In North Korea, the more effective sanctions have resulted in higher taxes for most people. Not so much in the form of cash, although families are increasingly told to contribute cash or goods for some local government project. The most burdensome tax is free labor, especially if it involves working outside during cold weather. The food shortages make this kind of “tax” increasingly difficult to handle. One can pay bribes to avoid the manual labor, but those are escalating as well. Making matters worse the food production in 2018 was unusually low (for various reasons) and the inability to find enough food for the military became acute. Morale took a big hit and criminal activity by troops increased. In response, the government has demanded a larger share of harvests. Better the unarmed farmers should suffer than all those armed and trained soldiers. Taking all these demands into account North Koreans are more heavily taxed than the much wealthier (and better fed) southerners. More North Koreans are becoming aware of this angle and it is another cause for growing unrest.
The need for more cash has spread to Christian churches in northeast China and South Korea. Many North Korean defectors join these churches and North Korea secret police have often done so as part of their job to collect information on “subversives.” In the last year, those orders have changed and the agents who are still active in these churches in northeast China have been ordered to change their focus to seeking business opportunities that will raise cash for the North Korean government. The agents have been told to seek out Church members with business connections in South Korea and develop those connections. These can be legal or illegal, as long as they are profitable. Collecting information on “enemies of the state” is now secondary to raising cash, the shortage of which has become the greatest enemy North Korean rulers currently face.
North Korean and local ethnic Korean-Chinese in northeast China have long been vulnerable to North Korean interference. If the North Korean agents can secretly get the Chinese police to back off persecuting their church or individual believers the agent gains increased influence in the church. This was long suspected but some of the recent senior defectors have apparently confirmed this. For Chinese and North Korean Christians this is just another aspect of persecution they have been increasingly subject to. Over the last decade, China has become increasingly hostile to local Christians and religions in general. In early 2017 China expelled 32 South Korean Christian missionaries who were working along the North Korean border. The missionaries have long worked among the many ethnic Koreans living in the area. Most of these ethnic Koreans are Chinese citizens but a growing number are illegal migrants from North Korea. China also prosecuted two South Korean clergymen for assisting North Koreans to escape from North Korea and into China. South Korean Christian missionaries who were working along the North Korean border. The missionaries have long worked among the many ethnic Koreans living near the North Korean border. Most of these ethnic Koreans are Chinese citizens but a growing number are illegal migrants from North Korea.
Since 2014, China has also applied more pressure to Christian charities and foreign Christians in general who are operating in China near the North Korean border. Many of these Christians (especially ethnic Koreans from the West) are known or suspected of helping North Koreans escape North Korea and get to South Korea. It is unlikely North Korea will go so far as to drop their nuclear weapons program because of all this assistance, even if that’s what China really wants. Nevertheless China is trying the carrot with North Korea although the stick (messing with the North Korean economy by halting trade and Chinese investment) has been used more and more The anti-Christian campaign was not confined to the North Korean border but throughout China in areas where Christians are a large (meaning over five percent) of the population. Christians have often been persecuted by the communist government and that usually happens again when more Chinese Christians are too active in practicing what they preach. In North Korea, the government also carried out a major crackdown on Christianity, which is seen as a subversive belief in the north and persecuted more aggressively than in China. North Korean leaders believe that religion is a major threat. So the secret police operating in China were spending a lot of time monitoring ethnic Korean Christians there, especially those who openly support helping North Koreans become Christian or practicing religion there. There have been more arrests of Christians in the north, even in the capital. People practice religion in private, but informers are everywhere and there ware rewards for those who bring in information the government wants. The militantly atheist North Korean government considers possession of a bible a major crime and has over 50,000 local Christians in prison camps. The death rate in those camps is high and North Korean Christians who have fled the country report many fellow Christians simply disappearing.
By 2007 Christianity was seen as a growing threat to communist control in North Korea. There were a rapidly expanding number of Christian converts. Since the early 1990s South Korean Christian churches have been working to get missionaries, as well as information about Christianity, into North Korea. They have succeeded, and North Koreans have taken to it, even at the risk of death or imprisonment. Missionaries (usually North Koreans who escaped to China, got religion and training, and returned) who get caught are executed or sent to prison. By 2007 it was believed there were over 10,000 Christians in the north and the number was (and still is) growing rapidly. These missionary activities have been an embarrassment to South Korea, which tends to play down the nastier aspects of North Korea (the regular executions, and the hundreds of thousands in harsh prison camps.)
