Since early March North Korean media has been featuring pictures and videos of leader Kim Jong Un making his visits (to factories, military units and so on) wearing a military combat uniform. This is the main result of a recent order to the secret police and military to make all necessary preparations for war. This is the North Korean response to the new UN sanctions imposed March 3rd. Most North Koreans ignore such political and media theater as much as possible. These “prepare for war” events have long since lost their shock value. But people are not allowed to ignore these “preparations” especially when there are penalties for not reaching goals. For example, the latest “mobilization” included yet another scrap iron collection campaign. These are usually annual events and people put aside any scrap metal they come across during the year so they can meet their quota. But now there is a special scrap iron drive for “the war” (against the world that is trying to destroy North Korea with more sanctions) and years of these scrap iron drives in the midst of a steadily declining economy have left little to be collected. It has become so bad that this year more and more people are raiding poorly guarded construction sites and industrial facilities to grab what they can. More security guards (usually recently discharged soldiers) have been hired with orders to use force to capture and hold any scrap metal thieves found. College students, especially ones from high caste families, are vulnerable because they don’t know the area around their university as well as where they grew up and are frequently caught. These kids are beaten and their parents called. The high caste parents are not happy that their kid was roughed up and share disloyal statements (like pointing out that all this mobilization for war stuff is nonsense) to their friends, who usually agree. Discreetly of course. The secret police are always listening.
More worrisome are the special lectures ordered for the members of the families from which senior officials are chosen. This is a small group, less than 5,000 people, and these special lectures were to remind them that their actions and loyalty are the key to the survival of the current North Korean government. There is good reason to give these extraordinary reminders because the secret police report growing corruption and signs of disloyalty among this elite and privileged group. This is seen as a very serious problem up north because the caste system is one of the cornerstones of society up there. When North Korea was founded in the late 1940s a caste system was created. This established an official list of 51 social classes. Most (29) of these classes were composed of people considered either hostile to the government or leaning that way. These new lower classes included business people, the most successful farmers, professionals and, well, you get the picture. Most of the population falls into these 29 social classes, and they are getting increasingly hostile to a government that seems to do nothing but create one disaster after another. The people are hungry, the soldiers are hungry, the secret police are stealing whatever they can get their hands on and the senior officials are planning their escape routes. The highest caste people, who have long come to regard themselves (quite accurately) as a hereditary aristocracy, are growing more corrupt and fearful. Many of these high caste families do have talented people, but a lot of those selected for the top castes were chosen because they were loyal communists and willing to be brutal and do whatever they were told. Not the entrepreneurial type at all, which is why they are so wary of all these newly rich lower caste business people (the “doju”).
Speaking of caste, the new leaders of China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea all come from families full of powerful political ancestors. While the North Korean leader inherited his job, the Chinese one was “elected” by the senior Communist Party” officials while the Japanese and South Korean leaders had to win a popular election. Foreigners in North Korea reported that news of 60 year old Park Geun Hye winning the 2012 presidential election spread quickly through the country and what amazed most northerners was that a woman, and the daughter of a disgraced dictator at that, could become leader of South Korea.
The latest round of sanctions has made many senior officials fear for their lives because the government has increasingly sought to punish (sometimes by execution) senior officials blamed (not always accurately) of responsibility for some economic disaster. Many of the new sanctions are being enforced by China, which is very unusual. Worse, China is blocking essential (in terms of obtaining foreign currency) exports like coal and iron ore.
The secret police also report another potential problem; the growing number of parents bribing officials to keep their sons out of the military. Every physically able male must serve at least six years and most do ten. If no one will accept a bribe to keep the kid out of uniform someone will take a large fee to get the kid assigned to a comfortable job. That has usually meant something in or around the capital. The secret police points out that this means a growing number of troops in and around the capital are the children of corrupt parents and many of these troops are probably of questionable loyalty.
Although flour is not embargoed China has delayed processing documents allowing North Korea to import additional flour for baking pastries the government traditionally distributes to children during the annual Kim Il Sung Sung’s birthday. This is China sending a message to the West that it is putting more pressure on North Korea via sanctions. China is also reminding North Korea that food from China is vital to the survival of the Kim dynasty and more cooperation with Chinese requests (about halting nuclear weapons and ballistic missile projects) might be in order. Some Chinese fear the North Korea is crazy enough to attack China but that is seen as surely suicidal. The result would Chinese troops going into North Korea and removing the Kim dynasty by forces and finding more agreeable North Koreans to run the place and do what China tells them.
