In late May diplomats from the United States, South Korea, Russia, Japan and China met in Japan for a low key and informal meeting to discuss what to do about the North Korean nuclear program and the instability of North Korea in general. North Korea is refusing to discuss its nukes and the May meeting changed nothing. Meanwhile sources in Iran revealed that a North Korea technical delegation had recently visited and met with Iranian ballistic missile and nuclear experts.
North Korea confirmed that the head of the North Korean armed forces (general Hyon Yong Chol) was executed on April 30th. The reason given was that Hyon was found to have fallen asleep during a meeting presided over by Kim Jong Un. It was not confirmed that Hyon was executed using a ZPU 4 (a four barrel 14.5mm anti-aircraft machine-gun) in front of many senior officers. The Kims have often used unusual executions of senior officials to terrorize and encourage the bureaucracy that actually runs the country. Hyon was Defense Minister but that is not a particularly powerful job up there where the head of the Defense Ministry is mainly responsible for logistics and maintenance. Making public this execution has made the few hundred families that supply the senior leadership very nervous. This could be heard across the border in China where members of these families buy real estate and deposit cash in local banks, just in case. Noticing this the government ordered the military to release no further details of the execution and warn officers against spreading rumors.
The increased border security imposed since Kim Jong Un became the hereditary dictator in North Korea in 2011 has worked and the number of North Korean defectors reaching South Korea decline 52 percent (to 1,396) from the peak year (2,914 in 2009). This was accomplished with the cooperation of China. The total number of people escaping from North Korea has only declined about a third because far fewer are seeking to make it all the way to South Korea, which requires getting to a country, like Thailand, that has a South Korean embassy and local police who tolerate North Korean refugees arriving to visit the embassy for sanctuary and transportation to South Korea. For many escapees it is easier and cheaper to stay in China or go to some other country. China tolerates this as long as the North Korean illegals behave and, if caught, provide useful information about what is going on inside North Korea. While the cost of hiring a people smuggler to get you into China has doubled since 2011 there are a growing number of relatively wealthy people in North Korea (because of the legalized markets) and many of them are getting out. There are about 26,000 North Korea refugees in South Korea and about ten times as many in China and a growing number showing up, often illegally, in other countries. Over 70 percent of North Korean refugees living in South Korea are unemployed because of all the problems they have adapting. North Korea is run like a prison, with initiative and innovation (essential skills in the South Korean market economy) considered criminal behavior. The South Koreans were appalled when they began to note how ill-prepared North Koreans were to cope with freedom and democracy. Apparently many North Koreans have gotten the word as well. While more North Koreans are reaching South Korea (until recently, nearly 3,000 a year, versus about 500 a year in the late 1980s), most of them are women. Two decades ago less than ten percent of those reaching South Korea were women. But women are more adaptable and have an easier time finding a spouse in South Korea. For the North Korean men, South Korean society is actually quite hostile. Moreover, men are more closely watched in North Korea. South Korea is scrambling to find solutions to all this, but as they discovered when they studied the experience of East and West Germany reuniting, the culture shock was a generational thing. Those who were teenagers and younger could easily adapt but the older ones, who had grown up in communist East Germany, never fully adapted to life in a free market democracy. Unfortunately for South Korea, most of the northern refugees are not kids, but adults who have been conditioned to live in a police state and have chronic difficultly adapting.
Speaking of kids, parents in North Korea are alarmed at the increasing frequency of their children being questioned at school by security personnel concerning the behavior of adults in their family. In this particular the police are seeking out drug users or anyone involved with the thriving drug trade in the north. Drugs like opium, heroin and methamphetamine are manufactured by the North Korean government for export. These drugs are illegal in North Korea but some get into circulation anyway. Some methamphetamine is produced privately. It’s a dangerous way to get rich, as those caught doing this are executed, often after torture (to ensure they have revealed all they know). The government produces and exports these drugs in large quantities to obtain foreign currency.
Indicators are that popular unrest against the government up north is more common and that explains the greater and more public activities by the secret police up there. Propaganda efforts spend more attention to showing how hard leader Kim Jong Un is working to help the country. That message is diluted somewhat because Kim Jong Un has been putting on more weight in the last year. This is not good for a population that is often hungry and facing another year of bad harvests. The government doesn’t help by slowing down the implementation of promised economic reforms. The government apparently fears the growing number of families who are becoming wealthy by starting and running private enterprises. Historically such a commercial class has eventually been a threat to absolute rulers (be they socialist or royalist).