At the moment the North Korean negotiations are stalemated with the Americans insisting on decisive and verifiable moves by North Korea to denuclearize and North Korea apparently unwilling to be serious about that and instead using its usual tactics of demanding substantial concessions (especially economic relief) from South Korea and the United States. That sort of thing does not work as well as in the past because by now it is obviously all a scam pretending to be sincere negotiations. North Korea is actually seeking some economic relief while it continues work on its nuclear weapons. Most of the work on improving the current crude nuclear weapon design North Korea has is done in research centers that can be easily hidden. North Korea is known to have built, over the last few years, a new underground complex near the Chinese border. The remote area where this underground facility is has been declared a high-security zone and it is known that some well taken care of people are doing high-tech work there. Kim needs time to complete the nuclear weapon improvements, then conduct another underground test which he knows the Americans and South Koreans can analyze (from seismic and atmospheric evidence) to determine how much of an improvement the new design is. Ultimately Kim could put one of those upgraded nuclear weapons on a ballistic missile and fire it out into the ocean where there would be the first open-air nuclear explosion since 1980 when China did it one last time before moving its tests underground. Most atmospheric testing stopped in the 1960s when the U.S., Russia and a growing list of other nuclear powers agreed to stop atmospheric testing. North Korea knows breaking that convention would get a lot of attention and, they hope, make everyone more willing to halt sanctions and submit to North Korean extortion efforts.
Making extortion demands more effective has long been a North Korean objective. That is why North Korea is always demanding South Korea and the Americans halt joint training exercises. A lot of that training has to do with quickly destroying or disabling artillery, rocket and missile weapons aimed at the South Korean capital. These defensive measures have accelerated since the 2010 North Korea attacks against South Korea (sinking a warship and shelling a South Korean island off the west coast). In 2012 South Korea announced plans to purchase and deploy over a thousand new ballistic and cruise missiles over the next five years. That happened and more besides. These missiles and air-launched missiles would be aimed at specific North Korean missile launchers and artillery positions. In the event of a war, the South Korean missiles would be quickly launched and every North Korean missile or artillery weapon eliminated would mean less destruction in South Korean territory. The North Korean plan had always been to start any future war with an enormous bombardment of the South Korean capital (Seoul) with shells, rockets, and missiles. Most would be aimed at the South Korean capital, and largest city, Seoul. This is where half the population and a quarter of the GDP are. South Koreans have more to lose than the northerners. Sprawling Seoul is 40-50 kilometers from the North Korea border. The city alone is 600 square kilometers, and the suburbs even larger. There are over 17,000 people per square kilometer (45,000 per square mile) in the city. The southerners know the north has nothing to lose, are desperate and heavily armed. What do you do? South Korea has responded by increasing its ability to quickly halt any rocket and artillery bombardment from the north. This would involve a lot of artillery and smart bomb use in a short time. Many North Korean targets would be destroyed, but the south has much more to lose, even if the northern attack is cut short. As part of this South Korean program, the Americans agreed to add more air-launched missiles to their South Korean stockpile and increase joint training exercises to integrate American forces in the South Korean effort to diminish the North Korean threat against Seoul. North Korea has been increasingly intent on getting those joint training efforts halted, usually by calling them “aggression” even though they are entirely defensive and about neutralizing the North Korean threat to Seoul.
