South Korea and diplomats everywhere are trying to figure out what the latest moves by North Korea mean. Always known for odd behavior, North Korea has outdone itself recently. It was not surprising when North Korea amped up the aggressive rhetoric, but this time around it was particularly nasty. North Korea called the South Korean president (the first woman elected to the job) a prostitute and related a racist diatribe against the American president (the first African-American in that position). Less surprising was the North Korean denial that the three UAVs found in South Korea recently were theirs, despite the compelling evidence linking them to North Korea. Also less surprising was yet another North Korean threat to attack the south. This was apparently prompted by unflattering responses from South Korean officials after hearing North Korean media calling the South Korean president names. One can only speculate why North Korea felt a need to resort to such nasty personal insults, but at the moment they are running short of any real or verbal threats they can send south that will have any impact. Some North Korea experts point out that the nationalist ideology that has been developed and promoted up there is actually based on racial purity attitudes that are common throughout East Asia. There is also a traditional disdain for women in leadership positions.
Meanwhile the North Korean government has halted food distributions except for the capital. For those who cannot buy food in the markets, and that means about a third of the population go hungry this time of year (in the months before the first harvests). The decision to cut food distributions to most ordinary citizens was made in late 2013. The distributions are not “free” food but usually the only payment many North Koreans get for weeks of hard labor during harvest season or to repair roads and other infrastructure after natural disasters or simply to maintain minimum standards for what little economy is left. Although the government has always boasted of “taking care of the people” that is increasingly not the case, yet people are still expected to take care of the government. Winter is over and the months of food and fuel shortages made a lot of people angry, as well as hungry and cold. Some members of the senior leadership can see where this is going and the orders cutting food and fuel for the poorest North Koreans are often being countermanded. Someone is paying attention, but many people at the top still ignore the suffering and believe their own propaganda, not what is actually happening at the local level.
Some military bases don’t have enough to eat, either because the food was not to be had or, as is more often the case, corruption (someone in a position of power stole it.) This leads to more soldiers stealing food from civilians or selling military clothing and equipment on the black market so they can buy food. Soldiers have opportunities to steal food and sell stolen goods when they are off their base doing construction or farm work. This is how troops spend a lot of their time and they receive no extra pay or food even when the outside work requires heavy (and calorie consuming) labor. All this is illegal, but commanders are not eager to punish hungry soldiers.
The campaign against fleeing the country has increased with a new policy of sending families of people who illegally left the country into exile. This is only happening in some areas, mainly those near the Chinese border. Defectors were detected during the 2013 elections. While the voting is a sham (only government approved candidates are allowed) it is mandatory and is used as an opportunity to find out who is missing. The government also rewards those who provide the names of people who have gone missing. Going into internal exile is often a death sentence as it means being sent to some part of the country with even less food and opportunities to earn money. For the elderly and infants it can be particularly hard. This new policy is intended to terrorize people into not fleeing the country. But for many that seems the only way for the family to survive. One member of the family working in China can send back enough money to keep the entire family alive, especially now that the food distributions are gone.
The secret police are also cracking down on smugglers and legal travellers to China because some of these people have been caught making additional money by providing information (on what is going on at the street level in North Korea and what current rumors are floating about and occasionally military or government documents.) News organizations and foreign intelligence agencies pay well for information, and even more for cell phone pictures and videos. But those caught can be charged with spying, which is a capital offence for the accused, and his immediate family.
Along the border the secret police are increasing their unannounced (often when no one is there) searches of homes. Usually nothing is stolen, but if any contraband is found the residents will be interrogated and often arrested. A new tactic is to covertly enter homes and plant a wireless listening device that can record conversations for a few days. If nothing incriminating is heard, the bug will be removed and placed in another home.
May 6, 2014: China denied recent Western news stories detailing leaked details of Chinese plans for coping with a collapse in North Korea. That said, all major nations have contingency plans (usually drawn up by the military) for likely emergency situations. So the Chinese denials have some basis in fact as contingency plans are not always recognized as official policy. But if something bad happens the Chinese leadership will call for possible solutions and the military will bring forward several contingency plans they have already prepared and let the boss decide.
May 3, 2014: South Korean political activists released hundreds of small helium balloons and let them drift north into North Korea. The balloons contain DVDs, one-dollar bills and pamphlets and leaflets providing accurate information on abuses in North Korea and life in South Korea. This sort of thing makes the North Korean government very angry and anyone caught with the cargo these balloons carry can be sent to prison camps.
South Korea is spending $1.3 billion to upgrade its three Patriot battalions to handle the PAC-3 anti-missile missile (and buy lots of PAC-3s). The current version of the original Patriot missile, the PAC 2, can be used against aircraft and short range missiles. The PAC-3 (MIM-104F) anti-missile missile can be used against longer range missiles. The PAC-3 missile is smaller than the anti-aircraft version (PAC-2), thus a Patriot launcher can hold sixteen PAC 3 missiles, versus four PAC-2s. A PAC 2 missile weighs about a ton, a PAC-3 weighs about a third of that. The PAC-3 has a shorter range (about 20 kilometers) versus 70 kilometers for the anti-aircraft version. PAC-3 can also take down longer-range ballistic missiles.
May 2, 2014: Satellite photos have detected North Korea testing large ballistic missile engines, of the type that would power a missile that could reach North America.
April 29, 2014: North Korea carried out another artillery exercise, firing about fifty shells into the ocean near the maritime border between north and south Korea. This time, none of the shells landed in waters claimed by South Korea.