North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un closed the recent Eighth Congress of the WPK (Workers’ Party of Korea) by bluntly stating that North Korea would never give up its nukes, even if the country was cut off from the rest of the world. Kim said that creating more effective nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles was the most important project and had priority on available foreign currency and internal resources. He urged North Koreans to be more self-reliant and implied that there would be even less government help, like food aid or medical care.
Kim declared South Korea, Japan and the United States enemies of North Korea and not worth talking to much less negotiating with. All this is nothing new and it marks the end of a period when Kim tried to pretend the nukes were negotiable in the hope that the Americans and South Koreans would again be willing to provide aid as “good will” gestures to keep the discussions going until it was clear that North Korea was not willing to give up the nukes. This was a scam North Korea had been using with declining success for decades. Failure of the recent efforts to use it backfired and resulted in more sanctions. Kim did not directly address the deteriorating internal security situation, he just called for “greater discipline.”
This was the second time since 2016 that a Congress was called in an effort to rally public support for the continued failure of the government to improve the lives of North Koreans. This effort included the usual large groups of people, civilians and military, demonstrating as closely packed crowds or units marching in formation. This was seen at the end of the Congress when there was a big parade, with the usual large crowds of cheering crowds. Face masks were dispensed with for the occasion and even before the week-long Congress was over there was evidence of more covid19 cases.
The 2016 Seventh Congress began with great fanfare, in part because there had not been a Congress since 1980. The 2016 Congress went on for five days and all enterprises, except those earning foreign currency, were ordered to close so that employees could watch TV coverage of the event. This did not happen with the Eighth Congress. In 2016 extra police were assigned to guard the sites of free markets to make sure none of the merchants tried to open anyway. This order was very unpopular as many people depend on daily access to the markets for necessities. Most North Koreans saw the Congress as a publicity stunt to try and convince them that the government cared. Past Congresses were more respected because the government provided more. Since 1980 the situation has changed considerably. Communist governments worldwide collapsed between 1989 and 1991 and North Korea underwent a 25 year long economic recession that has not yet ended and got much worse after 2016. A major famine in the 1990s killed over five percent of the population and hunger is still a common concern. The Seventh Congress did not change that and the Eighth Congress was more of the same. The last two Congresses just makes things worse, which seems to describe the Kim dynasty as well. While pre-2016 Congresses had some accomplishments for the government to boast about, the last two had none. In the past there were foreign delegations (from other communist nations) present. There were none for the 2016 and 2021 events, emphasizing that North Korea has no friends. The last two Congresses tried to make it appear that Kim rule was great but people saw there was nothing. The delegates to the Congress were happy because they did get tangible benefits. In addition to good food and lots of special gifts for all those who attended, they were publicly recognized as senior members of the bureaucracy. For past Congresses everyone in North Korea received gifts, often just extra food or some cheap (but hard to get) gadget. In 2016 all residents of the capital got a month’s worth of basic foods and some snacks. Outside the capital, only senior officials and staff of some key enterprises (producing weapons or foreign currency earning stuff) received about half what those in the capital got. In 2016 for over 80 percent of the country the Congress was no help at all and just another aggravation. In 2021 it was worse.
These Congresses were supposed to be held every five years, bringing together over a thousand delegates to decide on key matters like changes in the constitution and how the government is organized. These meetings never were held every five years and after the Korean War (1950-53) became less and less frequent as the Kim family transformed the government from a communist dictatorship to a hereditary dictatorship with a lot of communist characteristics. The last two Congresses were publicity stunts to showcase changes in government policy. The announced changes were superficial and did nothing to improve the lives of North Koreans.
Signs Of The Apocalypse
North Korea recently revealed that twenty members of Bureau 11, one of the key organizations in the nuclear and ballistic missile program, were arrested for possessing videos of South Korean entertainment and news programs. No mention was made of the punishment anyone received. Usually, this sort of offence gets you sent to a labor camp for months or years. Sending any of these Bureau 11 people to labor camp would hurt the nuclear and missile program so these culprits will probably avoid that. The government is sending a message that no one is immune from punishment for possessing forbidden media. Children of senior officials have already been targeted for investigation and arrest, and the government offers attractive rewards to those who will provide information on who among the elite is misbehaving. Crackdowns on high-ranking personnel are nothing new, but it is usually done with little publicity and there were always some groups that were too powerful or valuable to mess with. This is no longer the case, as the Bureau 11 incident made clear. However, the wealthy and powerful can escape imprisonment by paying large fines of several hundred dollars, which is a lot of money in North Korea. This change in policy was eventually traced back to the unpublicized distribution of rules for enforcing a new (December 2020) law regarding reactionary thought. The new law as not about thoughts or actions indicating disloyalty to the state, but rather a severe crackdown on the increasingly popular foreign media that is smuggled into the country and widely distributed.
