Korea: Big Winds, Big Problems, Big Purges


September 29, 2020: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is apparently back on the job. Until September he had appeared in public only five times since his heart surgery in April. With Kim Jong Un not available much his younger (31-year-old) sister Kim Yo Jong received several promotions and was portrayed as a senior official who was making a lot of decisions. Since July that appears to have changed. Kim Yo Jong not been seen in public much since late July. Kim Jong Un is still the supreme leader and regularly making key decisions. Kim Jong Un continues to give his sister important tasks but so far that is all.

Other Invalids

North Korea is still importing and exporting, according to UN sanctions analysts. North Korea is believed to have smuggled in between half a million and 1.6 million barrels of oil from Russia and China during the first five months of 2020. Moreover, members of KOMID, the North Korean weapons exporting organization, are still seen openly operating in Iran, which has long been a customer for North Korean weapons.

North Korea has been caught smuggling coal to foreign customers. This is often done via ship-to-ship transfers at sea. This is the same method North Korea uses to import oil. This form of smuggling is more expensive meaning imports are more expensive for North Korea and profits on exports are diminished. Continued exports of raw materials and weapons are essential for keeping the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs going. Iran is a key source of essential tech for nukes and missiles that can carry them long distances. North Korea and Iran have exchanged tech and components for missiles and nuclear weapons for decades and that trade continues despite both nations being subject to trade sanctions.

The Cash Cow

North Korea is putting more effort (personnel, educational resources and cash) into its hacking operations. These activities have been more profitable than all other forms of smuggling and illegal exports. With the increased sanctions on North Korea the hacking income is even more important. On the downside the global banking and financial community, the main target for North Korean hackers, is now on high alert to the North Korean threat. North Korea is vulnerable here because its hackers operate outside North Korea and are vulnerable even though these foreign locations include China, Russia and Iran.

September 23, 2020: In northeast North Korea (South Hamgyong Province) the long coastline took the full brunt of two recent (September 3 and 7) typhoons. Local officials were unprepared to deal with the massive injuries and destruction. Locals had been complaining that these officials, who are Workers Party members, are incompetent thieves who paid bribes to get their jobs and then demand bribes from locals. In response the national government conducted an investigation and confirmed the complaints. In a rare case of mass punishment of local officials, nearly a hundred of them were given official reprimands and about half were sentenced to spend weeks or months doing manual labor at a local mining operation. The official reprimand is a form of probation which, if violated, results in severe punishment, ranging from expulsion from the Workers Party to a long sentence in a labor camp or execution.

These two typhoons first made landfall farther, in neighboring Kangwon Province where the city of Wonsan took the full brunt of these two storms. Wonsan officials were also severely criticized and punished for failure to prepare or deal with the devastating aftermath.

The government investigators were particularly critical of those managing the Simpo shipyard. This is a major military facility where warships are built, repaired and modified. Simpo is where a North Korean SSB (diesel-electric submarine carrying ballistic missiles) is being built. This was confirmed in early 2015 when aerial photos clearly (despite a camouflage net) showed an SSB under construction. Based on what was known in 2015 it appeared that North Korea could have an operational SSB (carrying reliable missiles) by 2018 if they completed and successfully test the new 2,000-ton SSB under construction as well as complete development of the SLBM (sea launched ballistic missile). Some of the SLBM related facilities were also damaged by the typhoons.

Construction activity in Simpo declined after 2016, apparently due to lack of resources. In 2018 there was an increase in activity but not enough to complete the SSB. While shipyard officials did heed warnings of the approaching typhoon, not all safety measures were implemented in time and a lot of avoidable damage was incurred. The national government is not blameless because national level leaders often order provinces and major economic organizations to do things like prepare for typhoons or quickly deal with the aftermath but provide no additional resources. The provinces are economically worse off than the national government and the poverty of resources never gets mentioned in the state-controlled mass media.

Military commanders were upset that so many troops were ordered to help with disaster relief operations. This happened again and again throughout August because of the unusually severe storms and floods. Local officials were less prepared for this than usual and the government had to disrupt the annual STE (Summer Training Exercises) which are critical for developing and maintaining combat skills among troops and officers. The STEs take place between July and September. Most of the year troops are working on growing their own food or rented out for construction or manufacturing work. Being a soldier is a small part of how you spend your time serving the North Korean army.

Ever since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 he has been after the ruling Workers Party to get out and encourage and enforce pro-government behavior. The Workers Party (a nationalist-socialist operation that is sometimes called communist) has been calling on members to work harder to eliminate individualism, the black market, the desire to earn money, paying attention to foreign media and women workers quitting their state-controlled jobs to work in illegal markets. The government also urged Workers Party members to halt the practice of state-owned factories and farms producing goods for the black market. This proved difficult, as many leaders of the Workers Party are involved in making money off the black market, or extorting cash from those who are operating in the unofficial economy. The lavish party elite lifestyle, thanks to the Internet and Google Earth, is no longer a secret and North Koreans eagerly digested this information over the last few years. Exhortations for abandoning the black market and efforts to get rich have had little effect, so the government is trying mass-punishment and tightening requirements for joining, or remaining in, the Workers Party. Membership is mandatory for many government jobs, like local (village, town and provincial) officials and those who want to be officers or NCOs in the military. Even members of the new donju (entrepreneur) class are joining the Workers Party. A large-scale purge would be impractical because that would eliminate a lot of local officials, who are essential for Workers Party control of the country at the local level.

