In the north the government is dismayed at how frequently its propaganda efforts fail now because of widespread (often illegal) access to cell phones, global media and the Internet. The latest example was a fairly routine propaganda effort to show how much supreme leader Kim Jong Un cared after the people who worked in the fishing industry. This effort backfired because it had become common knowledge that lots of fish were caught but that people who fished for a living had little to show for it and most North Korean never seemed to see any of that fish for sale or if it was then the prices were more than most North Koreans could afford.
Earlier in 2016 North Koreans got another reminder that what their government says and does are two very different things. 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.
Accepting The Unacceptable
The growing number of wealthy entrepreneurs (donju) are slowly taking over the economy and the government seems helpless to stop it. Efforts to control the donju via threats have increasingly failed because the donju supply so many services that the ruling class depends on. Even the secret police and military are helpless because the donju are increasingly the only legal (or semi-legal) source of goods the state can no longer afford to provide for all its key personnel. This includes medicine and minor luxuries like special foods for holidays or common (in China and South Korea) consumer goods that are considered luxuries in North Korea (like, literally, a decent kitchen sink). Thus the secret police rarely attempt to extort (via false accusations) cash, goods or favors from the donju. The threats that used to work included travel restrictions or interference with the donju business operations. It’s a matter of numbers. The “affluent” (can afford cell phones, good food and decent housing) class is now about ten percent of North Koreans and half of them are donju families and the other half a government officials.
Donju cannot legally form a trade association to look after their common interests and the secret police depend on that to limit complaints to senior North Korean officials about demands for bribes and other forms of extrotion. But increasingly some of the more successful donju informally meet to discuss common interests and apparently complaints of the secret police misbehavior have been delivered to senior members of government, if not Kim Jong Un himself. Donju have survived and thrived by demonstrating to the cash-starved government that leaving the donju alone is in the best interests of the government as well as the donju and the many North Koreans they employ and serve with their thriving markets and other enterprises.
Tolerating this trend is unavoidable because the government is aware that the increased crackdown on foreign influences, disloyalty (usually suspected nor actual) and corruption are making live very unpleasant for the senior and mid-level officials that make the police state function. A growing number of these relatively wealthy and influential North Koreans are using those resources to get out of the country and to South Korea where they know their knowledge of what is going on inside North Korea has value. Kim Jong Un has triggered a trend that will destroy him and nothing he does seems to fix the problem. He believes having workable nukes and a reliable delivery system (ballistic missiles) will enable him to extort the neighbors for enough goodies to bail him out. That is a high-risk strategy. Kim Jong Un is betting everything on this and none of the potential victims seems ready to give in and are instead planning to meet nuclear threats with force not surrender.
The Chinese Threat
Despite easing up on sanctions earlier this year China promptly condemned the September North Korean nuclear test and the October ballistic missiles tests. Now China has agreed to enforce a new set of economic sanctions. China continues applying pressure on North Korea, usually quietly, by cracking down on trade, especially the movement of forbidden (by current 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, 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 also concerned with the North Korean threat. North Korea has remained defiant, continuing to test ballistic missiles that can reach all of China.
The September floods in northwest North Korea 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. China is also building a new military base on the Korean border, to accommodate the additional troops that have been sent to the border area.
In addition the Chinese government is ignoring the use of cash rewards by the North Korean secret police for each illegal North Korean migrant Chinese police catch in China and return to North Korea. This is often a death sentence for the migrant unless they can pay more than the North Korean secret police are offering. Even if not forced to return the secret police are now allowed to arrest kin of illegal migrants and accuse them of receiving money from the migrants, even if they have not. These false accusations allow the secret police seize the assets of those arrested, which is especially lucrative if the victim has been successful in the new (and largely legal) market economy. The secret police get to keep much of what they confiscate, which encourages more of this and also makes it worthwhile to pay higher cash rewards to Chinese police for turning over North Koreans who made it into China.
All this has not stopped North Koreans from trying to get out. Nor has a new “shoot on sight” order quietly issued to the border guards in early November. From now on anyone caught near the river could be shot on the spot and not given the usual three warnings first. The government admitted the new policy existed when it later announced that several soldiers involved in a recent shooting were rewarded for carrying out their duties. Now people along the border are not just avoiding the riverbank but also avoiding the soldiers patrolling the border area. This new policy was not unexpected because the government has become increasingly desperate to halt the illegal departures from North Korea. 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 and North Koreans are more willing to risk their lives to get out.
To deal with the growing aggression from China and North Korea the victims are arming themselves. Japan and South Korea have continued to hike their defense spending to record levels. For 2017 South Korean spending is going up four percent to $36 billion. In Japan it is a 2.3 percent boost which means $45 billion for 2017. This is the fifth year in a row Japanese defense spending increased. Unlike Taiwan and South Korea, which continued to be threatened by China and North Korea, Japanese defense spending declined after the Cold War ended in 1991. But in 2013 that changed and every budget since then has increased. By 2015 Japan had its highest ever defense budget ever ($42 billion). Most of the recent increases have been to buy new weapons and upgrade existing ones to improve defense again Chinese or North Korean attack. South Korean spending is putting more emphasis on missile defense. While the top three defense spenders are now the United States, China and Saudi Arabia, Japan was usually in the top ten and remains there even through most everyone in South Asia and points east are spending more. Since 2010 China, India and Japan are all increasing their already large budgets.