Calls for “greater discipline” turned out to mean the government is punishing successful officials who are seen as not successful enough. This includes officials charged with obtaining foreign currency by any means. This was always a much sought-after job that few people were good at. The government is now adding additional incentives to keep performance high.
There are other incentives for ambitious and desperate North Koreans. There has been an increase in people trying to get out of North Korea. This is despite increasing security along the Chinese border. This is often visible as some parts of the border have more guard posts. Previously the most vulnerable (to smuggling and defection) areas had barbed wire, mines and guard posts a hundred meters apart. Now some areas get guard posts every fifty meters apart. Another new measure, which many border guards like, it shortening time on duty to twenty minutes. This means there is less time to get involved in smuggling or escaping to China. It also means less consecutive time in an unheated guard post during very cold weather.
Throughout the country the cold and virus-related shortages are having a very visible impact. Dead bodies of the homeless are more often visible, usually near train stations or anywhere there is some kind of shelter. Even those with homes and jobs often lack much food or heat at home. The population is more defiant, not a good sign for a dictatorship. Police report that they have to be careful to avoid provoking mass protests, as well as attacks on individual police. Some of these assaults are fatal.
The Cost of Covid
North Korea is trying to keep its exposure to covid19 low, something other East Asian nations have been able to do, in part because everyone else has a modern health system and high standards of living. North Korea has neither and knows that if the virus gets loose in North Korea the death rates would be catastrophic. Precautions have been taken. For all of 2020 the Chinese border was shut. Early on some trade was allowed to continue but even with that trade was reduced about 80 percent for the entire year and the last few months saw less than one percent of the usual imports were being allowed. This has caused unprecedented shortages and the government won’t officially admit why, despite the fact that most North Koreans have figured it out on their own. There is still smuggling going on but most of it is government run smuggling with profits going to the government. This official smuggling sometimes causes friction between the secret police, who handle most of the official smuggling and local police who are often not informed that some official smuggling is going on in their area. In one recent incident police caught a smuggling (of tobacco) operation underway when they spotted a boat on the river forming the border, returning to the Chinese side and a North Korean boat also returning from mid-river. The police opened fire and the Chinese vessel increased speed. The North Korean boat returned to shore where the secret police agent identified himself and threatened to punish the cops. The police responded by arresting the secret policeman and seizing his cargo. The local secret police commander learned of this and took a large number of armed agents to the police station where their man and his smuggled good were being held. This show of force convinced the police to give up their prisoner and his tobacco. The police were angry about this and did not stay silent about the incident as they were supposed to. Most locals supported the police on this because the strict crack down on smuggling prevents from covid19 infections from getting into North Korea.
East Asian nations, including China kept their covid19 infection rate low. That had little to do with being a communist police state because democracies like Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea produced verified results that showed how a disciplined response can keep covid19 infections and deaths at very low levels.
China claims it suffered fewer deaths per capita and much less economic disruption than Western nations. The lower economic disruption is obvious. The death rate is less so because the government is not cooperating.
While exact Chinese covid19 infections and deaths data cannot be verified, the low losses in Taiwan and South Korea can be. China, claiming three deaths per million, admits it was not as effective as Taiwan (0.3 deaths per million) but did better than South Korea (20 deaths per million) Japan (29) or Singapore (6). The world average is 240 deaths per million and Western nations average a thousand dead per million. Reports from China indicate that Chinese covid19 deaths were much higher than reported. Even with that most Chinese were confident enough to go back to work, and large public gatherings like mass transit or movie theaters. To maintain this covid19 advantage China still sharply restricts Chinese from travelling outside the country and quickly quarantines any areas where more covid19 appears. The lower infection and death rates are the result of populations accustomed to acting in a unified and precise manner when confronting an emergency. It’s a cultural thing, which is one reason why for the last few thousand years East Asia contained most of the world population.
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 GDP is expected to shrink by over ten percent for 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.
January 19, 2021: The South Korean Defense Ministry made a public offer to discuss anything with their North Korean counterparts if it would help improve relations. This offer was mainly a good will gesture. North Korea is predictably unpredictable and South Koreans have learned to keep all channels open, just in case the next offer is not just another extortion scam.
