Korea: Disillusion, Despair and Disloyalty

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March 25, 2021: In North Korea 2021 began with new secret editorial guidelines for state-controlled mass media. There was to be no more actual or implied mention of North Korea being powerful or prosperous. The government realized that the growing poverty and hunger in North Korea was so pervasive that any optimistic propaganda made people angrier about the deplorable conditions they were living under. Because of continuing sanctions (due to nuclear/missile programs) and additional border security and lockdowns in provinces on the Chinese border, most of the news is bad. The government does not want to admit crumbling infrastructure, growing shortages of food, fuel and electrical power plus more deaths from work accidents, especially in the military. These are all things people care about and the government can’t seem to do anything about. Most North Koreans are also aware that the government is largely defenseless against any widespread outbreak of covid19. Because so many people are physically weak from food shortages and lack of heat during the last few months of intense cold, the percentage deaths from covid19 are much higher than in more prosperous nations like China, South Korea and Japan.

Non-Secret Guidelines

The recent session of the Supreme People's Assembly, the government-controlled legislature that consists of members approved by the ruling Workers Party and the Kim family, included public calls for less use of “non-tax taxes” on North Koreans. For decades the state provided all necessities and people paid no taxes, but were paid very little and could not own property or move about freely. In practical terms it was a return to serfdom, with most North Koreans restricted as to where they could live and what they did for a living. This all fell apart in the 1990s when large annual Russian subsidies stopped and suddenly the government could not meet its obligations to its serfs. First it was insufficient food and the 1990s famine killed ten percent of the population and literally stunted the growth of a generation. After 2010 South Korea soldiers on the DMZ noticed that their North Korean counterparts were much smaller than before. It’s a law of nature; less food, less physical stature. North Korea reorganized its economy to produce more food and that, as well as some foreign aid, halted the mass starvation. It also marked a period of economic stagnation and decline. Through it all most (over 90 percent) of the economy remained state owned and dependent on the state for cash and other necessities. The state could no longer provide this and the economic gap between north and south widened. Meanwhile South Korea, with its democracy and market economy, became one of the most prosperous nations in the world. Currently South Korea has a GDP that is 55 times larger than North Korea’s. Adjusted for population, South Korea has 25 times more GDP per capita. To make matters worse North Korea spends about a third of GDP on defense compared to about three percent for South Korea. The big difference between the two Koreas wat that in the south the government was accountable to the people and in the north, it was just the opposite.

The economic situation in the north is made worse by the enormous portion of the budget devoted to the military and the effort to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them. North Korea has developed crude nuclear bombs but has no reliable way to deliver them. The nuclear and missile programs continue to consume over ten percent of the GDP and triggered severe economic sanctions which even traditional allies China and Russian eventually enforced. This resulted in North Korea trying to extract more cash, goods and free labor from the population. At the same time the traditional obligations of the state to provide major items, like tractors and other major items to farmers, could no longer be met. That explains the new campaign for all North Koreans to make “voluntary contributions” to buy tractors for farmers. This shocked most North Koreans because tractors are a basic tool for farming and it is already known that farmers were having a hard time finding spare parts for their existing tractors. The farmers have long had to buy spares themselves but the economy could no longer produce enough spares and the government cannot afford to import them. Smuggling in items for the nuclear and ballistic missile programs have priority, as does the need to smuggle in luxury goods for the few thousand families that keep the government going.

The current “buy a tractor” program resulted in some embarrassing propaganda photos. One showed several newly manufactured tractors, ready to be bought and shipped to needy farmers. Many North Koreans noted that these new tractors had heavily worn tires. There is also a rubber and tire shortage and the government was unable to scrounge enough new tires for this propaganda photo. Hard times indeed.

Ballistic Missile Tests Resume

Today North Korea launched two short range missiles from its east coast into the Sea of Japan. One missile went 420 kilometers while the other went 430 kilometers into the Sea of Japan. Japan protested to North Korea. These launches were the first since the new American government took power in January. North Korea and the United States are about to resume negotiations and the North Koreans have noted that the Chinese are treating the new American government with contempt and expecting he Americans to back down. Japan is another matter. Japan is going ahead with the delayed 2020 Olympic Games that are going to be staged in a few months. Foreign spectators will not be allowed in, just the athletes and their support personnel. The Japanese apparently told North Korea that they were not going to be intimidated by more missile tests or anything else and would retaliate if they had to. The North Koreans were hoping for some free food.