North Korea has also intensified it's less publicized negotiating efforts by seeking to meet with American politicians and former government officials who might be more sympathetic to North Korea. It is no secret that there is always a political opposition in the American government and North Korea is seeking whatever it can from the opposition. North Korea has also been successful in dividing South Korea (which is more willing to make deals) and the United States. The Americans realize that South Korea has an edge in that they are “fellow Koreans” to North Korea and feel less vulnerable to a North Korean nuclear attack. The U.S. and Japan are another matter. Both are “foreigners” to both Koreans and Chinese and animosity for Japanese World War II atrocities is still an issue throughout East Asia. North Korea would be capable of firing a ballistic missile with a crude (might not work) nuke at Japan in a few years. If it were aimed at an American base (actually major American bases in Japan are used by Japanese and American troops) and the missiles were not intercepted the North Koreans would be admired by many East Asians even as their governments condemned this use of nuclear weapons. The Japanese are aware of their vulnerability and that explains their rapidly growing defense budget and the relative lack of nuclear anxiety in South Korea and China. North Korea always talks about nuking the United States but they will be able to hit Japan far sooner than North America.
China is willing to unofficially reduce sanctions as long as North Korea follows Chinese advice about reforming their economy and adopting more of the techniques that have enabled China to remain a communist police state while also benefitting from a free market economy. Kim Jong Un is apparently succeeding in convincing China that North Korea will accelerate its adoption of Chinese economic practices. That includes being more open to economic cooperation with South Korea. Since the 1990s South Korea and China have become major trading partners. South Koreans are becoming more willing to help North Korea economically even though that will mean less incentive for North Korea to denuclearize. At the moment it is clear that North Korea is not planning to denuclearize. Internal propaganda repeats that and much critical work on perfecting a nuke that could be used against Japan continues.
North Korea assumes Japan would never create their own nuclear arsenal (which would make it possible for Japan to hurt North Korea a lot more in retaliation for a North Korean nuclear attack.) So far the North Korean assessment of Japanese willingness to build nukes is correct but it is not a sure thing. In the first week of 2019, the Japanese government declared that North Korea was an imminent threat. If Japan goes nuclear it will have a defense against North Korea and Chinese nuclear threats. But the political cost, inside Japan and throughout Asia, would be high. The threat of Japan building nukes has been around for decades but it has become less of a bad joke and more of serious possibility as North Korea gets closer to having a working nuke and a willingness to use it against Japan.
Thought Police Send A Message To The Rich Kids
Another escalating North Korean demand is for North Koreas to stop watching South Korea TV and movies (via smuggled memory sticks or cards). To emphasize that point police recently arrested some 12 year old students, including one who was the son of a senior official, for watching South Korea videos. There are special prisons for kids this age and they are not pleasant. For the child of a senior official, it ruins future educational and career prospects. The secret police were apparently ordered to make an example that the children of senior officials would pay attention to. This unprecedented prosecution of children from high ranking families it part of a growing purge throughout the senior government and military leadership. As corruption and bad behavior (especially from family members) grows among the senior families Kim Jong Un has made it easier to get in trouble and lose your job (and possibly your freedom or life). Anyone related to a defector is at great risk as are those related to anyone caught with large amounts of bribe income. This large scale purge of high ranking bureaucrats is replacing experienced and often more talented officials with those who are, above all, more loyal to Kim. This is a common situation in dictatorships and the more loyal but less able officials tend to be a lot less effective in handling growing popular unrest, especially inside the military. As the old Chinese curse puts it, “May you live in interesting times.”
China continues to tolerate a certain amount of North Korean smuggling and financial misbehavior. But North Korea must be discreet because China is officially backing (if not actually enforcing) most of the economic sanctions on North Korea. Since a crackdown on Chinese banks a few years ago North Korea has moved most of its illegal finance operations out of China. North Korea has established a network of companies and banks that will act (for a fee) as middlemen in turning North Korean profits from foreign operations into products that can be shipped to North Korea without any real proof North Korea paid for it. Of course, it is obvious that these imports are not free foreign aid but the source of payment is difficult to trace, often more trouble than it is worth. But when the effort is made a new North Korea financial network is detected.
China is also helping North Korea control its side of the border by making it easier to purchase the latest Chinese surveillance camera equipment. China is a leader in this market and the Chinese government is a huge customer. The North Koreans are particularly interested in surveillance cameras that are easy to conceal the better to catch defectors or smugglers who believe they will not be detected. Same applies for border control guards who take bribes. North Korea does not want to stop smuggling but it does want most of it to be government controlled. This is vital to bring in the luxury goods (now banned by UN sanctions) via China. These luxury and consumer items are needed for gifts to reward successful officials and also to stock the “hard currency shops” that carry foreign goods that can be purchased using dollars, euros or yuan. With more donju (entrepreneurs) and government officials getting bribe income these shops are busier and in need of more frequent resupply.
