A recent survey of North Koreans who had gotten out found that 90 percent had seen South Korean TV or movies before they left. Most had seen this media via CDs, DVDs or memory sticks but about 55 percent lived close enough to the DMZ to catch South Korean TV broadcasts. This media changed the attitudes of North Koreans. Among those who had escaped, 63 percent believed in the market economy while 25 percent still believed in a state controlled economy (often as well as a market economy). There are more true believers in “socialism” back in North Korea, especially among those who have a good job and access to food and fuel.
In some parts of North Korea nearly a third of adults have access to a cell phone although in many areas it is closer to ten percent. A third of the three million cell phones in North Korea are registered in China and generally illegal. This means that news gets around despite the state controlled media. Most of the “news” is about where to find food or fuel. North Koreans reported that they had obtained most (about two-thirds) of their food from the free (and now legal) markets and less and less from government distributions. Surveys of those who fled also indicates that about five percent of the population is “rich” (with annual income of $50,000 or more). Most of these wealthy families are government employees but a rapidly growing portion (soon to be more than half) are the new entrepreneurs who run legitimate (and otherwise) businesses. Many government officials also get a lot of their income from commerce and bribes. While the government has fought this trend it has been backing off simply because the market economy operations are key to keeping the decrepit state controlled economy from falling apart completely. Recently the government even loosened the rules against using foreign currency.
These surveys have become increasingly effective because of the growing number of North Koreans in South Korea. In 2000 there were only 1,406 North Koreans in the south. Now there are over 24,000. South Korean researchers also have better access to the several hundred thousand North Koreans loving in northeast China.
China, the United States and South Korea are finally in agreement that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program must be stopped. This means that China will use its extensive economic ties to pressure North Korea to drop its nukes. China was unclear about just how far it would go. China has becomes the vital economic lifeline that keeps the North Korean government in power. In addition to being North Korea’s biggest (60 percent of exports, even more of imports) trading partner, China is the main source of food and fuel. Most of this is paid for, but some is free. If China were to cut off North Korea completely (merely by shutting down the few rail lines into North Korea) the government there would probably collapse in chaos and mass starvation. China does not want that, because it would mean millions of desperate North Korean’s fleeing into China and the need for Chinese troops to enter North Korea and sort things out. This would be expensive, embarrassing and risk armed conflict with South Korea. So China has to apply enough pressure to persuade but not so much that it would trigger collapse.
China also has its own list of problems with North Korea. The new leader Kim Jong Un is decidedly more anti-China than his two predecessors (his father and grandfather). Because of this North Korean officials feel free to demand more bribes and generally make life harder for Chinese trying to do business in North Korea. This is counterproductive as a growing number of Chinese businessmen are simply refusing to invest in North Korea or abandoning existing projects. Frustrated that the Chinese government is no longer able to intervene as it had in the past, the Chinese investors are voting with their money and not putting any into North Korea. This is hurting North Korea because Chinese businesses are the main source of foreign currency. Kim Jong Un appears to fear growing Chinese influence more than economic collapse. Kim also suspects that China has a “Plan B” to replace the Kim dynasty with a Chinese controlled North Korean ruler. China has developed a network of informants, supporters and generally pro-China contacts inside North Korea over the decades. Kim Jong Un has been trying to dismantle this network and get these pro-China people out of the senior bureaucracy. The growing number of wealthy entrepreneurs are also seen as a danger to the Kim family and failed attempts to curb this economic activity have failed. Kim sees the merchant class as a growing threat because these businesspeople are generally pro-Chinese and don’t care who runs North Korea as long as the entrepreneurs can do business.
Meanwhile South Korea has some serious territorial disputes with China that it would like to settle. The big one is Chinese tolerance of Chinese fishing boats poaching in South Korean waters. In the last ten years South Korea has seized or fined over 4,600 Chinese fishing boats caught working in South Korean waters. Lesser economic problems include the large number of restrictions China imposes on South Korean exports to China. This is an issue with most nations that trade with China but South Korea has become a major trading partner and wants some relief from import restrictions that date back to before China became an exporting giant.
South Korea has agreed to again increase the amount it pays the United States each year to offset the costs of stationing American troops in South Korea. In 2014 the payment will be $866 million, an increase of 5.8 percent over 2013. This arrangement is not unique and has been, for decades in some cases. It is pretty standard for affluent nations hosting American troops. As the economies in West Germany, Japan and South Korea recovered from war damage, they reached a point where the United States demanded, and got, payments to cover part of the expense of keeping American troops there. Since then, Japan, Germany and South Korea have paid over a hundred billion dollars.
North Korea announced promotions for several dozen senior military officers. This continues leader Kim Jong Un’s efforts to remove officers of suspect loyalty. Kim Jong Un also wants to remove senior officers who might be sympathetic towards China. Officers suspected of corruption are also being retired or not promoted. The government is also quietly executing officers felt to be too contaminated by incorrect thinking or corruption. There are rarely hearings or any formal proceedings to determine guilt. A few unfortunate rumors can get a long-serving and loyal officer killed up north.
The North Korean secret police who keep track of public opinion have been warning the propaganda bureaucrats that a growing number of media efforts are doing more harm than good. This is largely because people have access to cell phones and foreign media which provide contrary views of what is really going on in North Korea. Case in point is the month’s long media campaign praising Kim Jong Un for the large harvest last year. In reality this was the result of favorable weather and all the North Korean farmers involved in that harvest know that. But in the past these farmers would have kept quiet. Some farmers still do remain silent, but cell phones carry the truth that a growing number of farmers provide as well as news that the good weather last year led to good harvests all over northeast Asia. In some cases this reality check halts an embarrassing propaganda campaign, but sometimes it does not. This sort of thing leads to more whispered anti-government (or anti-Kim Jong Un) jokes and, worse, the same message in graffiti.
