The North Korean government has ordered its operatives to increase their efforts to halt the spread of anti-government (anything the government does not agree with) messages via cell phones. This has become a growing problem because in the last 18 months cell phone users up north has more than doubled (to over two million). Many of those phones are “illegal” and used along the Chinese border via nearby Chinese cell towers. Shutting down access to these has proved very difficult. But now the North Korean government wants local cell phone providers to further limit cell phone users from connecting to foreign countries or accessing the Internet on their phones. In recently released documents for members of the ruling party, the government pointed out that cell phones are the main source of anti-government information and troublemaking. Attempts to simply ban cell phones did not work and over the last few years legal ones have been introduced. Illegal ones (from China) have been a growing problem for over a decade.
The North Korean government has become more aggressive about capturing and returning those who flee the country. To that end they have taken responsibility for monitoring and returning defectors from the secret police (NSA) and given it to military intelligence (the GBR or General Reconnaissance Bureau). The GBR has selected several hundred young soldiers (late teens to early 20s) and trained them (to speak better Chinese and how to operate under cover) to seek out defectors in China, kidnap them, and return them to North Korea (where they go straight to a labor camp, possibly for life). This new policy is meant to make North Koreans less willing to flee the country. The GBR teams are told to concentrate on those defectors attempting to get to South Korea (via South Korean embassies in places like Thailand). China tolerates NSA and GBR agents as long as they do not carry weapons or create much fuss. This policy can change as Chine put more pressure on North Korea.
China admitted that it has cut oil shipments to North Korea this year. This was revealed when the Chinese government released data on trade with North Korea and it showed that exports to North Korea dropped 13.6 percent in the first six months of this year compared to 2012. Most of the drop was accounted for by cuts in oil shipments. This was done deliberately to force North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs, which a growing number of Chinese officials fear could be a threat to China as well as North Korea’s other neighbors (and the United States). China is the largest supplier of oil (over 500,000/3.5 million barrels last year) and the cuts have hurt the North Korean economy and military capabilities. Less obviously China has sharply cut North Korean access to Chinese banks and transportation systems. In other words, China has sharply cut the ability of North Korea to move illegal exports (weapons) and imports (critical components for their nuclear and missile projects) via China.
All this pressure began after North Korea’s third nuclear test last February. China had strongly urged North Korea not to carry out the February test and made it clear that if North Korea went ahead there would be consequences. China had never had to deal with this degree of North Korean intransigence before and there was apparently a lot of disagreement within the Chinese leadership over what to do or even what could be done. That debate is still going on. On one extreme you have the “let’s back a coup” (or even invade) crowd, while on the other you have the “persistent persuasion” advocates who believe slow, steady, and persistent will get the job done before North Korea does something incredibly stupid (like starting another war or collapsing). This has apparently caused some unease in the North Korean leadership because North Korea has been acting saner in the last two months. But a lot of madness at the top persists.
In the north an effort to build a ski resort in the northeast (at Masikryeong near Wonsan) has met with disaster. The construction involved cutting down a lot of trees on slopes for the ski runs. That effort removed all vegetation and when the monsoon rains arrived in mid-July, they were heavier than usual and the denuded slopes turned to mud and then slid down the side of the mountain. Repairing all this damage will take up to a year and delay the planned opening of the resort. The mudslide also did a lot of damage to farms down in the valley, and more soldiers have been called in to help with that. The government has increased security in the area and tried to keep information about the extent of the damage from getting out. But the large number of students and soldiers drafted to help with repairs has made that difficult. The ski slope area has heavy snow from November to March and the completed ski resort will be open to foreigners as well as North Koreans who can afford it (senior officials and the wealthier entrepreneurs). The Masikryeong resort has been getting a lot of play in state media, as an example of how hip new leader Kim Jong Un is. The resort is also meant to be another perk for the ruling class and a way to extract more cash from tourists and North Korean entrepreneurs. All this attention means a lot of North Koreans are curious about what went on up there last month. Soldiers are doing a lot of the construction work. There are already some ski runs in North Korea, but these were built for military training or to help athletes prepare for international competitions. The big competition will be with their South Korean counterparts during the 2018 Winter Olympics that will be held in South Korea (which already has lots of ski resorts and many medals from the Winter Olympics).
