Korea: Where Have All The Soldiers Gone

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April 18, 2009: North Korea claims that its April 5th missile launch was not a violation of the 2006 UN Resolution 1718, threatening more punishment (after the North Korea nuclear test) if there were more missile launches or nuclear weapons tests. As North Korea often does, it claims that it was using a loophole in the 2006 resolution, and that the launch was actually a test of the missile being used to launch satellites. China has convinced the UN to simply condemn North Korea for bad behavior, blacklist some North Korean firms that produce missile components,  and move on. Russia and China refuse to back more severe punishment, and can veto any UN attempts to go farther.

The North Korean missile launch revived anxiety in the south about the missile gap. While South Korea adheres to international treaties (barring missiles with a range of more than 300 kilometers, and warheads of more than half a ton), North Korea does not. As a result, North Korea has 600 Scud missiles, with ranges of up to 700 kilometers, and 200 Rodong missiles, with a range of 1,300 kilometers. There may be ten or more of the Taepodong-2 types in service, which have a range of over 3,000 kilometers. South Korea only has 200 ATACMS missiles, with a range of 300 kilometers. The North Korean missiles are not very reliable, but at least half of them are expected to function adequately in wartime, and hit their intended target. The Taepodong-2 types, however, have failed its last three tests, and North Korea is apparently having trouble developing the technology of getting multiple stage missiles to work. In the recent test, only the first stage worked, with the other two stages falling into the ocean. Because of the Taepodong-2 failure, Japan did not order its Aegis anti-missile systems to fire.

Trying to punish North Korea further serves no useful purpose, because North Korea is punishing itself so severely. Last month, North Korea tossed out the foreign aid groups that handled distribution of donated food. At the same time, the north said it would no longer accept food from the United States. This leaves nearly half the North Korean population malnourished, with several million in danger of starving to death. It's possible to monitor this, because of the increasing number of North Koreans escaping into China. South Korean and foreign aid groups can operate up there, and make contact with many of these refugees. Most of these people are malnourished and display stunted growth characteristic of lifelong poor diet. More importantly, the refugees describe conditions inside North Korea, and these confirm estimates of the extent of the famine that has lasted nearly two decades. Most of those escaping lately have been older women, with their children. These women have made enough money in the markets (that have been legalized the last few years), and can afford the bribes demanded by North Korean and Chinese border guards. These women are also more likely to continue their journey, to Southeast Asia (usually Thailand) where they can get to South Korea. This has brought  a lot of North Korean female  teenagers to South Korea for the first time, and the culture shock is often severe. Going from the world's worst police state, to a real democracy hits kids really hard, and it takes several years to get used to. This makes South Koreans more uneasy about what they would face if, and when, the communist government up north collapses.

North Korea reacted to criticism of its missile launch by expelling all nuclear weapons inspectors and declaring that it will resume work on nuclear weapons. North Korea has learned from experience that this hard line approach usually brings back the U.S., South Korea and so on with bigger aid offers, if only North Korea will go through the motions of behaving. Apparently,  North Korea expects their tactics to continue to work, and that free food will be forthcoming in time to avoid major losses to starvation. The government uses the food shortage to keep people in line. Communities know that if there is any "problem", food supplies will be cut. But there are still increasing problems. The recent parliamentary elections up north, were marred by graffiti on campaign posters. The elections are a sham, as only communist party candidates, selected by the government, can run. But scrawling anti-government slogans on posters is unheard of. For decades, North Korea has relied on one of the most terrible inventions of the 20th century, the communist police state, to keep the population in line. Of course, the communist police state, while very effective at controlling populations, is not perfect. The system collapsed in Eastern Europe and Russia between 1989-91. The system has had to evolve quite a bit to survive in China. Cuba is shaky as well. The North Korean rulers fear that mass spontaneity, where the population, and the security forces that guard them, suddenly turn around and refuse to continue, and demand change, might happen at any moment. In Romania, this led to the murder of the most senior officials, by the secret police. North Korea had been studying the Romanian experience for twenty years now, and believes they have sufficient controls on their secret police and security forces to avoid such a rebellion by the population, and those that guard them. But there is a shortage of guards. A lower birth rate in the 1990s, because of the famine (that killed five percent of the population back then) has reduced the number of 18 year old recruits for the army and security forces. So fewer exemptions are being allowed, and more 17 years olds are being taken. North Korea men serve six years in the army, keeping them out of trouble for that time in their lives (18-24), when they are most likely to act out revolutionary fantasies. The military is really a large prison system. While the troops are trained to use weapons, they get little ammunition for training, and the weapons are locked up most of the time.

April 9, 2009: North Korean leader showed up for his ceremonial re-election as national leader, as the newly elected parliament (the voters had only one party to choose from). Kim looked very thin, and much older. But he was walking and talking, putting to rest rumors that he was incapable of neither. But he admitted that he was tired, and not as energetic as he was before his (still not admitted officially) stroke last August.

April 7, 2009: The current recession has caused South Korea to change its military reform plans. Spending (nearly half a trillion dollars between now and 2020) for the reforms will be cut by 30 percent. Most of the cuts will be in aircraft acquisition (especially tankers and Global Hawk UAVs). The downsizing of the armed forces will be delayed a bit, with troop levels going from 650,000 to 520,000 in 2020, rather than 500,000. Some of the cuts may be restored if the economy bounces back quickly.

April 5, 2009: After much drama and delay, North Korea launched its multi-stage Taepodong-2 in an easterly direction, over Japan. North Korea claimed it was a success, with a satellite being launched. But U.S. and Russian satellite monitoring systems (that use radar and telescopes to track what's up there) both reported that no North Korean satellite was in orbit.

 

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