Korea: Not A Good Time To Poke The Dragon


April 2, 2014: South Korea announced that two small (1.9 meter/six foot wingspan) UAVs found in the last week were definitely North Korean and used commercially available Chinese and Japanese components that any tourist could walk into a store and buy. One UAV was found March 31 st on one of the islands near the maritime border with North Korea. The other one was found south of the DMZ on the 24 th . The UAVs carried high resolution cameras that took pictures when over certain GPS coordinates. The photos found on one UAV included the presidential compound and some military facilities. The other one was photographing military facilities on the island. UAVs this small are hard to spot with radar if they come in very low (under 100 meters/330 feet). South Korea is now going to upgrade its aerial surveillance to handle this new (but not unknown) threat. Israel has a similar problem and has developed technology to deal with it. Since Israel sells a lot of military gear to South Korea, the Israeli solution may already have been offered. It not, it will be pitched now.  

The discovery of these North Korea UAVs is another example of why the North Korean armed forces may be large, they are not as powerful or effective as many thing. Take, for example, the North Korean Air Force. By number of combat aircraft it is the fifth largest in the world. The top ten air forces are U.S., China, Russia, India, North Korea, Egypt, South Korea, Pakistan, Japan, and Taiwan. These ten have about 60 percent of the combat aircraft in service. But while the U.S. has only 19 percent of the 15,000 combat aircraft in the world, they have a far higher percentage of the air combat capability. This becomes clear when you take into account the quality of the aircraft, pilots and support services. Thus just concentrating on who has the most of the latest aircraft does not tell the whole story. For example, Israel does not make the top ten because it only has 244 active combat aircraft while number 10 Taiwan has 286. But the Israeli aircraft are not only all updated (and sometimes enhanced) F-15s and F-16s, but Israeli pilots are the most well trained and combat experienced in the world. Israel has lived in a war zone for over half a century and its combat pilots know that being the best is a matter of life and death for themselves and Israel as a whole. So the 414 Egyptian combat aircraft put it at number six on the top ten list but decidedly beneath Israel when it comes to combat capability. If you adjust for aircraft, pilot and support quality the top ten is more like U.S., Russia, China, India, Israel, South Korea, Japan, France, Taiwan and the UK. Pakistan, Egypt and North Korea fall out of the top ten, depending on how you rate each nation’s qualitative characteristics. Moreover those adjustments for aircraft, pilot and support quality leave the U.S. with up to 50 percent or more of the combat capability instead of just 19 percent of combat aircraft. When you make these adjustments South Korea ends up with more than twice the air combat capability compared to North Korea.

Get Out Of Jail Free

North Korea is now requesting people in the capital to attend voluntary indoctrination sessions to help rid themselves of any “evil ideas” from South Korea. This includes the absurd idea that people live better in the south. The northern government is particularly afraid of religion and people returning from legal visits to China are now being questioned to see if they might have come in contact with the many Korean speaking Christians over there. If the interrogators suspect such contacts were made and the North Korean “victim” was contaminated the person is arrested and sent off to a labor camp to be cured (or die in process). On the positive side, any returned traveler who supplies useful information on “defectors” in China gets rewards (most frequently an unofficial “get out of jail free” promise for any future infractions.)

There are many more opportunities for getting into trouble. For example, as the planting season arrives it becomes obvious that the government has changed its policy on private use of land. Many factories are now allowed to lease out much of their farmland to individuals who can then raise crops and sell most of them in the markets. Factories and many government organizations (including the military) have long had farmland assigned to them where they were expected to raise all or much of the food their personnel required. Members of the organization “volunteered” to work the land in addition to their other duties. That did not produce a lot of food but privately worked land does. Policies like this are working, much to the dismay of hardline communists in the government. On the downside the new entrepreneurial class is more visible, with many new homes being built outside the capital and other cities. Other signs are government factories treating their workers better, including large pay increases, to prevent workers from seeking employment in the expanding market economy. The factory managers were surprised to discover that the higher pay and better treatment resulted in higher productivity by the workers. To many North Korean officials the market economy is a real mystery and most don’t know what to expect when they are forced to operate by market rules.

