base it was launched from but 700 meters from a residential area. There were no casualties. South Korea developed a 180-kilometer range ballistic missile (Hyunmoo 1) and a 300-kilometer one (Hyunmoo 2) in the 1980s. Both are about 13 meters (40 feet) long and weigh 4-5 tons. Both of these were based on the design of the U.S. Nike-Hercules anti-aircraft missile, which South Korea used for many years. In 2019 it was announced there was now a longer range (500 kilometer) version, Hyunmoo 2C would soon be available. This missile has been tested successfully several times. The failed launch today was later attributed to control system problems in the missile which were not detected before launch.

September 26, 2022: In North Korea the government recommended that everyone resume wearing face masks because of a feared return of covid19 because the annual flu season has begun. In some provinces officials made mask wearing mandatory.

September 23, 2022: North Korea sees benefits from the Russian situation in Ukraine, even as things grow increasingly desperate for Russia as the Ukrainian counter-offensive has been a major success and Russia is in danger of losing all the Ukrainian territory it has occupied since 2014, Now Russia is threatening to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Russian allies like Iran and North Korea are watching this with keen interest because North Korea already has some crude nukes and recently declared it would use them without warning if they felt threatened. Iran doesn’t have any nukes yet but could produce them. Fear of retaliation has made the Iranians more circumspect. Both Iran and North Korea see the Russian nuclear threats as the most realistic use of nuclear blackmail yet attempted and are very much hoping the Russians will win his gamble.

September 8, 2022: North Korean threats to attack Japan have clashed with Japanese public opinion and forced Japan to revise its plans to base two Aegis Ashore systems in Japan. What killed the Aegis project were several of those bad habits. First, as defense officials were working out the details, they found they had underestimated the cost of preparing the two Aegis Ashore sites. That cost was about 25 percent higher than estimated. Costs threatened to increase even more when civilians living near the two Aegis base areas discovered that there were side-effects from the use of Aegis missiles. Planners made some adjustments to the area Aegis would occupy but that was not enough to assure local civilians that the booster portion of the two-stage SM missile would never fall in or near a populated area. In one Aegis Ashore site there were civilian concerns about living too close to the AESA radar Aegis uses to detect and track incoming missiles. Once the Japanese media and local politicians get hold of issues like this, they stay active until the “threat” goes away. North Korean and Chinese missiles are seen as less of a threat. In Poland and Romania, Russia is always seen as the primary threat and the side effects of using Aegis are not an issue.

The Japanese solution to the problem was to order two 20,000-ton AA (Aegis Ashore) ships whose main purpose was to the carry the Aegis Ashore system and spend most of its time offshore, moving slowly to maintain stability for firing purposes while being less vulnerable targets for Chinese and North Korean armed UAV’s, ballistic missiles and warships. Their crews of 110 are just large enough to maintain the ship and operate the Aegis Ashore and missiles. There would probably be at least two crews that would alternately serve on the AA ship. Japan believes it can have these novel missile defense ships in service by 2028. As one of the world's major commercial ship builders, Japan can build the ships quickly and inexpensively. The only drawback with the AA ships is that they would periodically be out of service because of the need to return to port for maintenance or, randomly, to avoid a major storm. The two Aegis Ashore systems were originally ordered because two of them can protect all of Japan. When one of the AA Ships is in port, Japan sends several of its Aegis destroyers to maintain the ABM defense.

Before the AA ships were approved, Japan considered a more expensive solution of building more Aegis equipped destroyers. This is not as effective as Aegis Ashore which, as a land base, is cheaper to maintain and always available to defend against North Korean or Chinese ballistic missiles. Ships have crews and ships spend only about a third of their time at sea. The AA Ships would spend about 90 percent of their time at sea.

North Korea remains the primary threat to Japan. North Korea's unwillingness to get rid of its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs persists. As a result, Japan is still moving ahead to expand its ballistic missile defenses. Most of these will still be based on the Aegis system, which is normally installed on large (8,000 tons and up) warships. Japan has eight Maya and Kongo class Aegis anti-missile system destroyers and is considering ordering two more Kongos, in addition to the AA Ships.

The Maya class destroyers are improved versions of the earlier Atago class destroyers. The Mayas also borrow much from the first four Japanese Aegis-ABM ships, the 9,500-ton Kongos, which were built during the 1990s and modeled on the American Burke class Aegis destroyers. The Kongos have 90 VLS (Vertical Launch System) cells for anti-aircraft/missile missiles as well as ASROC anti-submarine rockets (that carry an anti-submarine torpedo to, in effect, extend the range of the torpedo by 22 kilometers). Japanese Burke type destroyers also carry a five-inch gun and eight Japanese designed anti-ship missiles (similar to the American Harpoon). The Maya class has 96 VLS cells (as do Atagos) as well as more advanced electronics that enable the Mayas to link with the U.S. Navy CEC (Cooperative Engagement Capability) that allows real-time sharing of sensor and other data in real-time between other CEC equipped ships and even shore-based systems like Aegis Ashore.

The two land-based Aegis Ashore anti-missile systems were not expected to be in service until 2024. At that point, Japan would have eight Aegis anti-missile systems and could have two more Aegis anti-missile destroyers by 2024 by upgrading the Aegis systems on two of the older destroyers. That upgrade is more likely now that Aegis Ashore has been canceled. It appears that North Korea will continue to be a threat and how much more of a ballistic missile threat China becomes is still considered less of a problem. China has a long history of threatening but not acting. North Korea has demonstrated an ability to attack without warning and did so in 2010. North Korea has always been less cooperative than China although the Chinese are still a threat.

September 7, 2022: A growing number of North Koreans have found out about the August 15th offer by South Korea to provide massive economic and food assistance if North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons. This offer was not mentioned in North Korean media, which is all state controlled. That’s because the North Korean government turned down the offer because the government considers the nuclear weapons as the primary reason for the continued survival of the Kim dynasty. As more North Koreans suffer from the growing food shortage and economic problems, distrust of and anger towards their government increases.




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