Korea: Hard Times on the Chinese Border



August 9, 2023: North Korea and Russia have become friends again. The two countries have had a close relationship since 1945 when Japanese occupation forces were expelled from Korea by the Russian army. Korea was again briefly united again but that did not last because Russia would not comply with a post-World War II agreement to remove the Japanese occupation forces and then leave. The United States did so but the Russians refused and created the current North Korean police state with Red Army troops of Korean ancestry, equipped it lavishly with weapons and ordered North Korea to invade and take over South Korea in 1950. The UN responded with uncharacteristic unity and resolve and authorized a UN force to deal with the situation. Russia then persuaded the newly established communist government of China to invade and rescue the North Koreans from certain defeat three months after the invasion. Russia was technically not involved as it knew it would be shattered for little loss to the West in any nuclear war with the United States because Russia’s new nuclear arsenal was vastly inferior to America’s.

The secret deal Russia used to end the fighting was that they would continue financing a North Korean communist government and compensate communist China for its sacrifices in North Korea (where over half a million Chinese died). North Korea depended on Russian economic aid until 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved and the new, and much smaller Russia could no longer afford to send annual economic aid to North Korea. This led to a famine in North Korea that resulted on over a million starvation deaths and a generation of malnourished North Korean children. By the end of the 1990s Russia had revived its economy and tried to improve relations with North Korea. That took time but by 2010 Russia and North Korea were on good terms again. Th countries have become trading partners and Russia is the only reliable military ally North Korea has. China is technically a military ally of North Korea but in practice is not as useful an ally as Russia is.

Despite the cooperation between Russia and North Korea, hackers from both countries still target each other’s commercial and government facilities. Sometimes the hacks are discovered and the situation is resolved quietly between the two nations. This known because Western network security firms also monitor sites for security flaws or breaches and often publicize some of the more interesting results.

While North Korea has improved relations with Russia, the same can’t be said for China. Along the 1,352 kilometer border with China, the Chinese have and North Koreans have installed additional walls, fences, and guard posts. On the Chinese side, a growing network of video cameras are monitored locally and from a central facility. The cameras are believed to have night vision capability but are still blocked by fog and smoke. China has been using similar camera technology internally, with the addition of a very effective facial recognition system. Anyone spotted on the border that is concealing their face is regarded as suspicious and investigated. All the border surveillance and obstacles were installed in the last few years. As a result, it is much harder to smuggle anything or anyone across the border. In 2022 only 67 North Koreans made it across the border into China and then South Korea. In 2019, before most of the new border obstacles and surveillance was installed, 1,047 North Korean made to South Korea via China. There are still fewer border obstacles along remote portions of the border. It is more difficult to reach these areas without being noticed on one side or the other. This means some snuggling still continues, but the risk of being caught is greater and smugglers charge higher fees because of the increased risks of being spotted. This often leads to smugglers being arrested or retreating from the border before they can cross.

The North Korean secret police have noted that less money is getting from South Korea to families of defectors. Nearly all of these North Korean expatriates regularly send money to their families via remittance brokers in China and North Korea. Receiving money from expatriates is a crime in North Korea but for the North Korean secret police it was an opportunity to demand a portion of the cash North Koreans were receiving from kin in South Korea or the United States. With less of that money getting into North Korea, the secret police as well are families of expatriates getting less or, in some cases, none of that that money. This has an impact on the North Korean economy because that money was spent in North Korea and is missed. Remittance brokers in China are either going out of business or shrinking their operations.

On the southern border, North Korea confronts South Korea and that makes it easier for North Koreans to realize that since the 1990s South Korea has developed a major arms industry to supply South Korean forces as well as for export. That has made South Korea one of the top ten arms exporters in the world. In the last year South Korean firms have received over $10 billion in orders from NATO nations for weapons and munitions. Many of the new South Korean weapons and munitions compete with similar American products. South Korea is also producing military helicopters and jet aircraft. In June South Korean and American forces conducted their annual joint live fire exercises. In 2023 this also commemorated the 70th anniversary of the South Korea-U.S. military alliance as well as the 75th anniversary of the South Korean military. This South Korean force has grown from a poorly trained and equipped auxiliary to the American force to a major military presence in East Asia. Combined with American and Japanese forces, this coalition is a major obstacle to Chinese aggression. The Chinese don’t like to be reminded of this and North Korea calls it a threat, not a defense against a long planned North Korean attack. As the South Koreans have grown stronger, North Korea's military and economic power has declined.