South Korea recently conducted a successful test of a locally made ballistic missile with a range of 500 kilometers. This enables South Korea to hit targets anywhere in North Korea with weapons (ballistic missiles) that North Korea is not equipped to stop. This test ends decades of restrictions on South Korean ballistic missile development. At this point the United States is no longer trying to restrict South Korean missile development. The South Koreans tried for over a decade to develop warmer relations with North Korea and all efforts failed. The 2010 North Korea attacks (using artillery and a torpedo than sank a warship) on South Korea changed a lot of attitudes in South Korea, and the United States. North Korea is still a big problem but now South Korea is free to try whatever it thinks will work.
South Korea has put nearly 7,000 people under medical quarantine in an effort to contain an outbreak of MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) a viral disease similar to influenza. South Korea becomes the first country outside Saudi Arabia to have an outbreak and so far 162 cases have been confirmed with a death rate of 12 percent. MERS was first discovered in 2012 among Saudi camels (and came to be called “camel flu”). As with most diseases like this MERS somehow got into humans (like the original flu thousands of years ago) and since 2012 nearly 700 Saudis have got it. Among Saudis the death rate was 40 percent. MERS cases have been detected in China, Sudan, United States and the Philippines so far but only in South Korea was it able to spread. In South Korea the government is getting a lot of criticism for not stopping the spread of MERS as was the case in other countries. MERS was first confirmed in South Korea in May. The Saudis have also suffered a lot of local and international criticism on how they have handled the matter. In response both Saudi Arabia and South Korea have responded more effectively. MERS spreads like the common flu, but not as quickly. It can be detected early and contained, as several nations have demonstrated. Since the only known source is Saudi Arabia (and possibly South Korea). Both countries are quarantining people who might have it and testing all people with the symptoms (similar to a bad case of flu). South Korea fears that North Korea may still be working on weaponizing diseases like MERS so that they spread faster and have a higher death rate.
Paranoia about the security of the Kim family is once more under review and being revised. This can be seen by reorganization of units and reassigning commanders. Some weaponry of military units that the Kim family frequently comes into contact with is being withdrawn. Thus one unit guarding a road frequently used by the Kims had its 14.5mm anti-aircraft machine-guns taken away. In another incident an explosives plant next to a rail line frequently used by the Kims was shut down. Many commanders of units have been transferred. This sort of thing has been going on since 2011, when a hundred troops from the Escort Bureau (the personal security force for the ruling Kim family) were assigned to the Chinese border. There, the Escort Bureau troops went after police and border guards who were taking bribes to allow people (and goods) to enter or leave the country. Previously, everyone sent to “clean up border security” has become corrupted. Those selected for the Escort Bureau are supposed to be the most loyal (to the ruling Kim family) and reliable. But given the extent of corruption in the upper echelons of the ruling class, members of the Escort Bureau were familiar with how their bosses get rich and powerful. For several weeks, the Escort Bureau men were the terror of the border region. But once their departure date approached, many of the Escort Bureau men began soliciting bribes. While the Escort Bureau troops had arrested many security personnel and civilians, they were still corruptible in the end. Thereafter the troops of the Escort Bureau were kept away from temptation and monitored more frequently by special secret police operatives selected for that duty. But now efforts to improve security for the Kims has become more public. This has been noticed inside North Korea as more photos appear in papers and on TV of leader Kim Jong Un meeting with members of the secret police and intelligence agencies.
Drought has been more common since the 1990s and it appears that another severe drought is underway. Professional weather forecasters believe that North Korea is faced with a record drought, the worst in over a century. The water shortages of the past few years have already caused a severe electricity shortages (because so much power comes from generators at dams). Since 2012 the generating capacity of these dams has sharply declined. That has reduced economic activity more each year. Thus trains (85 percent of them electrified) and factories are unable to operate, and farms producing less because irrigation pumps or farm machinery have no power. Nuclear and missile programs have priority on energy and cash for imports, but this is in short supply as well. This has led to a growing number of emergency measures. The hydroelectric shortages are worse in the cold weather, when reservoirs are at their lowest. The electricity shortages are worst in the northeast and are so bad this year that many trains are not running at all. It has gotten so bad that a major iron ore mine (a major source of foreign currency) was shut down putting thousands of miners out of work. Many of the unemployed have been ordered to “volunteer” to provide free labor to help out on farms during planting and harvesting. Same with many more city people. This farm duty has always been unpopular and incidents of open resistance are more frequent.
June 15, 2015: For the first time since 2012 a North Korean soldier defected by making his way across the DMZ without being detected and fired on by either side (and avoiding the landmines). He found his way to a South Korea guard post and surrendered. This was less embarrassing than the 2012 incident. Back then a North Korean soldier stationed 50 kilometers from the DMZ fled to the south by crossing the DMZ and asking for asylum. What the initial news reports did not mention (because the government kept it a secret for a while) was that the defecting soldier had crossed the DMZ undetected and then entered a military camp and had to pound on doors in two buildings just before midnight until he found someone to surrender to. The government ordered an investigation of how the security along the DMZ was run. There will apparently be another such investigation, on both sides of the border. Yet South Korean intelligence warns that there will be more such defections, and most will not succeed. Reports from North Korea indicate that morale is plunging in the armed forces and the government is imposing more punishments (often physical) on any real or perceived “insubordination.”