In some cases the growing entrepreneur spirit backfires. For example, officials are finding more government property disappearing. This includes part of buildings. It’s usually factories or other facilities that have been closed, but in some cases it is buildings that are still in use. Most of the time the “foraged” (as practitioners like to call it) material ends up in the market, but in some cases the stuff is used to comply with the latest government directive for a locality to help with a construction project and to supply some of the building materials.

March 31, 2014: Several hours of artillery firing began just before 1 PM off the west coast near the maritime border. This came a day after North Korea warned shipping and aircraft that there would be artillery firing out to sea off the west coast near the "Northern Limit Line". This is a maritime border that separates north and south Korea, as well as dividing valuable fishing areas. North Korea has tried to force the south to let the line move south (meaning more valuable seafood for the north), but the south has refused, and has a larger navy to make that work.

Stunts like firing artillery don’t change any minds down south, although South Korea took the warning seriously and had some 9,000 civilians on the islands in bomb shelters hours before the firing began. North Korean artillery on the west coast fired about 500 shells towards the maritime border. About a hundred landed on the South Korean side. South Korean guns (on an island just south of the maritime border) promptly responded and fired 300 shells back across the maritime border. This response happened more quickly (within an hour) than in the past.

North Korea had conducted artillery firing like this back in 2010 and 2011 and South Korea found it had to upgrade its command and control systems, contingency plans and troop readiness so that retaliation would be a lot quicker. All those upgrades were seen in action today. In particular, the military was able to eliminate the need to get permission from senior government officials before firing back. In the past the local commanders (who first detect the North Korean gun fire) had to kick the news upstairs and waited for permission to return fire. Today’s incident was also unique in that it was the first time (in a long time) that North Korea warned South Korea in advance that it was going to conduct “artillery training” and fire near the Northern Limit Line. Back in 2010 North Korea artillery actually fired on a South Korean island and inflicted casualties. This came months after a North Korean submarine sunk a South Korea corvette. North Korea would not take credit for that but South Korea brought up the sunken ship and displayed fragments of the torpedo that clearly indicated it was North Korean. There was no such violence this time around and South Korea believes it is because North Korea understands that post-2010 South Korean vows to strike back hard. The south did take precautions to avoid civilian casualties and people living in offshore islands were ordered to prepare for evacuation. South Korean warplanes were sent aloft and warships moved closer to the area. China apparently saw this as a very tense and dangerous situation and quickly issued a public call for calm. It’s not yet known what was said via private calls from Chinese to Korean (north and south) officials.  South Korea declared the incident over by 4:30 PM and allowed civilians to go home.

Making Nice With Japan

In China talks between North Korea and Japan ended on a positive note with North Korea agreeing to actually talk about kidnapped Japanese in future sessions. These were the first such talks 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 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 80s. 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 has never been 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. Now North Korea says it is willing to talk about cooperating.

March 28, 2014:  The UN voted to continue its investigation of North Korean crimes against humanity (in particular its own people.) North Korea protested but no one paid much attention to that.

March 25, 2014: North Korea fired two SCUD ballistic missiles off the east coast. The missiles landed about 400 kilometers away. This is the third time in the last month that North Korea has fired ballistic missiles like this.

March 24, 2014: North Korea fired at least 30 unguided long-range rockets off the east coast. North Korea usually fires a few of these rockets this time of year, but this time they fired a lot more, apparently to protest resent joint training between South Korean and American forces. Over the last three days North Korea has fired at least 88 rockets and missiles off the east coast. 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 and South Korean and American officials (both military and diplomatic) have learned to ignore all these firings because they don’t really mean anything and never did. North Korea has been doing this sort of thing for decades and it’s all about Information War, not more conventional conflict.

