The excitement in both Korea’s over Kim Jong Un’s last minute agreement to attend the Winter Olympics in South Korea was tempered by the increasingly depressing news coming out of North Korea. While most North Koreans are encouraged by the Olympic participation they are also increasingly outspoken about the worsening economic conditions in the north. Many of the hundreds of support personnel going south with the Olympic team have to pay a bribe to do so. The 22 athletes were selected using other criteria.
Another complaint is the increase in North Korean video propaganda showing Kim Jong Un visiting workplaces and neighborhoods full of well fed and well-dressed people. North Koreans know better and are increasingly unafraid of speaking out and that includes members of the wealthy families (bribable government officials and entrepreneurs) who now have to pay more for everything because of the growing list of sanctions and the fact that China is actually enforcing most of them. For less affluent North Koreans this is the Winter Of Their Growing Misery because of endless government demands for additional “contributions” of cash or labor for government projects. Particularly unpopular are those projects that involving glorifying the Kim family.
The North Korean government is aware of this surge in bad attitudes and has ordered border police to arrest (rather than demand higher bribes) from South Koreans who are using Chinese cell phones on the border to talk to the outside world. While most of these calls are business or family related, they tend to include gossip about life in North Korea. This is considered treason and the guilty must be found and severely punished. The urgency of this task has been emphasized by arrests and punishment of border guards who took bribes to let guilty cell phone users walk away. Some police get around this by arresting innocent people who have been caught before and torturing them for a confession. This is easier in the cold weather when just leaving someone in an unheated room or cell for a day or so will gain cooperation (or leave the innocent prisoner with frostbite or worse). In an effort to deal with the growing popular anger at the demands for cash and free labor the government has ordered many government officials, who have long paid others to be their substitutes, to personally participate in mandated work. This is publicized and carried out in a wide enough scale to get into the gossip network. That did not work out as well as expected because the gossip also included details of the usually exempt officials not being very productive in these tasks (which usually involve manual labor) and often get released early or given the choice easier tasks. The photo ops are great though.
Similar pressure has been applied away from the border to find and punish more North Koreans who have been watching South Korean videos (of TV shows, movies and even news programs). Bribes still work, but often will only reduce the punishment. This can be a life saver if someone is sentenced to a long term in a labor camp. Even away from the border the demand for bribes is increasingly a matter of life-or-death. In areas of poor harvests local officials have been searching homes to find hidden food supplies to seize. In areas near military bases these searches are for the hungry troops and a growing number of farmers are fleeing their homes and farmland because being close to a military base means being regularly plundered to feed the hungry soldiers.
It’s not just hungry soldiers y0u have to worry about. The government responded to the Chinese enforcement of sanctions by banning most Chinese consumer products, even of items (like condoms) that North Korea has not been able to manufacture. For the security forces this was another opportunity to make money by sizing “illegal” Chinese products or obtaining bribes from those selling the stuff. Good times for the wrong people.
The arrival of hundreds of carefully screened (for loyalty and low-probability of defecting) North Koreans presents South Korea with a rare intelligence gathering opportunity. Although the North Koreans are carefully watched by their own security agents, there are limits (imposed by South Korea) to the number of such agents allowed to come along. To get around that North Korea has planted additional agents among the performers and athletes. This done by recruiting artists and athletes into the security forces and training them to handle both jobs. These agents are not the most accomplished athletes and artists but they are competent and their true vocation is usually unknown (or only suspected) by their fellow athletes and artists. These dual agents are well rewarded for this work and gain additional bonuses for successful missions like prevents defections during overseas trips, particularly to South Korea. This works both ways as South Korean agents get a chance to “spot the spy” up close. Normally these stealth security agents don’t break any laws, but they have the capability of doing so because their orders are to prevent defection by any means necessary. The ultimate prize for South Korean intelligence is to get one of the North Korea dual agents to defect. In the past that was believed to be highly unlikely. But this time around there is a lot of bad behavior in the North Korean security services and many senior operatives are questioning their own loyalty to the Kims. Meanwhile the South Koreans have found out that many members of the visiting North Korean delegation also have orders to use their time in South Korea to seek out foreigners (non-Koreans) who might be interested in doing business (legal or otherwise) with North Korea. These efforts are more likely to yield an arrest or two or, even better, some defections. This deal making goes both ways and the South Koreans are no longer willing to deal with the northerners are misguided kin who can be bribed into better behavior.
