China refuses to increase its pressure on North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program. Instead China wants the United States, South Korea, and Japan to negotiate a bribe (economic aid in return for dropping the nuclear program). This is highly unlikely as none of these countries trusts North Korea anymore and its unlikely North Korea would agree to the intrusive inspections required to make a deal that could be trusted by the donor countries. China either believes the North Korean nukes are not much of a threat (they probably are not because all indications are that North Korea has not yet developed a robust enough weapon to be useful under combat conditions).
North Korean rulers are in desperate need of some new ideas. The problem is that the many control measures the government has used over the decades are failing. While most communist dictatorships fell apart between 1989 and 1991, several managed to stay in power. The best example was China, which made a bargain with its people: economic freedom in return for continued Communist Party rule. The communists were able to get away with this because when the deal was implemented (unilaterally) in the 1980s there were plenty of party members (over five percent of the population) and most had an economic interest in making the new program work. It has worked, so far, but it’s often touch and go. Likewise, Cuba used some economic freedom, and more repression, to keep their communists in power, but the Cuban Communist Party can feel their power slipping away.
North Korea has allowed even less economic freedom than Cuba and suffered horrific famines and shortages of everything as a result. Only the party members thrived in North Korea, but the secret police report more and more disobedience and outright resistance from the people. In addition to a thriving black market, criminality of all sorts is on the increase and there is growing corruption at the local level. Worse, the government has lost control of information. For decades most North Koreans believed that they were indeed in a workers’ paradise. But in the last decade most North Korean’s have discovered that life is better in neighboring China and Russia and much better in South Korea. The people are becoming more and more unruly and disobedient. The latest trend is for people to defy their immediate party superior, the head of their People’s Unit. These are groups of about 30 families (over a hundred people) and the leader is usually an older woman. These leaders have a lot of power as they control food and other government allotments and carrying out many government directives. The most onerous of these directives has to do with providing labor and materials for maintaining infrastructure. That means roads, sidewalks, power, and utilities. Although the government is supposed to supply materials and skilled workers (for plumbing and electrical work) the locals are supposed to provide labor (mostly unskilled). The government has always demanded that the locals supply cash and goods for extraordinary occasions, but the government is so broke that it is now insisting that infrastructure repairs be carried out with the People’s Unit scraping together the cash to buy construction materials (and often a bribe for skilled workers the government is supposed to supply at government expense). Many families now have to get some of their food from the black market, and buying gravel or concrete to repair a local road means the family goes hungry. Home repairs are also carried out by People’s Units, who are now being told they have to buy the materials as well as supply most of the labor. The time and expense of all this work is causing more and more families to rebel and refuse. This risks the parents, or the entire family, being sent to a labor camp but people are desperate. This isn’t happening because the government can’t afford to run all their prison camps and now there are freely available satellite photos of these camps which show sharp reduction in prisoner population (from 120,000 to 80,000) in the last few years. There has not been a huge jump (yet) in executions, so there is simply less risk of being shipped off to one of these camps.
North Koreans now sense that the government is weak. Government officials are also intimidated, afraid, and often corrupt. This is how things came apart in the late 1980s in Eastern Europe and Russia. People began to disobey and defy the local party officials and that resistance spread until hardly anyone, including the police and soldiers, were obeying orders. North Korea studied what happened in 1989 carefully, so North Korean leaders know where this is leading.
The disrespect for authority extends to the highest level, with supreme leader Kim Jong Un being openly mocked in word and graffiti. Rumors of him recently having an old girlfriend executed have spread, not because everyone believes it but because with everything else that is going wrong, why not listen to lurid tales of bloody intrigue at the very top. Some of these rumors are useful to the government, like the ones about mass executions of government officials if the government did collapse because of a government uprising. Most government officials are hated and despised, and that makes these rumors (depicting Chinese, South Korean, or even American troops moving into a collapsing North Korea and organizing these mass millings) more believable to a North Korean population, and ruling bureaucracy, that was raised on fear. This makes a percentage of the bureaucracy ready to take extreme measures to maintain power.
The most effective government solution to all this is to take better care of the bureaucracy. Consumer goods continue to cross the border from China, not for public sale but for distribution to the most effective (or essential) government employees. This could be seen in action on a wide scale earlier this month, when the usual distribution of free food (to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the founding of North Korea) only took place in the capital. The population of this city is restricted to government employees and loyalists and contains about 12 percent of the population. Most government officials in the rest of the country also got these special food handouts, but most of the population did not. Thus, because of this food distribution, food prices in the markets (legal and otherwise) fell in the capital and rose everywhere else. Extra food was also given to over 20,000 soldiers brought in for the September 9 parade celebrating the anniversary of the founding of the current Kim dynasty and North Korea.
Kim Jong Un and his advisors (especially his aunt and her husband) continue to get rid of senior military officers whose enthusiasm for the new generations of leadership is not entirely trusted. These elderly generals are usually being allowed to retire and are replaced by much younger men who appear to get on with the new leader.
September 11, 2013: Both Koreas agreed to reopen the factories in Kaesong immediately. North Korea has already contacted thos who worked in that complex and warned them to prepare to return. The Kaesong Industrial Complex (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 problem is that many of the South Korea factory owners do not, or cannot, return to Kaesong. Either they have lost the customers who bought the goods produced in Kaesong or simply do not trust the North Koreans anymore. The South Korean government told the factory owners that they would not have to pay any South Korean taxes on goods produced for the rest of the year, but that’s not a large enough incentive for most Kaesong business owners. It looks like less than half the original Kaesong workforce will have a job to return to. This is a big disappointment to the North Korean employees of the Kaesong operations because the pay (which the North Korean government takes most of), working conditions, and benefits they had in Kaesong were superior to anywhere else in North Korea.
September 10, 2013: Satellite photos indicate that North Korea has restarted its nuclear research reactor at Yongbyon. This would take six months or so to complete, and the facility there can produce enough nuclear material annually for one nuclear bomb. Last year UN investigators reported that North Korea had made progress in building a new nuclear reactor. This one, like the smaller one at Yongbyon, would mainly serve to produce radioactive material for nuclear weapons. This new reactor could produce enough plutonium each year for four nuclear weapons. Work on this facility is apparently still not complete. Meanwhile, work continues on a west coast (Sohae) rocket launching site. This one appears on track to be ready to launch long range rockets by early next year.
September 4, 2013: A leftist member of parliament in South Korea was arrested and charged with trying to organize an armed insurrection in support of North Korea. A majority of parliament members voted to approve this arrest. As more North Korean refugees show up in South Korea, southerners find their history being reinterpreted and now leftist, often pro-North Korean politicians are seen in a different light. The northerners see leftist South Koreans, who supported the establishment of a communist government in South Korea, as traitors to democracy. Yet in the south, most of these leftists are also seen as heroes for opposing the military governments that controlled the south until the 1980s. The leftist politicians are also accused of underestimating the cruelty and determination of the northern leadership. Some leftists have changed their pro-north views, but many have not.
China and Japan have also become more anxious about North Korea. China has been openly criticizing North Korea, something it had never done before. Japan is increasing its defense spending more each year than it has since the Cold War ended in 1991.