In North Korea the government has unofficially given up trying to halt the spread of South Korean culture. While some violators are still publicly executed to show how serious the government considers the problem, these victims are actually guilty of some other misbehavior (like not offering a large enough bribe) and are executed for a “culture crime” to please senior officials demanding action. Secret police officials have noted that years of efforts to halt the growing 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 senior officials and their families. In response to this senior leadership (the Kim family) ordered the security forces to suppress this evil foreign influence. 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. 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 most alarming aspect of this trend is that many of the “infected” acquired the taste for South Korean culture in the late 1990s and now are often powerful officials in the government. This includes the military and secret police. While these fans of South Korean culture are mostly attracted to the TV shows, movies, pop music, clothing and styles in general the fear at the very top of the government is that the northern bureaucracy will see democracy as superior to the dynastic Kim dictatorship in the north.
Meanwhile Kim Jong Un remains obsessed with those so desperate they would leave the worker’s paradise he presides over. Thus he ordered areas of the Chinese border where the most escapes are occurring to be cleared of homes and other structures. This is causing great hardship because government assurances that new homes will be built for those losing theirs are not convincing and no one expects the new homes to be built. Construction throughout the country is difficult because of the shortage of construction materials. That the government seems so uninterested in housing its people simply adds to the growing hostility towards the Kim dynasty.
The secret police also note, not surprisingly, that those who have legally gone to China or Russia (on business or as contract labor) and returned are more critical of the North Korean government and attribute that to the less restricted and more successful market economies in China and Russia. These attitudes are believed to have reinforced the generally favorable attitudes of most North Koreans to government relaxation of laws forbidding free markets. People note that when these markets are available there is more food and other goods that the government has been unable to provide. In effect the government people realize that decades of propaganda about North Korea being the best of all possible worlds was all a lie. The secret police also note that, unlike in the past, it is now possible to criticize the government in public without quickly being arrested and punished. Anti-government graffiti is more frequently appearing in public areas. Police make a big show of trying to find out who is behind the hastily scrawled messages but somehow rarely catch the culprits. The graffiti has been showing up more frequently since 2000. 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. So far the secret police have not detected any evidence of people interested in a revolution.
China Sends A Message
North Korea is upset because China is 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. China points out the obvious and is ignored by the North Korean leaders.
Since March China has been enforcing all the UN trade sanctions against North Korea. The impact was immediately felt by North Korean industry, especially factories producing military goods (like ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons). So the order went out to North Korean companies that those who were importing legal items (like food) must find ways to smuggle needed (but forbidden by sanctions) items in. North Korea has long relied on China for key metals and components for their missiles and nukes. North Korea is too broke to offer large enough bribes to Chinese border guards. Besides, North Korea is so unpopular in China that many border guards would not accept bribes and are instead searching North Korean trucks and railroad cars with greater intensity. In part that’s because if contraband is found the legal cargo and vehicle can be seized as well. That earns the guards a bonus.
To make matters worse for the North Korean government their attempt to spin an embarrassing recent defection has very visibly failed. These 13 defectors were depicted as victims of a South Korean kidnapping. Most North Koreans did not believe it. The defectors were North Koreans who, earlier this year reached South Korea and managed to, for the first time, do it by legally leaving China. Worse all 13 were from high-caste families whose loyalty to the North Korean government was considered unshakable. Secret police and intelligence agents were sent to China to find out how this disaster happened and confirmed that the 13 defectors were all working in one of the many restaurants North Korea operates in China. Sanctions, and growing local 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. Thus the panic in North Korea. North Korea believes local ethnic Koreans (some from South Korea) who assist defectors were involved with the thirteen and one local Chinese (and ethnic Korean) Christian clergyman was murdered under mysterious circumstances. The dead man was known to help defectors and North Korean agents are suspected of the killing. Kim Jong Un has announced that he will do whatever it takes to get the 13 back. Many North Korean officials fear this could make the Chinese government even more hostile to and uncooperative with North Korea. The consensus among the North Korean bureaucrats is that if there is a confrontation with China, North Korea will have to back down and that will be humiliating for Jim Jong Un and increase the growing popular opposition to his rule.
Mystery Submarine Revealed
More evidence of the North Korean SSB (diesel-electric submarine carrying ballistic missiles) has shown up in May. In this case it was more aerial shipyard photos clearly (despite a camouflage net) showing an SSB at the Simpo yard. The North Korean missile firing sub has been spotted at sea (mostly using satellites) and it appears locally built but based on 1960s Russian designs and some Russian components. A recent video showed this sub had one or two silos built into its sail. Nevertheless aspects of the April test could be considered a “successful failure” as it showed a missile successfully reaching the surface and igniting its main engines but then went out of control and plunged back into the ocean seconds later (and 30 kilometers away). In now appears that there may have been a third test in late 2015 that also failed and did some damage to the SSB (called the Simpo class because of where it was built).
South Korean missile experts have concluded that physical evidence indicates North Korea has not developed any new ballistic missile technology, or even manufactured many new missile parts since 2012. The South Koreans are pretty certain of this because since 2012 they have been able to recover (at sea) components of North Korea multi-stage ballistic missiles and examine them.
May 21, 2016: South Korea turned down North Korean offers of peace talks. South Korea wants North Korea to make a significant reduction in its ballistic missile or nuclear program first. Otherwise talks are, as in the past, just another bit of North Korean propaganda.
