Korea: The Kids Are Not Alright


October 20, 2015: North Korean secret police have always monitored the attitudes of the population and they have been reporting a very disturbing phenomenon; the generation that grew up with access to South Korean culture (video and audio recordings) has no respect for the North Korean leadership. This has happened despite several efforts to provide children with additional “instruction” (mandatory pro-Kim propaganda classes). The kids shrugged off the lessons and the extensive secret police monitoring (Internet, phones) and informant network reported more and more disdain and contempt for the leadership among the next generation. This is a very disturbing development because it never happened before and appears incurable. It has gotten so bad that many kids are adopting (at least among themselves) a South Korean accent and have learned how to write in the South Korean style. This has been particularly alarming when some of these kids leave graffiti in public areas. This is another growing sign of disloyalty. The government knows that this lack of enthusiasm for the Kims makes it easier for foreign countries (especially China and South Korea) to recruit spies and persuade young North Koreans to illegally emigrate from their homeland. These bad attitudes could also lead to that which is never spoken about openly; revolution.

In South Korea there’s a similar, but different, problem with the kids. There it has become increasingly popular to avoid conscription. The most recent example of this can be seen in the growing number of South Koreans giving up their citizenship to avoid military service. Some journalists did the math and realized that in 2014 over 4,000 South Korea young men gave up citizenship, and any obligation to serve in the South Korea military. It was estimated that since 2010 over 16,000 young men had used this method to evade military service. The number of young men using this dodge is on the increase. Someone else also did some digging and discovered the older methods of draft dodging had been around for a long time, as nearly ten percent of senior elected officials (who were eligible for the draft in the 1990s or earlier) had evaded military service one way or another. It was also noted that young men from affluent families had similar rates of evading service.

The north and south also share popular unhappiness about the cost of maintaining a state of war for over 60 years. In the south it is possible for the much larger economy to afford an all-volunteer military, but voters reject the cost (under $10 billion a year) and are generally reluctant to spend more on defense in general. This despite the obvious (a least according to North Korean propaganda) threat. In the north the economic burdens are greater and the government there is getting more reports of opposition to forced labor and compulsory payments for more statues of the Kims as well as spectacular celebrations of the government. For example the recent 70th anniversary of the Kim dynasty (officially the Korean Workers’ Party’s 70th Anniversary Foundation Day) is estimated to have cost over a billion dollars and the population was forced to cover that with a lot of free labor and special taxes. The government allows local officials to keep a portion of taxes they collect for the national government but the secret police report that local bureaucrats are becoming more entrepreneurial and inventing new fees or simply demanding bribes from the new entrepreneurs. The legal market places have become a popular grazing spot for bureaucrats, police and even secret police (who are supposed to be immune to such temptations).

The secret police also report that the entrepreneur class (called donju) are getting organized. This is all informal of course because it is illegal for anything resembling a rival political party or unauthorized trade organization to form. But the wealthy donju are definitely in touch with one another and most of these mega donju have many lesser donju as business associates and followers. This sort of thing caused problems for European monarchs centuries ago, especially after the industrial revolution, but this sort of thing is much less of a problem in China. That’s because China brought more of their entrepreneurs into the government and was much less of an obstacle to economic growth by entrepreneurs. Adopting Chinese methods is still unpopular with the North Korean leadership and China keeps reminding North Korea that ignoring the obvious will not end well.

Despite the potential risks of the donju class the current Kim (Kim Jong Un) has encouraged market economy activity if it directly benefits his government. Thus the economy (GDP) is now growing, especially if you include the illegal (and difficult to count) economic activity. As welcome as this is to most North Koreans there is still the problem with comparisons with South Korea, where the average citizen makes at least fifteen times more than the average northerner.

