Korea: The Good Old Days Never Got Any Better


November 18, 2012: A South Korean think tank has analyzed North Korean census and other records and estimated that as many as 1.13 million people starved to death between 1995 and 2008. The analysis also concluded that some 1.1 million North Korean men are in the military. Conscription in North Korea forces most young men to spend six years in uniform. A lot of that time is spent in non-military activities, like farm labor, road building, or working in army owned factories. The long period of military service helps deal with the chronic unemployment and food shortages up north. The young men are kept busy, fed, and under guard. Only a few times a year do the troops get to use weapons with ammunition. Most of the time the weapons are kept secured and under guard by the most trustworthy troops.

North Korean food production increased ten percent this year, the second good year in a row. Yet total production is still the same as it was in the 1970s. The country still needs to import about 500,000 tons of food a year to avoid malnutrition and that much is not coming in. The government bans some food aid (because of political opposition to the donor) and other aid does not get delivered because the donor insists that it supervises distribution to ensure that the hungry get fed. Until 1991, Russia provided free food aid, to prop up North Korea, which Russia created after World War II. While overall local food production has been up this year, there are sharp regional differences and areas where there are major food shortages are not getting much government aid. There is a lot of malnutrition and some starvation deaths.

Despite announcements by new ruler Kim Jong Un that foreign (mainly Chinese) investment would be welcome, corruption and incompetence has driven away earlier Chinese and South Korean efforts to set up business in North Korea. The senior leadership in the north is not willing, or able, to suppress the corruption that drives foreign investors away. So while North Korean propaganda keeps proclaiming how easy it is to do business in North Korea, nothing is happening.

The desperate conditions in North Korea are driving more North Koreans to flee the country and make their way to South Korea. Some 25,000 such refugees have arrived since 1953, despite China treating them as illegal aliens, not refugees. According to international law and a UN agreement that China is a party to, those escaping North Korea should be recognized as refugees. But in order to support the North Korean government, and avoid a flood of North Korean migrants, China does not recognize refugees from North Korea. In South Korea the North Koreans have a hard time adjusting and are more than twice as likely to commit crimes. What North Koreans learned back home was that you did whatever you had to do in order to survive. A few of these refugees have returned to the north, to great fanfare. But that is very rare and mostly the result of North Korean intelligence agencies making a big effort to create some positive propaganda.

Satellite photos indicate that North Korea is still testing large rocket engines and is apparently preparing for another long-range ballistic missile test. Despite American anti-missile defenses in Alaska, directed at any attack from North Korea, the North Koreans see nuclear armed ballistic missiles able to reach the United States as essential to their long-term survival (and ability to extort food and fuel aid from America).

One thing has changed in North Korea, it is no longer a communist dictatorship. Over the last year elements of communist propaganda have been removed and more emphasis put on the unique “socialist dictatorship” developed in North Korea. As a practical matter, little has changed in how North Korea is run; it is still a brutal police state and dictatorship presided over by a self-perpetuating ruling class that was formed from the communist activists that China and Russia selected to establish the original communist dictatorship in 1945.

In South Korea opinion surveys still show that 80 percent of the southerners want the country unified. But only 36 percent of southerners are adamant about unification no matter what. Younger South Koreans are more willing to admit that such unification will sharply reduce living standards in the south for a decade or more, in order to pay for it. That is not popular with many younger South Koreans, who are in favor of a more gradual (and less expensive) unification process. This all may be moot if China continues to insist that there will never be unification, unless it is as a dictatorship that follows orders from China.  

November 16, 2012: For the first time in four years Japan and North Korea have resumed negotiations on the Japanese citizens that North Korean agents kidnapped over the last few decades. The talks were held in Mongolia, not much came of the two days of discussions except an agreement to continue the process later. Obtaining more information on these kidnapping victims is a big issue in Japan, but North Korea is not eager to release anything, other than the fact that the kidnapping program did exist.

November 15, 2012: South Korea revealed that last May it had intercepted and seized a cargo of North Korea missile components headed for Syria. The Chinese ship had stopped in a South Korean port to pick up some more cargo when the discovery was made.

November 14, 2012: South Korea revealed that the North Korean military has set up an eavesdropping operation for cell phones and military radios used on the islands off the west coast within 140 kilometers of North Korea. A lot of this stuff is encrypted and it’s unclear how much decryption capability the north has.

November 8, 2012: China has allowed North Korea to send fifty special police investigators to China to hunt down, arrest, and return to North Korea those who received permission to visit China and did not return on time. North Korea is also holding more unannounced inspections of border guard troops and severely punishing those found taking bribes or otherwise failing to seal the border.

November 1, 2012:  The South Korean government has released a 2008, digital 1:25,000 map of North Korea to the public. The map was previously just available to government officials dealing with North Korea. But with the growing amount of satellite photography available to the public, there was not much point in keeping such a map secret. One thing that was immediately noticed was how much the North Korean capital Pyongyang has grown and how little construction has taken place in the rest of the country. Pyongyang is where most of the North Korean elite live.




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