One way to measure social and political change in North Korea is to observe how people act during the annual Chuseok harvest festival. This is a three day harvest/thanksgiving holiday celebrated in both Koreas as well as among ethnic Korean communities in northeast China and around the world. The date is determined by a lunar calendar so the date shifts a bit each year. In 2017 it was October 3-5 and details of how it went in North Korea take a while to filter out. Chuseok is mostly about family and even in North Korea the government backs off on the social controls during Chuseok and tolerates words and actions that are considered crimes the rest of the year. In this respect Chuseok became even more important as a political weather vane. For example in 2011 shortages were so severe that most North Koreans were unable to obtain extra food for Chuseok. This was unprecedented and ever since people have depended more and more on the markets (both legal and illegal) for their Chuseok needs. Each year less effort was devoted to praising the Kim dynasty, which had long become a part of Chuseok in North Korea because the state was no longer the only source for the extra food and other special items needed for a proper celebration. One way the Kim dynasty demonstrated its legitimacy was by literally delivering the goods for Chuseok. Starting in 2011 that no longer happened. The government made this worse with official announcements asking people to tone down Chuseok feasts. That was something of an admission of failure that the Kim dynasty could no longer perform key duties and North Koreans took that as a sign that they had to depend on themselves and organizations other than the Kim government for key items. During 2017 Chuseok there was little recognition given the Kim dynasty during the family centric festivities. More attention is now paid to how family businesses are doing and the Kim family was largely ignored.
The chatter and rumors in North Korea are increasingly about food and the absence of it. There are reports (unverified so far) of dead bodies of starvation victims being found in public places (where begging is tolerated). There are a growing number of verified incidents where soldiers and police steal food from farmers or, in some cases, border guards make quick trips into China to steal food and then hurry back to their guard posts on the North Korean side of the river. These food thefts are more common during the harvest periods and have become a major problem in areas near the South Korean border where most of the North Korean army is concentrated. Farmers in these areas have organized self-defense associations to guard fields and discourage night raids by hungry, and usually unarmed, soldiers. In some cases the soldier food raids are well organized and involve hundreds of troops. In at least one case it involved Special Forces troops, who normally don’t have food supply problems. At this point North Korean farmers have come to consider their armed forces a hostile force, especially at harvest time.
Since the great famine of the 1990s the military has been depending more and more on their own gardens and farms for food but now the government is demanding a portion of those harvests as well. This has hurt morale of the troops, who now spend a lot of their time growing their own food to replace the declining shipments from the government. For the government the logic behind this move is to provide, by any means necessary, adequate food to the most reliable troops. Since 2010 the North Korean military has been quite obviously in bad shape. This was the result of two decades of shrinking budgets, reduced training and little new equipment. The only big changes have been a reorganization of the reserves (disbanding many divisions and transferring their equipment to active duty units that needed it more) and expanding the "Special Forces", which are now 16 percent of all troops and apparently the only ones the government feels it can depend on. Since 2010 Special Forces have been expanded to at least 180,000 troops. Keeping the armed forces loyal is apparently the main function of the North Korean Special Forces, not leading another invasion of the south. The Special Forces are largely light infantry trained and equipped for sneaking through South Korean front lines and cause trouble. Some of these troops have complained of food shortages so it is imperative that the Special Forces get special treatment. But now the government obviously can’t keep the Special Forces well fed.
