Up north there have been some serious consequences because of the recent incident in which 13 North Koreans who defected to South Korea had managed to, for the first time, legally leave China. All that was bad enough but it turned out that all 13 were from high-caste families whose loyalty to the North Korean government was considered unshakable. The result has been panic among high caste families, the ones that can easily get their kids jobs outside the country. Many families had to pay bribes to accomplish this but now many, if they suspect any possibility of disloyalty, are ordering their children to return home. The families of the 13 defectors are in major trouble and most, if not all, will end up in labor camps. The government security personnel responsible for monitoring the 13 defectors have also been recalled and will be punished. At the very least, this will encourage the other overseas security personnel to double check their charges. Secret police and intelligence agents have been sent to China to find out how this disaster happened. The 13 defectors were all working in one of the many Korean restaurants North Korea operates in China. Sanctions, and growing Chinese hostility to all things Korean 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 money and the ability to experience life outside North Korea makes these jobs very desirable. Even so they are constantly monitored by security personnel who can order workers to return home for any real or suspected act of disloyalty. The 13 defectors were not allowed to freely move outside their cramped living quarters or the place where they worked. 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 prevent this or 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. Thus the panic in North Korea.
North Korea is particularly upset at China making it easier for defecting North Koreans to get out of China and to South Korea. If this continues (and China has been vague about that so far) it will undo the success Kim Jong Un has had in reducing the number of North Koreans getting to South Korea. In 2011, the year before Kim Jong Un took power, 2,706 North Koreans made it to South Korea. By 2015 energetic new measures (more border guards, more executions of border guards caught taking bribes, more land mines, more shoot to kill orders, more cell phone detectors) ordered by Kim Jong Un had reduced that by over half to 1,276. Worse, opinion surveys in South Korea found that most of those who fled, risking their lives in the process, did it to escape growing hunger and poverty, not to embrace a democratic form of government. Democracy is an alien concept to North Koreans while alternatives to hunger and extreme poverty are not. This makes it clear to North Korean rulers that their failure to provide food and jobs is why their subjects are fleeing.
In the northeast (Ryanggang Province near the Chinese border) the police has escalated their efforts to halt the growing incidence of anti-government graffiti appearing in public areas. Now the police are going to all the people who work or live in the area where the graffiti appeared and demanding handwriting samples. It is unknown if this has caught anyone yet but this very public anti-graffiti effort was noticed and word of it quickly reached China and South Korea. The graffiti has been showing up more frequently for nearly a decade. Despite the severe penalties for those caught (or simply accused) of this public sign of disloyalty more people are risking labor camp or execution to go public with their anti-government opinions. Most of these “treasonous comments” are critical of the Kim dynasty and its inept and cruel rule. 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.
Defectors from loyalist families, growing incidents of public anti-government activity at home and increasingly brazen sale and use of forbidden products (anything from South Korea) plus rampant corruption has the North Korean government in turmoil. Much of the illegal economic activity and corruption is a matter of survival. The government is resorting to increasingly desperate measures to raise cash. This generally means new fees and taxes for everyone. The increased sanctions and loss of support from China have cut government income drastically. Exactly how much is a tightly held state secret but the signs are everywhere. A growing number of major operations (like mines and steel mills) are closing because of the sanctions and putting thousands of people out of work. When this happens entire towns become poverty stricken. The unemployed and their families now face the very real risk of starvation or freezing to death once the snow and cold weather return.
All this real and suspected disloyalty had led to the government ordering nationwide investigations of how loyal every North Korean is. These investigations will be particularly intense for the members of the families from which senior officials are chosen. This is a small group, less than 5,000 people, and the actions and loyalty of this small group is the key to the survival of the North Korean government. The secret police report growing corruption and signs of disloyalty among this elite and privileged group. This is seen as a very serious problem because the caste system is one of the cornerstones of northern society. When North Korea was founded in the late 1940s a caste system was created as a way to maintain the survival of the new communist government. The newly established secret police and communist party reported on everyone making it possible to create an official list of every family assigned to one 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. These lower caste families retained their talent and despite decades of imprisonment or execution of any lower caste North Koreans who showed any sign of disloyalty the survivors learned to hide their true feelings and forgot nothing. Now most North Koreans are hungry, including many conscripts in the military. 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 but 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”). There are rumors that many doju families will be offered a big boost in caste status if they can prove their loyalty, or simply pay a big enough bribe. Meanwhile higher caste families fear a major downgrade if any of their kin have run afoul of the police recently or, worst of all, fled the country. There have been changes in family caste status before, but never on such a large scale as this and many suspect the upcoming congress will feature more news on this.
