Korea: Losing Hope In the North


July 12, 2015: Since 2013 North Korea has increased the pressure on corrupt officials, even executing leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle for stealing. There has also been a crackdown on any senior leaders who seem to lack loyalty or dedication. Thus a senior defense ministry official was recently executed for falling asleep in a meeting. A lot of these loyalty and corruption problems are the result of economic issues, which some North Korean leaders blame on China. That is made worse by China demanding that North Korea halt its nuclear program and follow Chinese advice (free the economy) to deal with the growing economic crisis. Turning up the heat on its unstable and increasingly troublesome neighbor has not worked. In late 2014 China told North Korea that it could no longer depend on automatic Chinese support if North Korea got involved in a war. China cut off various forms of aid but that did not change North Korean refusal to reform its economy and get rid of its nukes. Not only did North Korea refuse but increased its public defiance of China. What makes this really painful for China is that they are simply asking North Korea to improve their economy using what worked for China (which remains a communist police state). The death of Kim Jong Il in 2011 made Chinese style economic reforms more acceptable, but not in a big enough way. China continues to pressure the north to implement reforms and this fails because the North Korean government has split into reform and conservative factions, making change difficult to agree on. Despite all this China has made it clear to the world that North Korea is a Chinese responsibility and if the North Korean government collapses China, not South Korea, will pick up the pieces. South Korea does not agree with that, and this could be a big problem in the future. North Korean military power declines as lack of money for maintenance and training causes growing rot in the enormous force that has become too expensive to maintain properly.  South Koreans are growing tired of the madness that still reigns in the north, and have, for the first time in over half a century, promised retaliation if the north fires again like they did in 2010. This could lead to war, especially since North Korea sees this threat as, well, a threat. Meanwhile, it's become clear that political collapse in the north is now a matter of when, not if.  Growing popular unrest in the north is more evident with each passing month.

In North Korea the secret police regularly monitor public opinion by collecting and analyzing “chatter” they and intelligence agencies are picking up from interrogations, informants and eavesdropping. Recent reports show most North Koreans are unhappy with leader Kim Jong Un spending so much time promoting the military. The people know this means less resources for things like farming, power supplies and infrastructure. Thus the majority of North Koreans join the rest of the world in their opposition to the expensive North Korean efforts to develop ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Another growing source of popular unrest is the forced contributions to propaganda projects. A major gripe here is Kim Jong Un ordering over 400 new statues and mosaics built to honor his predecessors grandfather Kim Il Sung and father Kim Jong Il. There are already 35,000 statues and monuments like this in North Korea and these representations of the two deceased rulers are considered sacred. Since Kim Jong Un came to power it has been discovered that construction and maintenance of these monuments are now considered fair game by corrupt officials. For true-believers in the North Korean leadership this is a shocking development. For most North Koreans it is kind of expected. The old value system, inculcated by decades of relentless Kim-worshipping propaganda, is collapsing. The crux of the problem here is that people are expected to contribute (for free) labor, materials and food (for the workers) for monuments being built or maintained in their area. There is growing resistance to these obligations and the secret police fear the resistance will eventually start turning violent.

The northern government is also alarmed at the growing number of violent incidents where groups of people resist unpopular actions by the police. This is most frequently happening in the legal markets, where the police often seize goods (for real or imagined infractions) or demand bribes from merchants. In an effort to deal with this the government has banned men under age 60 from legally selling in the markets. Younger men are still legally allowed to provide support services, like transportation of goods, setting up stalls and joining in when the largely female vendors get in a violent dispute with the corrupt police.  

Analysts in South Korea are coming to believe that the northern leadership no longer has any desire to conquer the south via another invasion but is now in survival mode. At 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. Many South Korean analysts believe the “conquer the south” goal was quietly abandoned in the 1990s when Russian subsidies disappeared, starvation killed 5-10 percent of the population and too many things changed. The North Korean military has been falling apart since the 1990s and their ramshackle nuclear program has apparently not produced a reliable weapon. There is the growing realization that the secret police, the last line of defense, is becoming corrupt and unreliable. South Korean military planners are spending more time looking into how restore order in the north after a rebellion or simply a government collapse. In the last two years Kim Jong Un has replaced most of the senior military leadership with younger men. It has been noted that most of these new men seem to have been selected more for loyalty to Kim than for any useful military skills.

In South Korea the big problem with the military is corruption in procurement. This is an ancient problem throughout the region. Until the last decade, such corruption was much less common in the north. But now there has been several years of serious and productive efforts to reduce the defense procurement corruption in the south. In the north there is much less defense procurement to plunder but there are ways for officers and troops to abuse their power for personal gain and there is a lot more of that.

