North Korea is putting on another show. This time it's all about a ballistic missile test that might be an attempt to launch a low orbit satellite. This would be similar to the recent Iranian satellite launch. In both cases, this is doing what Russia and the United States did fifty years ago. Oddly enough, this loudly announced launch revealed (because of more intense military and civilian satellite surveillance) that North Korea had built an underground fueling system for the rocket. This made it possible to prepare a missile (carrying a warhead or missile) to be launched with less warning from viewable (by photo satellites) activities. Thus there would only be about two days warning, instead of 4-5.
North Korean threats to unleash its military are apparently meant more to reassure the people who run the police state up there, rather than frighten South Korea and the United States. That's because North Korea is open enough now that there is plenty of first hand intelligence (from ex-soldiers up there, or even men on active duty, and their families) on what is going on inside the North Korean military. The reports are grim. There are shortages of everything, even for elite army commando units. For several years now, the regular army units have not been getting their two meals a day. But now there are shortages of boots and uniforms, not to mention a long list of combat equipment. There's no fuel for training, or spare parts for trucks and weapons. Everything is wearing out, and troops spend more of their time being hired out to civilian enterprises (usually collective farms) for food or money (both of which more officers are being caught and executed for stealing).
The fuel situation in the military is particularly dire. In the last year, it's estimated that the military used only 3,000 tons of fuel. At the end of the Cold War, in 1990, when North Korea was still heavily subsidized by Russia, the military was using 63,000 tons of fuel a year. The Russian subsidies disappeared in the early 1990s, and annual military fuel use has drifted lower each year. But 3,000 tons is nothing. It takes a ton of fuel to keep a jet fighter in the air for an hour or two. It takes several hundred tons of fuel to move a tank division a hundred kilometers. Thus North Korean troops are not only hungry, they are untrained and, according to all reports, suffering from low morale. Even the elite units are not feeling very optimistic.
The U.S. and North Korea are still deadlocked on the issue of treaty verification, with regards to the deal where North Korea dismantles it nuclear program in return for massive amounts of food and fuel. The U.S. won't budge on the verification demand, North Korea will not allow foreigners to go snooping wherever they want. In an attempt to soften the North Koreans up, the U.S. has toned down the rhetoric, when describing the wretched situation up north, in its annual human rights report. North Korea did not take notice.
North Korea has announced that it will be launching a space satellite, and that there are two potential danger zones (where the first two stages of the launch missile might fall back to earth.) The launch will be in an easterly direction, which puts one of the danger zones 130 kilometers off the Japanese coast.
The global recession has hit South Korean exports hard, with a 17 percent decline last month. That however, is an improvement over the previous month, where the decline was nearly twice as much. Imports are down even more, as South Koreans hunker down. The 2009 GDP is expected to shrink 2-5 percent. This will be the first time since World War II that the economy has contracted. The official unemployment rate could reach five percent by the end of the year, which is also something no one has ever seen before. Unofficially, it's believed that the real unemployment rate is now seven percent, and could go over ten percent before the end of the year. That's still better than up north, where more than a third of the population have jobs that don't really exist (in factories that never operate, offices that have no electricity or farms that have far more workers than land.) An example of how bad things are up north was the recent distribution of a secret letter (which got leaked) to senior Communist Party officials, stating the economic goals for the next three years. Usually these goals are released publicly, with great fanfare, but in this case the goals were handled like a state secret. The reason was because the goals were less than those used in the 1980s.
North Korean government officials have a new scam, which came to light during the recent elections (held every five years). Local officials have to update voter lists, and during this process, anyone who is no longer around, has to be officially accounted for. This is a problem for the thousands of North Koreans who have fled to China to look for work. If their families admit this, they can be punished (some, or all, sent to prison camps). But for a bribe ($150 is a popular amount), local officials will classify the departed (to China) person as dead. The family has to agree that the departed shall never return (which could get the corrupt official in trouble,) This is an easy promise to keep. Few of those who flee North Korea, want to go back. Meanwhile, there are more cases of suicides up north, mainly in rural areas where the crops have failed. The state has not come through with emergency supplies of food and people are not only hungry, but they are losing hope. This famine has gone on for over a decade, and entire families are being found dead in their homes, having decided that death was preferable to any possible future.
March 12, 2009: North Korea says its satellite launch attempt will take place sometime between April 4-8. This is an official announcement, warning mariners and airlines to stay clear, and providing the UN with the exact coordinates of the danger zones.
March 9, 2009: North Korea said it would go to war if its looming missile launch was interfered with in any way, particularly if it was shot down by a U.S. or Japanese Aegis anti-missile system.
March 6, 2009: South Korean airlines responded to the North Korean threat by rerouting many flights from Japan, since these are the ones that normally fly closest to North Korean territory.
March 5, 2009: North Korea upped the ante in the war of words by threatening to respond with all its military might if anyone "invaded" it. This was the cover story for the 1950 invasion of South Korea, that someone from the south had entered North Korea with evil intent. Since this bit of media theater has been played many times over the last half century, North Korea spiced it up this time by saying it could "no longer guarantee the safety" of civilian air traffic that flew near North Korea's east coast (in international air space, but within range of North Korea fighters). South Korea and the United States told North Korea to knock it off, as the North Korean rhetoric was old, not helpful and out of order. North Korea makes the "invasion" threats at least once a year, usually when the United States and South Korea hold large scale military exercises. Nothing is said when North Korea holds its annual large scale exercises. Then again, food and fuel shortages have led to much smaller military exercises in North Korea during the past year.
March 2, 2009: Japan is moving its Aegis equipped warships into the waters off the North Korean coast. These Japanese ships are equipped with a well proven anti-missile system, and Japan is preparing to shoot down any North Korean missile launch, even if it is carrying a satellite.
March 1, 2009: North Korea announced that it is preparing to use its Taepodong-2 missile (renamed the Unha-2 for this occasion) to launch a Kwangmyungsung 2 telecommunications satellite into orbit. This would be similar to the recent launch by Iran, which used a similar missile to do what Russia and the United States did in the 1950s. In any event, it's believed that North Korea is describing the missile launch as an attempt to put a satellite into orbit, rather than a test of putting a warhead on target, to discourage the U.S. or Japan from trying to shoot the missile down. It is believed that North Korea tried to launch a satellite into orbit with a Taepodong-1 missile in 1998. That test failed. So did the last test of the Taepodong-2 missile, three years ago.
February 27, 2009: North Korea has begun testing radars and other sensors around its Musudan-ri launch facility. The North Korea don't turn this stuff on often (they can't afford the electricity, or the spare parts), and when they do, it's usually a sign that something is about to be launched. There are also signs that a rocket is being assembled for launch at Musudan-ri.