Every nation has its priorities and for North Korea it is all about image. Most people see that in terms of North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But there are other equally important (to the North Korean leaders) issues that get little publicity, and that is intentional. In mid-2017 North Korea ordered its secret police to expand its operations in northeast China (the area just across the northern border) so as to suppress news about the growing number of senior and mid-level officials who are, often with their families, illegally leaving North Korea. The single incident that prompted this new secret police effort was the suicide of one of these families (all five of them). The five took poison after being arrested by Chinese police and facing repatriation to North Korea, where they entire family would probably die anyway but more slowly and painfully. The secret police were ordered to increase efforts to prevent such defections in the first place. That will be difficult because the mood among many North Korean officials can best be described as suppressed (so the secret police don’t take note) panic and increased efforts to escape from the country and get to South Korea.
Senior North Korean officials who have gotten out in the last few years all agree that Kim Jong Un is considered a failure by more and more North Koreans and that his days are numbered, even if China does not step in and take over beforehand. Yet these senior officials report that Kim Jong Un could keep his police state going into the late 2020s. But time is not on his side and the signs backing that up are increasingly obvious. 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. Escalation and intimidation work both ways.
Coming Up Short
North Korea has reduced its physical standards for military service. Previously conscripts had to be 150 cm (59 inches) tall and weigh at least 48 kg (106 pounds). But that standard has been reduced over the last decade to 137 cm (54 inches) and 43 kg (95 pounds). Now the government is urging teenage boys to volunteer for service when they are 15 years old. Actually, local officials have been given quotas and are coercing families of 15 year old boys to go along with this. With all the food shortages and unemployment the government sees that as an incentive. But most teenagers prefer to try their luck with the market economy and eventually make enough money to get out of North Korea.
The government needs more soldiers because of a lower birthrate and the inability to reverse the problem. South Korea also has this problem but for different reasons. By 2010 South Korea had the lowest birth rate (1.15 children per woman, on average) in the world and held that dubious achievement for two years in a row. This is because of growing affluence over the last half century. South Korea is now one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. At the current birth rate, the South Korean population is expected to stop growing in the 2020s, after reaching about 52 million (about twice the population of the north). If the birth rate stays under 2.1, the population will then begin to shrink. In North Korea, the birth rate is 1.9, and is also declining, because of increasing poverty and famine. For example, life expectancy in the north has declined from 72.7 years in the early 1990s, to 69.3 now. That's ten years less than in South Korea. Northerners are not only living shorter lives, they are also shorter. A study of teenagers in the north and south revealed that the northerners are 8 percent shorter, and weigh nearly 20 percent less. It's not as bad with older adults, because they were not born during the famine (which began after Cold War Russian subsidies ended in the early 1990s).
By 2012 there was a very visible shortage of recruits for the North Korean armed forces. A lower birth rate in the 1990s, because of the famine (that killed five percent of the population back then) has reduced the number of 18 year old recruits for the army and security forces. So fewer exemptions are being allowed, and more 17 years olds are being taken. That escalated to pressuring 16 year olds to volunteer. Now the government is after 15 year olds. North Korean men serve at least six years (and up to ten) in the military, keeping them out of trouble for that time in their lives (18-24), when they are most likely to act out revolutionary fantasies. The military is really a large prison system. While the troops are trained to use weapons, they get little ammunition for training, and the weapons are locked up most of the time. Young North Koreans increasingly know how poor they are, and in greater and greater detail. The soldiers born during the great famine of the 1990s are well-aware that they are physically much smaller than their South Korean counterparts. They also know that the average South Korean lives ten years longer and lives a much more pleasant life. All the more reason to limit the time North Korean troops can handle their weapons, especially when they have ammunition (which is actually very infrequently.)
By 2017 North Korean army officers were ordered to encourage their troops to steal food during the harvest and that failure to do so could result in punishment and would definitely result in hunger. Naturally this has caused more popular anger towards the military. This is nothing new. In 2016 hungry troops grew bolder because the government made it clear they 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 was desperate because earlier efforts to address the problem had failed. 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.
