Korea: May You Live In Interesting Times


January 12, 2016: Despite the anti-Chinese aspects of the recent nuclear test North Korea has quietly accepted much of the Chinese advice on economic reforms. At the same time both China and North Korea have been silent about the recent North Korean harassment of Chinese in North Korea. This is part of the ongoing effort to halt leaks of information (to China and South Korea) about what is really going on in North Korea. This is not the first time there has been such a move against Chinese and China is quietly trying to get some of the arrested Chinese freed. Since the 1950s Chinese citizens have been allowed to live and do business in North Korea. These Chinese are usually merchants or run Chinese financed businesses. These Chinese can bring their families with them and freely visit China and return. These foreigners were rarely bothered, until North Korea decides it is time to send a message. North Korea apparently suspects many of these Chinese are part of the Chinese espionage effort in North Korea and over a hundred have been arrested and questioned since late 2015. North Korean diplomats and businessmen with lots of Chinese experience warn that this crackdown could do a lot of damage to relations with China. So far those warnings do not seem to have had any impact. Apparently even Chinese diplomats, including the Chinese ambassador, have been put under surveillance by the secret police. The government has also made it more difficult for these Chinese to return to China. The Chinese are largely unfazed by this sort of thing as it has happened before and tends to last a few months at most. That’s because China is the main access point for the thousands of luxury items North Korea imports each month to keep their ruling class content and willing to do what it takes to keep the Kim dynasty in power.

In North Korea the government ended the year still determined to halt the spread of South Korean culture and announced that some violators would now be publicly executed to show how serious the government considers the problem. At the same time government analysts are noting that years of efforts to halt the northern preference for South Korean culture have failed and executions are unlikely to change that. This conclusion is a state secret as are most details about how the North Korean secret police have always monitored the attitudes of the population. Back in 2010 the secret police realized that the influence of South Korean culture was corrupting the security forces ordered to suppress it. In 2011 a special unit of the secret police was formed to eliminate the corruption among secret and regular police guarding the Chinese border (where most South Korean culture entered) and that elite unit was itself soon corrupted (by the South Korean culture as well as the large bribes they got to let it in). The secret police more recently documented a very disturbing trend; the generation born in the 1990s that grew up with access to South Korean culture (video and audio recordings) has less and less respect for the North Korean leadership. This has happened despite numerous 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 and is getting worse each year.

The North Korean government has increasingly been using executions to discourage unacceptable activity, especially efforts to leave the country without permission. But dramatic measures like execution only slows down the rate of bad behavior (being it smuggling contraband in or people out). Despite the growing acceptance (by the government) of the market economy the new entrepreneurs know that they are tolerated mainly because they are a source of income for the government and the only thing that is keeping an increasing number of North Koreans alive. There is no rule of law in all this, the government does whatever Kim Jong Un and his senior aides want and major changes often arrive without any warning. To add to the temptation to leave the government has increasingly tolerated nearly all trade being done in foreign currencies (mainly Chinese yuan and American dollars). This enables people to easily buy the services of smugglers who can bribe the right people to get you out. North Korean currency (won) is rapidly disappearing from daily use and no one misses it. But many government officials are uneasy about the widespread acceptance of foreign currency. This acceptance means people have more freedom to do as they please. For decades the population was controlled because the government did not let people know what was going on in the outside world or give them a way to earn much money and what they did get access to was the local currency (the won) which was pretty useless outside of North Korea. Possession of foreign currency was, until quite recently, a treasonous act and punishable by death. All this began to change during the 1990s, after post-Cold War Russia eliminated the subsidies that had been keeping North Korea alive since World War II. As a result the government could no longer afford to supply the people with essentials and it was during the 1990s that the private economy began to develop as people did whatever they could to survive. After the 1990s the government, seeing no other option, gradually legalized the free markets and now has created an institution that is becoming more powerful than the state itself. Entrepreneurs are using all the foreign cash to take over government owned businesses and hire the loyalty of the security services. Yet North Korea cannot afford to destroy the free markets as that would be a form of suicide for the rulers. To paraphrase an ancient Chinese warning; “May you live in interesting times.”

