Korea: The Importance Of Lies Mutually Agreed Upon


July 29, 2016: The North Korean government is desperate for cash and apparently is tolerating (or encouraging) the widespread acceptance of bribes from people who would ordinarily have to turn out for major public spectacles. This was quite noticeable on July 8 th , the anniversary of the death (in 1994) of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. Normally it is mandatory for all able bodied North Koreans to attend ceremonies honoring the founder. But not this year and it took a while to find out why. This all part of the “200 Day Battle” that began on July 1 st and demanded many North Koreans contribute more time and cash to a nationwide effort to ensure that enough food was produced on the farms this year. Posters proclaim the need to think of this battle (there have been many others in the last few years) as the most serious one yet and people to think of themselves as living under wartime conditions. Those with enough cash can bribe their way out of participating in this battle. That is not mentioned on the posters but everyone knows and for many using a bribe is a matter of life or death. While state workers get paid if they attend the growing number of people in the market economy do not get paid if they do not work. Thus it is a matter of bribing or starving..

The bribes were again an issued on July 27th, the 63rd “Victory Day in the Great Fatherland Liberation War” that commemorates the end of the Korean War (1950-53). For northerners that war began with a lie; that the north was repelling a southern invasion. This was a carefully prepared and well equipped northern invasion that almost succeeded. The UN approved an international force to expel the invaders but China intervened when it appeared that Korea would be united as a democracy. The war devastated the north and the official story in the north has always been that it was all a plot by the United States and its South Korean “puppets” to conquer the north. When the Cold War ended Russian archives were opened for a while and it was revealed that the Russians, not the Chinese, ordered and enabled North Korea to invade the south. Chinese sources confirmed this, as the Chinese had always resented being dragged into a “Russian war.” This version of the Korean War undermines the authority of the Kim dynasty that has ruled the north since 1945. That more and more university students are bribing their way out of mandatory at Victory Day celebrations comes as a shock to the government. Eventually these university students will run the country, but if they don’t believe in the Kim version of history will the Kim’s still be in charge?

Many North Koreans feel that everything is for sale these days and this is often true. A Chinese firm apparently bought fishing rights off the west coast of North Korea for $30 million. The seller was a North Korean state owned firm that employed thousands of poorly equipped North Koreans whose main source of income was fishing. The sale of fishing rights was not made public in North Korea or China but became obvious as dozens of modern Chinese fishing trawlers were suddenly operating in waters previously guarded by North Korean patrol boats that had orders to shoot on sight any foreign fishing boats caught poaching. This policy had degenerated to the point where the patrol boat would take a bribe to allow the Chinese fishing boat to get away unharmed. The state owned North Korean fishing companies complained because this cost them money and the government was demanding more “contributions” (higher taxes) from all state owned enterprises. Apparently the solution secretly agreed on was to sell fishing rights to the Chinese and ignore the plight of the many unemployed North Korean fishermen. No wonder this deal never made it into the state controlled media of North Korea or China. But the news did leak to South Korean sources, along with details of how some of the unemployed North Korean fishermen are openly discussing violent protests because the government is still demanding “contributions” from the fishermen.

South Korea also has its problems with Chinese poachers. Many of these Chinese fishermen are armed with knives, saws, and axes and willing to use force to repel South Korean coast guardsmen seeking to arrest them. China protests the “rough treatment” of its fishermen but does little to curb the poaching or violence against South Korean coast guardsmen. South Korean regards this as another example of Chinese arrogance. While South Korea and China are big trading partners, they are also at war here. This is low level stuff off the South Korean coast where, the South Korean coast guard has seized thousands of Chinese fishing boats for poaching. Chinese fishermen consider the risk acceptable because the fish stocks off the South Korean coast are much richer (in quantity and quality) than off China (where overfishing has done a lot of damage). South Korea has become more forceful against the poachers but they keep coming and the Chinese government insists it cannot control them.

The Snake Invasion

As if the North Korean border guards didn’t have enough to worry about, those in Ryanggang Province (adjacent to China in the northeast) have been ordered to capture snakes found near the Yalu River (which serves as the international border). Someone in North Korean intelligence became convinced that reports of many more snakes showing up in Ryanggang Province this year was evidence of a South Korean plot to disrupt the economy. Some of the snakes are poisonous so civilians have been warned to be extra careful when working in rural areas. South Korean experts believe the increased snake population could be linked to problems with farming in that area, especially the shortage of insecticides and the subsequent increase in small (insect eating) creatures that snakes feed on. Few in the south believe their government could be responsible. But in the north state propaganda depicts the south as being capable of anything.

Setting An Example

North Korean leaders are desperate to halt the continuing defections (illegal migration) of heretofore trusted North Koreans. The latest embarrassment was the defection, in Hong Kong, of a member of North Korean team competing in the annual International Mathematical Olympiad. North Korea came in sixth but one of their star math prodigies managed to slip away and get to the South Korean consulate and obtain political asylum. That was the second time this year that trusted North Koreans got away like this. The last incident was in April when 13 North Koreans working in a Chinese restaurant (owned by North Korea) defected to South Korea. It is still unclear if the Hong Kong consulate was involved but a month later North Korea executed six officials in charge of North Korean citizens who go abroad for work or competition. About 180 people were forced to witness the execution. These witnesses included family members of those executed along with other officials with similar jobs to those executed. That apparently did not sufficiently motivate the remaining officials so more executions can be expected.

