Korea: Bribes Threaten Northern Government

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February 27, 2008: Recent graduates of the secret police technical college were sent to the Chinese border, given German signal detection equipment (for locating cell phone users) and told to find people using Chinese cell phone service on the Korean side of the border. That is illegal, and the young secret police agents were promised good jobs and other rewards if they succeeded in shutting down the use of cell phones in some of the towns on the border. The hunter teams apparently succeeded, as several arrests were announced. But this was intended to scare the hundreds of suspected North Korean and Chinese cell phone users believed to be operating along the North Korean side border. While most, if not all, of these users are businessmen, some are involved in helping refugees or opponents to the communist dictatorship. These are the people the secret police fear the most, but apparently none were caught using cell phones up there. Meanwhile, the North Korean government has again allowed legal cell phone service in the capital. Cell phone systems were first introduced in 2002, but that was halted in 2004, after a train explosion, believed triggered by cell phone, and directed at North Korea dictator Kim Jong Il.

At least fifty prisoners at No. 12 Reeducation Camp in North Korea died during a mining accident. These are believed to be about 4,000 prisoners in this camp, and over 200,000 in the "Reeducation" system. People caught trying to leave the country, or doing forbidden things like viewing foreign videos or TV, are sent to the camps, which are basically industrial enterprises. The camps are very profitable, as little is spent on caring for the prisoners. The camps also contain common criminals, some serving life sentences. But most are serving 1-5 years, as these will then go home and serve as a living example of why you should not mess with the state.

The crackdown on corruption in North Korea continues, with senior provincial officials getting caught, tried and executed. Apparently these officials thought they had sufficient family and Communist Party connections to protect them. What they didn't expect was for North Korea dictator Kim Jong Il to take a personal interest in some of the cases where senior officials were caught stealing or taking bribes (usually to ignore smuggling or drug dealing operations). Kim ordered several high ranking officials to be shot, apparently as an example to the others. That is unlikely to stop the corruption, as the economy is thriving along the Chinese border, and a new bridge, the first in half a century, is being built across the river to accommodate it. All that money creates corruption opportunities, as so many North Korean officials are out there looking to extract a bribe. Anyone visiting North Korea quickly runs into this. The corruption is rampant in China, and won't be kept out of North Korea. But Kim Jong Il and his cronies realize that, the more corruption there is, the more likely it is for political opponents to literally buy the government out from under them. The corruption is seen as the most dangerous foe the North Korean communist government has ever faced.

South Korean investigators accuse North Korea of diverting food aid from the south, to the North Korean military. The south had long been criticized for sending food aid to the north without any checks on who got it. The food was meant for the starving, but as UN food aid programs discovered, much of the food ended up with the military, sold on the black market, or sold to Chinese merchants and exported. The South Korean military conducted an investigation, found the food going to the North Korean military, and is now demanding an explanation from the north. In the past, the north has simply denied everything, and is unlikely to change their drill this time.

Last month, the North Korean air force flew more than a hundred training flights in one day. This has not happened, because of fuel shortages, since 1995. Overall, air force planes have been in the air twice as much, in the last two months, than usual for the last decade. North Korean military pilots are believed to be among the worst trained in the world. Each one gets less than twenty hours in the air a year, a tenth of what is considered necessary to maintain useful combat skills. The aviation fuel for these increased air exercises is believed to have been diverted from humanitarian aid.

For the second time in three years, a Russian cargo ship, forced into North Korean waters by a storm, was seized by the North Korea coast guard. In both cases, the merchant ship was released after a few days, once a substantial "fine" was paid to local authorities.

The deal to shut down North Korean nuclear facilities, is still stalled over disagreements about who is to do what when. North Korea wants more oil deliveries, the U.S. wants more evidence that nuclear weapons research. Meanwhile, evidence mounts that North Korea was, and perhaps still is, selling nuclear weapons technology to Syria.

 

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