It’s not just the farmers who have to fear lawless (and generally unpunished) behavior. There have been a growing number of attacks on police and even the secret police. Worse yet a growing number of these attacks go unsolved. People no longer assist the police with criminal investigations because the corruption in the security services has turned the police into “the enemy” as far as most North Koreans are concerned. There are a growing number of areas in North Korea where police operate with more care for their personal safety. The consequences of attacking the police are as dire as ever but more and more North Koreans don’t care and consider themselves put in an impossible situation. The hostility to police also extends to the army. For example, in 2015 the army was ordered to organize special “RRFs” (Rapid Reaction Forces) of trusted troops to make these surprise inspections of trains and other situations where large groups of civilians in confined spaces had to be confronted. The RRF duty was popular because troops got off base and there’s some opportunity to engage in a little looting while searching luggage or whatever. The RRFs were not popular with the average North Korean, but then at this point neither is much of anything the government does. But then the RRFs began to show up in more situations where there seemed to be no need for them but did provide an opportunity for dozen or so armed soldiers to extort or steal. By mid-2017 there were more and more reports of merchants (and customers) at legal markets attacking the RRFs (with clubs, thrown objects and they threat of mass violence) and driving the troops away. The dispirited RRF soldiers spread the word that the people are becoming very angry.
This new attitude has also led to more graffiti and defacing of the thousands of “sacred” statutes and paintings honoring the Kim dynasty. The additional guards assigned to these sites is obvious and often they are not police but local party officials assigned the duty. These extra shrine guards are even showing up in the capital, Pyongyang, which is normally full of well-cared for and loyal North Koreans. No more. The extra security is especially needed in areas outside the capital where energy shortages mean many shrines are unlit at night. Without security guards these shrines are easy targets for vandals (or patriots, depending on your political beliefs).
Meanwhile there is more crime in general. With the police kept busy guarding Kim dynasty shrines and collecting additional fees (for themselves and at the order of the government) there is less time to deal with robbery, burglary and family violence (over money, a common cause worldwide). This inattention to common criminals has turned frequently fatal because gangs that loan money to desperate individuals at high interest rates have found that the police are too busy to go after loan shark debt collectors, who will threaten delinquent borrowers with all sorts of plausible punishment (beatings, kidnapping, rape, torture and even murder). Word of these threats gets around and there are a growing number of debtors committing suicide over unpayable debts. Some of these debt suicides have involved small amounts of money that bought increasingly expensive basic food items in the legal markets.
Visible Signs of Distress
North Korean domestic propaganda has been all about the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and how the success of these programs was going to result in great things. What the propaganda does not dwell on is what exactly the “great things” are. For most North Korean it means more food and fewer demands from the government for additional work people have little energy for and additional taxes the force people to choose between hunger (paying) and not paying (and risk prison camp in order to buy more food). Even the elite troops, like the Special Forces and the missile forces (crews and support troops for ballistic missiles) are feeling the hunger. Leader Kim Jong Un often visits the missile troops after a successful launch of a new type of missile. The troops know that these visits are traditionally accompanied by “gifts” from the supreme leader. That was true until 2017 when the gifts included less (or no) food. In 2017 the food has been absent or present in much smaller quantities. Worse, not everyone in the units is getting gifts and the troops left out have been complaining. A job with a missile unit is still a good deal, with more and better food along with more electricity and fuel. But the perks are eroding and “special” troops with kin (often siblings) in less elite units eventually discover that it is much worse in the no-special military. Often much worse. Families notice this during the occasional times soldiers can visit family. Troops from elite units are not skinny and irritable. Most troops are spending more time with non-military duties and act more like prison inmates. Troops from elite units have a sense of purpose. People notice and the bad news gets around despite increased government efforts to suppress the spread of such information. What happens when everyone realizes that the higher taxes and growing food shortages are not just a local misfortune (the official government explanation for such things.)
Meanwhile there have been no more North Korean missiles launched since early September. The many missile launched and another nuclear test in 2017 have not made life better for North Koreans, or the North Korean government. China is sending a senior official to North Korea to discuss matters. This comes after China quietly lifted, at the end of October, most of the economic punishments it had at on South Korea because the South Koreans insisted on installing an American made THAAD anti-missile system. While China is backing off, the Chinese have made a point. The temporary interruption of trade with South Korea did not hurt China as much as it did South Korea and it really had no significant impact on the economies of either country. Meanwhile North Korea is visibly suffering from the increased sanctions this years. China wants Kim Jong Un to deal with the problem and not become a victim of it.
