Korea: This Is Going To Hurt


August 24, 2010: Since June, at least two additional combat divisions have been camped outside the North Korean capital. No official explanation was given for this troop movement (which required using a lot of scarce fuel.) All is speculation in the north, because intel agencies in South Korea, the United States and China are reluctant to release any solid information, lest they risk exposing the few good sources they have up there. But the current rumors indicate that most of what's going on up north these days is driven by efforts to keep the government going. This is difficult, because supreme leader Kim Jong Il is apparently dying, or at least believes he is. The big problem is that his chosen successor is his youngest son, an able enough young man in his 20s. That's too young for a place like Korea, where people like their leaders elderly. Kim Jong Il is trying to convince his elderly associates to honor his choice of successor, and apparently not everyone is convinced.

Monsoon-related floods that have ravaged all of east and south Asia have hit North Korea as well, with thousands of people fleeing from the Yalu river valley, which forms the border with China. A military helicopter was lost while rescuing people trapped by the floods. South Korea has refused to send additional food aid for flood victims, not trusting North Korean officials to get such aid to the intended recepients. South Korea has cut all aid to the north since the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan last March. The wreck was raised and put back together under the supervision of naval experts, who concluded that the cause was a North Korean torpedo. Conspiracy buffs then came up with other theories, most of them absolving North Korea (which denied any connection with the sinking, although internal propaganda seemed to say otherwise.) But now South Korea is releasing the full report on the Cheonan wreckage, which makes it pretty clear that a torpedo sank the ship. Earlier, only a summary of the report had been released, enabling those with active imaginations to push alternative explanations of what happened the ship.

South Korean media got hold of a North Korea military manual on camouflage and stealth. The U.S. and South Korean military have known of this 2005 manual for years, but have never released any details (other than that the north is secretive.) The manual was full of the same old North Korean camouflage techniques, and admonitions to the troops about how important this stuff was. There was also mention of a "stealth paint" to be used on vehicles and equipment. Radar absorbent paint has been around, in one form or another, for decades. The camouflage and stealth techniques in the manual were developed during World War II by the Russians and were very successful. After the Cold War ended, it was revealed that, although the West knew of these techniques, they were still successful. The key factor here is that the inferior force (in this case the North Koreans) has a tremendous incentive to come up with successful camouflage and deceptions. It is, literally, a matter of life or death, and that is a very effective motivator.

August 21, 2010: In North Korea, former prime minister Pak Pong Ju is appearing at official functions again, with a new job in the senior bureaucracy. Pak was removed from power three years ago, apparently because he backed economic reforms (allowing free markets and developments) China suggested. This was interpreted as the result of a struggle between conservatives and reformers in North Korea. Pak's return may signal North Korea giving in to Chinese demands that there be economic reform. China is North Korea's only aid supplier and major trading power. China wants North Korea to save itself from economic and political collapse. Market reforms, which saved the Chinese communists in the 1980s, is seen as the only way to save the communist dictatorship in the north. But the North Korean communists fear such reforms will cause unrest, and become a threat to communist rule.

August 18, 2010: North Korean TV revealed a new battle tank, which South Korean intelligence first discovered in 2002, and called the M2002. This tank appears to be based on the Russian T-62, which North Korea built under license into the 1980s. The T-62 is the final development of the World War II T-34. Production in Russia ceased in the 1970s, but it's so rugged and reliable that a few hundred are still used by Russia, and some were seen in the Russian force invading Georgia two years ago. About half North Korea's tank force consists of T-62s and their predecessors, the T-55. Against modern tanks, the T-62 is more a target than a threat.

August 17, 2010:  A North Korean MiG-21 jet fighter crashed in China, 200 kilometers north of the border. The pilot did not eject and there was no fire after the plane plowed into the ground (indicating it was out of fuel.) China later reported that the aircraft went off course because of "mechanical problems." But that does not explain why the pilot did not try to land or bail out. A more likely explanation was that the pilot was trying to defect. To avoid that possibility, North Korea warplanes are supplied with minimal fuel for training flights, and their ejection seats are disabled in peacetime.  

August 15, 2010:  The South Korean government revealed how concerned it is with the imminent collapse of North Korea, by proposing a special tax to pay for reunifying the north and south. The government has long had a plan for this, and every year or so it becomes a news item. But now the government wants to start putting aside cash for the reunification. It has long been believed that this would cost between one and two trillion dollars (it cost two trillion to rebuild East Germany, after the Germanys were reunited in 1990). But updated estimates put the cost of fixing North Korea (which is in much worse shape than East Germany ever was) at $5 trillion. That, plus the fact that Germany has a GDP four times that of South Korea, means that the average South Korean will have to pay ten times what the average West German paid to rebuild their lesser half. This could cost South Koreans up to ten percent of their GDP for a decade or more. Many South Koreans fear that rebuilding the north could wreck the South Korean economy. No one knows, and everyone is scared. But someone will have to pay, and the most likely candidate is the South Korean taxpayer.

For a long time, it was popular to believe that reunification with the north could be done gradually, by making peace with the communist dictatorship up there, and gradually merging the two economies. But the northern communists have proved unreliable, incompetent and seemingly out-of-touch with reality. So now, South Korea believes that unification will come in the wake of economic and political collapse in the north. In other words, the worst case. Many South Korean continue to believe that either outcome is possible, if only because the cost of cleaning up after a collapse would be huge.