March 17, 2014: Some 32 kilometers off the coast of Cyprus two dozen U.S. Navy SEAL commandos used power boats to go from a U.S. Navy destroyer to a nearby North Korean tanker. Once aboard the tanker the SEALs quickly took control and arrested three Libyans the crew of 21 said had, in effect, hijacked the tanker and its $30 million cargo of stolen Libyan oil. There were no casualties and the tanker was taken back to Libya because Libya had asked the United States to help retrieve the tanker, which had fled Libya with the oil. The North Korean registered tanker fled the Libyan oil loading port of Es Sider early on March 11th and made it to international waters before Libyan Navy gunboats could catch up. The Libyan sailors were within their rights to board the tanker and retake it, but they were not trained to do so and there were apparently some armed men on the tanker. The tanker then moved towards Cyprus and Libya asked the Americans for some help. The U.S. dispatched a destroyer with SEALs on board and the American warship was soon following the tanker. The U.S. government agreed on the 16th to use SEALs to get the tanker back and the raid was carried out before dawn on the 17th.  It was feared that the tanker, which is actually owned by a Saudi company, was moving the oil to somewhere it could transfer the cargo to another ship or a port where it could be sold on the open market by brokers who specialize in finding buyers for stolen oil. Everyone makes some money in a deal like this, including the broker, the ship owner and 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 in August 2013. The government then stopped paying the rebel guards and their leader has been trying to sell the oil stored at the port ever since to keep his rebel group going. The government threatened to use force to stop moving oil out of the country illegally but after three months of trying the rebels finally got a tanker, loaded it with oil and sent if off to market. This bizarre situation began on March 5th when a 37,000 ton oil tanker flying the flag of North Korea approached the oil export port of Es Sider. The government warned this ship to go away, as the rebels holding Es Sider have been trying to sell the oil stored at the port all year and a government gunboat had chased away a Maltese tanker in January. The North Korean ship did not dock because the workers at the port were still loyal to the government and refused to assist in loading oil. The rebels required several days to find someone who would take care of doing the loading for them.  On March 9th the North Korean tanker finally docked at Es Sider and began loading oil. The government sent a gunboat and threatened to fire on the North Korean ship if it tried to leave with the oil. The tanker did finally flee to open water. On March 13th North Korea denied any involvement with the North Korean registered tanker. 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 helping to sell the oil. 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 16, 2014: China criticized the February UN report describing North Korean prison camps and UN requests for North Korean officials to be tried as war criminals because of the camps and related crimes. This Chinese opposition to the report means China will use its Security Council veto to block any action against North Korea. China is also trying to avoid revived criticism of recently closed Chinese camps. Back in 2008 the UN investigated and criticized the Chinese use of torture and prison camps, where millions of "disloyal" Chinese lived as slave labor. As much as China would like the world to think otherwise, China is still a brutal communist police state, with all the bloody baggage that goes with that.

March 15, 2014: In the north officials have begun warning market operators that the prices in their markets are now considered state secrets and cannot be shared with foreigners. The market operators were surprised at this because they regularly discuss prices of food on both sides of the border to help decide if they should import food from China. Perhaps the government wants to make life more difficult for smugglers. The government has long monopolized most foreign trade, but this move was mocked by most North Koreans as another sign that the national leadership is completely out of touch with reality. You can be executed for saying that out loud, but these things are commonly discussed in private. Another disturbing trend for North Korean leaders is the growing use of Chinese currency. North Korean traders long accepted foreign (especially Chinese or American) currency even though it is technically illegal. But what is happening now is that more and more North Koreans are abandoning the North Korean currency and using Chinese bank notes and coins instead. There’s always been a lot of Chinese currency near the border, but more and more of it is showing up. The government is reluctant to enforce a ban on Chinese currency because China is the last remaining source of so many things for North Korea and the Chinese are angry over the scams the North Korean government keeps trying to use against Chinese businesses and even Chinese government officials. It seems to be recognized that now would not be a good time to anger the Chinese any more than they already are. It’s not a good time to poke the dragon.

The North Korean general who went to Cuba in 2012 to arrange a weapons smuggling plan that went very wrong, has apparently been forced to retire. Some civilian officials involved with the highly secretive arms buying and smuggling program were apparently also dismissed (or worse). Back in February 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 got the ship released but 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 sent home in January. The North Korean ship has sent back to Cuba with a new crew. Illegal Cuban weapons were found on ship in July, 2012, during a surprise inspection. 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 North Korea built Chong Chon Gang, a 14,000 ton (DWT) vessel built in 1977.




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