Since Kim Jong Un took over in 2011 he has presided over some fundamental shifts in North Korea. He maintained the free market legalization his father had introduced and reversed his father’s “military first” policy. This means the Workers Party (a nationalist/socialist organization that runs the country under the supervision of the Kim family) is again running the military. This appears to mean that the military budget (a state secret) has been cut to provide money to boost the economy. Thus after nearly two decades of annual declines in GDP, the economy has been growing. South Korean economists and banks estimate that the North Korean GDP growth was .8 percent in 2011, 1.3 percent in 2012, 1.1 percent in 2013 and a similar increase for 2014. Many attribute this continued growth to a 2012 decision of officially recognize that those who produced more should get more. It was not legal to be economically successful before that change. Since then the government has realized that this rapidly growing entrepreneur class is a potential threat to the Kim dynasty. At the same time the Kims were aware that the wealth this entrepreneur class was creating was keeping the economy afloat. More attention is being paid to keeping the entrepreneur class under control without destroying their economic benefits.
From the beginning of his rule Kim Jong Un has showed more determination than expected. The most obvious example of that was how he has executed dozens of officials who he felt were not completely behind the new way of doing things. This included senior military leaders. Kim Jong Un is in the process of replacing many senior commanders with men he has more trust in. They replace men who either retired, were arrested or simply disappeared from view. All these changes produced more reports of hungry troops living in poorly heated barracks during the cold weather who now spend even more time on non-military activities (farming, construction, factory work or being rented to commercial firms for short periods). Thus recent calls for more “combat readiness” and “modern weapons” by Kim Jong Un are seen as purely propaganda. A growing number of troops who consider themselves uniformed slaves of the state for the now extended (for up to 12 years) period of conscription most males muse endure. A new law obliges all women to serve for a few years as well.
Kim Jong Uns brutal methods contributed to the recent UN investigation of North Korean labor camps, secret police and arbitrary executions ordered by the supreme leader. The UN declared this bad behavior crimes against humanity (but not genocide, as some had urged). Kim Jong Un dismissed all this as an American-sponsored plot to hurt North Korea. UN officials openly admit that it is unlikely the results of this investigation will have no immediate effect on North Korean behavior. But the report does make it more difficult for other countries to support North Korea in any way.
Kim Jong Un has also been unsuccessful at keeping South Korean culture out of the north. Most North Koreans now know much about South Korea and admire, or at least envy, the culture that is flourishing in the south. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that most North Koreans began to realize that the south was not, as decades of government propaganda had insisted, wretchedly poor but was in fact a much more prosperous and pleasant to live in. Over the next two decades more and more details of South Korean culture got to the north and with that a demand (from the people with any money, initially just the leadership class) for South Korean goods, including music and video. South Korean clothing, jewelry and even furniture became so popular that factories in China began turning out replicas to be exported to North Korea. That stuff has since been outlawed but some is still smuggled in. Kim Jong Un has increased efforts to keep South Korean artifacts out, realizing more than his father that these particular foreign influences could bring the government down. Meanwhile those allowed to travel regularly to China (traders, government officials and the like) keep a growing number of South Korean themed (or staffed) businesses going. China has refused North Korean requests to shut these enterprises down. China would prefer that North Korea be more like South Korea at least in terms of economic activity.
The growing use of soldiers for purely economic functions has coincided with the increased use of slave labor
as a source of
foreign exchange. This is basically the export of North Korean workers which in the last year has increased from 60,000 to 100,000 men and women. The government takes up to 90 percent of the wages these men and women earn outside the country (mainly in Russia and China) and holds the workers’ families hostage in case the worker does not return home when ordered. If someone does not come back, their families are sent to prison camps. For most of them this means an early and unpleasant death. For this reason most of the exported workers are older men with children. There are over 100,000 of these workers outside the country now, nearly triple the number used before since Kim Jong Un took over. Inside North Korea there is also a lot of slave labor in the form of prisoners rented out to firms. The most common source is the Labor Training Camps. These are for those sentenced to short (under six months) sentences for minor crimes. Usually these prisoners are rented out to work on construction sites or farms. In effect the profits from all this forced labor help to maintain the economic rewards program North Korean leaders have been depending on more and more to guarantee the loyalty and efficiency of the bureaucracy (managers, secret police and intelligence operatives) that keep the Kim family in power.
Officially the government still backs offensive military operations, even though the North Korean forces are less ready and their Cold War era weapons and equipment continue to serve because there is no money for replacements. Kim Jong Un attends well publicized military exercises for seizing South Korean islands near North Korea but this is all for show because each year North Korean troops grow less able to make such an attack while their South Korean adversaries grow more capable because of more and more new weapons and better trained troops.
Attempts to negotiate with North Korea over their nuclear and ballistic missile programs remain stalemated because Kim Jong Un is still seeking a high price for any sort of concession. North Korea continues to hold out for a major gift (size unspecified but apparently more than the United States and the neighbors are willing to pay) to get the north to shut down their nuclear and long-range ballistic missile programs. This is seen as such a threat that even China is getting more nervous about and more extreme in its threats to North Korea over the matter.