North Korea continues its efforts to control the smuggling and illegal immigration on the Chinese border. Security personnel have been warned that they face the death penalty if caught working with the smugglers. Recently border guards were ordered to shoot on sight anyone seen trying to cross the border illegally. The government has put more undercover operatives on the border, to collect information, set up arrests, make the smugglers nervous and generally disrupt and discourage smuggling. People on the border just put up with it, secure in the knowledge that the government does not keep up these efforts indefinitely. Reliable secret policemen are in short supply and if you keep them on the border too long some will be corrupted and might even defect.
February 14, 2014: After the usual threats and bombast North Korea surprised everyone and agreed to more family reunions. This does not mean North Korea will actually follow through. In 2013 North Korea cancelled, at the last minute, a reunion between members of 200 families who had been divided during the 1950-53 war. A month before that the north had agreed to resume negotiating how much food and fuel the south will pay for North Korea allowing more reunions of families separated by the Korean War. These reunions were halted in 2010 because of southern anger at extortionate demands by the north. The north had promised to be reasonable in how much food and fuel aid it would demand from the south to make another round of reunions happen but soon reneged. This cancellation was seen as another northern ploy to obtain more freebies. The south protested but did not offer more aid. So now the north has come crawling back to get what it can. This is humiliating for the north, but the economic situation up there is very bad and getting worse. This time, however, the North Koreans did not demand food and fuel. They did ask that South Korea control the media criticism of North Korea that is increasingly common in South Korean media. North Korea officials have a hard time comprehending something like “freedom of the press” and this may yet cause the next round of reunions to be cancelled. North Korea also wants some diplomatic help in stopping a UN investigation that has accused the North Korean government of committing “crimes against humanity” on its own citizens. In the last decade several hundred thousand North Koreans have escaped, mostly into China, and that has brought with it a wealth of personal testimony about the prison camps and general brutality of the North Korean government against its own people. Currently North Korea is depending on China to use its UN Security Council seat to block a full-scale prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
February 13, 2014: The U.S. released satellite photos showing North Korea accelerating work on another tunnel of the type used for nuclear tests. Work on the tunnel has been underway since early 2013 and once it is done this year there could be another nuclear weapons test.
February 8, 2014: After months of delays North Korea finally paid the reduced (to $693,000) million dollar fine Panama had imposed on a North Korean cargo ship caught smuggling weapons from Cuba in 2012. This payment got the ship released. The captain of the ship and two of his officers remain in jail because they are being prosecuted for arms smuggling while the other 32 members of the crew were released from jail in January and sent home. The North Korean ship has now headed back to Cuba with a new crew. Illegal Cuban weapons were found on ship in July, 2012, during a surprise inspection. At first the North Korean insisted the weapons were “scrap” but further examination found all the stuff fully operational. The 250 tons of Cuban SA-2 anti-aircraft missile systems and MiG-21 components (including over a dozen jet engines) were buried under a cargo of sugar. The ship was trying to get through the Panama Canal. North Korea at first denied any knowledge of the weapons but eventually admitted that they were obtained from Cuba and not declared. Such weapons shipments are forbidden by international sanctions and were seized. Cuba was being paid over $100 million for these weapons and others already shipped. The North Korean ship and its crew had to remain in Panama until North Korea paid the fine but the North Koreans are very short of foreign currency and losing a million dollars to fix this problem is a big deal. The Panamanians threatened to seize the ship and its cargo and auction it off to pay the fine. This threat eventually persuaded the North Koreans to pay. The ship is the Chong Chon Gang, a 14,000 ton (DWT) vessel built in 1977 in North Korea.
February 7, 2014: North Korean media reported the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics but did not dwell on the fact that there were no North Korean athletes there. For the first time in 12 years no North Koreans qualified to attend the Winter Olympics.
January 31, 2014: Both South Korea and Japan have peacekeepers in South Sudan where, for the last two months, there has been a civil war. When the civil war began in mid-December the South Koreans found they didn’t have enough ammo for any sustained action, something they might now have to deal with given the number of locals shooting at each other and the civilians and foreign aid workers the South Korean troops would have to defend. So on December 22nd they asked the nearby Japanese contingent if they could spare any ammo and the Japanese promptly sent 10,000 rounds. It turned out that the additional ammo was not needed and on January 10th it was returned to the Japanese. All this was a big deal in South Korea, where hatred of Japan has been a major national passion for over a century. Although South Korea and Japan have many reasons to be allies, they have a difficult time making formal agreements to cooperate against North Koreas or Chinese aggression. When pressed on this South Korea points out that because of the widespread antipathy towards Japan for past events and the Japanese must do something dramatic to improve their popularity in South Korea. This quick loan of ammunition was not all that dramatic, but it does help. The South Korea anger towards Japan can be traced back to when Korea was a brutally treated Japanese possession (or “protectorate”) from 1910 to 1945. The four decades of Japanese occupation were very cruel. Think how bad the Nazi occupation of conquered countries was during World War II and realize that the Japanese occupation of Korea was much worse and for much longer. The Japanese don’t help with their post-World War II attitude that Japan was a victim because it was forced into World War II by evil Westerners and was only trying to help its neighbors by occupying them and treating them badly. Japanese have a hard time understanding how their victims don’t appreciate all that Japan tried to do for them. What the foreigners do remember is what the Japanese did to them, something the Japanese tend to downplay or deny outright.
January 26, 2014: North Korea increased the cell phone jamming at the start of 2014 but this has been foiled with the discovery that some Chinese sim cards will avoid the jamming.