Data Brokers Pose Major Threat
In North Korea the government appears to be taking telephone directories out of circulation. This is being done to thwart the growing popularity of selling mundane government data for extra cash. Since 2000 the growing number of Chinese business travelers to North Korea and the continued use of Chinese cell phones by North Koreans along the border has produced a steady flow of information about conditions there. Intelligence agencies love this sort of thing and that has created a new way to make money in northeastern China; collecting verbal news and passing it onto intel personnel working out of foreign embassies. Cell phone photos and videos are particularly valuable, and can also be sold to foreign journalists. There are also more North Koreans willing to risk prison or execution by smuggling out government documents and publications. Foreign intel pay well for these as well. It is easier to get the data out because of legal tech available in North Korea.
The most reliable means of smuggling data is the SIM (Subscriber Identification Module) cards still found in North Korea. In most parts of the world you can move your cell phone service from one phone to another by simply removing the small (25x14mm and smaller) SIM "card" from one phone and inserting it in another. SIM cards can also be bought just for the minutes stored on them and also store data. North Korea knows that SIM cards are easily smuggled in because they are so small. Similar sized cards (MicroSD) are cheap (a $5-$10 Chinese card carries 32 gigabytes of data). Normally these tiny cards are used for smuggling foreign (often South Korean) movies and TV shows. But one can be crammed full of even more valuable cell phone photos of government documents, like phone directories and the like.
The market for this data in China remains strong. The sheer volume of data makes it possible to use statistical analysis software to weed out fabricated stuff and get a sense of what it really going on in North Korea. This is how remarkable changes in North Korea were detected and verified. This included open disdain North Koreans, especially members of the ruling class, quickly developed for their new (since 2011) ruler Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Un knew it and so did many outside North Korea because of the Chinese data brokers and the thriving market in documents and cell phone pictures of anything new in North Korea.
One of the popular new trends is documenting the impact of increased sanctions. Prices in the legal and illegal markets is an important aspect of this as is the prices for luxury real estate. There are now families who can afford this sort of thing. Because North Korea can no longer afford to supply the people with essentials it was forced to allow the private economy to develop and eventually flourish as people did whatever they could to survive. From then on the government, seeing no other option, gradually legalized the free markets and now has created an institution that is becoming more powerful than the state itself. Entrepreneurs are using all the foreign cash to take over government owned businesses and hire the loyalty of the security services. New laws make it easier for private businesses to hire people. At this point North Korea cannot afford to destroy the free markets as that would be a form of suicide for the rulers. China has long urged North Korea to do this as it what the Chinese communists did to survive in the 1980s and it worked well. Thus in the face of more sanctions the North Korean government is calling on its new “donju” (entrepreneurs) to concentrate on finding ways to make North Korean versions of the many foreign (especially South Korean) consumer products that are so popular in the north (where they are very illegal.) The donju have been successful at this where the government has usually failed and the government is now openly encouraging the donju to keep at it. The government has also allowed the donju to build new luxury (by North Korean standards) housing and upgrade existing structures. The data brokers have noted that by mid-2017 the new economic sanctions caused prices for luxury housing to fall for first time. Make of that what you will.
The North Korean government is also imposing more and more taxes (mostly on the donju) and fees (0n everyone). North Korea had long claimed that it did not “tax its people” but now the taxes and fees are proliferating like weeds. The police love it because enforcement means more work (and bribes) for them. There are more illegal things to spend the illegal cash on. The collapsing socialist economy means prostitution is back in a big way and recreational drugs (especially meth) are more widely available. Desperate women find that they can trade sex in payment for a bribe and that some security officials prefer the bribe be paid that way.
The sanctions also threaten the data brokers to a certain extent. Most North Korean businesses in China are shutting down and that means a lot fewer North Koreans going back and forth to supply the workers, security officials and supervisors that kept these lucrative (especially for the Kim government) enterprises operating. There were over a hundred North Korean restaurants in northern China and all are out of business. Also gone are dozens of larger but less public enterprises. The sanctions also mean fewer Chinese business people in North Korea. This makes it more expensive to get those MicroSD cards full of data broker material out. Yet the new sanctions have merely increased the prices data brokers charge, not diminished demand for their product. North Korea has noticed and is very visibly anyone actually or possibly connected with the data brokers.