In North Korea the government has found itself facing growing shortages and one in particular involves the secret police (mainly the Ministry of People’s Security and the Ministry of State Security). With the increasing corruption among the police and bureaucracy the secret police are increasingly being moved around from one crises to another. That means none of these other problems is really taken care of. Case in point is the growing use of illegal drugs in North Korea. Stuff like opium, heroin and methamphetamine (“meth”) are manufactured by the North Korean government for export to obtain foreign currency. These drugs are illegal in North Korea but some get into circulation anyway, especially meth. For a long time some meth was produced privately but after 2012 there was crackdown on this, especially the smuggling from China or Russia of the raw materials for drugs like making methamphetamine. Breaking bad by making meth was always 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 by ignoring meth labs. Meth use is now growing out-of-control, especially along the Chinese border. That’s where most of the outlaw meth producers are and most of their meth is smuggled into China and Russia, but there is so much being turned out that some is distributed locally. The Chinese border area has become bandit country for other reasons despite the current secret police emphasis is on keeping people from leaving. Things, especially drugs and the larger bribes they deliver, tends to make the police less effective. 

October 17, 2015: North Korea officially rejected American calls for further negotiations over North Korean nuclear weapons and instead demanded a peace treaty with the United States and a lifting of sanctions. Technically the U.S. and North Korea are still at war as the 1950-53 conflict ended with a ceasefire agreement not a peace treaty.

October 15, 2015: The U.S. officially turned down a South Korean request to sell it technology essential for the planned South Korean KFX jet fighters. For a decade now South Korea has been trying to assemble the cash, technology and export orders so they can start building an F-16 type jet fighter; the KFX. This was part of an effort to create South Korean military aircraft development and building capability. The problem has always been cost and a lack of partners. The latest such problem is the refusal of the United States to transfer several key military technologies so South Korea can build its KFX. This is because of American security concerns, as East Asian nations (like Japan several times in the past) have proved vulnerable to China spies obtaining key military technologies. Not just the specifications but the more difficult to obtain details of actually manufacturing such tech. Most of the technologies the U.S. will not give South Korea access to are only available from a few sources, or only the United States. Another reason for continued KFX delays is that several studies by South Korean analysts have shown that the KFX would cost up to twice as much as a top-of-the line model of the F-16 bought from the United States. Critics point out that Japan made the same mistake in the 1990s when they decided to develop and build a similar (to the KFX) aircraft; the F-2. It cost twice as much as an imported F-16 (or even one built in Japan under license) and was justified (unofficially) as a way to provide lots of good jobs. The F-2 did little to aid exports because Japan cannot, by law, export weapons. 

October 11, 2015: North Korea issued warnings to those living on the Chinese borders that there were new rules for associates and families of those who successfully get out of the country. Anyone who helped someone escape will be executed and the families of those who get out will go to labor camps, where many will die of starvation and bad treatment in general. Unofficially this means the cost of bribes to get out has just gone up.

October 10, 2015: North Korea put on a big show for Korean Workers’ Party’s 70th Anniversary Foundation Day. In addition to a huge parade in the capital there were hundreds of smaller events. Everyone was under orders to be happy, or at least appear enthusiastic.

A senior (number five in the top leadership) Chinese official arrived in North Korea to hold four days of talks with his North Korean counterparts. This is expected to include China delivering some ultimatums to the increasingly troublesome and disrespectful North Korean leadership. North Korea’s traditional allies China and Russia, despite still providing some aid and other benefits (help in smuggling) are finding that, unlike in the past, they now have little sway over the North Korean government. The Russians can ignore all this but China cannot. To make matters worse China has found itself being publicly insulted by North Korea, something that was unknown until recently. In response China began publicly criticizing things that are wrong in North Korea (mismanagement, nuclear weapons, criminality in general). The current visit to North Korea is expected to spell out the consequences in some detail. As usual with North Korea this could get very interesting. On the bright side China offered a carrot as well as a stick. Following the Foundation Day events Chinese censors were ordered to suppress popular criticism of North Korea and to have state controlled media say nice things about Kim Jong Un for a while. Thus China offers North Korea a choice; cooperate and be rewarded or continue to offend their “elder brother” and suffer the consequences.

October 8, 2015: In the north the government freed several thousand prisoners in celebration of the Foundation Day celebrations on the 10th. Most of those released were not political prisoners and nearly all were sick or otherwise infirm (from malnutrition and/or torture and bad treatment in general).





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