South Korea intelligence officials have revealed that the new round of sanctions are having a widespread impact on life in North Korea and that more North Koreans are openly complaining about the additional privation as well as continued government inability to improve life for most North Koreans.
April 11, 2016: South Korea revealed that a North Korean colonel had defected to South Korea in 2015. The colonel worked for military intelligence, more specifically the GBR (General Reconnaissance Bureau). The GBR operates agents in South Korea and China. In 2015 the GBR got permission from China to send over a hundred agents additional agents into China. These men were trained them to speak better Chinese and how to operate under cover in China. These GBR men were to seek out defectors in China, kidnap them and return them to North Korea (where they go straight to a labor camp, possibly for life). This program was meant to make North Koreans less willing to flee the country. The GBR teams were told to concentrate on those defectors attempting to get to South Korea (via South Korean embassies in places like Thailand). China tolerates GBR agents as long as they do not carry weapons or create much fuss. This policy is apparently changing as China put more pressure on North Korea. Another South Korean report told of a North Korean diplomat who defected in early 2015. But the GBR colonel is the more important defector. The GBR was formed in 2009 by combining several other intel agencies and that required a lot of data to get reorganized and combined. GBR handles a lot of Cyber War operations and provides information for attacks on South Korea. This includes the 2010 attacks. Getting an GBR insider is a big deal.
Off the south coast of South Korea American and South Korean navy ships began eleven days of joint exercises. These exercises concentrated on search and rescue and underwater retrieval and rescue.
April 9, 2016: North Korea claims it has successfully tested a new rocket engine design that provides it with the means to build a ballistic missile that can reach the United States.
April 8, 2016: South Korea announced that 13 North Koreans had reached South Korea and were accepted for the refugee aid and adjustment program that would help them adjust to life in South Korea. A few days later China dropped a major bombshell when it admitted that, for the first time, these North Koreans were able to legally leave China. The 13 were all slave laborers in one of the many Korean restaurants North Korea operates in China. Sanctions, and growing Chinese hostility to all things Korean, had led to most of these workers not being paid for over a month. The workers are officially paid the prevailing wage but the North Korean government takes over 80 percent of it in “taxes”. Even so these North Koreans are making more than they would back in North Korea and send most of what they get back to their families. The workers are constantly watched and not allowed to freely move outside their cramped living quarters or the place where they work. Somehow these thirteen got their North Korean ID documents and fled. What was really surprising is that this is the first time China has not cooperated with North Korea to catch and return such “traitors.” This is a big deal because nearly all the 25,000 North Koreans who made it South Korea did so via China. If the Chinese continue this lenient policy a lot more North Koreans will seek to escape via China and the North Korean leaders will not be amused.
April 7, 2016: South Korean experts are inclined to believe recent North Korean claims that they have developed a workable nuclear warhead for ballistic missiles. In 2015 it was hoped that a new Chinese agreement to halt the export of many industrial items North Korea needed to make a workable nuclear warhead would slow down progress. Chinese tech was considered critical if North Korea was to “weaponize” their nuclear device design to work in a missile (or even an aircraft bomb). Russia had earlier made it very difficult for North Korea to obtain Russian warhead tech. In the past Russia had allowed older ballistic missile tech to be sold to North Korea, but since 2010 has stopped allowing any nuclear warhead stuff out. The same with technical assistance from Pakistan, which was helped by China to develop its nuclear warhead equipped missiles. The Chinese have apparently persuaded the Pakistanis to rebuff North Korean offers to buy warhead tech. For North Korea the biggest obstacle to having a useable nuclear weapon is a reliable warhead design. Testing such a design without actually firing a live nuke into the ocean requires another bunch of tech (and high-performance computers) that North Korea does not have. The North Koreans have been resourceful about situations like this in the past and were apparently able to build some of the banned industrial items themselves. That did not take as long as earlier estimated. Illegally obtaining some key chemicals and high-tech electronics was also apparently done more quickly than anticipated. Before 2015 it was believed it would be another 5-10 years before they would have a working warhead for their missiles, or at least one compact and reliable enough to be dropped from an aircraft. The 2015 revelations indicate that the North Korea weapons smuggling operation has again succeeded in obtaining forbidden tech. There is still no real proof North Korea has a working nuclear warhead that can survive use on a ballistic missile. If true, this warhead is bad news for China and Russia as well. Both these countries admit that North Korea is likely to use workable nukes to bully anyone who does not cooperate. This is the main reason China and Russia have been willing to go along with more sanctions against North Korea after years of not cooperating. Today China officially announced that it was banning mineral (mainly coal and iron ore) imports from North Korea. This is the largest source of foreign currency for North Korea and worth over a billion dollars a year. By going along with sanctions China and Russian now have a North Korea that has now become visibly more hostile against its two neighbors and former staunch allies. By officially backing the sanctions China is merely going along with Chinese public opinion which has, for years, been very anti-North Korea. To the average Chinese the North Korean government was greedy, unreliable and hopelessly corrupt. Until recently China kept these sentiments out of the state controlled media. That has now changed.
