Korea: Hardship At The Top


September 16, 2014: The North Koreans are increasing curbs on foreigner use of their electronics, especially cell phones. North Korea is also trying to persuade foreign embassies to stop using powerful wi-fi systems in their embassy compounds. Many embassies have taken to installing powerful wi-fi systems that can be easily used by nearby North Koreans. These wi-fi routers are set up so they do not need a password. Embassies do this on purpose to allow news of the outside world to get into North Korea via an uncensored Internet link (usually via a satellite link). The North Korean government has only recently allowed some access to the Internet but has now banned its citizens from using these open wi-fi connections. Enforcement will be a challenge because in early 2014 North Korea expanded Internet access and computer use for students and trusted members of the population. Most of North Koreans 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 only. Discussion on Bright 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.  This makes the free embassy wi-fi networks dangerous. There have been several instances of wealthy North Koreans moving to neighborhoods with an embassy wi-fi network just so they, and their kids, could have access to the web outside of North Korea. In particular North Koreans want access to the growing number of Korean language websites, most of them in South Korea.

The government is trying to limit all forms of foreign “contamination.” As part of this effort the number of North Koreans allowed to visit China is down sharply (by more than 80 percent) compared to last year. This is part of an effort to curb defections, especially by “trusted” North Koreans doing so via legal permission to leave for a visit. One prominent example of what the north is trying to prevent is a recent North Korean defector, Choi Kun Chol. He brought with him more details on how the North Korean dictatorship keeps its leadership happy by raising foreign currency and using it to buy and smuggle in consumer and luxury goods. Choi noted that the foreign currency earning schemes were often illegal and the North Koreans working on them were told that the money earned was being used for the public good. When Choi discovered what all this foreign currency was really buying he decided to flee. Defectors like Choi worry the North Korean leadership a great deal.

A t this point the few percent of the population that runs North Korea are beginning to worry more about basic survival, rather than getting a new iPod or flat screen TV. But these fears are have not been widespread enough to cause any changes in policy. That is slowly changing as more people like Choi get out and go public with what they witnessed or participated in. S ales of weapons technology is the major source of foreign currency. This has been known for over a decade and foreign nations have been pushing back. By 2007 North Korea wa s visibly angry about the increasing trade sanctions by Japan. In retaliation the government has declared that all Japanese goods must be removed from the capital and major cities within three years. Th at mean t no Japanese cars, appliances, food products and, in general, anything that would be seen in public. The shortage of Japanese luxury goods wa s a big deal with the wealthy party and military elite because Japanese cigarettes were particularly popular, and addictive. Most cigarettes cost about fifty cents a pack, while Japanese brands usually cost nearly four dollars. Because of the 2007 decree you c ould not get the Japanese stuff at any price, and lot of well off North Koreans were not happy. More recently there was a similar banning campaign against South Korean goodies.

Although GDP has increased by 25 percent in the last decade, most of that increase went to the military and the few thousand families that run the country. They have Western gadgets, new cars and impressive homes (visible on Google Earth) outside the capital. Inside Pyongyang there is a lot of new construction, including stores selling luxury goods. In the rest of the country all you see is a poorly maintained slum with frequent electrical blackouts and growing shortages of fuel for heating and transportation. The GDP growth comes largely by allowing Chinese firms to operate mines and factories, using cheaper North Korean labor. The government seizes most of the profits from this increased economic activity, leaving most North Koreans with less than they had a decade ago. This has caused growing unrest, including anti-government graffiti (unknown a decade ago) and more people fleeing to China and from there to South Korea with details of the hell up north. China has been urging North Korea to allow economic freedom, as China did in the 1980s. But many in the North Korean leadership believe this would lead to revolution and catastrophe for them. The U.S. and many other aid donors h ave told North Korea that they will only resume food aid if the north will allow foreign officials to monitor the distribution. American f ood aid was halted in 2009 when North Korea expelled these observers. North Korea had been increasingly selling food aid to raise cash for imports (of weapons and luxury goods). The north cannot do this with observers present and refuses to back off on this policy.

