August 18, 2011:
The North Korean government continues to issue threats to South Korea (for holding military training exercises), along with pleas for food and fuel. The south has learned to ignore the threats (which hardly ever amount to anything) and negotiate the political price for food and other forms of charity. South Korea has agreed to send more aid, but negotiations continue. The north insists that it must continue building nukes and missiles, but has to pay attention to the growing unrest among its own people.
North Korea is moving special operations troops from the DMZ to the Chinese border. Thousands of these well trained and loyal (to the Kim family) troops have been assigned to the eastern half of the Chinese border. This largely rural area has become popular with smugglers, because it is less intensely guarded by North Korean and Chinese border police. While the bribes required to get past both sets of border guards have gone up (and sometimes don’t work when North Korea secret police are guarding the guards), many less well financed North Koreans prefer to get out for free (or a lot more cheaply by just hiring a local guide) using the northeastern border. But that is becoming more difficult.
The North Korea Special Forces are selected, from among each new batch of conscripts, for their loyalty and suitability for commando type training. These units are full of informers (who also keep an eye on other informers), so that troops that lose faith in the Kims can be quickly expelled, or executed. These Special Forces troops have a license to kill while on border duty. If they encounter corruption, or less than adequate devotion to duty, offenders can be executed on the spot. More frequently, the Special Forces order suspect border guards transferred, and rural families suspected of assisting smugglers, are forced to move away from the border. These guys were originally trained to be scary to South Koreans, but were rarely unleashed on North Koreans. This new move weakens the ability to invade the south, and terrifies an increasingly disloyal North Korean population.
Disloyalty is very much a growing problem in the north. For example, police are finding pro-South Korea slogans written on walls, particularly in posters for candidates in the tightly controlled North Korean “elections” (where the government selects the candidates, who are not opposed). This sort of thing is becoming more common because of growing knowledge up there of how the North Korean ruling class lives. Blame it on Google Earth, which has provided ample evidence of the luxurious mansions and gated communities that the wealthy ruling families live in. Long hidden from view, pictures of these luxurious accommodations, along with the swimming pools, expensive SUVs and other amenities are available to anyone with access to the Internet, or a smart phone, or any device that can display a digital photo. These photos have spread all over North Korea, and you can imagine the anger that has caused among people who face starvation, or, at best, a much lower standard of living than their socialist overlords. The latest digital picture making the rounds is of the yacht the ruling Kim family maintains at a private dock on the east coast. Here, one of the many vacation homes maintained by the Kims sits on the coast, and this time of year, the yacht is cruising off the coast, with a military escort, so the Kims can catch some ocean breezes. Back on shore, the breeze is less refreshing, and has the odor of rebellion about it.
Despite the growing famine in North Korea, about a third of the population lives, by local standards, well. Not rich, but by being entrepreneurial or connected to someone who is, or can help out (with capital and/or protection from the police). Thus you see new privately owned bus companies running service through areas full of starving people. Away from these rural areas, new coffee shops (called Tea Houses, but coffee is the draw) are opening in urban areas, where Chinese business people, and well-off North Koreans gather to get a some caffeine, business news and talk of change. So far, after nearly a decade of existence, the coffee shops have been left alone. There are many other private companies starting, often with the help of Chinese entrepreneurs, and local officials who provide protection from the police and central government.
August 17, 2011: South Korea announced that it is developing a new class of anti-ship missile, similar to the long range/high speed Russian Yakhont (or related Indian BrahMos). That means a three ton missile with a 300 kilometers range, a quarter-to- half ton warhead and a top speed of over half a kilometer per second. This type of missile is sometimes referred to as a “carrier killer” and the announcement was seen as a reaction to the recently completed sea trials of China’s new aircraft carrier, the Shi Lang.
August 14, 2011: South Korean investigators accuse North Korean hackers of getting into a South Korean online game network and stealing over $6 million. The north denied any involvement. But several South Koreans were arrested and accused of being part of the North Korean operation. All this is just another aspect of a long-running North Korean use of criminal activity (protected by the North Korean government) to raise cash. It includes drug smuggling (using drugs produced in North Korea), counterfeit hundred dollar bills and high-quality fake IDs. Then there are the illegal weapons exports. North Korea is very much a gangster state.
August 10, 2011: North Korean artillery on the west coast fired five shells towards the maritime border. Three landed on the South Korean side, and two on the North Korean side. An hour later, South Korean guns (on an island just south of the maritime border) fired three shells back across the maritime border. This became an issue in the south, because the military had promised that it would upgrade its command and control systems, and troop readiness, so that retaliation would be a lot quicker. In particular, the military was to eliminate the need to get permission from senior government officials before firing back. Apparently, the local commanders (who detected the North Korean gun fire) did kick the news upstairs and waited for permission to return fire.