North Korea has a problem with covid19, which is compounded by the official policy that the virus was not present in the country. Despite that there are a growing number of first-person reports from North Korea of how covid19 is indeed a problem. So far North Korea maintains that there has not been a single confirmed care of covid19 in North Korea. Yet the government revealed that it had identified 5,600 people suspected of having covid19 and quarantined them. As of the end of November North Korea had sent over 135,000 people (40 percent of them military) to quarantine centers. These quarantine facilities, usually some hastily equipped buildings near a hospital, are considered a death sentence for many because there is little food, heat, medicine or even beds for the inmates of these well-guarded operations. Those who apparently do have the virus are usually restricted to a locked room and left to die. According to North Korean quarantine data about 0.5 percent of the populations has been infected with covid19. The global average is 0.8 percent. In contrast South Korea has the lowest infection rate (0.06 percent) of any nation. It is known that over 4,000 North Korean military personnel have died from the virus so far. Overall, between seven and eight percent of those quarantined have died, but it is unclear how many of those died from covid19. Confirmation of this covid19 data comes via the data brokers that still operate in North Korea and China and have long proved accurate, otherwise they would not still be in business.
For the troops without covid19 there is still a lot of illness. Quarantines, reduced food supplies and poor living conditions, as in little heat in barracks, has made military personnel more vulnerable to covid19, and many other diseases. Winter training exercises, in while many divisions deploy from their barracks to the countryside, found many units unable to leave their bases because so many troops were ill, or simply weak from privation. An unusual number of troops had deserted, which is a new phenomenon that senior commanders were surprised to hear about. On average about a third of the troops in combat units were not fit for field duty. Sending troops out anyway risked a lot of them dying from the cold and overexertion. That would be bad for troop morale and could not be hidden from the public or, because of the information brokers, the world. The families find out if a son has died in the military and many families grieve quite openly.
The severe privation many military units are experiencing are the result of a decision to cut food and other supplies for most of the military so that the 20 percent of troops belonging to elite special operations and missile units could be taken care of. These troops have to be well fed, and kept loyal, to be effective. The rest of the military began getting less food from government supplies and were ordered to spend more time farming or being rented out to commercial firms. Foreign food donors noted that the hungriest North Koreans were not getting a lot of the food aid sent. Much of it was diverted to the military or sold to raise cash for the government. The donors understood that the North Korean government, as a communist police state, would look after its own interests first and make sure the security forces had priority on scarce resources. That was one of the reasons less free food aid was offered to North Korea.
Since late August North Korean border guards have been enforcing stricter rules for any activity within two kilometers 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, both those on the Chinese and South Korean borders (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 relatively small number of elderly senior officials needing treatment. 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 several years of inadequate food and medicine have left younger people more 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.
Tales Of Two Koreas
South Korea has done better with economic recovery this year than the north. Earlier in the year, when covid19 first hit, it was believed that
South Korean GDP would shrink less than two percent in 2020 and there would be robust normal growth in 2021. By mid-2020 the GDP decline appeared worse. But the rest of 2020 has seen GDP growth and the total GDP loss for 2020 will be about one percent. There will be enough GDP growth in 2021 to cover the 2020 damage. For about half of 2020 the South Korean economy was in recession and a 16.6 percent drop in exports during the second quarter was disturbing because exports are crucial to economic growth and export customers were not increasing orders. China recovered faster than expected and the U.S. is finishing the year with strong GDP growth. These are the major trade partners for South Korea.
North Korean economic problems are much worse and continue to multiply with covid19 adding to the sanctions related problems. North Korea is going through the worst economic crises since the famine years of the 1990s. North Korea closed its Chinese border early in the year and it largely remains closed. North Korea has little cash and, even though China now allows sanctioned coal and weapons exports to openly leave North Korea. It is not enough. Overall Chinese trade with North Korea is down at least 80 percent for the year. That means less food and other essential items were imported. Because the government insists there are no problems, offers of aid from South Korea and the United States are turned down. China is desperate to avoid an economic collapse in North Korea because that will mean far more illegal migrants from there when the weather turns warmer. There is also the growing risk of unpredictable behavior by the North Korean leadership. South Korea is sealed off from the north by the DMZ while the 1,400-kilometer Chinese border remain porous despite increased efforts to increase security. China is connected to North Korea and cannot change that.
North Korean GDP is expected to shrink by over ten percent in 2020. What little cash available is going to food imports and not much of that is coming in. There is growing hunger in North Korea and it is visible. Chatter, video and photos still get out of the country and documents the growing lack of food. Foreign analysts estimate that at least 40 percent of North Koreans are going hungry. The government is trying to provide large scale deaths from starvation and so far, has succeeded. Periodic crackdowns are described as eliminating the illegal behavior. The illicit enterprises always return.
Can’t Stop The Signal
In North Korea the Chinese border has become a major battleground in the government effort to control what news gets into and out of the country as well as reducing the superior Chinese and South Korean consumer goods from getting in. Despite the increased border security and police search for North Koreans selling information there are still many North Koreans selling information to foreigners in order to survive. Sanctions and the covid19 recession have caused a lot more privation than the government will admit. Chinese information brokers have been paying more for information, even though more North Koreans are risking arrest and time in labor camp so they can buy food, fuel or medicine.