The government has responded to the growing corruption in the bureaucracy by severely punishing senior officials known, or suspected, or disloyalty. Accepting bribes is not automatically a sign of disloyalty, especially if the Kim family is getting a cut. But the growing use of bribes is seen as a sign of divided loyalties and that makes you suspect. Since 2012 over a hundred senior officials have been sent to prison or executed for “disloyalty”. The families of the disloyal, at least the ones who did not manage to get out of the country, were reduced to poverty and some were sent to prison as well. All this has done is make officials more careful in accepting and spending their bribes. All this is unprecedented for North Korea. A growing business for smugglers is getting bribe money out of the country and into a Chinese bank. It’s increasingly difficult to run the country when so many of your senior people have one eye on the exit. This has other side effects as growing trend is for the friends of officials who illegally migrate to quickly leave themselves lest they be prosecuted for not turning their friend in (whether they know of his illegal travel plans or not).

Since early 2015 reports have been coming out of North Korea about a new series of tunnels being constructed. Like everything else in North Korea tunnel construction is a state secret and it took a while for enough information to leak out (via business visitors hearing gossip or defectors with personal experience) so one could make some sense of this new mystery. It turns out the new tunnel system consists of escape tunnels for leader Kim Jong Un. These are being built at all the places where Kim spends a lot of time and for obvious reasons details are being kept secret. One tunnel, several kilometers long, leads to the Chinese border. Others lead to airfields or small ports. Apparently there are contingency plans for each tunnel. This would include what Kim and his entourage would do once reaching the exit as well as who would be in the entourage and who would be assigned to deal with all the details of getting Kim to safety after the “escape tunnel protocol” was implemented.

January 11, 2016: Officials from South Korea, China, the United States and Japan are meeting this week to discuss how to get North Korea to halt its nuclear program. The pressure is on China because China plays a major role in keeping the North Korean economy alive. So far China has not been willing to try drastically increasing economic pressure on North Korea to get the nuclear program dismantled. This despite four nuclear tests over the last decade. North Korea leaders have indicated that their response to hasher Chinese economic measures would be catastrophic, even if it meant the destruction of the North Korean government.

January 11, 2016: An American B-52 bomber flew near the North Korean border and North Korea quickly condemned this “provocative act.” The U.S. responded with proposals to send more heavy bombers and other new weapons to South Korea.

January 7, 2016: The North Korean announcement that they had conducted a successful test of a fusion (H-Bomb) nuclear weapon was condemned by the Russian government but on Russian Internet sites Russian nationalists celebrated this North Korean “triumph” over their common enemy (the United States). At the government level China and Russia both agree that North Korea having nukes is a bad thing. China is more concerned about this than Russia. Western technical experts doubt that the nuclear weapons test (that apparently did take place) was a fusion bomb. Soon (within weeks or months) intel agencies, who are equipped for this sort of thing, will have collected and analyzed air samples from the test site. The U.S. Air Force has already sent one of its “sniffer” aircraft (a WC-135) to collect air samples. Winds blow this contaminated air out to where intel aircraft or ground stations can capture air samples. Analysis of those samples will clearly show if it was a fission (A bomb) or fusion (H bomb) test. But this evidence eventually dissipates in the atmosphere and if China or Russia will not share sample information then it might not be possible to capture enough samples off the North Korean coast to confirm what kind of bomb is was. From an engineering point of view the latest North Korean test indicates (by seismic activity) that it is too small to be an H-bomb unless North Korea got the tech to not only make an H-bomb but to build a miniaturized one. It is unlikely that China or Russia shared their tech. Even most North Koreans appear to see the latest “nuclear test” as another publicity stunt.

China has the most non-Korean civilians close to the site of the test and quickly was announced that an additional 500 radiation monitors would be deployed near the North Korean border. Meanwhile many of the new entrepreneurs in North Korea are complaining that this “dollar bomb” (as they call the H-bomb) is just an excuse to tax everyone more heavily. Soldiers enduring their annual cold weather training wonder why they are still doing that if North Korea really has an H-bomb. Many inside and outside of North Korea regard the H-bomb “test” as a publicity stunt and no evidence that North Korea is any closer to having usable nuclear weapons.