Visible Signs Of Decline
Declining discipline in the police is more evident in many obvious ways. For example a growing number of North Korean women are operating openly as prostitutes (usually near border areas where there are more foreigners). These women get $20 or more per customer but get to keep less than 20 percent of that because the rest goes to bribes (for police) and “fees” to various middlemen (or women) who supervise it all. Thus it is not surprising that these young (from late teens to 30s) women will also offer to sell drugs (usually meth) to customers as well. Many of these prostitutes are married and some have children but no money to keep the kids fed and healthy.
With the growth of free markets and police getting jealous, greedy and corrupted by demanding and getting bribes, there has also developed criminal gangs. These groups often have connections (usually financial) with the security forces and of course the gangsters are all veterans. The gangs act as middlemen between donju (free market entrepreneurs) and the government but as a matter of law, the gangs do not exist. As a matter of fact the gangs are very real and one of the fastest growing sectors of the market economy.
China Chooses Sides
The latest North Korean nuclear and missile tests have caused Chinese public opinion towards North Korea to become even more hostile. According to opinion polls North Korea has, over the last few years, turned into a larger military threat to China than the U.S. or anyone else. To deal with this China has increased the number of troops and border police stationed near the North Korean border and conducted more military exercises in the area. This also addresses another Chinese fear (that gets less publicity in China) that a government collapse in North Korea would send millions of desperate, and opportunistic, North Koreans into China. There is no way China or the Chinese living along the North Korean border would tolerate that. Meanwhile China is becoming more hostile to North Koreans no matter what their legal or economic status is. Part of that is because North Korea has become a very unpleasant place for Chinese to visit or do business in.
News of the bad treatment Chinese are suffering in North Korea gets around, even when the Chinese government tries to keep the worst examples out of the news. Chinese individuals and firms doing business in North Korea complain that the North Koreans have become even more unreliable when it comes to handling foreign investments from China. In the past China could impose some degree of discipline on North Korea for abuse of Chinese investors and investments. The North Koreans are increasingly ignoring this sort of pressure and as a result Chinese investors are backing away from current and planned investments. China could order state owned firms to do business in North Korea but does not because these firms are poorly run compared to the privately owned firms and would suffer even larger losses when dealing the increasingly treacherous and unreliable neighbor.
North Korea used to be a dependable place, at least for Chinese with the right connections in the Chinese government. While corruption in China has declined in the past few years it appears to have gotten worse in North Korea, to the point where long-term deals are avoided and transactions are made carefully, usually with payment before delivery. The smugglers and various other criminal gangs in China that do business with their North Korean counterparts have been forced to operate this way as well and for the same reasons. South Korea and Japan have already learned how unreliable North Korea can be when it comes to business deals and Russia has already adopted the wary approach to economic deals with North Korea.
China has visibly increased enforcement of economic sanctions on North Korea but this has not made North Korea any more willing to negotiate. The growing number of police and secret police night patrols in areas where North Korean smugglers long operated is hard to miss, as is the fact that when North Korean smugglers are encountered they get arrested and taken away. Even higher bribes (over $3,000 to make an arrest not happen) no longer work because the Chinese cops will still demand that amount of cash before they will turn the smugglers over to North Korean officials. China never came down so hard on North Korean smuggling before.
China is also cracking down on North Korean drug production and smuggling. This is a matter of self-defense for China and is effective because North Korea make the highest profits from methamphetamine (“meth”). But this drug requires a key ingredient (phenylacetic acid, in the form of white crystals) to be smuggled in from China. Now the Chinese are cracking down on that as well as the meth coming into China. North Korea is seeking another, probably more expensive, supplier in Russia.
While Russia is still doing business with North Korea China and Russia are also cooperating with many of the new rules banning North Korean workers they long employed legally. This exported labor was outlawed by the latest round of sanctions. North Korea responded by quietly ordering overseas workers to stay where they are and work illegally (in deals arranged by their government minders). Yet in many instances the export ban on slave labor is being enforced by Russia and especially China and that is hurting North Korea economically.