North Korea has become more active with new smuggling and other illegal schemes to raise foreign currency. China knows this because, like most police states, the police have close (if not always cordial) connections with the criminal underground. The Chinese police have made it known that useful information on new North Korean scams would earn a larger rewards (including the prized “get out of jail free” one). Working with North Korea has long been profitable for Chinese gangsters in the northeast but now a lot of the usual methods no longer work and the North Koreans have been using riskier and less profitable scams to keep the foreign currency coming. Not all the Chinese gangs are getting in on this new stuff, often because the Chinese criminals (even the ethnic Korean ones) consider it too risky.
Unlike North Korea China tolerates most of the chatter on the Internet and in the streets. Anyone can monitor this and news of Chinese middlemen that depended on (and grew rich from) this illegal trade were in big trouble became widely known. 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 come to be seen by Chinese as 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 close to the border. 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.
This is especially true now because word is spreading in China about how businesses in the northeast that had to send most of their North Korean workers back to North Korea (as China enforced sanctions) responded. The North Korea workers had to be replaced and local Chinese had to be hired and paid higher wages (than either the North Koreans or local Chinese). Most Chinese knew that the North Korean workers were cheaper but Chinese media were not allowed to dwell on Chinese workers that lost jobs (or were paid less) because of the many cheaper North Korean workers. The North Korean workers also don’t complain about poor working conditions or mistreatment. It is things like this that account for China 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.
Russia has also agreed to strictly enforce the latest round of sanctions on North Korea, including the ones aimed at North Korean use of Russian and Chinese banks to avoid detection by sanction investigators. But considering the degree of corruption in Russia (compared to China, which is cracking down on corruption big time) it is believed North Korea has found ways to continue doing business via Russia. So far Russia, and foreign observers, have been reporting failed North Korean attempts to continue doing business via Russia. The problem is the North Koreans keep trying despite getting caught. This may be due to the fact that Russia is the only neighbor where North Korea has any chance at all of rebuilding smuggling networks.
Slavers Gone Wild
Since 2015 many poverty stricken North Koreans have, in effect, been selling their children into slavery. The government is allowing orphans to be subject to slavery-like conditions, not just for their childhood but into their adult lives as well. This sort of thing is very unpopular in rural areas where the poverty is worse. Many North Korean men see themselves as serving as slaves for ten years of mandatory service in the military, but then you get out. The government is increasingly forcing poor or hostile (to the government) North Koreans into slavery for life. The government has also ordered the growing number of homeless children taken off the streets by any means. That usually means dealing with the slavers.
Since 2012 the government has seen the growing number of homeless kids as a problem and tried several ways to get them off out of sight. In 2013 the police were ordered to pick up the growing number of homeless children (seen begging or just running wild even by foreign visitors) and put them under the control of local government. This meant putting the kids into state-run orphanages. Because of the food and other shortages the government didn’t have the resources to house and feed all these homeless kids adequately. As a result many of those rounded up in 2013 ran away from the hard work and short rations at the orphanages, seeing their survival prospects better on the streets. Most of these kids are orphans, their parents having died or disappeared into prison camps, China or elsewhere in North Korea. The poverty and privation is so great in the north that the extended family no longer provides a safety net and there is often no kin to take in abandoned or orphaned children. So the children (many ten and under) just hit the streets and become a source of criminal activity and, more embarrassing for the government, defectors who get to China and commit a lot of crimes or worse yet, tell the truth about how life is in North Korea. Some North Korean officials want to just quietly kill these “worthless children” but senior officials know that could be a public-relations disaster and forbid it, officially, at least for now. The North Korean secret police often make people just disappear but if it is done on a large scale mistakes are likely to be made and the truth revealed. The current solution appears to capture the homeless kids and send them to the slave labor facilities where, unless they show themselves as extremely loyal to the state, they will spend the rest of their lives as slaves.