Reckless Disregard On The Streets Of North Korea
A growing number of North Koreans don’t worry about being seen by police while misbehaving. Brawling in the streets and other places where alcohol is consumed is increasingly common. The rowdy North Koreans will often curse at the police and make threats (which are increasingly carried out against off-duty police walking alone at night). Younger North Koreans tend to be hostile to their own government and not afraid to sound off in public. They know there is safety in numbers because there are not enough prison camps to hold many of the disrespectful and these are expensive to operate (even though inmates are used as slave labor).
The growing antagonism towards the government, combined with the increased difficulty with making a living legally, has led to more crime among the young and some of that crime involves burglary and robbery. Some parts of the country suffer more from this than others. Areas around military bases are becoming particularly dangerous for the locals. All those malnourished conscripts (many serving for ten years) are increasingly turning to larceny on and off base. Sometimes you can get away with it by sharing the proceeds with an officer who will protect his felons.
Even the elite secret police units who are supposed to be bribe-proof will often pretend to be willing to take a bribe to let potential defectors (or, better yet, family groups) to get out of the country. At the last minute, the secret policeman will reveal that it was a scam and they are under arrests. This wins points from the secret policeman's superiors and improves chances of promotion. Some of these “bait and switch” agents will actually take a bribe and have it both ways.
Another North Korean Diplomat Defects
In early January, Italy revealed that Jo Song Gil the acting North Korean ambassador to Italy was officially missing, along with his wife since early last November. All Italian officials could say was that the couple had probably arranged asylum with a Western country and were now under the protection of that country. It turned out to be Italy, where the Italian government is protecting Jo until he can move to the United States, where he has applied for asylum. Such defections are usually kept very secret until the high-level defector has been debriefed and his ultimate refuge arranged. The last North Korean diplomat defection was in 2016 when one in Britain did so. After that North Korea increased security measures to prevent such defections and life for North Korean diplomats became more difficult.
Most of these defectors move to South Korea while others remain in some Western country. In this case, other senior defectors who personally know Jo are publicly urging him to come to South Korea where many of the 32,000 North Korean defectors are active in the reunification movement. The senior defectors, especially the diplomats, are very important because they have experience with the highest levels of the North Korean government and are invaluable in advising South Korean and foreign officials on what is actually happening in North Korea and how to deal with North Koreans in general. For example, Jo can provide useful details on what, if anything, is going on with the North Korean leadership and the current reunification and denuclearization talks. Senior North Korean defectors agree that the North Korean leader has no intention of giving up his nukes or moving forward with reunification. But before Jo can be heard from Western intel agencies have to be sure he is a genuine defector and not a North Korean agent. Such fake defector tactics are real, but rare. All North Korean defectors seeking asylum in South Korea must go through an intense screening to minimize the risk of a double agent getting through. For a senior defector that involves verifying details of the defectors kin back in North Korea and what is happening to them. These days Western intel organizations can reliably verify details about many things in North Korea, but it takes time and money to get the North Korean “information broker network” (which operates out of northeast China) to get the request in and responses out. This is one reason why North Korea has been cracking down on people smugglers and information brokers moving people, data and other items back and forth across the China/North Korea border. So far the North Korean crackdown has caused smuggler fees and delivery times to go up. As with the ancient Great Wall of China, it does not stop unwelcome invaders it just slows them down. A genuine senior defector can provide valuable updates on loyalty and effectiveness among the senior leadership in North Korea. This is crucial at a time like this, with growing signs of popular resistance to the Kim dictatorship and declining discipline among the few percent of North Koreans to keep the Kim government going. China has its own intel sources inside North Korea, which are considered to what South Korea and the United States have and a new senior defector provides updates on what the Chinese situation is within North Korea.
Jo Song Gil comes from a high-caste family that has produced a number of senior diplomats. Jo and his wife are believed to have two young children who may have defected with them (unless they were still back in North Korea as hostages to prevent defection by their parents.) Jo became acting ambassador in October 2017 because the regular ambassador had been expelled by Italy because of a recent North Korean nuclear test. In late November Jo was officially replaced as ambassador and at that time was believed reassigned back to North Korea.