January 12, 2021: In North Korea the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party ended after a week of propaganda theater in an effort to improve national morale. For most North Koreans it was not reassuring. Even the military parade that took place at the end of the Congress was a disappointment. There were no new weapons displayed at the parade, with the possible exception of what appeared to be a new design for a
SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile). Not much has been happening with the North Korea SLBM project since October 2019 when there was a test launch of the SLBM at the Simpo shipyard. That test used a submergible barge to simulate underwater launch. There was a similar test in 2017. Both of these apparently tested the cold launch capability of the North Korean “Polaris” SLBM. Cold launch enables igniting the rocket motor after the missile is ejected from its launch tube with a gas charge. This is essential for SLBMs when launched while the sub is underwater. Simpo is also 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. In 2015 it was believed North Korea could have an operational SSB (carrying reliable missiles) by 2018 if they completed and successfully tested the new 2,000-ton SSB under construction as well as completed development of the SLBM. That did not happen but satellite photos show construction of that sub is still going on and the SLBM seems to be working but not ready for combat use yet.
January 11, 2021: Chinese leader Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Kim Jong Un on the occasion of Kim being elected chairman of the WPK. This message was important because it was a public demonstration that China still approved of Kim Jong Un, despite the fact that the economic, security and political conditions inside North Korea continue to deteriorate. Perhaps China was encouraged by the promotions given to Kims younger (31-year-old) sister Kim Yo Jong, who stepped up when her brother underwent heart surgery in early 2020 and was out of action for several months. Kim Yo Jong was decisive and suitably vicious in the Kim tradition. During that period. she received several promotions and was portrayed as a senior official who was making a lot of decisions. Now she has more promotions.
January 7, 2021: North Koreans were urged to do more this year to increase the supply of human manure for use as fertilizer. This has long been the custom for agricultural communities but the government is urging the urban population to do more and help deal with the growing shortage of fertilizer because imported fertilizer is too expensive. North Koreans do note that a lot is being spent on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles which are supposed to compel North Korean enemies like South Korea, Japan and the United States to provide all that was needed. So far that is not working.
January 6, 2021: In Iraq a military parade was held in the Baghdad Green zone to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Iraqi Army. There was a flyover of 23 Iraqi F-16s and new military equipment including newly arrived South Korean Promoter 4x4 armored truck for police patrols in hostile territory. South Korea has been more successful exporting military and police equipment, often taking sales away from Chinese or Russian firms.
January 5, 2021: There are a growing number of annual events that remind North Koreans that things can get worse. One of these is the cold weather army begathon to encourage civilians to donate cold weather clothing, especially socks, pants and underwear. The government cannot provide these items to all the troops. Priority goes to the 20 percent who are the most loyal and essential for keeping the Kims in power. Over the last decade civilians have been asked and more frequently ordered to donate.
January 4, 2021:
Near the entrance to the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Oman, Iranian gunboats seized a South Korean chemical tanker, accusing it of water pollution. The charge was false and the tanker seizure was part of an Iranian effort to force South Korea to release $7 billion in Iranian cash frozen by American sanctions against Iran. South Korea promptly demanded Iran release the tanker and ordered nearby South Korea warships from the Somali anti-piracy patrol to head to where the tanker was seized. Other nations with an interest in free passage to the Persian Gulf backed the South Korean demands.
This ship seizure was part of a more aggressive Iranian effort to force several foreign nations to release billions in cash frozen because of the sanctions. The tanker is still be held by the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and guarded by IRGC gunmen and hundreds of small armed boats. South Korean negotiators failed to get the tanker released. South Korea is seeking help from other Gulf oil states, pointing out letting this Iranian bad behavior go unpunished can increase insurance rates and appear to prove that Iran can do whatever it wants with no consequences.
January 1, 2021: In North Korea, supreme leader Kim Jong Un ordered that foreign assistance be sought in obtaining covid19 vaccine and any other material or technical aid foreign countries were willing to provide.
December 15, 2020: The government banned travel between provinces until February 2021. Travel by those on official business is allowed but there are provincial border check points to note who, and when and under what authority made such trips. This has caused more hunger because people could no longer cross provincial borders to obtain or sell food. After about a month of this there were starvation deaths in areas that depended a lot on access for individuals to travel to find food for sale. Many of the legal markets had such a shortage of goods that many traders were getting out of business and selling their market stalls for whatever they could get. Over the last decade the markets had become a literal lifeline for more and more people because the government has been reducing supplies of free or low-price food. While the borders were closed to people and vehicles, that only slowed down the news of what was going on in provinces.