Korea: The Arabian Nightmare

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April 28, 2011: Commercial satellite photos show North Korea continuing to build a new reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. North Korea has refused to resume negotiations to halt its nuclear weapons program and, according to what's going on at Yongbyon, is continuing to develop nukes. North Korean officials who regularly talk to foreigners, both in North Korea and abroad, take it for granted that the North Korean nuclear program continues and that it was a North Korean torpedo that sank a South Korea corvette last year. The official North Korean stance is that North Korea did not sink the South Korean ship and that negotiations on shutting down the North Korean nuclear program remain a possibility. What this shows is the difference between internal and external propaganda. There is still a stalemate in the North Korean government over what to do about the collapsed economy, and offers of economic aid if only the north abandons work on nukes and long range weapons. The hard liners in the north believe these weapons protect North Korea from attack, and will eventually be successful in coercing the rest of the world to bail out North Korea with cash and free food. That is not happening, giving the North Korean reformers a chance to change minds among the hard liners.

Some Western aid groups believe it is too late to get food to thousands of North Koreans who are already starving in remote parts of the country. Western nations have cut off food aid, because so much earlier aid was stolen by the government (either to be sold in China, placed into military war reserves or given out as rewards for loyalty or other efforts to support the communist government.)

The North Korean government is fighting a losing battle trying to keep out news of the uprisings against Arab dictatorships. Those uprisings have made the North Korean leadership very nervous, as did the ones in 1989 that deposed the communist dictatorships of East Europe. This time around, economic conditions in North Korea are much worse. There is another major famine in the works, and still-vivid memories of the great famine of the 1990s. The security forces are more corrupt and unreliable. There are several hundred thousand North Koreans with illegal cell phones, most of them living along the Chinese border. Here is where uncensored news of the outside world quickly enters, then takes weeks to spread to every part of the country. The continued success of these Arab revolts, and growing unrest in the north, caused many North Korea officials to fear the worst.

North Korea and China are both upgrading security along their mutual border. More border guards are being sent, and many kilometers of fences are being built in areas known to be used by refugees fleeing North Korea. China sees the illegal migrants as a source of crime and disorder, while North Korea knows that many of the refugees use the money they earn in China or South Korea to bribe North Korean officials to help even more people flee.

Increasingly, the army is allowing soldiers to, in effect, buy their way out of military service by providing certain quantities of food to the unit they are assigned to. The food shortages spread to the military several years ago, and the generals have apparently approved this program as a way to deal with the growing hunger. Thus soldiers from wealthy (for whatever reason) families can avoid all, or much of their mandatory six years of military service. The additional food for the troops reduces malnutrition, desertion and corruption in general. Soldiers have become a problem for civilians living around bases, as hungry troops have increasingly turned to robbery to obtain money or goods that can be bartered for food.

The growing food shortages throughout North Korea has led to a lot more crime involving food. In response, the government is holding more public executions of those caught stealing food. Many more people are sent to labor camps, and their families exiled to "starvation zones" (parts of the country where food is particularly hard to get.)

Meanwhile, China and the United States continue to try and persuade the North Korean government to undertake economic reform. To that end, a dozen North Korean economic officials recently made a secret visit to the United States, where American government officials took them on tours of American businesses (everything from Google to factories and export operations.) The North Korean economic experts and industrial managers are apparently expected to report back to the leadership in North Korea, and hopefully persuade the communist leadership that such reform is the only way to survive. China has been urging North Korea to go this way for over a decade, with limited success.

April 26, 2011: Off the west coast, a North Korean patrol boat moved 700 meters south of the maritime border, before gunfire from a South Korea gunboat forced it to turn around and return to North Korean waters.

April 18, 2011: The U.S. has begun a new round of blocking North Korean banks and companies from the international banking system. This is being done in support of international bans of North Korea arms sales. North Korea has established a large network of companies and banks, in North Korea and abroad, to facilitate smuggling of North Korean weapons and military technology to foreign customers. The American countermeasures have been among the most effective, since if you can't move the money, you can't complete the sale.

April 13, 2011: In southeastern South Korea, hundreds of soldiers and police held a realistic drill of what they would do if North Korea commandoes attacked a local nuclear power plant. More of these security drills are being seen in South Korea. There continues to be a lot more military activity in the south. Not only more drills and reorganizations, but a lot of money being spent on new weapons, and upgrades for existing ones.

 

 

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