January 2, 2019: China began the New Year by threatening Taiwan with invasion if it did not accept Chinese rule. China offers a deal similar to what Hong Kong got when it rejoined China when the British lease expired in 1997. That did not go as planned, as far as the people of Hong Kong were concerned. But while few Chinese in British Hong Kong ever considered Hong Kong an independent country, 70 percent of the people in Taiwan do. The Chinese do not want violence, not when threats and economic warfare have worked pretty well so far. The costs of a war with Taiwan would be substantial, even if it did not trigger a wider war with the United States. The risk of an armed conflict is an interruption in economic activity in China. It is a particularly bad time for that sort of thing right now. In response, Taiwan suggested that China try democracy as a solution for the growing political and economic problems the mainland Chinese are facing. That sounds attractive to many Chinese who note that it has worked in Singapore, as well as Taiwan. South Korea and Japan are also good examples because those two nations have cultures largely derived from Chinese practices. But the Chinese leadership is not interested.
January 10, 2019: The South Korean president announced he will pressure the United States to ease sanctions on North Korea.
January 7, 2019: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in China, aboard his private train, for a fourth visit. This one lasted four days and apparently consisted of Chinese officials reminding Kim how important it is for the Kim dynasties’ survival that Kim Jong Un pay attention to Chinese economic advice. Kim was taken to several Chinese workplaces to see the Chinese economy in action and have it explained to him how it would work in North Korea. Kim has been more cooperative with China than with South Korea or the United States and for good reason. China is the only reliable and effective ally North Korea has. In the past, North Korea has ignored and embarrassed China but no more.
North Korea has been at odds with China ever since Kim Jong Un took power in 2012. In 2014 Kim was told that China would not come to the aid of the current North Korean government if the government collapses or starts a war. Since 2014 China has been cracking down on North Korean use of China for illegal imports and exports. Nothing seemed to work for China when it came to North Korea (or South Korea for that matter). This was humiliating for the Chinese leaders and while the Chinese government does not discuss this, many Chinese do talk about this disrespect and the Chinese leaders pay attention to that. But what could China do about an increasingly troublesome and disrespectful North Korean leadership? North Korea’s traditional allies China and Russia, have found that, unlike before 2012, they now had little sway over the North Korean government. The Russians could ignore all this but China could not. To make matters worse China found itself being publicly insulted by North Korea, something that was unknown before Kim Jong Un came to power. In response, China began publicly criticizing things that were wrong in North Korea (mismanagement, nuclear weapons, criminality in general). China sent senior officials to North Korea in late 2015 to spell out in some detail the consequences of continued bad behavior. That did not fix the problem. As usual, when it comes to North Korea the situation was expected to get very interesting. Especially since China offered a carrot as well as a stick. Following the 2015 warning, Chinese censors were ordered to suppress popular criticism of North Korea and to have state-controlled media say nice things about Kim Jong Un for a while. Thus China offers North Korea a choice; cooperate and be rewarded or keep disrespecting their “elder brother” and suffer the consequences. Until 2018 North Korea had not cooperated but China was patient and eventually, reality caught up with the troublesome (and now in big trouble) Kim Jong Un. The elder brother is being listened to, respected and obeyed.
December 27, 2018: South Korea complained to China that another Chinese military aircraft (apparently a Y-9 recon aircraft) had violated South Koreas’ ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) and flew in and out of the ADIZ three times before leaving. South Korea sent warplanes aloft to confront the intruder. This is the eighth such intrusion this year. In 2013 China announced a new ADIZ that overlapped South Korean, Philippine and Japanese air space. China demanded that any foreign military or commercial aircraft request permission before flying into this zone. South Korea and Japan protested while the United States quickly flew some B-52s into the disputed zone without asking for Chinese permission. China protested and the United States ignored them just as China ignores South Korean protests.