March 20, 2021: Mun Chol Myong, a North Korean businessman accused of smuggling and money laundering activities in Malaysia and Singapore, was extradited from Malaysia to the United States. Mun had been arrested in Malaysia during May 2019 after U.S. law enforcement officials supplied evidence of Mun’s smuggling and money-laundering activities in Malaysia since 2008. North Korea hired local lawyers to block extradition but that only delayed it. Mun was part of a worldwide network of North Korean agents who facilitated the purchase of shipment of luxury goods for the North Korean leadership. This smuggling network also supported the oil smuggling and procurement of military technology North Korea is not allowed to import. These procurement agents appear as North Korean businessmen doing some legitimate business. But they actually spend most of their time on their illegal procurement and smuggling operations. More of these agents are found in countries, like Malaysia, that have diplomatic relations with North Korea and an embassy where the North Korean “businessmen” can meet to get their orders and plan their operations.

One reason North Korea was not able to block extradition was because of the February 2017 assassination in Malaysia of Kim Jong Nam, the older half-brother of North Korea ruler Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Nam and his family lived in China, under the protection of the Chinese government. Kim Jong Nam frequently travelled to other countries in the region, like Malaysia and Singapore. There he had opportunities to speak freely with foreigners. Because of that m any North Koreans were not surprised when the older brother was murdered. The murder weapon was droplets of VX nerve gas smeared on his face by an attractive Vietnamese woman in a scheme that was traced back to North Korean agents. North Koreans were amazed at the energetic efforts by the younger brother to suppress the details of this incident and get the body back to North Korea where it could be destroyed. Most North Koreans saw Kim Jong Nam as the tragic victim of a paranoid and vicious younger brother, who happens to be the hereditary ruler of North Korea.

A month after the assassination Malaysia and North Korea announced an agreement in which the body of Kim Jong Nam, would be handed over to North Korea and in return North Korea would release the nine Malaysians detained (prevented from leaving) North Korea after Malaysia refused to turn over the body immediately. Malaysia will also allow three North Koreans, suspected of organizing the murder, to leave Malaysia. Malaysia had already arrested two North Koreans as suspects in the murder. Malaysia also wanted to arrest two North Koreans who fled the country shortly after the murder. A North Korea diplomat believed involved in the murder plot was hiding out in the North Korean embassy along with a North Korean airlines official who is also a suspect. Taking Malaysians in North Korea as hostages solved all those problems. North Korea cremated the body when they got it and insisted that Kim Jong Nam died of a heart attack.

Malaysia expelled the North Korean ambassador and recalled its own ambassador to North Korea but did not sever diplomatic relations. However, Malaysia did not send another ambassador to North Korea. Because of the Mun extradition and all the evidence of North Korean embassy involvement in illegal activities, Malaysia also ordered the North Korean embassy closed and all North Koreans associated with the embassy out of Malaysia. This exodus took place the day after Mon arrived in the United States.

The Mun extradition had repercussions in the North Korean capital and at all their overseas embassies. North Korean secret police continually monitor the activities and loyalty of diplomatic personnel and the “illegals” (non-diplomatic personnel like Mun who are actually agents of North Korea) and quickly noted the impact of the Mun extradition. The North Korean illegals were particularly dismayed because most of them believed they were undertaking their difficult overseas assignments to help North Korea get nuclear weapons. These weapons would protect North Koreans from things like extradition to the United States for trial. That was obviously not working and the overseas personnel were visibly dismayed. The North Korean monitoring of overseas staff had increased over the last few years because of the growing number of North Korean diplomats who were defecting to the West and telling all they knew. The larger number of illegals were now fearful that they would be recalled and punished for real or imagined disloyalty.

March 19, 2021: In northern North Korea (Chagang Province) a forestry official was executed are being accused of smuggling trees to China and keeping the money. The officials had been doing this for five years and he had many accomplices. The government is carrying out more of these executions because nothing else seems to discourage the growing corruption.