The economic sanctions against North Korea have changed over the years to target the leadership. This has not worked well because China refuses to participate. Thus Chinese firms do a brisk business supplying several hundred thousand families that comprise the North Korean ruling elite with luxury goods. This has created a theme park atmosphere in parts of the capital. In these areas there is modern high rise housing and stores offering lots of North Korean food and goods plus some foreign items. But only the wealthy can afford it and the government built luxury housing is for trusted government officials only. Many of the recreational facilities are for authorized users only and appear to serve as places for foreign tourists to gawk at momentarily as they continue their tightly scripted visits to North Korea.

The economic sanctions continue to have a negative impact on the superior lifestyle of the ruling elite in North Korea. This can be seen in recent reports from China indicating that North Korean agents are now buying luxury Chinese goods because they can no longer afford to get more expensive Western items. At the same time the north is trying harder to detect and seize money being smuggled in from North Koreans who escaped and are now living, and prospering, elsewhere. This money is headed for the family members they left behind. A network of Chinese and North Korean entrepreneurs handles this dangerous, but lucrative, task and the government knows that word gets around about this sort of thing. Moreover the government keeps the foreign cash it seizes, and even rewards those secret police agents responsible for the seizure.  

All this traffic is not one way. South Korea is alarmed at the increase in North Korea infiltration attempts (by agents, Internet hackers or UAVs) into South Korea. Since 1953 (the end of the Korean War) South Korea has recorded over a thousand infiltration attempts by sea (often using small subs built just for that task) and over 700 by air (using aircraft and pilots selected and trained for delivering agents). There have also been a growing number of infiltration attempts across the theoretically impassable (because of all the mines, sensors, barbed wire and guards) DMZ (the five kilometer wide DeMilitarized Zone that stretches across the peninsula and marks the border between north and south Korea). The permeability of the DMZ was long known to intelligence officials but now it is becoming public knowledge and that is causing problems in the south. This is especially true with latest form of intrusion; via the Internet. Currently the South Korean military and intelligence agencies are making a big deal about all this infiltration and pointing out that better sensors and the North Korean use of the Internet for spying makes it easier to detect and count intrusion attempts. South Korea is detecting and catching (and sometimes turning into double-agents) more of these North Korean spies inside South Korea. More North Korea intelligence officials are getting out of North Korea and defecting to the south with details of past intrusions. In return for sanctuary they have to provide inside information that is verifiable and this stuff is not only true but scary. The defecting agents revealed a lot of North Korea intel efforts the south was never even aware of.

Years of economic decline, growing corruption and persistent government mismanagement have also created a health crises in North Korea. This is the main reason so many young males are physically unfit for military service. The health problems arise in many different ways. For example electricity shortages, especially in the warm weather months, plus years of not being able to afford maintenance on water and sanitation systems has led to a sharp increase in diseases of the digestive tract. Hemorrhagic colitis, an often fatal disease of the intestines, is more common and many victims cannot afford the antibiotics that can cure it. The public health system rarely has antibiotics and patients must supply their own, if they can afford it. The corruption has led to the appearance of a lot of counterfeit (and ineffective) medicines, especially antibiotics. The result of all this is that in some parts of the country as many as 20 percent of the population comes down with intestinal diseases and there have been many deaths. The government won’t say how many, or discuss the situation much at all.

September 15, 2014: A South Korean fisherman working near Baengnyeong Island (off the west coast near the maritime border between the two Koreas) found large pieces of a UAV in his net. These items were similar to the three North Korean UAVs found in South Korea earlier in 2014. These UAVs were eventually identified as the commercial Chinese SKY-09P. This model UAV is sold to non-government users throughout China. North Korea bought some and modified them with a new paint job (to make it harder to spot), a muffler (to make it less detectable) and installed a different camera. The SKY-09P was used via its robotic mode, where the SKY-09P flew to pre-programmed GPS coordinates, taking digital photos over selected areas. The SKY-09P is a 12 kg (26 pound) delta wing aircraft with a wingspan of 1.92 meters (6.25 feet), a propeller in the front and a payload of three kg (6.6 pounds). It is launched via a catapult and lands via a parachute. Endurance is 90 minutes and cruising speed is 90 kilometers an hour. North Korea denies any knowledge of this and insists that the evidence was fabricated by South Korea to make the north look bad.