All this has been overshadowed (in Western media at least) by events in the Middle East. Despite the declining ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) prospects a recent opinion poll in the United States showed that 84 percent of Americans believe ISIL is the most serious threat over the next decade. International terrorism also has 84 percent of Americans concerned. Iranian nukes frighten 77 percent followed by North Korea (64 percent) and Russia (49 percent, actually a tie with the Islamic effort to destroy Israel). North Korea has to raise its PR and propaganda game if they want to regain their reputation as the biggest threat. The problem is that North Korea has been at this “we are badass, fear us” game for over half a century and a lot of their techniques have lost their punch. It’s bad enough being poor and unsuccessful, but to also be ignored is particularly painful to the North Korean leadership.
Some of North Korea’s effort to be badass are pathetic. For example recently leaked documents and admissions by the NSA (American National Security Agency) confirmed that that the United States had penetrated and clandestinely monitored North Korea’s Internet as early as 2010 and described how this led to determining that North Korea was indeed behind the recent hacking of the Sony Corporation’s computer networks. That North Korea was behind the Sony hack was long suspected. That the U.S. had long ago penetrated and was monitoring the North Korean networks was always thought possible, but there was never any proof.
Another example is the recent discovery that the website of the North Korean government owned and operated Korean Central News Agency was equipped to secretly plant (or try to plant) spyware on the PCs of people visiting the site. The infection code was set up so that the operators of the North Korean site could easily deliver different kinds of infections. This infection capability was apparently set up in 2012 and it is still unclear how many, if any, visitors were infected and exactly with what. Not everyone visiting the site would be infected when the North Korean system was rigged to deliver a payload to visitors because visitors with well-protected systems (like Internet security experts or anyone with a high-end antivirus system) would, at most, get an alert that this North Korea site was trying to infect them. It’s possible that the infection code was there as part of a training exercise for North Korean hackers. The code was not of the highest quality and looks like something student hackers might put together. Like just about everything else in North Korea the details of this hidden infection code are a state secret. So we have to wait for North Korea to collapse or for one of their hackers to defect to find out what is going on here. Whatever it is, it ain’t good but it ain’t very effective either.
February 15, 2015: North Korea officials have ordered security agencies to do whatever is necessary to keep copies of the new American film “The Interview” out of the country. This film angered North Korea a great deal and illegal copies quickly appeared all over China. It is believed copies of the film are already in North Korea but passed around very carefully because the government apparently intends to execute some of those caught with the film and send the rest to labor camps. In part that is because reaction to the film in China was overwhelmingly positive and North Korean officials fear the film will also be popular with many North Koreas. Most Chinese thought the film was hilarious and an instant classic. Some Chinese web sites translated the film title to “Assassinate Kim Jong Un,” which was an intentional dig at the North Koreans. A few Chinese government owned media “reviewed” The Interview and did not seem as pleased with the film as the average Chinese. One government controlled media reviewer described it as; “senseless cultural arrogance.” Interestingly the Chinese government did not order its Internet censors to crack down on these online messages discussing the film or try to interfere with the illegal distribution of The Interview inside China. All this angered North Korea even more because China is the only major ally North Korea has. But China has not been pleased with North Korea lately, especially North Korean development of nuclear weapons and long range ballistic missiles. The Chinese government knows the average Chinese is even less happy with North Korea and allowed this reaction to The Interview to play out in order to send a message to North Korea. This is a common way to send a message in East Asia and North Korea did not show any official displeasure at the disrespect. They got the message, even if they did not like it. North Korea is not pleased with the fact that the movie is apparently going to make money, but is much more upset at the message from China.
February 12, 2015: North Korea announced a new collection of inspirational slogans about improving the economy. Worsening fuel shortages meant that most North Koreans are cold and living in the dark and did not get this news immediately and had to wait until it was their turn to get some electricity to operate their radios (which, legally, can only be used to get state controlled news). It is believed that this news did excite most North Koreans but it is unclear how much of that excitement was increased optimism and how much was greater anger.
February 9, 2015: For the 18th time South Korea sent a warship (and some naval commandos) to join the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. These ships serve there for six months. Since South Korea began doing this in 2009 South Korean warships have rescued 31 merchant ships from pirate attack and escorted nearly 12,000 ships through these pirate infested water.
February 8, 2015: North Korea tested a new anti-ship missile which it boasted contained a new and very advanced guidance system. Students of North Korea military tech believe the reality is that the new guidance system in better than earlier ones which were considered barely adequate. The new one is considered more than barely adequate but not something anti-missile defenses on South Korean, Japanese and American warships cannot handle.
February 5, 2015: North Korea has ordered an investigation of the National Police in response to growing public anger at increased demands for bribes from police enforcing the crackdown on economic crimes, attempts leave the country, unsafe construction practices or use foreign cell phones. Some police have gotten greedy and routinely ask for more than the victim can afford to pay. This has led to some very public suicides to protest the actions of the greedy cops. The government has ordered provincial police officials to deal with this problem quickly, or else.
February 4, 2015: The Chinese Defense Minister visited South Korea and openly objected to South Korea installing the American THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system. South Korea wants this for protection from North Korean missile attack. The Chinese would not come right out and say it but they object mainly because THAAD would also make South Korea less vulnerable to intimidation by Chinese ballistic missiles. South Korea openly refused to comply with the Chinese request and South Korean public opinion became even more enthusiastic about the high tech and very expensive (over $100 million per launcher and associated equipment) THAAD system. China sees South Korea more of an ally of the United States and a potential wartime foe than as an ally in attempts to keep North Korea from doing anything that would cause major economic and diplomatic problems (like starting a war).