April 6, 2016: North Korea halted jamming GPS signals in South Korea. This began on March 31st and over a thousand aircraft and more than 700 ships reported problems because of the jamming. This is not the first time North Korea has done this. The most massive incident occurred i
n early 2012 (and continued for over two weeks). Smaller scale attacks have occurred periodically ever since. In 2012 it took less than a day to confirm that the signal was coming from North Korea and was mainly aimed at the South Korean capital (Seoul). The jamming had little impact inside the city itself (the ground based jamming signal was blocked by buildings and hills) and was only noted by aircraft landing or taking off from local airports and ships operating off the coast. In all these cases the ships and aircraft had backup navigation systems, which were switched on when GPS became unreliable. This is how navigation systems, especially those that rely on an external (satellite) signal are designed. This was the third time North Korea has used GPS jamming against South Korea. For most of March, 2011, North Korea directed a GPS jamming signal across the border towards Seoul. A separate jammer has been directed at cell phone traffic. The GPS jamming signal could be detected up to a hundred kilometers south of the DMZ.
April 5, 2016: South Korea had concluded that North Korea will soon be deploying a new 300mm rocket system near the DMZ. In early March 2016 North Korea test fired six of its new guided 300mm rockets from a launcher vehicles that seemed familiar to many observers with knowledge of such things. The North Korean 300mm rocket launcher first appeared in a late 2015 parade. The North Korean 300mm rockets appeared to have a range of over 100 kilometers. The launcher vehicle was familiar because it was later identified as a Chinese ZZ2257M5857A 6x6 truck that is manufactured for civilian and military use. This was not unusual, although it was of questionable legality. The new 300mm rocket is also believed to have satellite guidance, using either Chinese or Russian navigation satellites.
April 4, 2016: South Korea launched its seventh Type 214 class submarine eleven months after the sixth one. It takes about a year after launching for a new sub to enter service. All this is part of a major expansion of the South Korean Navy. In February 2015 South Korea created a new Submarine Command. This was in recognition of the expanding South Korean submarine fleet, currently nine Type 209 and five Type 214s in service and the four additional Type 214s to be delivered by the end of the decade. The main purpose of the new Submarine Command is to develop better anti-submarine capabilities against North Korea or even China. South Korea is putting a lot more money into submarines. North Korea currently has 70 subs, but most (over 70 percent) of them are very small (and often elderly) coastal types. There are twenty larger (1,800 ton) Romeo type boats but these are also very old, noisy and easy for other subs to detect underwater.
South Korea conducted an artillery firing exercise on the east coast near the DMZ. Most of the weapons involved were 155mm self-propelled howitzers and 130mm rocket launchers. The exercise tested procedures at returning fire if North Korea fired on South Korean territory again as it did in 2010.
April 1, 2016: North Korea fired another ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast. This is the fifth such ballistic missile “test” since March 3rd when new sanctions were imposed.
March 31, 2016: North Korea began jamming GPS signals along the DMZ and off the coast near the maritime border. A day later South Korea confirmed the source of the jamming, told North Korea to stop or else and formally notified the UN.
March 30, 2016: In North Korea there was another train derailment, this time on the east coast where two oil tanker cars derailed spilling most of the oil. Such accidents are becoming more common. The cause of this latest one is unknown but it might have been because of desperate people stealing the spikes used to secure railroad ties to meet their quota in the latest scrap metal collection campaign. Stealing railroad spikes has caused several accidents, and over a hundred deaths in the last decade or so. These thefts merely add to the problems the railroads have with two decades of poor maintenance (no money for supplies.) In 2007 South Korean experts estimated that to restore and repair North Koreas railroads would cost $7-10 billion.