American and South Korean marines, sailors and relief experts are holding their first joint exercise in moving aid to North Korea and dealing with large numbers of North Korea refugees trying to flee south. The U.S. and South Korea have been developing plans for a government collapse in North Korea and now are training military and civilian personnel to actually handle the situation. Ships and aircraft are being used in the exercise that will last until the 6
There is reason to prepare because the situation in the north continues to worsen. For example the October floods in northeast North Korea caused a lot of unexpected changes. For one thing many police stations, border guard bases and military facilities were destroyed and hundreds of weapons lost. Some of those weapons were recovered by enterprising civilians (or even soldiers and police) and sold to the black market. The secret police also noted that the locals were quite angry at the slowness of the relief efforts and rumors (many of them true) about officials and security personnel looting wrecked homes and stealing relief supplies. Another source of anger was the arrival of many additional secret police to the area to ensure that there were no mass escapes across the border (because of the destroyed fences and border guard posts). The secret police reinforcements also brought with them more cell phone detectors and worked around the clock to catch and punish anyone using a Chinese cell phone to contact someone outside the country via the many Chinese cell phone towers on the border that survived the floods. One result of all that was Kim Jong Un did not make a personal visit to the disaster area to show the government was on the job. Instead Kim sent one of his deputies, who was not shot at with one of the missing weapons.
Despite recently easing up on sanctions China promptly condemned the September North Korean nuclear test and the October ballistic missiles tests. China is also applying pressure on North Korea quietly by cracking down on trade, especially the movement of forbidden (by the sanctions) items. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner, buying over half of legal North Korean exports. In turn North Korea imports over $3 billion worth of food, medicine and other unsanctioned items from China. Nevertheless there were some severe economic reprisals by China. This had more to do with recent discoveries that North Korea had bribed a lot of Chinese officials and gone into partnership with a number of Chinese companies to illegally obtain key components for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The Chinese tried to keep the details of its crackdown secret but, as is often the case in the age of the Internet, this proved impossible. All this was complicated by the fact that the Chinese government has made a major public commitment to fighting domestic corruption and protecting China from foreign military threats. For decades Japan and the United States were identified as the principal foreign threats. But in the last few years the government has allowed growing public anger at North Korea to be openly discussed in Chinese media. These threats; to use nukes and ballistic missiles against China for not supplying North Korea with enough free fuel, food and other aid, had turned Chinese public opinion against North Korea, which had long been seen as an ally against the evil West and their South Korean and Japanese puppets. Until the latest North Korean nuclear and missile tests China was directing more anger at South Korean refusals to halt the expansion of their anti-missile defenses. China is still angry about that but is now more concerned with the North Korean threat. North Korea has remained defiant, continuing to test ballistic missiles that can reach all of China.
The Quiet Coup
Without much interference from the government, most state run factories in North Korea have become market based enterprises. With growing competition from (legal or illegal) imports and customers demanding better value, state-owned businesses have adapted or disappeared. It was not just the customer demands, there was also a talent and labor angle. The lowest paying jobs in the free market earn you more than what most skilled workers in state own industries get. This trend, which has been growing since the late 1990s, has reached the point where state owned industries have a labor shortage and have had to offer much more pay for many jobs. A growing number of state firms are also renting out space to private businesses, a practice that is technically illegal but tolerated if the bribes are right. All this makes North Koreans realize that the government no longer controls the economy and that makes the secret police and people running the country uneasy. Even satellite photos show this trend as it is common for the 400 or more “free markets” in North Korea stand out by all the new construction in the vicinity. All that money makes the local police and government officials wealthier and because of those bribes a lot of technically illegal items (all South Korean goods and some Chinese ones, like cell phones that can handle Korean) are for sale. The government knows that the legal markets also provide a lot of illegal items but has backed off from trying to shut this down because those efforts hurt the legitimate market trade and that cuts government income (from taxes and fees) and causes popular anger. The government also noted that those supplying the black market can bring in things the government needs but is forbidden from getting legally because of sanctions. The black markets also provide a steady supply of foreign currency (especially American and Chinese). In short, the legal markets have become too essential to the government to shut down.
What it has come to is that the government will allow an illegal enterprise to operate as long as they pay the bribes and fees demanded by the government and do not engage in activities that threaten the Kim dynasty. While much of this additional income goes to the “special weapons “ (nukes and missiles) programs and gifts to keep the senior officials loyal a lot is spent on vanity projects that glorify the Kim dynasty. This is a problem when word gets around that work continues on these vanity projects (especially new, and very visible one, in the capital) while aid for reconstruction in northwestern areas hit by major floods is not arriving as promised. In the past the news of these shortages would not get around, but with the cell phones that is no longer possible.