While the state controlled media in North Korea made much of the last-minute decision to attend the Winter Olympics what most North Koreans were talking about was the details of November 13th incident where a North Korean soldier (25 year old Cheong-Seong Oh) made a dramatic and very public escape into South Korea via the DMZ. The soldier survived being shot five times by pursuing North Korea troops and by the end of the month was recovering in South Korean hospital where he was treated for his wounds as well as a surprising number of intestinal parasites, especially roundworm. Oh was released from the hospital after 32 days. He began months of physical rehabilitation and continued discussions with South Korean intelligence about his life. One item leaked is that Oh and a friend were drinking heavily the day he decided to attempt an escape across the heavily guarded border. There are apparently a lot of other interesting details that have not yet been made public.
Despite the increased efforts to halt North Korean use of cell phones on the border to call China (and the outside world in general), details of the November incident arrived primarily via North Koreans operating businesses in China who are allowed to travel back and forth. Details of reactions by North Koreans got back to South Korea the same way. For North Koreans what was most amazing was the fact that South Korean soldiers rescued the defector from his North Korean pursuers and that South Korea doctors were able to quickly and effectively treat his extensive wounds. This confirmed the belief that South Korean medical care was indeed superior and this information was widely spread among the many families with sons in the army. North Koreans believed that Cheong-Seong Oh would not have survived his wounds if he had to depend on North Korean medical care. Also of interest was the South Korean shock at finding so many intestinal parasites in the soldier. That is not unusual in North Korea and has gotten worse since the 1990s. Roundworm is common in North Korea and the government provides medicine to soldiers twice a year but the soldiers have no faith in it. Those who can afford to purchase Chinese roundworm medicine on the black market. Moreover even if North Korean soldiers take the medicine the army provides most ignore the need to eat little or nothing the day before they take the medicine. Food is in short supply in the North Korean military and many soldiers refuse to pass up what little they get to ensure the roundworm medicine is effective. As a result most North Korean soldiers remain infected. When these details got back to South Korea it took some of glow off the appearance of a “united” Korean Winter Olympic team. South Koreans were already pretty pessimistic about North Korea and most South Koreans, including the younger ones, no longer look forward to unification. After 70 years of separation the two Koreas have grown apart, much more than the two Germanys did during the 45 years of the Cold War. Most South Koreans see the North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics at another propaganda scam by the north, which has been playing game since the two Koreas were created after World War II.
The Lesser Wall Of China
North Korea is not a major threat because it might invade South Korea or use its nuclear weapons. The more likely threat, especially to China, is that the North Korean economy will collapse to the point that the government fails as well. At that points millions of North Koreans find they can flee to China, Russia or South Korea. Most of these refugees will get to China where they will an unwelcome and expensive presence. Worse, the Chinese feel it is in their best interests to go in and clean up, as best they can, the mess left in North Korea. That might lead to disputes, or worse, with South Korea. North Korea has been sliding towards this disaster since the 1990s and it’s not a question of “if” but “when” as far as China is concerned.
Since early 2017 China has moved some 300,000 soldiers and border guards closer to the North Korean border. The redeployed troops include more anti-aircraft/missile systems as well as one armored division. The border guards and local police have been reinforced. In addition refugee camps have been built, just in case. Many of the repositioned troops agree that it is only a matter of time before North Korea collapses. The Chinese government has been less outspoken about what it thinks.
February 13, 2018: A Japanese Navy patrol aircraft photographed a stationary North Korean tanker 250 kilometers east of Shanghai tied up to a Chinese tanker and apparently transferring petroleum. The same North Korean tanker had been spotted (and photographed) by the Japanese in January doing a similar transfer further north in the East China Sea. The UN has put sanctions on eight North Korean cargo ships and tankers but these vessels can still do transfers at sea. This takes longer, is still illegal and is increasingly being witnessed (and photographed) by American, Japanese or South Korean patrol aircraft.
February 10, 2018: Kim Jong Un invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to come visit him in North Korea after the Winter Olympics so the two of them could discuss mutual concerns.
February 9, 2018: North Korea complained to the UN that it was unable to pay $184,000 in UN dues because of UN sanctions in mid-2017 that shut down international access of the North Korean bank that made the payments. The North Korean bank was sanctioned because it financed illegal activities.