Japan announced that its monitoring equipment on land and aboard ships and aircraft had detected no additional radiation as a result of the North Korean nuclear test. This is normal for underground tests, where little radiation escapes to the surface and what does usually cannot be detected except right at the test site. Japan detected no radiation after the 2006 and 2013 North Korean nuclear tests.

On the plus side the North Korean nuke did prompt Japan and South Korea to expand their recent (end of 2015) military cooperation agreement.

January 6, 2016: North Korea conducted a successful test of what they claimed was a fusion (H-Bomb) nuclear weapon. This was condemned by Russia, China, South Korea, the United States and just about everyone else.

December 31, 2015: South Korea, China and Vietnam agreed to quickly set up hotline communications with each other. This enables either side to quickly contact the others military headquarters to sort out any incident involving the armed forces of one or both countries. A hotline like this is quicker and more accurate than waiting for the usual diplomatic channels to be used (and having to depend on the mass media in the meantime.) China and North Korea have long had the equivalent of a hotline in that senior Chinese military leaders could always pick up a phone and call their North Korean counterparts. This is something that dates back to the Korean War, when Chinese forces saved the North Korean military from certain destruction and kept the Korean War going for another 30 months until the ceasefire. This cost China over half a million dead, something China has not forgotten. Meanwhile South Korea already has a hotline with the United States. China and South Korea have been haggling over hotline details since mid-2014.

At the end of 2015 the U.S. revealed that it believed North Korea was continuing to work on the KN-08 ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) in an effort to make it work. Getting this missile redesigned, reliable and ready for successful testing is expensive. That is a sign the North Koreas are quite serious about this project. The KN-08 is meant to threaten the United States while the North Korean nukes threaten all the neighbors. The KN-08 first appeared in public during a 2013 military parade. It had long been known that North Korea was trying to develop a ballistic missile that could reach the United States. Until the appearance of the very large KN-08 the longest range North Korean seen in actual use (during tests) were the Nodong series. These are based on the old Russia SCUD and had been scaled up to the point that they had a max range of over a thousand kilometers. Out of this came the even larger Taepodong missiles which were officially satellite launchers. Taepodong 1 was tested in 1998. North Korea had been working on Taepodong since the early 1990s. While the Taepodong 1 had a range of about 1,500 kilometers the larger Taepodong 2 went twice as far in 2009. A 2006 Taepodong 2 test barely got off the ground before crashing. The KN-08 was a different shape missile, obviously for military use and using different technology.

December 28, 2015: South Korea and Japan finally settled their long standing differences over the Japanese conscription of Korean women during World War II to work in Japanese army brothels in China. Japan had long avoided accepting much blame for this practice, but in South Korea it was a major obstacle to establishing a meaningful alliance to better cope with the threat from North Korea and China. Japan finally agreed to give South Korea the admission of guilt long demanded. This will include $8.3 million from Japan for the surviving “comfort women” as the Japanese called the involuntary prostitutes.

December 25, 2015: Since October 2015 Japanese coast guard patrols have found sixteen North Korean fishing boats drifting off the coast, most of them containing decomposing bodies. These are all coastal craft (about 12 meters/38 feet long) which cannot operate effectively on the high seas. It remains a mystery as to what is going on here. The most likely theory is that the boats are of fishermen who, desperate to fill new quotas, went out too far, ran out of fuel and were unable to call for rescue. These boats did not contain radio or GPS, were often poorly constructed, often had only a small outboard engine (which broke down or ran out of fuel) and appeared to have been drifting for weeks. The lack of such gear is common aboard North Korean fishing boats. The other theory is that these were defectors who underestimated how much fuel it would take to reach Japan or suffered engine failure. The truth may be a combination of both theories but reports eventually got out of North Korea detailing dozens of North Korea boats that had gone out in 2015 and not returned because they were going too far out to get more valuable catches (squid and sailfish). Apparently over 150 North Korean fishermen disappeared off the east coast in 2015. Making this worse, the North Korean government is doing nothing to alleviate this situation. People in east coast fishing towns and villages are getting angry about all this.




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