The Little Wall Of China
The recent floods in the northwest swept away the newly built border fences on both sides of the river. The fences are not only being rebuilt or repaired but on the Chinese side the fence is being upgraded. For China the growing number of illegal migrants from North Korea are the cause of growing crime because desperate North Koreans will cross the river just to raid local farms or homes and steal what they can and take it back to North Korea.
For those who can afford it there are still North Koreans crossing into China and heading for South Korea. By the end of the year the number of North Koreans who made it to the south since 1953 will cross the 30,000 mark. Most of those who have gotten out of the north to the south have done so since the late 1990s. The growing number of escapes was another side effect of the markets the government has forced to legalize since 2000. This greatly expanded the illegal black market that had been around for decades. It meant that many poor families suddenly had lots of money (by North Korean standards), which enabled them to hire people smugglers, buy boats or bribe border guards. For a long time most escapees stayed in northeast China but eventually the people smugglers established reliable, if expensive, escape routes to South Korea. China had long been a dangerous (for illegal Korean migrants) and less prosperous place than South Korea.
Since 2014 China has eased up on its persecution of illegals from North Korea and in 2016 was openly allowing them to legally cross Chinese borders to reach South Korea via Southeast Asia. This trend so alarmed North Korea that Kim Jong Un recently began dismissing military personnel (including officers) if they had any family members who had defected. This was because it was suspected (but apparently unproven) that these soldiers might have heard from their defector kin about life in South Korea and passed that on. It was obvious to the government that a lot of news about North Korean defectors living (usually quite well) in South Korea was getting back to the north and the reason was the use of illegal cell phones and smugglers who got cash and sometimes thumb drives with video from the defectors or just South Korean movies and TV shows.
The defectors are becoming a growing problem for the North Korean government. Only about 500 North Koreans a year were reaching South Korea in the late 1980s. By the late 1990s, after an economic collapse up north and a famine that killed 5-10 percent of the population, the number began to rapidly increase. By 2009 it was nearly 3,000 a year. When Kim Jong Un took over he cracked down hard on this illegal migration and reduced it to about 1,200 a year in 2015. But that trend has apparently reversed. There was another change, now most of the North Koreans arriving in South Korea are women. In the late 1990s less than ten percent of those reaching South Korea were women. Since then this has grown to the point where 80 percent of the arrivals are women. There are several reasons for this. Women are more adaptable and have an easier time finding a spouse in South Korea. For the North Korean men, South Korean society is actually quite hostile. Moreover, men are more closely watched in North Korea. South Korea is scrambling to find solutions to all this, but as they discovered when they studied the experience of East and West Germany reuniting, the culture shock was a generational thing. Those who were teenagers and younger could easily adapt but the older ones, who had grown up in communist East Germany, never fully adapted to life in a free market democracy. Unfortunately for South Korea, most of the northern refugees are not kids, but adults who have been conditioned to live in a police state and have chronic difficultly adapting.
Shoot On Sight
The North Korean government has ordered soldiers caught stealing from civilians to be executed. If caught in the act of stealing, especially while they are supposed to be aiding civilians in a disaster area, officers are under orders to execute the guilty soldiers on the spot. This is a major change in the more lenient policies adopted since the 1990s to deal with thieving soldiers. This was especially true since Kim Jong Un took power in 2012 and cut emergency food aid for the military. Not surprisingly this resulted in more reports of hungry troops living in poorly heated barracks during the cold weather who now spend even more time on non-military activities (farming, construction, factory work or being rented to commercial firms for short periods). Thus recent calls for more “combat readiness” and “modern weapons” by Kim Jong Un came to be seen as purely propaganda. Even South Korean troops serving on the border (the DMZ) noted this because the North Korean “protests” against large annual South Korean-American training exercises used to trigger the appearance on the DMZ of many North Korean combat troops, armed and often accompanied by armored vehicles. This was all for show but since 2011 fewer and fewer North Korean troops are showing up on the border and fewer North Korean soldiers are seen armed. For most North Korean troops there is little opportunity to handle their weapons, especially when they are loaded. This was partly a budget problem as there was little money for fuel, spare parts or ammunition. There was also less confidence in the troops being able to fight effectively or even obey orders to fire in the direction of the enemy.
A growing number of troops began to consider themselves uniformed slaves of the state because the mandatory term of service was extended (for up to 12 years). A new conscription law obliged all women to serve for a few years as well. Since 2012 more and more North Koreans who fled the country, or were in China legally doing business reported more incidents of robbery and looting by hungry (or just greedy) soldiers. By 2015 the reports indicated this violence was getting is out of control. The most recent trend is groups of hungry and desperate soldiers stopping trucks on country roads and robbing the passengers and stealing cargo. Sometimes the soldiers throw rocks at the drivers to encourage cooperation. If drivers are lucky the soldiers only want a free ride to somewhere. Truckers often earn extra (and technically illegal) income by carrying passengers. Note that there is not much road traffic in North Korea and nearly all of it is trucks. What few cars you see either belong to senior government officials (who cannot be robbed without risk of retaliation) or, increasingly, to one of the growing number of donju (entrepreneurs) who may or may not have sufficient political connections to trigger retaliation. So the troops tend to go after trucks.