South Korea believes it has the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome, a viral disease similar to influenza) outbreak under control. China is not so sure. In late June the first Chinese patient of MERS was released and returned home to South Korea. The man entered south China via Hong Kong in late May after catching MERS in South Korea. He fell sick in China and was quickly diagnosed and treated before he could spread the disease. South Korea was not as lucky or efficient and had to put over 7,000 people under medical quarantine in an effort to contain an outbreak of MERS. South Korea becomes the first country outside Saudi Arabia to have an outbreak and so far 186 cases have been confirmed with a death rate of 19 percent. North Korea is particularly alarmed about MERS because they have a much less capable public health system. But North Korea does have an efficient police state and to deal with MERS travel within North Korea has been severely restricted along with travel to China. Border control has been tightened for all traffic coming in from China. The few official visits to South Korea are being cancelled. MERS has been known of since 2012 when it was found in 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 heavily criticized for not stopping the spread of MERS (after it showed up in May) as was done in other countries. The Saudis also received a lot of local and international criticism over how they have mishandled the matter. Both Saudi Arabia and South Korea eventually 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). In light of the MERS crisis South Korea made it easier for foreign visitors, especially tourists from Asia, to visit. The outbreak of MERS has caused tourist traffic to South Korea to decline by over 50 percent compared to last year.

The MERS travel restrictions in the north uncovered another problem, a growing number of drug addicts who have been travelling (often illegally) to obtain supplies, usually of methamphetamine. Drugs like opium, heroin and methamphetamine are manufactured by the North Korean government for export to obtain foreign currency. These drugs are illegal in North Koreans but some get into circulation anyway. For a long time some methamphetamine was produced privately but in the last few years there has been a crackdown on this, especially the smuggling from China or Russia the raw materials for making meth. Making meth was a dangerous way to get rich, as those caught doing this were frequently executed, often after torture (to ensure they have revealed all they know). Like every other recent crackdown this one eventually succumbed to bribes, which tend to rise until security officials are tempted to risk everything to become rich.

July 11, 2015: On the DMZ (80 kilometers north of Seoul) a group of North Korean troops were observed crossing into the DMZ (apparently to check the state of a sign) without permission. South Korean troops fired warning shots and the North Korean soldiers promptly retreated without returning fire. This was the first such incident this year. Both countries have been more active in patrolling the DMZ in the last few years and the North Koreans have become less aggressive. Prior to this incident it was common for both sides to exchange fire during these accidental intrusions. 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 became public knowledge over the last few years. Now both north and south are monitoring the DMZ more diligently.

July 10, 2015: North Korea announced the appointment of a new Defense Minister. The last one was executed in April for falling asleep in a meeting presided over by Kim Jong Un. Such harsh discipline was not unusual as Kim Jong Un has, since he assumed power in 2011, ordered the execution of nearly a hundred senior officials. Most were killed for incompetence, corruption or disloyalty to the new boss. Some were guilty of more than one of these transgressions. In contrast Kim Jong Uns’ father, Kim Jong Il only executed ten senior officials during his first years in power. The difference appears to be the result of growing and unrest among the population. There is also more concern among the senior officials who run the country. Since 2000 there have been nearly 1,400 executions in North Korea, mostly for economic crimes. Since the 1990s crime has become more common and the police are not able, or willing, to halt this. In fact, it’s increasingly common for police to be caught committing criminal acts. There is also a lot more corruption and general misbehavior up there since the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism in general shocked the North Korean leadership and eventually became known to most North Koreans (who are still trying to sort it all out).

Efforts to curb corruption and disloyalty in the senior leadership has led to widespread wiretapping of phones in homes of senior officials. This was very rare in the past but is now common. Some officials have been seen sending their older children to live outside the capital, lest the kids say something on the phone that gets themselves or their parents in big trouble (as in executed or sent to a labor camp.)

July 9, 2015: A South Korean officer has been arrested and accused of passing secrets (on a new warship) to China. This took place between mid-2013 and February 2015. Apparently North Korea did not get any of this secret data. The arrested officer was befriended and recruited by a Chinese intelligence operative while studying in China.

July 1, 2015:  The drought in North Korea became less of a catastrophe because the monsoon rains in June were near normal. There is still a serious water shortage and it is so bad in some places that rivers suffering from an advancing “salt line” (the point in a river that empties into the ocean where the water is no longer salty). As the salt line moves upstream because of severe drought, farmers can no longer use the water for irrigation (because of the salt content). Same problem with drinking water, although that can be trucked in.

June 25, 2015: This is the 65th anniversary of the start of the Korean War (1950-53). There is a lot more activity commemorating this in the north than in the south but this year the secret police came across a disturbing new development. A growing number of North Koreans, especially elderly veterans of the war. Are openly questioning the official North Korean line that the war began with a South Korean invasion of the north. For years that has been a growing number of North Koreans openly questioning this, partly because of the growing amount of South Korean media getting smuggled in and elderly North Koreans losing their fear of the secret police (who are reluctant to go after “old veterans” for illegal thought and speech). Now younger North Koreans are believing and repeating these dangerous interpretations of history. The danger is that the harsh rule in North Korea is partly justified to get ready for another round of “South Korean aggression.”

June 23, 2015: North Korea sentenced two South Korean men to life in prison for attempting to overthrow the government. The two had apparently snuck in to deliver religious and other “subversive” material. This sort of thing is vigorously discouraged in the north.

June 22, 2015: In North Korea supreme leader Kim Jong Un ordered military personnel to address civilian politely at all times and for officers and NCOs to use less profanity and violence when addressing or criticizing subordinates. Kim is paying a lot more attention to the troops because things are not going well in the military. Over the last few years the military has been forced to cut the amount of food soldiers receive and this has resulted in more troops sneaking out at night and stealing corn or rice from nearby farms when it is near harvest time. The troops will often steal whatever they can get their hands on, especially when it comes to civilians.  




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