June 9, 2015: North Korea has ordered South Korean companies operating in the north to stop bringing in South Korean snacks as rewards for North Korean employees. This follows a 2014 ban of Choco Pies. These Choco Pies are a cheap (about 25 cents each in South Korea) chocolate covered vanilla cream filled cake snack in South Korea but for North Koreans they are a special treat. Not many sweets are available in North Korea and the Choco Pies (based on a similar popular World War I era snack in the American south) has been tweaked to appeal to Korean tastes. Each 30 gm (1.1 ounce) Choco Pie has about 125 calories. Choco Pies entered North Korea in large quantities after 2004 when the Kaesong Industrial Complex opened in North Korea. There, over a hundred South Korean companies set up shop and employed more than 50,000 North Koreans. The complex was as a place for South Korean firms to establish factories, using cheaper North Korean workers. The South Korean employers had to pass all worker compensation through the North Korean government and were forbidden to pay workers directly. The North Korean government wanted nothing to do with capitalist practices like better pay for superior performance. The South Koreans found that they could get away with giving snacks to workers as secret bonuses. Choco Pies were particularly popular because they brought the highest prices on the North Korean black market (a dollar or more per Choco Pie). The North Korean government was not happy with the popularity and growing availability of Choco Pies, which were a tasty reminder that life was better in the capitalist south. For decades North Korean propaganda had insisted that South Koreans were worse off. How was that possible if the southerners had all the Choco Pies they wanted. North Korea officials are not completely clueless and were persuaded to allow South Korean managers to give out other snacks from the south (sausages and chocolates are popular as are instant noodles). But this did not last. North Korea workers at Kaesong are not happy with the ban because North Korean snacks are considered inferior and southerners who have tried some of this stuff agree. There are frequently cases of food poisoning with North Korean snack foods.
June 4, 2015: China and South Korea signed a free-trade deal that will remove tariffs on 90 percent of goods traded between the two nations over the next 20 years.
June 3, 2015: Kim Yojong, the younger sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has been promoted to run the Propaganda Department. The previous director retired in April and it was unclear why it took so long to appoint a new head of this important organization. Kim Yojong is married to a senior government official who worked in “Room 39”, the department that looks after the Kim family finances. In early 2014 the eccentric and free-spirited younger (27 year old) younger sister was apparently persuaded to shape up and brought into the inner circle as a media specialist supporting her brothers image. Little sister helped 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 but she is apparently no longer considered suspect. Kim Jong Un needs all the allies he can get because he continues to fire, retire, imprison or execute senior officials considered suspect.
May 31, 2015: China again issued public threats against South Korea in an effort to halt the installation of an anti-missile system. South Korea wants this American THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system 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 threats 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). South Korea ignores the Chinese threat noting that China has done nothing to interfere with the profitable, and growing, trade between the two countries.
May 30, 2015:
South Korea and Japan agreed to resume sharing military information with each other. Such exchanges had been reduced over the last four years because of ancient animosities and continuing disputes over some uninhabited islands. Any form of military alliance has been delayed for years because of popular opposition in South Korea to any cooperation with Japan. The feeling is mutual. Recent opinion polls show 85 percent of South Koreans do not trust Japan and 73 percent of Japanese feel the same way about South Korea. Despite the threat both countries face from North Korea (and China) such cooperation has been difficult to implement because of continued Korean anger over 40 years of brutal Japanese occupation early in the 20th century. This the Japanese consider a self-destructive attitude as it wallows in the past at the expense of dealing with current and future threats. Yet Japan continues to ignore the fact that Japanese post-World War II policy (documented in decrypted Japanese diplomatic messages sent out right after the Japanese surrender in August 15, 1945) of claiming to be a victim in World War II and guilty only of trying to liberate all Asians from Western oppression is the obstacle was all a sham. That “Japan as victim” view was never very popular with Japan’s neighbors, who saw Japan as no better (and often a lot worse) than Western imperialists. To the countries of East Asia Japan compounds these historical sins by continuing to insist that Japan is innocent of any wrongdoing. This makes it more difficult for South Korea and Japan to unite to deal with threats from North Korea and China and the Japanese have resisted changing their attitude. Recently both South Korea and Japan agreed to compromise a bit and move on to deal with present and future threats.