August 7, 2013: After a month of North Korea stalling over negotiations to reopen the factories in Kaesong,South Korea ordered payments arranged for the South Korean companies who owned those operations and writing off the Kaesong facility. This was South Koreas way of saying “we’re gone (from Kaesong).” On hearing that, North Korea suddenly agreed to reopen Kaesong and to resume negotiations on the 14th to finalize the new agreement. The North Koreans have now been convinced that the South Koreans have run out of patience over this matter. The Kaesong Industrial Complex (in North Korea but financed and run by 123 South Korean firms employing 53,000 North Koreans) was shut down by the north in April, as part of a diplomatic snit over foreign hostility to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Then in June, China told South Korea that the northerners were eager to make nice and repair some of the damage northern belligerence had created in the last few months. China had leaned on North Korea quite a bit and apparently pointed out that shutting down Kaesong cut off a major source of income for the northern government and that was a shortfall China was not going to replace with more aid. In fact, China threatened to further reduce food, oil, and other shipments if the North Koreans didn’t calm down and at least make an effort to get their economic act together. So the north agreed to let the South Korean companies revive production at Kaesong as soon as they can. The South Korean government had provided some economic aid to the South Korean companies involved to keep them solvent until Kaesong was reopened. About a third of the South Korean companies recently threatened to walk away from their Kaesong investment if the facility was not reopened soon, and that apparently helped persuade North Korea to change course. Meanwhile, North Korea has moved some of the Kaesong workers away, in an effort to get them new jobs. It will take time to get them back to Kaesong. The South Korean companies have to deal with customers they have lost and suppliers need time to get components and raw materials delivered. It may be months (or more) before full production resumes at Kaesong and some jobs will be lost because of lost customers (who found other suppliers because of the April shut down).
August 4, 2013: The South Korean navy announced that its program to build large (3,000 ton) submarines that carry lots of cruise missiles is on again. The new program calls for nine of these boats to be built between 2020 and 2030. This program has been approved and cancelled several times already, but this time the need for this sort of capability (against China?) is seen as real and persistent.
August 3, 2013: In the north over 100,000 troops were ordered to cut short their usual Summer training exercises and instead go help out making repairs to the damage done by July floods that destroyed 6,000 homes and damaged 13,300 hectares (33,000 acres) of farmland. A lot of infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams) was damaged as well. Soldiers normally spend a lot of their time on non-military projects (military run farms and factories) and are sometimes called on to deal with this sort of reconstruction. The six years of military service that every able bodied North Korean man is required to do is often regarded as a period of slavery because the government pays only token wages and provides minimal food and housing and the troops spend a lot of their time working on non-military projects.
Panamanian inspectors have found more weapons on a North Korean freighter seized last month when it was discovered trying to take an illegal cargo of Cuban SA-2 anti-aircraft missile systems and MiG-21 components (including over a dozen jet engines) buried under a cargo of sugar through the Panama Canal. The cargo is still being unloaded and the additional weapons include RPGs and live rockets to fire from them. Explosives sniffing dogs discovered these, and not all of the ship has yet been carefully looked into.
July 30, 2013: In South Korea police raided the offices of an Internet hosting company and arrested the president. The man was charged with helping North Korea to infect over 100,000 South Korean PCs and Internet servers with malware that allowed these machines to be controlled from the north. The arrested man was a former anti-government activist who had established connections with North Korean agents during his college years. He had seemingly put all that activism behind him after graduation, but in reality it was still in touch with northerners and agreed to help the north with its Cyber War activities. This began in the late 1990s.
July 23, 2013: This is the 60th anniversary of the signing of the ceasefire agreement that ended the fighting in Korea. In the north there was a “victory parade,” while in the south there was a more somber commemoration. The Korean War (1950-3) was triggered by a North Korean invasion of the south. The Russian equipped and trained North Korean forces overran their South Korean opponents and quick intervention by the U.S. and the UN threw the North Koreans out of the south in a few months. But when the UN forces went north, China (backed by Russia) intervened and the war soon became a stalemate along the current border (the DMZ). The north kept threatening to invade again but never has. They do keep talking about it.