March 14, 2021: In North Korea the government told security forces on the border to begin preparations for the border to be reopened sometime in 2021, when the covid19 risk is no longer a factor. The secret instructions acknowledged that that hardships caused by covid19 had hurt morale and when the rigid border controls are lifted a lot more people living near the border might take the risk of crossing into China. The secret orders did not mention that government mismanagement of the economy, public health and diplomacy had more to do with the declining morale than the virus. The government also announced a new agency that would monitor the population for signs of illegal political and economic acts as well as more common criminal activity. This will mean more economic opportunities for the nationwide system of local informers (officially the “Neighborhood Watch”) who will have their meager official compensation increased. Unofficial compensation will increase even more along with the number of bribes informants receive for not reporting items on the new list of reportable actions. The government is also alarmed at the decline in the percentage of people marrying while the number of unmarried couples living together increases, as have divorces. Part of the reason is that the legal markets have enabled more women to become economically independent and North Korea has become a less viable place to raise children.

March 13, 2021: In northeast China the Internet and word-of-mouth chatter revealed a bizarre true story of life on the border. In January two young (18 and 19) North Korean soldiers guarding the border in landlocked Chagang Province, a sparsely populated and undesirable places to live, if only because this area is known as the coldest province in Korea, decided to forage. While border guard duty means soldiers get more food, they don’t get enough to eliminate hunger, especially in very cold weather. For the two soldiers that cold snap presented an opportunity, because the narrow river that marked the border had frozen over and they could see abandoned buildings on the Chinese shore. Many rural Chinese are moving to urban areas and abandoned buildings in rural areas are a common sight. The two knew how the border security system (cameras and minefields) worked and believed they could walk across the river, search the abandoned buildings for something to eat or take back to North Korea and sell for food. The search was more difficult than anticipated and they kept looking without finding anything useful. Soon they realized they had been on the Chinese side for too long and that their absence would be noticed. They remained in China, with their weapons, noting that the few Chinese who had spotted them seemed to believe they were Chinese soldiers. Some Chinese realized these two were North Koreans and called the police. The two were arrested after two days in China. They offered no resistance and asked for food. The two begged not to be returned to North Korea, not because they feared execution but because of the hunger. They were fed and housed better as Chinese prisoners than as North Korean border guards. The Chinese police sympathized but they had their orders and took the North Koreans to a border crossing where they explained what had happened and presented the prisoners for transfer. The North Koreans refused to accept the two because they had strict orders to let no one in because of the covid19 fears. That has been the policy for any North Koreans who escaped to China and were caught. The transfer would have to wait until the covid19 border restrictions were lifted at some unknown future date. As the two soldiers were led back into China they again pled to remain in China because they knew that the covid19 crises might soon be over but the starvation would continue.

These two hungry soldiers were not alone. Earlier this month it was revealed that six border guards in Yanggang Province (next to Chagang Province) also fled into China with their weapons. China attributes the increased border guard defections to the reduction in smuggling activity, which reduced the opportunities for border guards to obtain bribes to let smugglers pass. That bribe income often went to buy additional food.

Word of these soldier defections still gets into North Korea and encourages more North Koreans to dodge the draft. This is more difficult to do in the north but if you have enough money to bribe the conscription officials it can be done. Another reason for evading the draft is that having served is no longer as asset in getting a good government job. Over the last decade bribes have become the key factor. More and more draft age North Koreans and their families have noted this and fewer young men are available for the army. The bribes often involve false documents showing that the young man was physically unfit for service. There were other ways to document lack of availability and conscription officials were making a lot of money at a time where that sort of thing was often a necessity for family survival.

March 10, 2021: In northeast North Korea (North Hamgyong Province) two soldiers guarding the China border were wounded when one of them stepped on a landmine. The two were on a night patrol near the Tumen River, which serves as the border with China. They saw five flashes of light near the river bank and rushed towards the lights to catch what they thought were smugglers. Instead, they walked into a minefield.

March 7, 2021: The lack of food and fuel during the last three months of cold weather were not only hard on the rural population, if was extremely harsh this year because farmers could not obtain enough hay and other cow and oxen chow to enable these animals to survive the cold weather. Many more are dying from hunger and cold this year than in the bast and criminals are taking advantage of the situation by stealing healthy animals for sale to desperate farmers who cannot really operate their farms without the animals. The shortages of fuel and replacement parts (and vehicles) for tractors has made farmers more dependent on old-school methods for powering plows and wagons. The legal markets are also getting better prices for cows and a lot of other items that have become scarce because of the sanctions and covid10 border closure. Spare parts for personal and commercial vehicles are harder to get and even second-hand parts, especially tires, cost a lot more in the markets.