The North Koreans see this as yet another challenge that can be worked around. While it is true that there are still a lot of corrupt Chinese and Russians willing to do business with North Korea if the bribe is large enough, that is not working as well as it used to in China. This is because North Korea is very unpopular with Chinese in general and a growing number of senior Chinese officials in particular. Russians are less upset with North Korea and, while having fewer economic resources than China, are more receptive to shady deals. The problem is that North Korea has become very dependent on the much larger and still expanding Chinese economy. Russia simply cannot supply a lot of what North Korea needs. It is possible to still buy the forbidden goods in China and have them shipped to a fictitious customer in Russia who will quietly send it to North Korea. That does not always work and when it does it costs a lot more than getting the goods directly from China. North Korea has less cash for the extra expenses. The Chinese know this and are quite willing to slowly squeeze until North Korean leaders are all dead or more receptive to Chinese needs (no nukes next door and fewer desperate illegal migrants). Yet there is the growing risk that North Korea will get (or thinks it has) reliable nukes and keep threatening China. That is not the desired outcome but the Chinese have quietly reminded leaders of both Koreas (and their foreign allies) that in the past China has occupied much of Korea when the Koreans become troublesome.
Meanwhile China is not happy with South Korea either, fearing the growing military power of South Korea and the recent installation of a THAAD anti-missile battery despite vigorous Chinese diplomatic and economic efforts to prevent that. The diplomatic and economic pressure continues but the South Koreans are in no mood to back off as long as the North Korean threat remains. South Korea believes China could do more to eliminate the North Korean threat. While many, if not most, Chinese and Russians agree with that the Russian and Chinese governments still see economic opportunities in North Korea and are unwilling to do anything drastic.
September 14, 2017: In coincidental, nearly simultaneous, events North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan while South Korea fired two Hyunmoo 2 ballistic missiles. One of these failed while the other accurately hit the target area (at sea) 250 kilometers away. The North Korean missile travelled about 2,200 kilometers and landed in the Pacific. Japan said it tracked the missile and did not try to intercept because it was obvious the missile was following a trajectory that would take it far from Japan. The identity of the North Korean missile was not known.
South Korea has developed a longer (500 kilometer) version; Hyunmoo 2C. South Korea developed a 180 kilometer range ballistic missile (Hyunmoo 1) and a 300 kilometer one (Hyunmoo 2) in the 1980s. Both are about 13 meters (40 feet) long and weigh 4-5 tons. Both of these were based on the design of the U.S. Nike-Hercules anti-aircraft missile, which South Korea used for many years.
September 13, 2017: Google and YouTube have banned videos from North Korean media, apparently because it is a source of income for North Korea and now in violation of sanctions. This reduces open source access to North Korean TV although intelligence agencies will still be able to get these.
China has restricted access to Mount Paektu, apparently for safety reasons related to the recent North Korean nuclear test, which was conducted 110 kilometers away. Mount Paektu is a dormant volcano on the Chinese border. In fact, half the volcano is in China, where it is a popular tourist destination for South Koreans. That’s because Koreans and Manchus (as in Manchuria, the native people of northeast China) both consider Mt Paektu as a sacred place where their tribes originated thousands of years ago. In 2013 North Korea put some silos for their long range (2,000-3,000 kilometers) ballistic missiles up there because that part of North Korea is a triangle, surrounded on two sides by China. This makes it difficult for the Americans to launch air attacks without entering Chinese territory and makes it easier for North Korean anti-aircraft forces to defend against cruise missile. On the down side, Paektu is a dormant volcano that is active (lava flows and the like) about once a century. The last time it erupted (throwing large quantities of rocks and dust into the atmosphere) was in 1703 and an eruption in the late 10th century blew the top off the mountain and created the current 4.5 kilometers wide crater lake. Volcanologists consider Paektu capable of another major eruption but North Korea considers that less likely than an American air attack. So the silos stay, despite the risk of destruction by lava flows and earthquakes. Before all these silos were built North Korea planned to keep its long range ballistic missiles mobile and launch them from any number of launch sites (a flat field where the missile could be fueled and the guidance system programmed before launch.) Bad weather could complicate the use of mobile launchers (washing out bridges or blocking roads with snow). The quality of North Korean roads has also declined sharply (from lack of maintenance) since the late 1990s. Then there is the increased American surveillance (from satellites, U-2s and high-altitude UAVs) that makes mobile missiles more vulnerable to air or missile attack. Silos can also be attacked from the air, but in a war the more numerous and shorter range ballistic missiles to the south would also be subject to air attack as these missiles would be aimed at the South Korean capital. North Korea apparently believes that silos protected by a sacred volcano are a worthwhile investment to ensure that some of long-range missiles will get launched during a crises. China is more concerned about nuclear radiation coming from North Korea.