August 7, 2023: North Korea college students continue to win international hacking competitions. Becoming a proficient software engineer is one way for a North Korean student to obtain some very lucrative economic opportunities. The North Korean students excel at developing and producing software solutions but are unable to take lucrative jobs in other countries. The North Korean government keeps their software engineers’ content by allowing some to work in China and participate in lucrative hacking efforts that steel money and valuable information from foreign countries. North Korea may be a socialist state, but the leaders realized their skilled hackers would be more effective is provided with financial incentives,

August 2, 2023: In 2022 South Korean per-capital income was $32,142. This is an 8.2 percent decline from the previous year. The main cause was that the South Korean currency lost value versus the dollar. If that had not happened the 2022 data would be stable rather than declining.

July 31, 2023: The United States and South Korea have signed the SOSA (Security of Supply Arrangement) that makes it easier for the two nations to quickly obtain defense-related products or even technology from each other. South Korea has become a major defense manufacturer and one of the top ten arms exporters.

July 30, 2023: North Korea has been providing Russia with rockets and shells for use in Ukraine. These are often the oldest ones in the North Korean inventory. It’s preferable to sell these munitions, some of them 30 years old, before they become too dangerous to use. Although these shells and rockets will still work, many of them do so unreliably. That means many of these shells and rockets no longer are as accurate or able to reach their maximum range or even detonate when they hit the ground. Ukrainian EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams are kept busy dealing with all these unexploded munitions in the combat zone as well as in towns and cities where the unexploded munitions are a threat to civilians.

Russia has apparently ordered more munitions from North Korea because the North Korean government announced that munitions production was being increased, with existing plants adding another shift and raw materials suppliers ordered to increase production. This is a rare opportunity for North Korea to produce and sell large quantities of munitions. Russia can pay and there is a direct rail connection between North Korea and all of Russia via the Trans-Siberian railroad.

July 29, 2023: Japan has revised its defense budget increases and over next five years it is gradually increasing its defense budget from one percent of GDP to more than two percent. That means that in 2028 the defense budget will be about $85.9 billion. In 2022 Japan announced it would increase spending by 2027 to $73 billion. Japan currently spends $52 billion while South Korea spends $86 billion and North Korea about $5 billion. In the last year Japan assessed its defense spending plans as inadequate and increased them again. Japan already has the third largest annual defense budget. China currently spends $225 billion a year and $816 billion for the United States. Russia plans to spend at least $100 billion in the next year. This is more than Russia planned to spend because they are at war in Ukraine and losing. This Russian spending is temporary because much of it is borrowed money and unless the economic sanctions on Russia (because of the war) are lifted, sustaining that high defense spending is not possible. For Japan, most of the additional defense spending is being spent on missiles for retaliating against North Korea, Russia or China. This counter strike capability is a major change in Japanese defense strategy. South Korea sees this as a welcome but worrying change in Japanese defense policy. There is some concern that Japan might be too aggressive in reacting to a possible threat. Both Koreas are still angry at Japan because Korea was a brutally treated Japanese possession from 1910 to 1945. The four decades of Japanese occupation were very cruel. Think how bad the Nazi occupation of conquered countries was during World War II and realize that the Japanese occupation of Korea was much worse and for much longer. The Japanese don’t help with their post-World War II attitude that Japan was a victim because it was forced into World War II by evil Westerners and was only trying to help its neighbors by occupying them and treating them badly. Japanese have a hard time understanding how their victims don’t appreciate all that Japan tried to do for them. What the foreigners do remember is what the Japanese did to them, something the Japanese tend to downplay or deny outright.

July 25, 2023: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited North Korea to discuss increased trade and cooperation in defense matters. Russia wants North Korea to produce more weapons for Russia in return for food and tech that North Korea needs. Both Russia and North Korea are suffering cash-flow problems and are willing to trade via barter. In this case the trade is only possible because of the Russian effort in 2013 to build a 54 kilometer rail line from Russia to the North Korea railroad system. This came after a decade of work and it linked North Korean railroads to the transcontinental Russian railroad, which gives North Korea a more direct link to Russia and Europe. The new rail link was built through some very rough terrain and required 18 bridges and 4.5 kilometers tunnels to be built or rebuilt. Now it will take only 14 days to get cargo to Europe, compared to twice as long via Chinese rail links or 45 days by ship. In the past decade North Korea and Russia have both acquired more sanctions and restrictions on who they can trade with. Currently that mainly consists of pariah state Russia trading with pariah state North Korea. The common rail link makes a big difference. Before that the overland trade required trucks to be used over roads that are not in the best shape because of difficult time and shortages of cash to upgrade or maintain them.