Since the 1990s Western intel organizations willing to pay have been able to reliably verify details about many things in North Korea. Naturally a number of entrepreneurs in northeast China have made a business of this. Although often a sideline, it is apparently lucrative enough to survive crackdowns by China and North Korea. This “information broker network” can even take requests for specific information but it often takes a lot of time, and money, to get responses out of North Korea. 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 increase. As with the ancient Great Wall of China, it does not stop unwelcome invaders but just slows them down. Meanwhile a senior defector can provide valuable updates on loyalty and effectiveness among the senior leadership in North Korea. This sort of information 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 who keep the Kim government going. The fact that more senior people are defecting is significant by itself. China has its own intel sources inside North Korea, which are considered superior 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. China will occasionally trade info with the Americans and South Koreans. After all, what goes on in North Korea is something of a mutual problem for the U.S., South Korea, China and Japan.
December 4, 2020: In North Korea all foreign Red Cross staff and foreign diplomats left the country at the request of the government. This is a measure to reduce the risk of covid19 getting into the country.
December 3, 2020: In North Korea a test of assigning portions of farmland to individuals and allowing them to profit from increased yields was deemed a success. China has been urging North Korea to do this for decades but such a move was resisted because North Korean leaders feared surrendering that much control.
December 2, 2020: South Korea is spending $49 billion on defense during 2021. That’s a 5.2 percent increase over 2020.
In 2019 South Korea spent $43 billion on its military. That was nearly as much as Japan, which has a much larger economy. 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.
December 1, 2020: South Korea saw 2.1 percent GDP growth during the third quarter (July-September) compared to 2019. This is a little better than expected. During the first quarter of 2020 GDP declined 1.3 percent and 3.2 percent in the second quarter. The North Korean GDP continues to decline and does so more sharply than in South Korea.
November 23, 2020: The U.S. has sanctioned a Russian and a North Korean company for violating sanctions. The Russian firm using North Korean workers provided by the North Korean organization. All those workers were supposed have gone back to North Korea by the end of 2019. These sanctions won’t have much impact, other than symbolic, because there are many ways to evade them.
November 22, 2020:
In northeast North Korea (Ryanggang/Yanggang Province) four soldiers were executed by firing squad. Although closed to the public, a soldier and officer from each company in the 25th Border Guard brigade attended. Those executed were from a company in the 251th Regiment that had been exposed as a criminal enterprise, with officers and troops participating in smuggling and other illegal enterprises. Those executed were the company commander and his political deputy commander and two NCOs. The border guard company these men were from was disbanded and the 251th Regiment was transferred from the province and numerous officers and troops throughout the brigade were transferred. Two thousand elite troops from the 11th (Storm) Corps were brought in to temporarily replace the transferred border guards and enforce a 20-day lockdown throughout the province.
Ryanggang has long (for decades) been notorious for the amount of smuggling that goes on along its lengthy Chinese border. Much of that border is in unpopulated areas. This year Ryanggang was where illegal border crossers from China have brought covid19 into North Korea. Several line crossers who were later caught were tested for the virus and if they had it, they were quietly executed. The province also has lots of illegal pleasures available for those who can afford it. This includes senior government officials as well as donju entrepreneurs and career criminals. There was gambling, prostitution and all manner of videos or live entertainment.
Neighboring Chagang Province also has a lot of smuggling activity and that recently put the entire province on lockdown for five days. The reason for this was a border guard sergeant had deserted after it was discovered that he probably had covid19 because several soldiers he had regular contact with recently died from what appeared to be covid19. The sergeant was also involved in several illegal enterprises.
Ryanggang and Chagang provinces are both landlocked, sparsely populated and considered undesirable places to live, if only because this area is known as the coldest in Korea. The two provinces contain more than half the North Korean border with China.
November 11, 2020: China and North Korea agreed that plans to resume passenger train service between the two nations at the end of November would be delayed. The reasons for this were not discussed but it is widely known that there are still outbreaks of covid19 in China and Korea. North Korea is desperate to resume its lucrative tourism business, which depends heavily on Chinese visitors.
November 5, 2020: North Korea announced that it not be reopening schools this year. Earlier the plan was to restore classroom teaching at the end of October. That did not happen and it took a few days for the government to confirm that schools would not reopen until sometime in 2021.
November 4, 2020: North Korea has been planting lethal landmines along portions of their Chinese border for several weeks now. There has been at least one incident of troops planting the mines injured when a mine was mishandled. Until now these mines were only used along the DMZ and there were experienced engineer units to handle that. There have been mines on the Chinese border but these did not contain a lethal quantity of explosives and were meant to alert border guards that someone had gone into a forbidden area.
November 3, 2020: In Somalia UN weapons specialists concluded that 60mm mortars used for an al Shabaab attack on a U.S. base in September had come from North Korea.