September 12, 2017: Chinese radiation monitors on the North Korean border recorded levels were up seven percent since the September 3rd test and have appeared to have peaked. This data was released because the population along the border know that they face some health risks if radiation levels increase too much for too long.
September 11, 2017: The UN approved new economic sanctions against North Korea and China said it would enforce them all and repeated that it had been enforcing sanctions since March. The new sanctions limit the export of refined petroleum product to two million barrels a year and ban North Korea from importing liquefied natural gas. This followed China condemning North Korea nuclear tests openly in the UN for the first time.
Meanwhile the United States continues to call on China and Russia to do more to halt the North Korean evasion of sanctions via corrupt officials and businesses in China and Russia. China in particular does not want too much international attention focused on that corruption, which has long been quite active along the North Korean border and still is. The United States is not being diplomatic in pointing this out but it is correct in showing how Chinese enforcement of sanctions does not really work unless China effectively curbs the Chinese corruption that enables North Korea to continue doing whatever it wants. For the North Korea the increased sanctions pressure merely increases costs (larger bribes are required in China and Russia).
September 10, 2017: Chinese banks have been warning its customers to stay away from bitcoin because of the threat from North Korean hackers, who are believed to be responsible for several recent multi-million dollar thefts from bitcoin exchanges. North Korea is believed to be targeting bitcoin and other Internet based cryptocurrencies even though North Korea has used bitcoin exchanges as a substitute for sanctions that ban it from accessing the international banking system. The Chinese government fears that North Korean hackers are now going after Chinese firms, something they are not supposed to do because China is still the main source of foreign trade. This sort of irrational behavior leads China to fear that North Korea would even be foolish to become a real military threat to China.
September 9, 2017: China orders all Chinese banks (including foreign banks licensed to operate in China) to not only stop opening accounts for North Koreans but also to close any such accounts immediately. This is a very harmful economic sanction and the North Koreans respond by ignoring the new rules any way they can.
September 8, 2017: North Korea has quietly freed a Russian yacht it had seized in mid-June. A North Korean warship seized the Russian yacht when both were 80 kilometers off the coast. The yacht and the vessel towing it to Vladivostok were definitely in international waters and the Russian ambassador demanded the release of the yacht and three man crew. North Korea was not responsive until now. This was similar to a May 2016 incident where North Korean warship seized a Russian sailing yacht some 160 kilometers from the east 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 two days later and continued on its way to its original destination (Vladivostok) for a sailboat race. In both cases North Korea would not say why they took the yacht and then released it.
September 7, 2017: South Korea has completed deploying an entire THAAD battery to a site some 300 kilometers south of the North Korean border. The United States will share radar data generated by the high-powered radar installed as part of a THAAD anti-missile battery that began arriving in early 2017. The THAAD battery is operated by American personnel and costs $3.5 million a year to operate. The battery consists of six truck-mounted missile launchers (eight missiles per launcher), a fire control and communications unit and an AN/TPY-2 radar. Villagers living near the site of the THAAD base oppose 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.
September 6, 2017: A recent online opinion survey in China showed that 66 percent believed North Korea was a larger military threat to China than the United States. Only 10 percent felt the Americans were a larger threat and 15 percent believed the U.S. was no threat at all. This is consistent with earlier surveys only the degree of hostility towards North Korea keeps increasing. Chinese see North Korea has a poorly managed nation that is ungrateful towards China and unpredictable.
September 4, 2017: North Korean living near the site of the recent underground nuclear weapons test are demanding compensation for the damage done to their home by the earthquake (estimated to be 5.6 on the Richter scale) the test produced. Across the Yalu River some Chinese buildings also suffered damage from the quake and several aftershocks.
South Korea announced that its policy towards North Korea will now on “punishment” rather than negotiation.