September 14, 2014: In North Korea a court sentenced an American to six years in prison for hostile acts against North Korea. The man arrived in April as a tourist, tore up his visa at the airport and demanded asylum. It’s still unclear what this fellow’s motives were. Two other American visitors were prosecuted for religious reasons (trying to spread Christianity in the north).  One of these has already been sentenced to prison and the third is awaiting trial. The north has arrested visiting Americans in the past and obtained economic or diplomatic concessions from the United States in order to get these Americans free. That apparently no longer works since Americans will still get to North Korea even if it is illegal and North Korea will arrest some of them if they think something can be exchanged in return.

September 6, 2014: North Korea fired three more unguided rockets into waters off the east coast. This was meant to try and disrupt the annual harvest festival tomorrow. Firing the rockets meant South Korea had to put some of its troops on alert. North Korea is actually doing fewer of these annoying stunts lately and is actually trying to be nice. The North Koreans go about Nice differently. While the harvest festival is celebrated in both Koreas it is less popular in the north because of the frequent use of cremation instead of burial. An important part of the harvest festival is visiting the graves of your ancestors and in the north most of the harvests since the 1990s have been very disappointing leaving little to be festive about.

September 4, 2014: Two South Korean soldiers died during training. The two sergeants were participating in a type of training (how to resist interrogation and bad treatment after being captured) that has long been used in the West but was only recently introduced in South Korea. These two deaths reignited a national campaign to curb brutality in the military. These two deaths did not, technically, have anything to do with the traditional mistreatment of conscripts because the victims were career soldiers. The earlier outrage has caused change. The head of the army resigned recently because of well publicized incidents of brutality towards conscripts. The public outrage at this was more intense in 2014 because the army had assured everyone that the problem was being fixed. For example, back in 2011 South Korea adopted a bunch of new rules and procedures that were meant to decrease the bullying and violence in the military. These practices were inherited from the Japanese during World War II (where many Koreans were conscripted for support jobs). For a long time, the rough atmosphere in the barracks was tolerated because it appealed to the macho attitude common among South Korean men. But most of the troops are still conscripts, and parents, and their conscripted kids, are no longer tolerating all the violence. Since the 1990s there has been growing pressure to curb the culture of brutality and the latest conscript deaths were more of a media issue because the army leaders are now accused of lying to the government about how the brutality issue was being addressed.

September 2, 2014: In the wake of a media event where three Americans imprisoned in North Korea appeared on North Korean TV appealing to their government to help them, the U.S. said it would do all it can. That won’t be much because North Korea is basically running an extortion scam here.  

August 29, 2014: A senior North Korean banking official (Yun Tae Hyong) defected to Russia, apparently taking with him nearly $5 million in foreign currency from a fund used to buy foreign goods for senior North Korean officials. This operation is called Office 39 and a number of officials connected with it have been prosecuted for corruption since current leader Kim Jong Un took over. It is assumed that Yun promised the Russians lots of inside details of the North Korean government in return for asylum.

August 25, 2014: South Korea launched the fourth new FFX frigates. In early 2013 South Korea commissioned its first FFX frigate. These are 3,200 ton ships and are each armed with a 127mm gun, eight anti-ship or cruise missiles, three torpedo tubes, a RAM anti-missile launcher and a Phalanx anti-missile gun system. There is space aft for two helicopters. The ships are highly automated, requiring a crew of only 140. Top speed is 61 kilometers an hour. Range is 8,000 kilometers. Most of the equipment (including electronics) and weapons is locally built. South Korea plans to build at least fifteen of these ships. The first six are all to be in service by 2015. The first ship in the class, the Ulsan, cost over $110 million. South Korea hopes to export the FFX to many navies who want a quality, low cost, warship.





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