November 14, 2017: The United States released more details on North Korean hacking operations. This is another reaction to the earlier revelation that North Korea was the source of WannaCry ransomware outbreak in May 2017. Internet security firms and intel agencies, after scrutinizing WannaCry in detail, saw that it was probably the work of North Korean hackers. The U.S. government now confirms that North Korean hackers have been launching increasingly costly attacks. The one nicknamed Hidden Cobra has been active since 2009. These hackers are mainly about making money, not espionage or Cyber War. The new warnings provide confirmation that North Korea has been using an even more effective bit of malware called Fallchill since 2016 and this one is out to make more money as well as infect more government and corporate systems and stay hidden until commanded to do some damage. The U.S. has become more effective at blocking North Korean access to the international banking system thus making Fallchill and Hidden Cobra more important for North Korea.
November 13, 2017: On the DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone), at the JSA (Joint Security Area), a North Korean soldier escaped into South Korea despite being shot five times by four other North Koreans. The wounded escapee was rushed to a hospital and apparently will recover. The JSA is the only place on the DMZ where soldiers from north and south face each other up close. The JSA is where occasional meeting are held and marks the spot where the July 1953 armistice was signed.
The DMZ is 243 kilometers long and four kilometers wide. No people are allowed inside most of the DMZ. North Korea has been particularly careful selecting troops to serve in the JSA because it is so easy to defect. The case today involved one of these soldiers, who sought to drive a North Korean jeep into South Korea. The jeep hit an obstacle and a wheel came off, forcing the soldier to sprint the rest of the way while other North Koreas opened fire, getting off about 40 rounds (mostly from pistols) before the defector was about 50 meters into South Korea and ducked behind some cover. He then passed out and was quickly moved out of the area by South Korean troops.
November 12, 2017: In a rare move the U.S. Navy has assembled three carrier task force off Korea. These will begin four days of joint maneuvers with South Korean warships on the 14th. The Americans only concentrate this much naval power when there is a major crisis. The assembled force includes 13 ships equipped with the Aegis defense system, two of them South Korean. The American warships then trained separately with Japanese naval forces. For political reasons it is still not acceptable for South Korean and Japanese warships to train together.
November 9, 2017: A hacker known as Vigilante briefly hijacked the North Korean short wave station that used the 6400 kHz shortwave band for propaganda and intelligence support broadcasts. The hacker replaced the North Korean programming with a 1980s hit “The Final Countdown.” Vigilante had previously hacked the Russian Ministry of Public Affairs website and several Islamic terrorist websites.
November 7, 2017: China has banned all Chinese tourists from the North Korean capital. This leaves only day trips to the North Korea border town of Sinuiju, which is just opposite Dandong, a Chinese city where most Chinese tourists depart from. Tourism has earned North Korea about $50 million a year in foreign currency but 80 percent of the tourists are Chinese and now most of that business has been cut since it is the multi-day trips that provide most of the foreign currency spending.
November 6, 2017: North Korea ordered emergency meetings for its neighborhood watch (local informers) where police officials informed them that the American president was visiting South Korea and there was danger of attack by the Americans or South Korea. The leaders of the informants were told to double check the count of “floaters” (people in the area without permission, usually those desperate for food or employment to survive) and anything suspicious. The informers are a key element in controlling the population and are taken care of. But a successful informer learns to tell the police or government or officials (whenever possible) what they want to hear. It keeps the boss happy and in a good mood. But in stressful situations a percentage of the informants will blurt out what is actually happening and this was one of those times. These informers made it clear that most North Koreans knew all about the bellicose American president and the threats of American and South Korean commandos carrying out raids to kill Kim Jong Un and didn’t seem concerned about it. Most North Koreans knew that admitting they knew stuff like that would imply they were disloyal and lead only to trouble. And no, there was no unusual activity with the floaters but with the cold weather they were hungrier and more desperate but none seemed like they were part of some commando operation. Such occasional outbursts of honesty and unwelcome news is tolerated. The informers were also unhappy about being suddenly called out for more meetings and told to check their count of floaters. But they didn’t have to tell the secret police and local Workers Party officials that.