March 4, 2021: South Korea has agreed to help Turkey overcome European sanctions and provide key components for the new Turkish Altay tank. This vehicle is similar to the American M1. Both have a 120mm gun, composite armor, and high-end electronics. The two tanks are so similar because in 2011 Turkey paid South Korea $400 million for rights to much of the technology in the new 55-ton South Korean K2 tank. This vehicle was in turn based on the 1980s K1, which deliberately emulated the M1 design in many ways and did so with the cooperation of the United States. The K1 and K2 proved to be successful designs, and the Turks already had decades of experience maintaining and upgrading American M-60 tanks (the predecessor of the M1). With the addition of the South Korean tech the Altay rapidly took shape. Unfortunately, Altay evolved into a very expensive (over $13 million each) and import dependent “Turkish made tank.” Turkey is trying to develop local sources for tank engines and transmissions but these two components are specialist items for heavy tanks and cheaper to import than build locally. Turkey has already spent nearly a billion dollars developing Altay but the project is endangered the sanctions blocking obtaining key components.

South Korean firms offered suitable substitutes. South Korea had already developed the powerful tank engine needed for Altay but had some reliability problems with their transmission. This is a key element that enables a powerful engine to move a tank efficiently. Those problems have been fixed to the satisfaction of the Turks and that led to a purchase contract. Altays still needs someone to replace the French composite armor. South Korean composite army is of a different design than what Turkey was obtaining from the French and it is unclear if using South Korean heavy tank armor is even under serious consideration. What may kill the Altay project is cost. Since 2017 the per-tank cost has doubled as more tech was added or component costs increased. A new tank is not crucial to Turkish defense but relations with foreign suppliers of military tech is.

The South Korean army has ordered the planned third batch of 54 K2 tanks. These will cost nearly $9 million each and be delivered by 2023. This will give South Korea 260 K2s, a very advanced tank design that first entered service in 2014. The first batch of a hundred tanks was delivered by 2015. Batch 2 began deliveries in 2016 and will be complete in 2021.

South Korea was designing its own tanks by the 1980s and began producing its K1 tank in 1987. The K1 was based on the original American 105mm gun version of the M1. Because South Korea equips its army to deal with the North Korean army, which has much older Russian made armored vehicles and weapons. The K1 was more than adequate even though it did not have the gas turbine engine that provided better acceleration and mobility for the M1. South Korea has over 1,400 so far and K1 is still in production.

The K1 and K2 tanks are replacing older American M48 tanks and were already superior to whatever the North Koreans had. The K1 and K2 gave the South Koreans a greater edge over North Korea. More importantly they were built in South Korea and therefore exportable.

March 3, 2021: In North Korea local officials have been testing a new way to “tax” property owners without calling it a tax. Since the beginning of the year the government announced a new mandatory insurance for personal property. This was in addition to a similar “voluntary” life insurance program. For both types of policies, the premiums are high, the benefits are low and there a lot of loopholes that enable the state-owned insurance company to avoid paying a claim. The program was officially legalized today by the Supreme People's Assembly.

In northeast North Korea (North Hamgyong Province) Samjiyon city was once more put on 20 days lockdown because some had crossed the nearby Chinese border into the province. In August and November and January 2021 similar lockdowns were imposed on Samjiyon or nearby Hyesan because of similar illegal border crossing incidents. The previous lockdowns were partially lifted within days of being imposed because the lockdowns made it illegal to leave homes for any reason, including buying food.

March 2, 2021: In North Korea the government held a public execution (at a firing range outside the capital) of four Pyongyang residents who were caught duplicating (on SD cards) and distributing (locally and nationwide) videos of Chinese and South Korean TV shows and movies. This is now considered a thought-crime of the highest order. The four were caught when a neighbor noted they had suddenly become wealthy and reported that observation to the government. The four people executed had tried to explain their sudden prosperity by attributing it to success at selling counterfeit cigarettes.