February 8, 2018: In the north the military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the North Korean military was smaller than expected and only displayed one new missile system. This one was a SRBM (Short Range Ballistic Missile) that seemed similar to the Russian Iskander or South Korean Hyunmoo-2. The Iskander is an export item while the South Korean missile is not. 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. Recently it was announced there was now a longer range (500 kilometer) version; Hyunmoo 2C. North Korea hackers have stolen a lot of South Korean defense secrets in the last decade and that might have included details of the Hyunmoo 2. This is a missile North Korea is more likely to build than the more modern and complex Iskander.
There were four Hwasong-15 missiles displayed and all were on a Chinese transporter modified to be a TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher). It is known that North Korea had purchased six of those large (nine axle) commercial transporters and now it is known that at least four have been converted into TELs. China has cut off the supply of such dual use vehicles and North Korea has not got the resources to build its own.
February 7, 2018: Under increasing pressure from the UN and neighbors along the Pacific Coast, Russia has agreed to enforce the UN sanctions and send 12,000 North Korean workers back to their homeland. China has already sent back most of its North Korean workers but Russia has a labor shortage in its Far East territories and losing the 12,000 North Koreand will be felt. Russia always had a hard time getting its citizens to move to areas east of the Ural Mountains (that mark the divide between Europe and Asia) and the Far East saw its economic potential crippled by this. Russia says it will take until 2019 for all the North Korean workers to leave because the sanctions allow the workers to stay until their contracts are completed. Meanwhile Russia has to deal with accusations that it is participating in a North Korean sanctions scam where North Korean coal is shipped to the Russian Far East and then exported from Russia as Russian coal. The U.S. is also pressuring China to expel sixteen North Korean “businessmen” who the U.S. has identified as key people in North Korean smuggling (for the nuclear and missile programs) and fund raising (often illegally) activities.
In the last week the UN issued a report on North Korean efforts to violate economic sanctions. The UN investigators detailed how North Korea managed to earn nearly $200 million in 2017 by evading export sanctions. This was facilitated by a network of over 30 North Korea agents (usually identified as bankers) in foreign countries to organize smuggling operations. Most of the illegal export income came from selling at least 39 shipments of coal mainly to Russia and China (as well as South Korea, Malaysia, and Vietnam) and weapons to Burma (small arms and missiles) and Syria (chemical weapons). North Korean special forces have been training commandos in Mozambique and other African countries, something North Korea has been doing for decades. China responded with new rules making it more difficult for Chinese companies to get away with the false paperwork, turning off the automatic ship tracking devices and other scams North Korea uses to illegally export items to China. In addition China is calling for more sanctions on dual use items that are still legal for North Korea to import from China. A list of items was provided by China and included gas masks used by firefighters (that could also be used by soldiers), flight simulators for civilian aircraft that could easily be adapted to military aircraft and air scrubbers for underwater operations (ship repairs, offshore oil wells) that could also be used in submarines. The items in the Chinese list are all available from Chinese manufacturers.
February 6, 2018: North Korea replaced senior general (“vice marshal”) Hwang Pyong So, as head of its military General Political Bureau. Several of his deputies were dismissed as well. This came after a three month investigation of the General Political Bureau, which is supposed to ensure the loyalty of the entire military to the Kim family.
February 5, 2018: South Korea revealed that it had compiled a list of 36,000 foreigners who would not be allowed into South Korea, especially for the Winter Olympics, because they posed a security risk.
February 2, 2018: In the last three weeks South Korea put two new warships into service. One was a submarine, an 1,800 ton boat of the Jang Bogo-II class. This was the seventh of its type to enter service and two more are on the way. This sub is based on the German Type 214 and can operate underwater for ten days or more and has a powerful sensor and fire control system. This is one of the most capable subs in the region. The second new ship was the first FFX 2 frigate. This is an upgrade of the original FFXs that started entering service in 2013. There are already six FFXs, which are 3,200 ton ships armed with a 127mm gun, eight anti-ship or cruise missiles, three torpedo tubes, a RAM anti-missile launcher, and a Phalanx anti-missile gun system. There is space aft for two helicopters. The ships are highly automated, requiring a crew of only 140. Top speed is 61 kilometers an hour. Range is 8,000 kilometers. Most of the equipment (including electronics) and weapons are locally built. South Korea in building at least fifteen of these ships. South Korea apparently plans to build at least eight FFX 2 frigates as well. North Korea has a much smaller and less capable fleet and is having a lot of trouble keeping their ships operational.
February 1, 2018: In the north an army officer was sentence to death after being convicted for stealing, over two years, 3.5 tons of oil which he sold on the black market. North Koreans suspected the officer was not the only one involved and that had to pay a major part of his profits to higher ranking officials who were apparently not charged publically.
