Korea: Strength, Not Sympathy


December 2, 2012: Although North Korea has banned the importation of South Korean products, the secret police look the other way when it comes to baby care products from the south. Food, clothing, bedding, diapers, and other infant care items from South Korea are considered far superior to their Chinese or North Korean counterparts. Chinese traders report much less trouble getting these forbidden goods into North Korea and babies are seen in public with the forbidden South Korean items. However, the only ones who will openly display these southern baby goods are those whose parents belong to the small ruling class. It’s only these people, and the children of free-market entrepreneurs, who can afford this stuff. The entrepreneurs are tolerated but will be persecuted at every opportunity. The “market millionaires” are seen as a major source of corruption. But many of the bribes these entrepreneurs pay are demanded by government officials. That in itself adds insult to injury as the entrepreneurs not only remind the rulers of North Korea of the failure of their communist economic system but the dishonesty of the many officials who run the system.

The North Korean military has been forced to cut the amount of food soldiers receive, and this has resulted in more troops sneaking out at night and stealing corn or rice from nearby farms when it is near harvest time. Vegetable gardens and farm animals are kept closer to the homes of farmers and are more risky to raid. North Korean farming is done via collective farms and there are large fields of crops that are unguarded. There has always been some theft from nearby military bases, but this year it has been more frequent and more obvious. Farmers are complaining to military commanders who have promised to control their hungry troops more strictly. The farms surrounding military bases are usually responsible for delivering a portion of their harvest to the military and these thefts mean less food for the army. The farmers are allowed to keep enough food to get by, as the government has learned that starving the farmers doesn’t work.

Over the last year the northern government has tightened up on granting permission for North Koreans to visit China. Whether it’s for business (government or private) or visiting family, it’s more difficult to get an exit visa. It’s not just because people might not return (despite the certainty that kin left behind will be imprisoned) but because the government wants to limit the opportunities for accurate information about North Korea from getting out. Much still gets out via cell phones on the border (despite recent crackdowns) and those who do have to visit China (the north’s largest trading partner) but the government has become increasingly paranoid since Kim Jong Un took power last year.

Kim Jong Un is still something of a mystery to outsiders. He has made changes but to what effect is unclear. In the last few months hundreds of military and government officials have been retired and some executed or jailed. This included over 30 senior military and government officials. Those dismissed were promptly replaced by younger people. Recently, Kim replaced his new (as of seven months ago) defense minister and appointed another young general seen as even more loyal to Kim Jong Un. Three other senior defense ministry officials were also replaced. All this comes in the wake of reports that Kim Jong Un has ordered “loyalty checks” of all senior officials. This may just be part of the anti-corruption drive but there is also an ongoing dispute in the senior leadership about how to enact economic reforms.

Kim Jong Un has made it clear, in public announcements, that it's time for a new generation. Many of the dismissed older officials were seemingly loyal to and supportive of Kim Jong Un, so this appears to be more a desire to shake up the leadership than to purge opponents. Despite much talk of change, there has not been much of that up north. State controlled media portray Kim Jong Un as less dour and more approachable. He is often seen with his wife, something that rarely happened in the past. He is seen appearing to enjoy himself, which is also something new for how leaders are portrayed in the north. But Kim Jong Un still supports giving the military and security agencies priority when it comes to money and other resources. North Koreans are still being called on to make more sacrifices to make this happen. The reality is that the military is getting less of everything (including less food) mainly because there is less to distribute. The North Korean economy is a mess, and although the government claims there is economic growth, there is not much evidence of this.

Kim Jong Un isn't doing all this by himself, as he has a small group of advisors he relies on a lot. This includes his uncle, Jang Sung Taek, who is married to Kim Jong Ils sister. Jang has long been a powerful government official and is believed to be quite wealthy. That's because Jang has a lot to say about how North Korea earns (by legal or illegal means) foreign currency. In a country so extremely poor, the man who controls the most money has a lot of power. Jang, for example, earlier this year ordered house searches of families believed to be hoarding foreign currency (Chinese or American) rather than, as the law demands, putting it in the bank. People do not want to put their foreign currency in the bank because the government pays you less for it (in North Korean currency) than the black market money changers (who give fair market value). Jang understands how the North Korean economy really works and is trying to increase government control over the "new economy." Yang and his wife have a lot more knowledge of, and experience with, the North Korea government and economy than their nephew Kim Jong Un and, for the moment, they have his ear and trust. While the senior leadership makes a fuss and changes little, the situation continues to get worse up there. Food shortages grow and the threadbare economy sputters along in the face of energy shortages and growing unemployment.

The U.S. is trying to persuade Burma to cut its military and economic ties with North Korea. The problem is that Burma denies those ties even exist, despite recent revelations about North Korean weapons shipments to Burma that were discovered and seized. More alarming are recent revelations that Iran has personnel stationed within North Korea’s ballistic missile development organization. Iran and North Korea have long been partners in ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development projects.

North Korea announced that it would make another attempt to put a satellite into orbit, and the launch would probably take place sometime between December 10th and 22nd. This immediately created fears in South Korea that this was all an effort to influence the South Korean presidential elections to be held on the 19th. None of the main candidates could be seen as pro-north, but the North Korean leadership has made it clear that they would like to see current South Korea president Lee Myung Bak defeated. Lee came to power in 2008 as the first South Korean leader in two decades who believed that strength, not sympathy was the best way to deal with an increasingly troublesome North Korea. Lee proposed to be strict but fair with the north and offer to help them develop their economy. Lee was opposed to earlier efforts to placate the north by offering no-strings foreign aid (which was often stolen or diverted by northern officials). Lee was a blast of cold air for the northern rulers and not liked at all. This missile launching effort came as no surprise, as satellite photos had detected the preparations over a month ago. Until today’s announcement there had been no official North Korean comment. The Chinese are not happy with this new rocket launch either, which may have been one reason why North Korea kept quiet about it. China has been pressuring North Korea to pay more attention to economic growth and less to developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Over the last week two North Korean fishing boats, with six decomposed bodies in them, washed up on an island between North Korea and Japan (and only fifty kilometers from the main Japanese island of Honshu). It’s unclear if the deceased simply got lost while fishing or were trying to flee North Korea.  

November 27, 2012: The UN passed a resolution condemning North Korea’s "systematic, widespread and grave violations of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights." The UN has been doing this every year since 2005, but this year it did not have to take a vote because no one expressed opposition to the measure (except North Korea).  

November 24, 2012: South Korea confirmed what had long been rumored, that ten North Korean troops had been killed and at least twenty wounded when South Korea artillery returned fire after a North Korea artillery attack on a South Korean island off the west coast, two years ago. Since that time South Korean intelligence has been hearing reports from refugees and North Korea radio communications monitored from the south about what happened in the north after the 2010 attack. South Korea casualties consisted of four dead and 19 wounded.

November 21, 2012: In the north the government has ordered provincial authorities to build shopping malls, to improve morale and provide more tax revenue. Some of these malls exist in the capital (along with a lot of other amenities that appear nowhere else in the country). The problem with this order is that the provincial governments are broke and there is no money for something like this. The government told the provincial authorities that they could offer tax breaks and other concessions to attract foreign (Chinese) investors. This is not helping because many Chinese, Russian, and South Korea investment deals have very publicly collapsed recently, usually because the North Koreans reneged on terms or simply stole the foreigner’s investments. Even wealthy North Korean entrepreneurs are reluctant to do joint ventures with their own government, so great is the risk of corruption spoiling the deal.




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