In addition to the caste system it was realized early on that exposure to other cultures was also a threat to the Kim dynasty. Thus for decades few North Koreans were not allowed any contact with foreigners or foreign media or products. The wisdom of this decision is becoming more and more apparent now. Secret police surveys show a strong correlation between disloyalty and exposure to foreign cultures. In other words, those who have been outside the country (even to China) are much more likely to become more disloyal. Almost as bad is exposure to foreign media, especially South Korean video or just consumer products. Despite strenuous efforts to halt or limit this “contamination” more North Koreans are being exposed.
While the Chinese government apparently tried to keep this quiet, Hong Kong media have spent weeks doing stories about high quality counterfeit Chinese currency showing up in China. This began in late 2015 and experts seem to agree that the most likely source was North Korea, which has been turning out similar high-grade counterfeits of American and Japanese currency for decades. In North Korea counterfeiting currency is a government monopoly. Since 2009 foreign (mainly Chinese and American) currency has been preferred in North Korea because the local currency is seen as worthless and unpredictable. The counterfeit Chinese 100 Yuan notes (worth about $13) began showing up in North Korea earlier in 2015 and moved into China via unsuspecting merchants and tourists. Officially the North Koreans deny any responsibility for the fake currency and always have. At the same time North Korea has openly said it will strike back at China for enforcing UN economic sanctions. North Korea has long considered counterfeiting currency as a weapon. China is now blocking essential (in terms of obtaining foreign currency) North Korea exports like coal and iron ore. Imports of aviation fuel are also blocked since early April. To North Korean leaders, counterfeit Chinese currency helps balance the books.
As if North Korea didn’t have enough problems the UN recently reported that satellite photos and reports from inside North Korea indicate that 2016 will be one of the worst years for food production since 2010 with crops reduced by drought and general economic collapse. Over half the population has been going hungry (but not actually starving, yet) for several years. A dismal 2016 crop could lead to more starvation. North Korea could get more food aid but only if it allowed outside monitoring of distribution. This North Korea refuses to allow because that monitoring prevents the government from selling a portion of the aid on the open market (in North Korea or China.)
April 26, 2016: North Korea announced that it would hold the Seventh Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea on May 6th. This would be the first one since 1980. It did not say how long the new congress would last. The 1980 one went on for five days and some of the earlier ones went on for years. These meetings were supposed to be held every five years, bringing together over a thousand delegates to decide on key matters like changes in the constitution and how the government is organized. These meetings never were held every five years and after the Korean War (1950-53) became less and less frequent as the Kim family transformed the government from a communist dictatorship to a hereditary dictatorship with a lot of communist characteristics. It is believed that the May 6th meeting will be a publicity stunt to showcase changes in government policy. Speculation is rampant on exactly what those changes might be. Meanwhile Russian diplomats announced that they did not expect any major changes in North Korea and do not believe that North Korea will act on any of its recent threats to attack South Korea and the United States with nuclear weapons. These Russian opinions count for a lot as Russia is currently North Korea’s only reliable ally. China has turned on North Korea and is promising to fully enforce all economic sanctions. While Russia cannot supply as much economic assistance as China, Russian diplomats are able to move about more freely than their Chinese counterparts and have access to more senior North Korean officials.
April 23, 2016: On the east coast of North Korea an attempt to launch a ballistic missile from underwater failed, but aspects of it were a success so most foreign analysts agreed that it could be considered a “successful failure” as it showed that North Korea had at least one sub (a rebuilt 1,500 ton diesel-electric boat obtained from Yugoslavia in the 1970s) that could launch a ballistic missile. This missile successfully reached the surface and ignited its main engines but then went out of control and plunged back into the ocean seconds later.
April 15, 2016: On the east coast of North Korea an attempt to launch a ballistic missile failed. This was particularly embarrassing as this launch was part of the birthday celebrations for Kim Jong Un.