January 31, 2018:
South Korea is seeing more ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) violations by Chinese aircraft with one or two such intrusions a month. Some of this because in 2013
South Korea expanded its own ADIZ for the first time in 62 years. The ADIZ overlaps with the new one China declared a month earlier. South Korea was openly defying China, in part because the new Chinese ADIZ includes a bit of disputed submerged rock (Leodo) that South Korea has stationed troops on using a platform built on the rock. South Korea does not recognize the new Chinese ADIZ.
January 30, 2018: Japan’s first F-35A stealth fighter became operational this month. Nine more will arrive in 2018 and eventually Japan will have at least 42 F-35s. This means the Japanese F-35 may soon go up to intercept the growing number of Chinese and Russian warplanes that enter the Japanese ADIZ. Japan is also looking to purchase some F-35B aircraft. This is the version that can land and take off like a helicopter and could operate from Japanese helicopter carriers (which are described as destroyers but look like light carriers.) These carriers could carry six F-35Bs as well as come helicopters.
January 29, 2018: Japan has seen two more North Korean “ghost ships” come ashore in the last few weeks. As with earlier incidents the boats were drifting and had dead bodies of North Koreans in them. These people had starved to death or died of thirst in the waters between North Korea and Japan. This is all because since 2015 North Korean fishermen have been forced to take increasingly fatal risks to meet higher catch quotas set by the government. In 2017 Japan saw 104 of these ghost ships come ashore or close to shore. The outside world first became aware of this phenomena in late 2015. That’s when Japanese coast guard patrols found sixteen North Korean fishing boats drifting off the coast, most of them containing decomposing bodies. These were all coastal craft (about 12 meters/38 feet long) which cannot operate effectively on the high seas. At first it was unclear what was going on here. The most likely theory was that the boats were of fishermen who, desperate to fill new quotas, went out too far, ran out of fuel and were unable to call for rescue. These boats did not contain radio or GPS, were often poorly constructed, often had only a small outboard engine (which broke down or ran out of fuel) and appeared to have been drifting for weeks. The lack of navigational and radio gear is common aboard North Korean fishing boats. Another theory was that some these boats contained defectors who underestimated how much fuel it would take to reach South Korea or Japan or suffered engine failure or just got lost. The truth soon became clear as reports eventually got out of North Korea detailing dozens of North Korea boats that had gone out in 2015 and not returned because they were going too far out to get more valuable catches (squid and sailfish). Apparently over 150 North Korean fishermen disappeared off the east coast in 2015. Making this worse, the North Korean government was doing nothing to alleviate this situation. People in east coast fishing towns and villages are getting angry about all this. In 2016 the government demanded more from the fishing villages and more fishermen died. Japan found more of these death boats off its west coast in 2016 and 2017 set a new record.
January 27, 2018: China reported that oil and petroleum product exports to North Korea in December were basically zero. The only exception was a small quantity of aviation fuel to sustain what little commercial aviation activity still occurs in North Korea. Imports from North Korea were down 82 percent in December, the lowest level in four years.
January 26, 2018: China has installed radiation monitors along its North Korean border that immediately detect increased radiation and report it. This is to deal with North Korean nuclear weapons research and testing facilities near the border, some of which have released large quantities of radiation in 2017. There are also portable radiation monitors distributed to villages along the North Korean border. These are to be used if there is an American attack on North Korea with nuclear weapons. The monitors will alert local officials when it is time to evacuate because of highly radioactive fallout. These officials are also regularly briefed on plans (which are constantly changing) to deal with a flood of North Korea refugees. This might occur if there is a government collapse in North Korea.
January 25, 2018: The United States imposed new sanctions on two Chinese firms (and seven North Korean ones) as well as sixteen individual North Koreans and six North Korean owned ships. The Americans are going after North Korean and Chinese trading companies, which typically deal with a lot of different products and are traditionally able to adapt to new situations. Trading companies often get involved with smuggling.
January 20, 2018: Off the coast near Shanghai a Japanese P-3C maritime patrol aircraft took pictures of a North Korea tanker receiving large quantities of refined petroleum products from a tanker registered in the Dominican Republic. The Japanese aircraft was joining similar American and South Korean efforts to patrol areas where these illegal transfers have been taking place since late 2017. South Korea has seized some of the participating tankers. This transfer of prohibited goods was because of UN sanctions established in September 2017. North Korea has continued to come up with new ways to cope with the growing list of items it cannot legally import because of the sanctions.