China, the United States and South Korea are agreed North Korea’s nuclear weapons program must be stopped. The big problem is that no has come up with any effective way to accomplish that. China has used its extensive economic ties to pressure North Korea to drop its nukes. China is apparently unsure just how far it should 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.
China recently declared that it would not tolerate disorder or anti-Chinese activity in North Korea. This may mean that China is telling the northern leadership that Chinese troops will come in if things get out of hand and maybe it would be a good idea to work with China to make that happen. China knows that it must 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. Despite that 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 long ago developed a network of informants, supporters and generally pro-China contacts inside North Korea. 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 their 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. The secret police report that this merchant class (who have a lot of phones to tap) are increasingly angry with the government. A crackdown on the angry merchants at this point is self-defeating because the merchants are essential for keeping what’s left of the economy going. In effect, the government can’t live with them but can’t kill them either.
North Korea is increasing Internet access and computer use for students and trusted members of the population. Most of these users only have access to the North Korean Internet, which is called “Bright.” This consists of a few thousand websites, all hosted within North Korea and mostly containing educational or propaganda material plus government announcements of importance. The news sites on Bright give the government version of the news. Discussion is permitted, but constantly monitored for disloyalty. Bright is isolated from the international Internet and access to Internet sites outside North Korea is strictly monitored, as is email outside the country. Anyone who misuses either Bright or the international Internet access is severely punished. Thus while Internet access is sought, it is also feared.
Mainly in response to China Japan has decided, for the first time ever, to establish a force of marines similar to the U.S. Marine Corps. Apparently American marines will help train the new Japanese force, currently planned as a brigade of some 3,000 troops. American marines have been teaching Japanese infantry how to undertake amphibious operations for some time but these army troops were not considered marines. The new plan is to establish an elite force of Japanese marines to deal with Chinese threats to Japanese territory. Japan is aware that neighboring South Korea created a Marine Corps in the 1950s, mainly because American marines were involved in protecting South Korea during the Korean War (1950-53) and the Koreans were impressed by the American marines. The South Korean marines turned out to be very good and the Japanese will have to hustle to be competitive.
The head of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet caused a stir recently when he openly talked about Chinese objectives and options in the Western Pacific. The scariest one had China seeking to obtain some bit of disputed territory with “grab and negotiate” tactics. The way this works the Chinese would quickly mobilize forces and seize some territory from South Korea, the Philippines or Japan or whoever and then offer to make peace. This can work, but is highly risky if you are facing a foe, like the Japanese, who are better trained, very determined and more experienced in naval operations. China denounced such talk but did not dwell on the fact that China has used such tactics in the past and Chinese openly discuss using it again in the growing number of offshore disputes with neighbors. In response, Japanese publish discussions of how they are going to cope and the U.S. announces that it will help. Meanwhile China continues to boost its defense budget. In 2014 China will spend nearly $150 billion, more than Britain, France and Germany combined. This is the result of a trend that began when the Cold War ended in 1991. Europeans began reducing defense spending while China began preparing to heat things up on the other end of Eurasia.
North Korea also got nervous about this American intelligence assessment because as North Korean forces decline in capabilities the Chinese forces get better and more numerous. The Chinese, according to many North Korean military experts, already has the capability to quickly take control of all or most of North Korea. In part this is because most North Korea military forces are massed in the south, near the DMZ and South Korea.
In North Korea the eccentric and free-spirited younger (25 year old) sister of Kim Jong Un, Kim Yojong, has apparently been persuaded to shape up and brought into the inner circle as a media specialist supporting her brothers image. Little sister helps schedule appearances and looks after how her brother is presented in the media. This is a Kim family tradition, of putting close family into jobs that directly support the supreme leader. Most of Kim Jong Uns siblings have proved unworthy, unwilling or both in this department. Until recently Kim Yojong was considered a lost cause, and she may still be suspect. Kim Jong Un needs all the allies he can get because he continues to fire or retire senior officials considered suspect.
In the north the big crackdown on illegal cell phone use near the Chinese border has turned around with the arrival of new detectors that have longer range and greater sensitivity. Moreover the government has brought in so many of the new detectors that they can monitor remote areas for anyone using a Chinese cell phone. For a while people were able to defeat the imported cell phone signal detectors by using an earpiece and walking around or cycling in a crowded areas. That is not working so well anymore. Those who are caught find the special secret police personnel brought in for this duty are willing to take a bribe most of the time, but not always. Information continues to get in from China and the world, just not as much or as frequently. The growing and continuing war on cell phone use is causing a lot more anger among many North Koreans this time around, something the secret police have noted and reported to their superiors. The secret police have also noted growing criticism of the young age of Kim Jong Un, his wife and his younger sister. All three are frequently in the news and people complain of the country being run by “children”. In East Asia people prefer their leaders to be elderly. Given the continuing economic woes and shortages (of energy and food) the growing quantity and intensity of the complaining is disturbing to those who run the country.
