Korea: The Naughty And The Nice


January 11, 2012:  The death of Kim Jong Il set off a competition among senior government officials to demonstrate who could mourn the dead dictator the most impressively. That meant all the employees of these organizations had to make a big show of sadness and loss. Lots of crying and lamentations and when outside, mourners were expected to go without hats and gloves. It is very cold up north these days, so these mourners suffer to please their bosses. Those who do not display sufficient zeal are being arrested and some have been sent to labor camps. The security forces are competing as well, with cell phone jammers turned on more frequently and border guards more difficult to bribe. Travel within North Korea has been restricted, with most officials temporarily unwilling to take bribes to issue travel documents. The only bright side is that this sort of zeal does not last long. Eventually, after weeks, or maybe months, a reshuffled pecking order is agreed on and the pretense disappears.  Most North Koreans expect all this mourning related nonsenses to halt before the end of the month.

North Korea appears willing to follow through on an agreement, made just before Kim Jong Il died, to exchange American food for a halt in North Korean nuclear weapons work. But because of all the mourning and confusion (over who is still in charge), no one in North Korea can make a decision until next month, at the earliest. North Korea has also approached Japan for food aid, but Japan has long demanded more information on decades of secret North Korean kidnapping of Japanese. North Korea refused to say much about this but did admit that abductions had taken place. The food is desperately needed, as most foreign food donors have cut shipments in the last four years. China has not made up for the lost freebies and the north has refused any food from South Korea, which is still officially considered hostile. The south is willing to send food, but only if the north tones down the aggression and nasty talk.

It remains unclear exactly who is in charge up north. The "chatter" coming out of the north indicates that many federal and provincial officials expect some changes, either because of suspect loyalty or failure to perform. Most officials are loyal mainly to themselves, and there's been lots of failure in the last decade. No one is sure who will be promoted and who will be cast out (demoted, jailed, or killed). The new leader, Kim Jong Un, is apparently part of a small family group led by an aunt and uncle, who are preparing a list of who is considered naughty and who is considered nice. The tension is causing a lot of unhappiness, but all is expected to be revealed within a month. If not, a large shipment of tranquilizers would be in order.

China does not want to send pills, and expects the new leadership to follow instructions and enact meaningful economic reforms while maintaining tight political control. The Chinese are willing and able to help with both of these programs but the northern leadership has to act. This makes the northern bureaucrats nervous, because few have any experience with a market economy, and have noted that many Chinese officials suffered from that lack of experience in the 1980s and 90s, when China switched to a market economy.

January 10, 2012: The North Korean government said there would be pardons for some people in prison and labor camps. No word on the number to be released. At the same time, military commanders openly pledged their loyalty to the new dictator Kim Jong Un, and promised to defend him at all costs. But just to be on the safe side, Kim Jong Un has carefully screened members of his bodyguard.

Another aspect of Kim Jong Un's security is the quantity of luxury and consumer goods he can buy and distribute to the senior leadership, especially in the security agencies. There are thousands of North Korean families that have been supplying key officials for generations. In return for this faithful and effective service, these families have lived well. Thus a few percent of the population do live well, often in walled off compounds in the suburbs. Services like Google Earth has revealed the existence of these communities to the general public, but nations with spy satellites have known about it for decades. However, the decline of economic activity in North Korea over the last decade has reduced the cash available to buy goodies to keep the dictator's henchmen happy. At the moment the henchmen are nervous about where they stand with the younger Kim. The henchmen have become a lot more corrupt during the rule (from 1994 to 2011) of Kim Jong Il, and the kid is said to be hostile to all that. The old man looked the other way, but many senior officials would not survive (literally) a close examination of their personal finances. Kim Jong Un is believed to be in favor of a market economy. But if he cannot get the bulk of the bureaucracy behind him he could trigger a government collapse.

January 8, 2012: To celebrate Kim Jong Un's birthday, North Korean media is full of stories about what a military genius Kim Jong Un is. But the young successor to Kim Jong Il never served in the military. Most North Korean men are conscripted for six years' service, only the sons of high government officials, or someone with a lot of money, can avoid service. This is kept quiet, but widely known. You can get arrested for speaking openly about such matters. But it's obvious that Kim Jong Un is chubby, while the North Koreans he moves through on inspection tours are all quite thin.

January 4, 2012: South Korea announced new agreements with the United States to counter any future aggression from North Korea. This sort of thing includes what reinforcements the U.S. would send, and when, if North Korea revived the dormant 1950-53 war. North Korea has increasingly threatened to do just that, although South Korean military officials believe North Korean forces have deteriorated to the point where such an invasion would be bloody, but mostly fought on the border and end with a northern defeat.

January 1, 2012: The North Korean government, in an attempt to increase the exchange rate of their currency, has forbidden any use of foreign currency in the legal markets. This new rule provides the cops with yet another opportunity to take a bribe. This increases prices for customers in the markets, and hatred of corrupt government officials.

December 31, 2011:  Gunfire was heard on the North Korean border with China, and it was later rumored that three men had been killed trying to flee North Korea. Border security has been particularly tight since Kim Jong Il died, and officials in charge of the border have cracked down on bribe taking and slack discipline. Being put in charge of security on the Chinese border has been a career suicide mission for North Korea officials these past few years. No matter what measures are taken the border guards keep taking bribes. The opportunity to get rich, and then slip away to China with your wealth, is just too great.

December 30, 2011: Kim Jong Un was declared head of the armed forces, after all the key commanders agreed to this.

December 29, 2011: North Korea declared Kim Jong Un the "supreme leader" and amped up the propaganda campaign to portray the twenty-something son as a worthy successor to his inept father.




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