North Korea can provide Russia with a wide variety of weapons, including UAVs and ballistic missiles. Russia can provide North Korea with more efficient manufacturing equipment as well as key components for high-tech systems, like ballistic missiles. North Korea has been operating under heavy economic sanctions for decades while such restrictions are relatively new for Russia.

July 24, 2023: North Korea launched two ballistic missiles from a east coast base. The missiles travelled about 400 kilometers before plunging into the sea.

July 19, 2023: In South Korea an American nuclear sub, the USS Michigan (SSGN 727) docked at Busan (Pusan) at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. This is a unique American sub; one of the four 16,000 ton SSGNs that were formerly Ohio class SSBNs (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines) that were converted to SSGNs by 2008. This process entailed converting two of the ballistic missile tubes for use as diver lockout chambers, able to accommodate up to nine men. Eight tubes were rebuilt to permit them to be used alternatively for stowing Naval special operations forces equipment, cruise missiles, UAVs or UUVs, or for other (classified) purposes. The remaining 14 tubes were converted to house up to seven Tomahawk cruise missiles. If the SOF (Special Operations Forces, usually SEALs) capable tubes are also used, each boat can carry up to 154 Tomahawks. In addition, the ballistic missile command and control systems and spaces were replaced by command and control facilities for SOF operations. Each boat can house a 66-man SOF team for relatively long periods, and up to 102 for shorter periods. In addition, each boat is fitted to carry either two "Dry Dock" shelters (storage bins for SOF gear or other equipment) or two midget submarines for SOF. The idea of a sub, armed with 154 highly accurate cruise missiles, and capable of rapidly traveling under water (ignoring weather, or observation) at a speed of over 1,200 kilometers a day, to a far off hot spot, had great appeal in the post-Cold War world. The ability to carry a large force of commandos as well was also appealing. The Ohio SSGNs can also carry a wide variety of electronic sensors and other data collecting gear. In one sub you have your choice of hammer or scalpel or both. The arrival of this SSGN implies that the Americans could use over a hundred cruise missiles to attack North Korea as well as a SEAL teams to destroy or disrupt North Korean naval bases or perhaps go after Kim Kong Un himself. The U.S. Navy had no comment when asked about these options.

South Korea has recently been visited by an American nuclear attack submarine and a larger nuclear sub armed with ballistic missiles.

July 18, 2023: During a guided tour of the of the border village of Panmunjom inside the DMZ (demilitarized zone) Travis king, an off duty American soldier in civilian clothes, sprinted into North Korea and was taken into custody by the North Korean soldiers guarding the crossing. King has recently spent two months in a South Korean jail on assault charges. King was about to be flown back to the United States to face a court martial for his misbehavior in South Korea. Now the North Koreans have King and have not revealed when or if they will release him.

July 5, 2023: During 2022 North Korea increased its nuclear warhead inventory 20 percent, by adding to five additional warheads to the 25 they already had. China increased its nuclear warhead inventory by 15 percent to 410 warheads, China has the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, behind Russia’s 4,489 warheads (including 12 added in 2022) and America's 3,708. The remaining nuclear powers have smaller warhead inventories. France has 290, Britain 225, Pakistan 170 (five added in 2022), India 164 (four added in 2022) and Israel 90. Recent nuclear powers, like North Korea, India and Pakistan, not only have fewer warheads but also less reliable ones. Because of intense international scrutiny, the reliability and effectiveness of North Korean nuclear weapons is much scrutinized. It is unclear if North Korea even has reliable nuclear warheads because they only recently developed working nuclear weapons. Turning these nukes into reliable weapons for ballistic missiles is another chore and it is unclear to North Korea how effective theie nuclear warheads are.