September 3, 2017: North Korea carried out its sixth nuclear test. This one appeared to be the largest one yet indicating a yield of 100-200 tons and described as a hydrogen bomb. The first nuclear test was in 2006 (less than one kiloton) but the first one that was truly successful occurred in 2013 (6 kilotons) and despite the fact that the test was not a complete success, the nuclear bomb program continued with two tests in 2016. In late 2015 Kim Jong Un claimed that North Korea had developed a hydrogen (fusion) bomb. Foreign experts openly expressed skepticism given that North Korea didn’t really have a reliable fission type nuclear bomb yet. You need an efficient fission bomb to trigger the fusion reaction that makes the “H-Bomb” so much more destructive than a fission bomb of the same weight and size. Nuclear test number four in January 2016 was described by North Korea as a fusion (H-bomb) test when it clearly was not, or not a successful one. That would be in contrast to the 2013 test which appeared to be seven kilotons and a complete detonation. The second test was a two kiloton weapon in 2009. Western intelligence believed that the original North Korean nuclear weapon design was flawed, as the first two tests were only a fraction of what they should have been. The first one was less than a kiloton and called in the trade, a "fizzle." The second test was less of a fizzle and apparently a modified version of the original design. Thus North Korea needed more tests to perfect their bomb design and was still years away from a useful nuclear weapon even though the second bomb appeared to be more effective. The third test in 2013 was considered overdue and that may have been because more time was spent designing and building a smaller device that could fit into a missile warhead. The second 2016 test is still something of a mystery. U.S. intelligence agencies have collected air samples (as have most other neighboring countries) from the test which can tell much about the design of the bomb. The January 2016 nuke appeared to be the same as the 2013 one. The second 2016 test in September appeared to be a better design and was about ten kilotons. North Korea insisted this was a fusion bomb. Air samples are still being collected on the test today but it will take weeks to analyze the samples and come to some useful conclusion. The sheer size of the most recent test indicated either a fusion bomb or an enhanced fission bomb. But for a yield of over 100 tons a fusion bomb is more likely. Such designs have been around and in use since the late 1940s. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 a lot of Russian nuclear weapons designers and technicians were out of a job and the pensions of the retired ones were suddenly worth a lot less. The security for nuclear weapons designs, especially much older ones, became a lot more lax. There were plenty of opportunities to obtain previously unavailable tech.
August 29, 2017: North Korea fired a Hwasong-12 ballistic missile over Japan. This was the 18th North Korean ballistic missile test of 2017 and this one appeared to break into pieces before it fell into the ocean after travelling 2,700 kilometers from North Korea. This was the second successful test of the Hwasong-12.
August 28, 2017: South Korea announced its largest increase (6.9 percent for 2018) in its defense budget since 2009. This is a direct result of the increasing threat from North Korea. Next year South Korea will spend $38 billion, which is more than a third larger than the annual GDP of North Korea (which spends about a third of GDP on defense compared to less than three percent in South Korea). South Korea is in the top ten of national economies, something which annoys North Korea but is admired by the other neighbors (including China). Meanwhile Japan is also increasing its defense spending by 2.5 percent in 2018 (to $48 billion). Japan, like China and the U.S., are among the top five economies on the planet. Japan, because of the post-World War II constitution the United States insisted on (and Japan did not much object to) has been largely demilitarized considering the size of its economy. That is changing and the U.S. has dropped nearly all restrictions on what weapons it will export to South Korea and Japan and is ignoring treaties it has with both nations that restrict what types of advanced weapons (like ballistic missiles and nukes) they can develop. The Americans would still prefer that South Korea and Japan not build nukes (which both these nations could easily and quickly do). China and Russia would also prefer that Japan and South Korea remain non-nuclear weapon nations. But if North Korean military ambitions and threats (especially against South Korea and Japan) are not curbed popular opinion in South Korea and Japan is becoming more comfortable with the having their own nukes.
August 25, 2017: China banned North Korea from establishing any new businesses in China or expanding existing ones. Russia has done the same, but the Chinese are a much larger market and apparently intent on following through. Meanwhile the August 15 order for Chinese firms to halt imports of minerals and seafood cost some Chinese firms with physical operations (trucks, mines) and warehouses in North Korea to suffer losses because they were given only 24 hours to get this stuff back to China and that was not enough time. This was especially true when many North Korean officials demanded special payments before these goods could be moved.
August 24, 2017: A Russian Tu-95 bomber flew south from a base north of Korea until it got close enough to South Korea to cause South Korean F-16s to come up and investigate. Russia said it was a scheduled training flight.