Korea: Daring The Generals To Do Something About It


August 2, 2012: The annual monsoon rains began on July 18th and the resulting floods in North Korea have destroyed coal mines northeast of the capital, along with thousands of homes and hundreds of kilometers of roads and some bridges. Over 20,000 people were left homeless and 179,000 tons of coal was washed away.

South Korea has let the Japanese know that they must do something dramatic to improve their popularity in South Korea (which was a Japanese colony, and brutally treated, from 1910 to 1945) if a military/intelligence treaty is ever to be signed. One suggestion is for Japan to cede to South Korea claims on Dokdo island. South Korea has long been willing to sacrifice good relations with Japan over the issue of who owns the uninhabited Dokdo (Takeshima to the Japanese) islands in the Sea of Japan (East Sea in Korean). What is really going on here is continued Korean resentment of Japanese colonial occupation and centuries of Japanese aggression towards Korea. Both countries have been sending more air naval reconnaissance missions to the islands, and the mass media in both countries have been jumping all over the tension. Japanese politicians would take an enormous domestic political hit if they managed to get the votes to give South Korea Dokdo. But it would make Japan popular enough in South Korea to get the long-desired (by defense officials in both countries) cooperation treaty.

North Korea is denying that the recent removal of several senior officials, including the head of the armed forces, had anything to do with disagreements over economic reforms. But there appears to be a power struggle between the civilian leadership and the generals. For a long time the military has, as is often the case in communist countries, its own economy. The military owns and operates farms, factories, transportation firms, and so on. These operations are run for the benefit of the military and its senior commanders. Increasingly, money meant for purely military needs is diverted to the economic activities. The civilian leadership wants to get control of the military farms and factories so that they can be made more productive and less likely to lose money. The generals are against this and are still smarting after the removal of their leader (vice marshal Ri Yong Ho) on July 15th. China has long urged North Korea to adopt market reforms and has, over the last decade, persuaded (with cash, favors, and logic) more and more North Korean leaders to favor the economic reforms. The Chinese believe they have the votes now but Kim Jong Un does not want to risk an open split in the leadership over this issue. It's a little late for that because lower ranking (and more communicative) officials are seeing the tensions and quietly talking about it. That news is seeping out of North Korea. Inside North Korea the rumors are causing food prices to increase as traders hoard rice in the event that major economic reforms result in work on more economic projects. The workers would need more food and the semi-legal traders sense an opportunity.

The traders are not just relying on hunch and rumor. Hundreds of North Korean officials (who run factories and other economic enterprises) have been sent to China to see, in detail, how the Chinese do it. Nearly 50,000 North Korean skilled workers have been sent to jobs in China, which are also meant to impart skills needed to function in a more efficient market economy. The North Korean generals have also noted this and they do not like what it implies. Ever since the 1950s, the official policy has been "military first". Like 18th century Prussia, North Korea became "an army with a country attached." That has not worked well for the country, although the generals and their families prospered. Ending "military first" is tricky because the guys you are taking from command are a million armed conscripts. But many of those soldiers, forced to endure six years of military service, have families who are suffering so the generals can be rich.

Agricultural reforms are already underway, at least on a test basis. On co-operative farms in several parts of the country small groups of farmers are being given control of their own "farms" and allowed to keep more of what they grow (and sell it for market prices). This takes control of farms away from the army, which took charge in the 1990s during the great famine (that killed ten percent of the population). That improved food production for a while but then corruption and mismanagement returned and crop yields shrank.

In an effort to improve relations with China, and increase tourism from China, South Korea is rehabilitating cemeteries containing the bodies (usually unidentified) of Chinese and North Korean soldiers from the war (1950-53). Back during the war the enemy dead were usually just buried in anonymous mass graves. As more bodies were found in subsequent decades, they were not treated with respect. But in the 1990s, the government decided to be nice and additional remains discovered (usually as a result of new construction, as the economy continued to boom) they were moved to individual graves in special cemeteries. At first that gesture was ignored by China and North Korea. That led to the "enemy" cemeteries being poorly maintained. But word of these cemeteries circulated in China and in the last decade more and more Chinese tourists (usually children or grandchildren of soldiers killed in the war) came to these cemeteries full of unidentified Chinese dead to seek some kind of closure. North Korea still ignores these cemeteries.

North Korea has sent another 20,000 troops to guard the Chinese border. This is the time of the year when many more North Koreans head for remote portions of the border and secretly cross. Local guides make a good living showing people how to cross (especially when there's a river to deal with). Other specialists will arrange to have Korean speaking guides waiting on the Chinese side, to escort the refugees to areas where they can find work. The North Korean government is well aware of this growing escape-related activity and seeks to shut it down. That won't be easy. The guides and brokers know how to bribe soldiers and police and even members of the dreaded secret police. North Korea has been losing this war, which encourages your average North Korean and terrifies the North Korea leadership.  

North Korea has reached an agreement to work some 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres) of unused Chinese farmland. China would get a portion of the harvest but it would produce several hundred tons of rice for starving North Koreans each year. In effect, China would be loaning North Korea use of the farmland and the loan would be paid off with most of the harvest (which would also pay for supplies and other services). North Korea has to send the farmers and put up some money to get the program started, but this has not happened yet.

July 25, 2012:  North Korea officially identified the young women seen accompanying supreme leader Kim Jong Un recently. The woman is his wife and former longtime girlfriend.

July 21, 2012: For a week now North Koreans have been subjected to a new propaganda campaign that features the new leader, Kim Jong Un, undertaking economic reforms that will lead to a golden age of prosperity. North Koreans have heard this crap before, but this time the government is actually experimenting with reforms. News of these reforms were not broadcast to foreigners, it's strictly for internal consumption. Because of cell phones and less disciplined inmates of the worker's paradise, information gets out. North Korean bureaucrats are calling the new plan the 6.28 Policy (after the date of the initial announcement, June 28th) and it involves more economic freedom and ability for workers and managers to make money.

July 20, 2012: North Korea has moved about fifty military helicopters near the South Korean border on the west coast. This is near several fortified South Korean islands, one of which the North Koreans shelled two years ago. The North Korean helicopters are all Russian transport models but some could be armed and all could reach the nearest South Korean island (Baengnyeong) in under five minutes.




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