March 14, 2014: Responding to Chinese requests that North Korea resume talks about abandoning its nuclear weapons program, North Korea announced that it would proceed with its nuclear program. North Korea says it needs nukes to defend itself. China expressed displeasure at this response.
The U.S. Department of Defense released its annual assessment of the North Korean military. While describing the continued decline of the regular forces (from lack of food and money and falling morale) it was noted that the government has shifted resources to Cyber War activities, something that can be done with a lot fewer people and less cash. The nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program continues to get money and scarce resources. The North Koreans are apparently accepting the sharp decline in conventional combat power over the last decade and relying on nukes and Internet based attacks.
March 13, 2014: North Korea denied any involvement with the North Korean registered ship that recently fled the Libyan port of Es Sider with $30 million worth of oil that Libyan rebels are trying to sell illegally. North Korea pointed out that the ship was registered in North Korea in February for six months with the understanding that there would be no illegality involved. The ship is actually owned by a Saudi company and currently controlled by an Egyptian shipping company that is apparently trying to sell the oil on the black market and share the proceeds with the rebel militia that controls Es Sider. That militia was originally the security guards hired to protect the port. But a local militia leader persuaded the guards to seize control of the port last August. The government stopped paying the rebel guards and their leader has been trying to sell the oil stored at the port ever since to keep his little army together. North Korea has long been involved with shady deals like this and is apparently trying to distance itself from one that went off the rails.
March 11, 2014: The UN released a report detailing the North Korea use of its embassies to coordinate illegal smuggling. It used to be drugs but now it is mostly weapons. North Korea is using the financial and transportations connections used to run drugs to now move weapons. This report was possible mainly because China cooperated. China has applied pressure on North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program and by crippling its arms smuggling network has made a major contribution. Until the last year much of the North Korean arms smuggling went via China, where cargoes could be sent for shipment as something else via any number of container ships that come through China. North Korea can still do this, but it has to rely on bribes and unreliable Chinese officials to carry it out. Apparently the North Koreans don’t trust that approach and have been seeking other countries in which to “launder” their shipments to prevent interception at sea. That is not working out well with a growing number of shipments being detected and taken down.
March 9, 2014: North Korea announced that recent elections resulted in 100 percent of voters supporting Kim Jong Un. Voting against the government or just not voting can get you killed in North Korea. The secret police were told to ease up on the border crackdown (on cell phone use and escaping North Korea) in the weeks leading up to the election. But since then the crackdown has returned. People are still getting out, it just costs more time, money and risk of getting killed or imprisoned.
March 4, 2014: North Korea fired more long range rockets from coastal positions. Three were fired 55 kilometers out to sea from the east coast and then four more were fired 155 kilometers from a different kind of launcher. It is believed that these firings were in part to test a new mobile launcher. North Korea has several thousand of these long range rockets and many of them are old and need to be refurbished, used or taken out of service. That’s because the solid fuel rocket motors degrade with age as do other components. At a certain point these rockets become unreliable and even dangerous to their crews if used. North Korea can’t afford to refurb a lot of these old rockets, so firing some of them for propaganda purposes makes sense. Many of these firings go unreported in North Korean and foreign media.
March 3, 2014: Japanese and North Korean officials met (in China) for the first time since 2009. Actually there was some contact in 2012 in Mongolia between Red Cross officials from both countries. Then, as now, the main topic was Japanese citizens that North Korean agents kidnapped over the last few decades. The talks in Mongolia produced nothing except an agreement to continue the process later with more senior officials. That was aborted when North Korea announced the resumption of long range missile tests at the end of 2013. 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. Japan refuses to resume foreign aid, which North Korea needs, until the questions about the kidnapping program are answered. This has become a big issue in Japanese politics but the North Koreans refuse to cooperate.
North Korea released a 75 year old Australian Christian missionary it had arrested last week for promoting religion. The Australian man had left pamphlets promoting Christianity in a Buddhist temple in North Korea.
North Korea fired two SCUD ballistic missiles off the east coast. The missiles landed about 500 kilometers away.
February 27, 2014: North Korea fired four SCUD ballistic missiles off the east coast. The missiles landed about 200 kilometers away. This was the first time SCUDs had been fired since 2009 and were in violation of UN sanctions.
February 26, 2014: North Korea has asked the UN for help in dealing with an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease among the pigs North Korea depends on for much of its meat. It’s expensive to treat such outbreaks and even more expensive if you don’t (and lose a lot of animals).
February 20, 2014: There was another reunion between members of families who had been divided during the 1950-53 war. A 2013 reunion was cancelled at the last minute and the last one was held in 2010. In 2013 the north agreed to resume negotiating about how much food and fuel the south would pay for North Korea to allow 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 promised to be reasonable in how much food and fuel aid it would demand from the south to make another round of reunions happen.
February 16, 2014: In Egypt (Sinai, near the Israeli border) a bomb hit a tourist bus killing three South Korean tourists and the Egyptian driver.