December 5, 2016: North Korea announced that because of continued electricity shortages and damage done to railroads during the August-September floods, most North Koreans would be banned from using the railroads until February 2017. Unsaid was the fact that bribes could get you or your cargo on a train.
In South Korea the Defense Ministry revealed that North Korea had apparently penetrated the South Korean Cyber Command network for the first time since the organization was established in 2010. In 2012 the Defense Ministry increased the size of cyber command and devoted more effort to defeating the growing number of hacker attacks from North Korea. This included the increased use of Cyber War weapons to attack North Korea. That turned out to be difficult because North Korea has very few Internet users and most of them apparently work for the government (the remainder are government approved foreigners). But some progress has been made although few details have been released.
December 4, 2016: In South Korea a poll of recent migrants from North Korea found that 89 percent of them believed life had become worse in North Korea since the current leader, Kim Jong Un, took over in 2012.
November 30, 2016: The UN approved new economic sanctions on North Korea. These sanctions are aimed at North Korean exports and calculated to cut North Korean income from exports by at least 25 percent in the next year. Meanwhile the United States, South Korea and Japan are imposing their own additional sanctions, often at North Korean individuals and organizations they have identified as involved in smuggling and financing the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
November 25, 2016: China agreed to work with the United States to impose more sanctions on North Korea. China agreed to try and persuade Russia to cooperate. That is important because China and Russia are the only two nations sharing a land border with Korea. The new sanctions are believed to include halting North Korea coal exports to China, or anyone else. Coal has been a major export item for North Korea.
November 23, 2016: South Korea and Japan signed an intelligence sharing agreement that mostly covers North Korean military matters but also includes aspects of military threats from China and Russia. China criticized this agreement, which has been in the works since 2012.
November 20, 2016: China
banned all legal (licensed) use of South Korean movies, TV shows and popular music inside China. This is a big deal because these aspects of South Korean culture are very popular in China and very lucrative for the South Korean firms that produce them. It’s also a point of pride for South Koreans in general that Chinese admire, and pay for, a very public aspect of Korean culture.
This comes after China suspended discussions on joint defense matters in early November. This is another escalation of the Chinese efforts to coerce South Korea to abandon plans to install American THAAD anti-missile system. Because of continued North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile development South Korea now plans to have THAAD operational in 2017. China, Russia and North Korea have long opposed THAAD. South Korea wants THAAD for protection from North Korean missile attack and always resisted Chinese objections, even when China hinted that failure to drop THAAD might result in less trade with China. That was a signal to South Korean voters to carefully consider the cost of defying China. That did not work and now China is going through a long list of minor punishments it can apply in an effort to get South Korea to comply. China will not come right out and say it but they object mainly because THAAD would also make South Korea less vulnerable to intimidation by Chinese ballistic missiles. South Korean voters understand that so all the threats are having less impact than China expected.
North Korea is also trying to ban foreign media influences. South Korean media is very popular in North Korea and has always been illegal. In fact anyone caught with this stuff is punished, often with long (and often lethal) stays in labor camps. Yet enforcement is spotty and unenthusiastic. This can be seen regularly in the state controlled media where writers regularly use banned foreign words. South Korean and Japanese words are particularly forbidden but are regularly seen. It’s the same with the forbidden South Korea media, which even senior government officials watch, often using copies of the forbidden shows seized in police raids.
November 12, 2016: Off the southwest coast of South Korea a group of 30 Chinese fishing boats fishing illegally were fired on by a South Korean Coast Guard boat. This is the second such incident this month. In October South Korea changed its ROE (rules of engagement) to allow coast guard crews to use weapons against foreign fishing boats that refuse to comply with orders to act in a threatening manner. This was the aftereffect of 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).
November 10, 2016: November 10, 2016: North Korea quietly but officially asked China to have its Internet censors block Chinese Internet users from referring to North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un as “Kim Fatty III”. This term not only criticizes the fact that Kim is very overweight while many North Koreans are going hungry but also referring to the fact that North Korea is a hereditary dictatorship and Kim Jong Un is the third Kim to rule. China promptly complied and that itself became news (unofficially) on the Chinese Internet. China would not comply with a request like this unless North Korea offered something in return. So far there is no mention of that. So it would appear that the 2013 decision to allow Chinese to say whatever they wanted about Kim Jong Un paid off. China does not like to publicly criticize an ally and has been low-key in its public comments to North Korea over the growing displeasure towards North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile projects. But China has other ways to send a stern public message to the North Korean leadership. In 2013 China quietly ordered its Internet media operatives to say what they think about what is going on in North Korea. As a result popular Chinese Internet personalities are saying what the government prefers not to say (that the North Korean leadership is acting like maniacs). Chinese Internet commentators are often local celebrities who are allowed to spout on their website or microblog (the tightly controlled Chinese version of Twitter) as long as they do not say anything the government censors do not approve of. The Chinese people understand how this works and know which blog posts are crap and which are sincere. The jabs at the North Korean “Boy General” are largely sincere, with the posters saying what a lot of Chinese think about North Korea.
November 4, 2016: Sudan has terminated its military relationship with North Korea. It has also ended diplomatic cooperation with North Korea. Sudan cut the ties in response to a South Korean request after North Korea conducted a nuclear test that violated a UN Security Council resolution forbidding further nuclear tests.