November 3, 2017: Senior North Korean officials who have escaped from North Korea in the past year or so seem to agree that one the greatest vulnerabilities of North Korea is China suddenly halting its cooperation with North Korea to make life difficult for North Koreans who escape into China. Most of these North Koreans would prefer to move through China to somewhere else, preferably South Korea or the West. China knows this and has occasionally lifted their curbs on North Korean illegal migrants. This is done only briefly to maintain some control over North Korea. Thus China has not lifted these travel restrictions for long periods. These former North Korean officials point out that lifting the curbs would make it much easier for more people like themselves to get out. But China appears to want those North Koreans to stay where they are in case China has to stage a coup and install a more pro-China government. Such a coup is very risky, especially with North Korea building nuclear weapons. But that also makes such a coup more likely if China decided it has no choice but to shut down the Kim dynasty.
November 2, 2017: The U.S. announced that the last 0f 44 of the 22 ton GBI (Ground Based Interceptor) anti-missile missiles were installed in a silo at Fort Greely Alaska. This is a key component of the GMD (Ground-Based Midcourse Defense) anti-missile system in Alaska that protects North America from long range ballistic missiles from North Korea, China or Russia. Testing of the GBI began in 2006 and 55 percent of the tests so far have been successful. Most GBIs are in Alaska but some silos are at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California where most of the test launches occur.
November 1, 2017: China arrested two North Korean agents who had apparently been sent to China to assassinate Kim Han Sol, the 22 year old nephew of Kim Jong Un and son of Kim Jong Nam, the older (45 at his death) brother of Kim Jong Un. The North Korean ruler had
Kim Jong Nam
assassinated in Malaysia earlier in 2017. It is unclear what is going on with the latest murder plot. Most North Koreans believed that it was shameful for a brother to murder his older brother, especially when the elder brother was not a real threat to the younger one. All the older brother wanted to do was get out of North Korea, which is what most North Koreans want to do. Thus the details of what happened to the older brother were big news in North Korea, even if it could only be discussed in whispers. Many North Koreans were not surprised that the older brother was murdered in Malaysia on February 14th using droplets of VX nerve gas. North Koreans are amazed at the lengths the younger brother has gone to try and suppress the details and get the body back to North Korea where it could be destroyed. Most North Koreans saw Kim Jong Nam as the tragic victim of a paranoid and vicious younger brother, who happens to be the hereditary ruler of North Korea. Kim Jong Un
apparently unsure how this w
all work out. Kim Jong Nam
and his family
been living in China since 2002 because his father lost faith in his ability to become the next Kim to rule North Korea. This break became official in 2003. Kim Jong Nam was seen as too independent minded and undisciplined for the job. The Chinese quietly granted Kim Jong Nam sanctuary (and citizenship), and blocked any North Korean attempts to get him back or kill him.
October 31, 2017: in North Korea some 200 soldiers and family members are being treated for radiation poisoning at the Punggye-ri nuclear facility. Chinese radiation monitors on the North Korean border recorded levels were up seven percent a week after the September 3rd test and were apparently much higher in North Korea. 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. Earlier in October there was a tunnel construction accident in Mantapsan Mountain near Punggye-ri. A hundred workers were trapped but they died, along with about a hundred tunnel workers sent to rescue them when a second collapse occurred. This all makes the nuclear weapons program appear to be a threat to North Koreans as well.
October 20, 2017: In September North Korea imported 17,300 tons of grains from China, the main source of such goods. This is 40 percent less than what was imported during August. It is unclear if this is because the drought in North Korea is not as bad as believed or that North Korea cannot afford to import more grain from China (which will not sell to North Korea on credit). Satellite analysis of North Korean crops still indicates problems and all reports from North Korea indicate hunger is increasing.