July 4, 2023: North Korea has one thing in common with Moslem nations; fashion police to make sure women wear politically correct clothing. In North Korea this means no South Korean clothing or anything deemed “anti-socialist.” People are also checked to see if they are wearing the mandatory portrait badges showing pictures of former national leaders Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. These two are the grandfather and father of current leader Kim Jong Un. The badges are meant to emphasize the crucial role of the Kim dynasty in leading North Korea. Punishments for those violating fashion laws can be as harsh as being sent to a labor camp. Women can also be criticized for not getting married and having children. Growing severe poverty in North Korea has led to a sharp decline in the birth rate over the last few years, with more incidences of young children being abandoned and fewer couples planning to start families. Since about 2006 the North Korean annual birth rate has fallen below 2.1 (children per woman, on average) and the decline visibly accelerated in the last year. Both Koreas are now faced with declining birth rates and the inability to reverse the problem. South Korea had this problem first, but for different reasons. In the north the birth rate fell below the replacement rate once before, in the 1990s when the end of Soviet subsidies after 1991 triggered years of unprecedented famine, starvation deaths and economic decline. The birth rate recovered in the late 1990s but that lasted for less than a decade. As a result, both Koreas now suffer shrinking populations because births have been below replacement rate for over a decade. In the north the decline increased because of extreme poverty. The situation is much worse in South Korea where, by 2020, it has the lowest birth rate, .84 per woman, in the world and has held that dubious achievement for over a decade. This is because of growing affluence over the last half century and women having more career options. South Korea is now one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. South Korea’s population stopped growing in the 2020s, after reaching about 52 million. This is about twice the population of the north. The North Korean birth rate is 1.82 and falling. North Korea has not reduced the size of its military because of the shortage of new recruits. Instead, they have extended the time conscripts serve to as many as 12 years. This made military service even more unpopular. Morale and readiness have suffered. To maintain population levels, you need a birth rate of at least 2.1.

July 3, 2023: North Korea is so they cannot afford modern air defense systems. There is also an international arms embargo on North Korea which prevents North Korea from buying new weapons even if it had the money. North Korea has to improvise and does this by (sort of) keeping older weapons and aircraft in service. North Korea has a lot of elderly air defense artillery and SAM (Surface to Air Missile) systems and puts most of this round the capital and some key military installations. This may improve North Korean morale but any potential attackers, like South Korea or the United States plan to use guided missiles against these targets. Anti-aircraft guns and obsolete SAMs can do little against this sort of thing.

North Korea also has hundreds of nominally operational Russian aircraft. Only a few dozen MiG-29 and Su-27 aircraft, which entered service in the 1980s, are available. Most (about 600) of the North Korea jet fighters are 1950s designs. This includes nearly 500 MiG-15s and 17s plus about a hundred MiG-21s and 23s. North Korea manages to keep these aircraft operational by only letting pilots fly them one or two hours a month. That means pilot skills are as limited as the effectiveness of these elderly jet fighters.

While North Korea has been unable to afford new jet fighters, UAVs are another matter. North Korea has been able to obtain several hundred of these from China and Russia as well as the ability to build these UAVs in North Korea. North Korea has sent some of their UAVs into South Korea on reconnaissance missions but the South Koreans learned how to spot them and shot them down using jet fighters, armed helicopters and ground fire. As UAV losses increased, North Korea halted the cross border flights. South Korea is prepared to do the same to any North Korea jet fighters or bombers. North Korea has about 80 Cold War era Il-28 Russian bombers. North Korea is the only country still operating these 21-ton two-engine bombers. The Il-28 was the first Russian jet bomber, over 6,000 were built in the 1950s, and most were retired in the 1960s because faster and more capable jet bombers became available. Russian exported the IL-28 to dozens of countries, including North Korea. The Il-28 has a crew of three and carries up to three tons of bombs. Top speed of the IL-28 is 900 kilometers an hour but the more economic cruising speed is 770 kilometers an hour. At that speed the IL-28 has a max range of about 2,000 kilometers. Most countries with IL-28s retired them in the 1970s and 80s. North Korea kept theirs because it was the only jet bomber they could get.

One elderly Russian military aircraft that remains very useful is the AN-2 biplane transport. North Korea has several hundred of these and they are to be used in wartime to sneak North Korean commandos into South Korea. An AN-2 can carry ten of these troops at slow (under 60 kilometers an hour) and low altitudes that modern radars cannot detect. South Korea modified some of its air defense radars to detect AN-2s and shoot them down before they can deliver their commandos. Those commandos that do reach South Korea are supposed to create as much havoc and confusion as possible. AN-2s can also carry two tons of cargo or bombs. The bombs would simply be armed and pushed out the cargo door by a second crew member. Normally the AN-2 is flown by a single pilot.

Over 18,000 AN-2s were built and production continues in some countries. For North Korea, the AN-2 is the only really effective military aircraft they have.

June 29, 2023: In southern North Korea (South Hwanghae province) two women living near the South Korean border and the city of Seoul, were arrested, prosecuted and publicly executed for modifying their TV set so it could receive South Korean programs. The women regularly watched forbidden South Korean programs, something forbidden in North Korea. The two women were turned in by the local neighborhood watch.




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