May 16, 2016: The United States, Japan and South Korea have agreed to joint anti-ballistic missile exercises. What is important about this is that it represents another change in South Korean attitudes towards military cooperation with Japan. This follows a February agreement in which the U.S., Japan and South Korea expanded the scope of the year old Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement. Just creating this deal took over a decade of effort. The agreement exists to better counter North Korean aggression. Creating, and expanding, this agreement was long believed impossible because of long-standing political obstacles to greater Japanese and South Korean defense cooperation. Despite the threat both countries faced from North Korea (and China) such cooperation has been impossible to achieve. Until 2014 South Korea turned down all Japanese proposals that both nations coordinate military policy against common enemies China and North Korea. Such cooperation is still very unpopular in South Korea because of continued anger over 40 years of brutal Japanese occupation early in the 20th century. This the Japanese consider self-destructive as it wallows in the past at the expense of dealing with current and future threats. Yet Japan continues to ignore the fact that its post-World War II policy (documented in decrypted Japanese diplomatic messages sent out right after the Japanese surrender in August 15, 1945) of claiming to be a victim in World War II and guilty only of trying to liberate all Asians from Western oppression is the obstacle. That “Japan as victim” view was never very popular with Japan’s neighbors, who saw Japan as no better (and often a lot worse) than Western imperialists. To the countries of East Asia Japan compounds these historical sins by continuing to insist that Japan is innocent of any wrongdoing. This made it difficult to unite to deal with threats from North Korea and China, but eventually both Japanese and South Koreans agreed to cooperate to protect their common interests.
May 13, 2016: A North Korean warship seized a Russian sailing yacht some 160 kilometers from the west coast of North Korea (very much in international waters). The yacht and crew of five were taken to a North Korean port. The yacht was released on the 15th and continued on its way to its original destination (Vladivostok) for a sailboat race. North Korea would not say why they took the yacht and then released it.
May 11, 2016: South Korea believes North Korea was responsible for a major hacking attack on the South Korean firm building warships for the South Korean navy. It is still unclear if the April hack obtained any military secrets.
May 8, 2016: South Korea are embarrassed when General Ri Yong Gil, former chief of staff of the North Korean army, showed up at the recent North Korea Congress. In February it was reported (via South Korean intel sources) that Ri had been arrested and later executed for corruption and conspiring against the government. His successor was announced several weeks later without any mention of his predecessor. Apparently Ri was demoted, not executed, and this would not have been unexpected as Ri was known to be one of the veteran generals complaining about the appointment of inexperienced (in military matters) civilians to general rank mainly because these men were considered more loyal to the Kim dynasty.
May 7, 2016: Russia announced that it will join China in implementing economic sanctions on North Korea. But not all of them. Russia will continue working on a railroad project that extends the Russian railroad into North Korea so that Russian coal (and other products) can be exported via a North Korean port.
May 6, 2016: With much fanfare the Seventh Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea began in North Korea. This was the first Congress since 1980. This Congress will go on for five days and all enterprises (except those earning foreign currency) were ordered to close so that employees could watch TV coverage of the event. The government ordered extra police to guard the sites of free markets to make sure none of the merchants tried to open anyway. This order was very unpopular as many people depend on daily access to the markets for necessities. The majority of North Koreans depend on the markets and see the Congress as a publicity stunt to try and convince North Koreans that the government cares for them. Past Congresses were more respected because the government provided more. But since 1980 the situation has changed considerably. Communist governments worldwide collapsed between 1989 and 1991 and North Korea underwent a 25 year long economic recession that has not yet ended. A major famine in the 1990s killed over five present of the population and hunger is still a common concern. The Congress seems unlikely to change any of that. The Congress just makes things worse, which seems to describe the Kim dynasty as well. While past Congresses had some accomplishments for the government to boast about, this one had none. In the past there were foreign delegations (from other communist nations) present. There were none this time, emphasizing that North Korea has no friends. China however, did send a message congratulating Kim Jong Un for being promoted to Chairman of the ruling Workers Party. The Congress was trying send another message (that Kim rule was great) but people saw there was nothing. The delegates to the Congress were happy. In addition to five days to good food and lots of little gifts, each delegate was also given a 45 inch LED flat screen TV. During the last (1980) Congress delegates also received color TVs which were, at the time, still rare and novel in North Korea. For past Congresses everyone in North Korea received gifts, often just extra food or some cheap (but hard to get) gadget. This time all residents of the capital got a month’s worth of basic foods and some snacks. Outside the capital, only senior officials and staff of some key enterprises (producing weapons or foreign currency earning stuff) received about half what those in the capital got. Thus for over 80 percent of the country the Congress was no help at all and just another aggravation.
These Congresses 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. As expected the May 6th meeting was a publicity stunt to showcase changes in government policy. The announced changes were superficial and did nothing to improve the lives of North Koreans.
May 3, 2016: Iranian president Rouhani finished a three day visit to South Korea by saying that Iran does not approve of North Korea getting nuclear weapons. While some may doubt that, South Korea has long been a major export customer for Iranian oil and an eager investor in the Iranian economy. The sanctions on Iran halted all that but now South Korea is talking about loaning Iran $25 billion so that South Korea firms have an inside track on getting major contracts to do the work. South Korean firms have a good track record in Iran and the Iranians want to maintain that relationship. As a bonus these close relations with South Korea annoys many Americans. At the same time all this good-will with South Korea masks the fact that Iran and North Korea have been trading military technology and exports for decades.