Kim Jong Un ordered his sister Kim Yo Jong to supervise this membership reform program. She has proven adept at these tasks and dealing with the errant party members will be a challenge. For example, there have been problems with the senior security services, the people who regularly inspect military units to verify compliance with all regulations. The units are conducting more inspections, especially unannounced ones. That is irritating enough but it gets worse as the inspectors are not seeking to improve readiness but are seeking bribes to go away and not file an embarrassing (to the inspected unit) report. The inspectors justify their actions by reminding their critics that military food allotments, for troops and the families of career officers and NCOs, had recently been cut by a third and how else could a soldier or officer earn some extra money to buy food on the black market.

September 22, 2020: Off the west coast, on the maritime border between the two Koreas, a small boat crossed the maritime border after dark (9:40 PM) and was approached by a North Korean patrol boat. The South Korea boat carried 47-year-old South Korean fisheries official and it is unclear if the man was lost, sick or as some assert, attempting to defect. The South Korea government says it has ample evidence that the man was trying to defect. What is known is that the boat involved was burned by the North Koreans as part of their covid19 protocols and South Korean using night vision gear saw the North Korea sailors pour fuel on something in the water and set it on fire. The North Koreans later insisted they only burned the boat and could not find the body but did set fire a life-preserver floating nearby. On the 25th North Korean leader Kim Jong Un apologized for the death of the fisheries official. Such an apology is very unusual but so is the situation. It is suspected that Kim Jong Un did not want this incident to disrupt his access to South Korean leaders.

September 20, 2020: In northeast South Korea a North Korea defector was caught trying to enter the DMZ and get back to North Korea. South Koreas soldiers spotted the man trying to cut through the border wire. The man had been in South Korea since 2018 and was one of the migrants from the north who had a hard time adjusting to the different social, political and economic environment in the south. There was another case like this in July, in which the former North Korean resident did get back into North Korea. While such returnees are rare, they occur several times a year. Since 2015 there have been 13 such incidents. This comes to one or two returnees per thousand defectors. There are over 31,000 North Koreans living in South Korea and the number arriving each year has declined since Kim Jong Un took power in 2012 and greatly increased security on the Chinese border.

September 10, 2020: North Korea and China signed an agreement that is supposed to reduce the number of incidents where North Korean border guards shoot Chinese citizens near the border. China insisted on this agreement and it stipulates that China will triple custom duties for Chinese goods entering North Korea if another Chinese citizen is killed. The increased customs duties will stay in effect until North Korea pays the family of the dead man $176,000. So far this year several Chinese had been shot by North Korean border guards who were ordered to keep everyone away from both sides of the border. This was seen as unfair by Chinese living near the border and the North Koreans shooting Chinese was seen as criminal and there has been growing pressure on the Chinese government to do something about it. While the Chinese Internet is heavily censored, that only slows down the spread of news like these North Korean murders of Chinese. This has happened before and the Chinese government responded in the usual way, by publicly demanding that North Korea apologize and make restitution. This agreement worked and Chinese along the border were told about the new agreement and North Korea border guards no longer aimed or fired their weapons at Chinese near the border. Instead the North Korean border guards would yell or, at most, throw rocks.

Since late August North Korea border guards have been enforcing stricter rules for any activity within two kilometers of the North Korean side of the border. Violators of these rules were to be shot on sight. Some border guards thought it prudent to keep people away from the other side of the border as well. This attitude was the result of fears that North Koreans returning or Chinese smugglers entering North Korea illegally would bring covid19 with them. There had already been a few such cases that were confirmed and it was believed others got in undetected. Chatter from the north (via cell phone calls to China) indicates that there have been thousands of people quarantined in eastern provinces from the Chinese to the South Korean border (the DMZ). The provinces bordering China and South Korea have suffered covid19 deaths even through the government insists that has never happened in North Korea.

There is a covid19 problem which North Korea won’t acknowledge. The key problem is that the national health system cannot handle a lot of serious cases. Even in the capital, where the best medical facilities are, there are inadequate resources to handle a lot of elderly senior officials needing treatment for the virus. These officials are depending on the development of a covid19 vaccine. Without it, a lot of them will die. Normally healthy people of any age either repel the virus or have it without knowing it. Others will suffer the symptoms (similar to a very bad case of flu) and survive. In North Korea months of inadequate food and medicine have left more of younger people vulnerable to a fatal case of covid19. Most of North Korea does not have access to covid19 tests and any deaths from covid19 are listed as something else. China and North Korea both note that North Korean border guards have become more aggressive and trigger-happy with anyone approaching from either side of the border. This is mostly for show as the North Korean borders have been closed for most of the year. Few people and little traffic are allowed in or out.

The covid19 activities makes Chinese officials even more concerned about the instability of North Koreans in general. The most obvious examples are the growing number of North Korean border guards who desert their posts and enter China often taking their weapons with them. Once in China these North Koreans sometimes turn to armed robbery to survive. Seeking a better understanding of this behavior, security officials in northeast China decided to interview about two dozen North Korean women working in China. The interviews revealed that the women were indeed suffering from anxiety and depression because of the strain of adapting to a new culture as well as the fear of being forced to return to North Korea. There were also fears of being forced into prostitution or marriage to a Chinese man seeking a wife. China has an acute shortage of women because decades of the “one child” policy produced many more male than female births (because of the preference for a son). Now foreign women are in great demand for wives or for brothels

September 1, 2020: South Korea is increasing its defense spending by 5.5 percent (to $44.7 billion) in 2021. South Korean defense spending has increased 68 percent in the last decade. This rapid increase was triggered by the North Korean artillery and torpedo attack in 2010 that sunk a South Korean corvette and caused considerable damage to military and civilian facilities on an island, near the border, off the west coast.




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