Similar severe punishments against those who guard the borders have not worked either. While North Koreans trying to sneak out of the country can be shot on sight, people continue to get out. The execution of border guards caught accepting bribes from people smugglers also has failed to stop the guards from taking (or demanding) bribes. And it’s not just people getting smuggled out. There are some high value items like drugs or pork that are worth bribing border guards. Illegal movement of people out of North Korea is becoming more of a business. Some smugglers will take orders from Chinese companies looking for workers with specific skills (or no skills at all) to work for a specific wage (less than what Chinese workers demand but much more than can be earned in North Korea). This sort of thing is apparently growing.


The Kim family and North Korean leaders in general have long favored the use of threats to get their way. That works in North Korea because you can punish those who disobey. Actually, it works less and less as the economy crumbles and the government losses its monopoly on media and information. Violence works much less well against foreigners who are no longer impressed by North Korean threats. Thus the annual rants and threats from the north against the joint training exercises between South Korean and U.S. forces is covered by Western media more as comedy that serious politics. Same with North Korea declaring new sanctions put on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as an act of war. The impact of this in the U.S. was more one of amusement than intimidation.

This year’s join U.S.-South Korea military training included testing the rapid movement of a Patriot anti-aircraft (and missile) battery from Japan to South Korea. That worked well, which not only displeased North Korea but diminished their ballistic missile threat.

More often the response to these North Korean threats is not what North Korea wants to hear. For example South Korea recently announced an upgrade to its eight PC-3 submarine hunting aircraft. The first one of these has been delivered. The South Korea also recently received four new European AW159 Wildcat submarine hunting helicopters to be used on some of the many new South Korean warships. One of those new warships is the 210-ton Chamsuri-211 patrol boat, the first of many to replace an older (from the 1990s) class of patrol boats. In the North Korean Navy a warship built in the 1990s is considered “new”. North Korea cannot afford new military equipment like this and does not mention that, nor all the new stuff the south is getting, in their media. The north also does not mention that South Korea can afford to send nearly a thousand troops overseas on peacekeeping and training missions. Currently South Korea has a battalion (800 troops) of peacekeepers in Lebanon, and has had that force in Lebanon since 2007. Since 2011 South Korea has had 130 troops in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) to train local special operations forces and protect Koreans working in the UAE.

The Ultimate Insult

Because of China now (since March) enforcing UN economic sanctions it is expected that North Korean GDP will shrink in 2016, by at least one percent and possibly more. For the first six months of 2016 North Korean exports to China were down 14.6 percent (compared to 2015) and that decline is expected to nearly double in the second half of the year. There is still a lot of trade between China and North Korea but less of it is high value stuff the North Koreans need to afford their ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. A growing quantity of trade is illegal and the North Korean government makes little or nothing from this. North Korea refuses to get rid of its nukes, seeing them as the only way it can survive. For that to work the nukes must intimidate neighbors to provide free food and other goods. That is not working. North Korean threats, even nuclear ones, simply bring more retaliation and ridicule.

July 28, 2016: South Korea announced that it believed North Korean hackers were responsible for a recent (May) hacking attack that got into the network of a major on-line retailer and stole data on millions of customers. The hackers then demanded $2.66 million (in bitcoin) otherwise the data would be released and that would do serious damage to the on-line retailer. North Korean hackers have been involved in more and more of these “commercial” (as opposed to military) hacks.

July 25, 2016: South Korea revealed that the United States will share radar data generated by the high-powered radar to be installed as part of a THAAD anti-missile battery arriving in 2017. The THAAD battery will be based some 300 kilometers south of the North Korean border and be operated by U.S. personnel. It will cost $3.5 million a year to operate the battery, which consists of six truck-mounted missile launchers (eight missiles per launcher), a fire control and communications unit and a AN/TPY-2 radar. Villagers living near the site of the THAAD base are opposing the presence of the anti-missile battery because it will be a target for North Korean (or even Chinese) attack. Locals also fear (without any evidence) that the powerful THAAD radar will cause health problems.

July 20, 2016: North Korea alerted China that another of their soldiers had escaped to China. The soldiers was in uniform but unarmed when he escaped across the Tumen River in the afternoon. China promptly issued an alert to police and civilians in the area. The Chinese government now offers rewards of up to $3,000 for citizens who provide information leading to the capture of these North Korean deserters. Since at least 2008 North Korea has been trying to do something about the growing number of soldiers who are deserting and fleeing to China. There are always some troops who desert and just disappear inside North Korea. But more of these deserters are being found in China, and South Korea. Those who make it to South Korea report that the troops are now going hungry, and senior officers are stockpiling food and attempting to move their families to China. The worst desertion incidents are the ones where the deserters take firearms with them and rely on robbery to survive. This is especially bad if they do this while still wearing their North Korean uniforms. Both China and North Korea have increased their border security but the number of people, armed or not, trying to get out of North Korea increases faster and the escapees are more desperate and resourceful. China has also formed a civilian militia along the North Korean border to watch and promptly alert border troops if anything suspicious is seen.

July 19, 2016: North Korea launched three more ballistic missiles. This is how North Korea responds to UN sanctions imposed because of the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs as well as the recent (July 8th) American announcement that they are sending a THAAD anti-missile battery to South Korea. These three ballistic missiles landed 500-600 kilometers off the east coast. South Korean media reported that this cost North Korea over $5 million, knowing that this information would leak into the north and make northerners angry, especially the many who are hungry, without much electricity and facing cold weather with little fuel for heating.




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