The hungry troops grew bolder because the government would not punish soldiers unless people are killed or badly injured during these incidents. Police are often called to catch soldiers who have robbed someone. At first this was usually troops breaking into a house seeking food and valuables. The soldiers that are caught are often arrested but must be taken back to their base where the military takes over. The soldiers are “punished” with some verbal abuse for getting caught and that is all. The government has made some effort to address the problem. In 2015 there was a new program to expand food production by the military. Troops were allowed to raise pigs as well as the usual vegetable and grain crops. Meat has been in particularly short supply for the troops in the past few years and hungry troops often steal small livestock (chickens, ducks and pigs), kill them on the spot and carry them off to be cooked and eaten before returning to base. As more reports came in it became apparent that most military units didn’t have enough to eat, either because the food was not to be had or, as is more often the case, corruption (someone in a position of power stole it.) This led to more soldiers stealing food from civilians or selling military clothing and equipment on the black market so they could buy food. Soldiers have opportunities to steal food and sell stolen goods when they are off their base doing construction or farm work. This is how troops spend a lot of their time and they receive no extra pay or food even when the outside work requires heavy (and calorie consuming) labor. All this is illegal, but commanders were not eager to punish hungry soldiers. For commanders their troops have become profitable slaves who can be rented out with the commanders getting part of the payment. Now the government insists that disobedient slaves be executed.
November 1, 2016: Off the west coast of South Korea there was another violent clash between Chinese fishing boats and the coast guard. This time 30 Chinese fishing boats swarmed together to prevent the coast guard from seizing two Chinese fishing boats caught poaching in South Korean waters. This time the South Koreans opened fire with 7.62mm machine-guns, firing nearly 700 rounds (first in the sky and then at the hulls of the Chinese ships) before the Chinese backed off and allowed the two 98 ton poaching ships to be seized and their crews (ten men each) arrested. This is the third such violent clash since late September. After the first incident the South Korean government ordered the coast guard to use force if need be to deal with aggressive Chinese poachers.
October 25, 2016: The Philippines Navy ordered two frigates from a South Korean shipyard for $169 million each. These two ships will be smaller versions of the South Korean FFX (Incheon class) frigate.
October 20, 2016: North Korea test fired two more of its longer range (up to 4,000 kilometers) Hwasong 10 IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) ballistic missiles in the last week. Another Hwasong 10 is being prepared for launch, apparently by November 7th. That would be the ninth attempt. There have been eight test firings so far, all of them since April. According to South Korea and the United States (which monitors such tests closely) all eight tests were failures although North Korea described one of the two June 22nd tests as a success and everyone agreed that the other June 22nd test was a partial success. China and South Korea agreed these continued tests were not a good thing. China has quietly increased sanctions against North Korea. For example China cooperated with enforcing the international ban on North Korean commercial aircraft to the extent that the North Korea state owned airline can only operate a few routes into Russia and China. Meanwhile China is increasingly critical (especially in its state controlled media) of South Korean efforts to increase its anti-missile capabilities. Because of the increased nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches in the north both Japan and South Korea have announced increased spending on missile defenses and speeding up deployment of these systems.
October 14, 2016: In the northeast, off the Russian coast, a Russian patrol boat stopped a North Korea fishing ship and sent a boarding party to inspect. Members of the 48 man crew of the North Korean ship attacked the boarding party, injuring two Russians. In response the Russians opened fire, killing one North Korean and wounding six. The North Korean ship was seized and the crew arrested.
October 10, 2016: Recent defections of North Korean workers in Russia resulted in the punishment of officials sent to Russia to supervise many of the North Korea workers rented out to Russian firms. Particularly upsetting was that a low-ranking North Korean official used his position to arrange the defection of his work crew (about eight men) to the nearest South Korean consulate.
October 7, 2016: Off the west coast of South Korea a Chinese fishing boat rammed a coast guard boat and sank it. There were no injuries and China insisted that the incident occurred in an area that South Korea agreed (in a fishing agreement with China) they would not use their coast guard. South Korea disagreed and has changed its rules to allow coast guard crews to use weapons against foreign fishing boats that act in a threatening manner. All this followed a September 29th incident where a Chinese fishing trawler had three (of 17) crew killed by a fire started while they were trying to flee South Korean coast guard ships. The other 14 Chinese sailors were jailed until the situation could be resolved (usually by China paying a large fine).