December 26, 2018: On the DMZ a ceremony was held to mark the reconnection of South Korean and North Korean rail lines for the first time since the 1950s. The ceremony was mainly for show since the current sanctions prevent the two Koreas from going any further. Worse, it turns out that the North Korean rail network needs major upgrades and refurbishment before it can handle more traffic and do so at efficient levels (higher speeds by heavier rail cars for longer periods). In 2018 South Korean rail officials were allowed to make a personal inspection of key North Korean rail lines and found the conditions worse than expected. North Korea allowed South Korea engines and railroad cars to be used. Since the 1990s much less has been spent on repairs and maintenance and the North Korea railroads are increasingly unusable. Despite that reviving rail links between the two Koreas has been a goal for more than five years. For both Koreas, there are tantalizing trade possibilities. For example, an effective rail link could lead to business for North Korea by allowing South Korean goods to move through North Korea to China, Russia and (via the Trans-Siberian rail line) the rest of Eurasia. This is very concrete optimism for all three countries and is being backed by cash commitments from Russia and South Korea. It all depends on the northern leaders agreeing that economic reforms are the way to salvation. At the moment the northern elite fears any change because it might bring revolution. But the change is happening anyway and the more affluent neighbors are trying to explain it all to the perplexed northern leadership.
December 21, 2018: Japan approved a record defense budget of $47 billion for 2019. This is the fifth year that Japan has increased defense spending and it is all about North Korea and China. This comes less than two weeks after South Korea announced another record increase (8.3 percent) in its defense budget. In 2019 South Korea will spend $43 billion on its military. That’s nearly as much as Japan (with a much larger economy) spends. The 2018 South Korea budget had the largest increase (6.9 percent) in the defense budget since 2009. Although North Korea openly complains about how unfair and unfriendly these increases are they are a direct result of the increasing threat from North Korea. The annual South Korean defense budget 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).
The United States and South Korea agreed to send North Korea anti-flu drugs to deal with the particularly nasty strain of influenza this year. The disease constantly evolves and the versions that appear each year vary in their impact on patients. Because of the flu problems in North Korea, it is believed that these drugs will actually be used and not sold (on North Korean or Chinese markets) for hard currency, which North Korea values more than the health of its citizens.
December 20, 2018: South Korea revealed a hacker had used a spearfishing attack to get into a government network that aided North Korean defectors. The hackers got away with names and other personal information on 997 North Koreans living in South Korea. North Korea is always seeking such information, and often getting it, and using the data to threaten defectors more effectively and attempt to persuade some to return to North Korea (and provide propaganda about how disappointing life in South Korea is, to discourage more defections) or become spies for North Korea. These intimidation efforts tend to backfire but succeed often enough to seem worthwhile to North Korea. Some defectors are persuaded to return, but their propaganda (lectures, TV appearances and so on) have little impact on North Koreans. Some spies are recruited, but most are apparently double agents, who quietly contact South Korea intelligence about the North Korean offer and arrange to get involved in order to collect information on North Korean espionage other secret operations in South Korea.
The South Korea navy received the last of four LST II class amphibious assault ships from a local shipbuilder. The new LST will require 3-4 months of crew training and sea trials before it is ready for service. The LST IIs are 7,100 ton vessels that can carry 300 hundred troops as well as 10-20 vehicles. There is a landing pad that can hold two helicopters. Two smaller landing craft that can run up on a beach are also carried. The first ship entered service in 2015 and are part of an expansion of South Korea amphibious forces. The South Korean Marine Corps is being expanded from 25,000 men to 32,000 by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, South Korea is becoming a major builder of modern warships. Not just in the region but worldwide.
December 19, 2018: The international air patrol off the west coast of North Korea has seen many of its aircraft harassed by Chinese jet fighters. The patrol, in international waters, uses large, slow, maritime patrol aircraft and aircraft from Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have complained, and documented, the harassment efforts by the Chinese. The patrol seeks out ships smuggling goods for North Korea. This includes ships (some of them known by name and type) that are used to transfer smuggled goods (including oil) at sea to North Korea ships.
December 14, 2018: In South Korea, Thai naval officers accepted delivery of a 3,700 ton frigate recently completed in South Korea. The HTMS Tachin will arrive in Thailand on January 6th. The 136 man crew are already in South Korea. Another of these frigates is being assembled in Thailand.