February 27, 2021: In North Korea the government received some particularly bad news about declining agricultural productivity. Part of the reason for that has been the increasing acidification of cropland soil. This is caused by too many years of insufficient fertilizer. For thousands of years farmers have avoided acidification (and starvation) by developing farming practices that prevented acidification. Not just using human and animal manure for fertilizer but also rotating crops so that in some years crops that were less abundant and nutritious were grown because these crops acted as a natural fertilizer and prevented the soil from becoming less productive through acidification. North Korean farmers have not been able to obtain enough fertilizer since the 1990s and the shortages have gotten worse in the last few years. Eventually the government agreed to do a nationwide soil test and it confirmed that acidification was reach crisis levels in some areas and was present nearly everywhere.

February 24, 2021: The covid19 related near total lockdown of the Chinese border played a major role in reducing the number of North Koreans reaching South Korea to a record low of 229 in 2020. That was actually part of a trend. Only 1,047 North Koreans made it to South Korea in 2019 and only 1,137 in 2018. There were less publicized reasons for the decline in the North Koreans getting to South Korea. The most important one was economic. Most North Koreans who get into China are content to make a lot more money working in northeastern China, where there has always been a large ethnic Korean minority. This was one part of China where a North Korean illegal could easily find someone who speaks Korean. These are often Chinese citizens who are ethnic-Koreans. Most have been in the area for centuries but nearly a million have arrived since the 1990s economic meltdown in North Korea that included starvation and related factors that killed about ten percent of the population. The arrival of so many North Koreas willing to work for low (but much higher than in North Korea) wages was seen by local officials as a solution to the labor shortage caused by China’s booming market economy. China officials also looked the other way as Chinese established illegal cash transfer operations so these new workers could send much of their pay back to needy families in North Korea. This sort of aid was often a lifesaver, so North Korean officials tolerated it. When asked, most of the defectors said they wanted to eventually return to North Korea. The Kim dictatorship always made that unlikely, considering defection a serious crime. There would be occasional propaganda claims where a few defectors were allowed back in without punishment if they kept telling everyone that they returned because North Korea is such a great place to live and work.

Few of these defectors were interested in trying to reach South Korea, which defectors discovered, once they got to China, was actually a much more prosperous place. There were smugglers who could, for a fee, get a North Korean to southern China and across the border to a country with a South Korean embassy willing and able to accept North Korean defectors and get them to South Korea where automatic citizenship and a more prosperous, even more so than in China, awaited. It took longer for word to get back to Koreans in northeast China that South Korea was a very alien place for North Koreans and often hostile towards them.

Then there were the Christian charities and foreign Christians in general operating in China near the North Korean border who encouraged and assisted North Koreans seeking to get to South Korea. Many of these Christians (especially ethnic Koreans from the West) were soon known or suspected of helping North Koreans escape North Korea and get to South Korea. Most of these helpers are now gone, either because of expulsion or leaving voluntarily because of Chinese pressure.

Finally, there were new attitudes by the North Korean government. When Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 he was appalled that nearly 30,000 North Koreans had reached South Korea. He began issuing a list of new procedures and security measures the eventually succeeded in greatly reducing that traffic. Despite some initial success, 2016 was a record year for the number of North Koreans getting to South Korea. That year 1,414 made it, which was 11 percent more than the 1,275 in 2015. That meant the number of North Koreans who made it to the south since 1953 reached 30,308. It was widely predicted that the 30,000 mark would be reached by the end of 2016 and it was. Since 2017 the number of arrivals has declined, mainly because getting to South Korea has become less popular and more hazardous.

Most of those who have gotten to the south have done so since the late 1990s. The growing number of escapes was another side effect of the markets the North Korean government was forced to legalize after 2000. This greatly expanded the illegal black market that had been around for decades. It meant that many poor families suddenly had lots of money, by North Korean standards, which enabled them to consider leaving. For a long time, most escapees stayed in northeast China but eventually the people smugglers established reliable, if expensive, escape routes to South Korea for the growing number of North Korean escapees who could afford it. China had long been a dangerous and less prosperous place for illegal Korean migrants than South Korea because China periodically cooperated with North Korea to identify, arrest and send back North Korean illegally in China. This was often a death sentence for those sent back.

During 2020 North Korea took extraordinary efforts to seal its borders with China and Russia. These included a one or two kilometers “shoot-on-sight” zone next to the Chinese border. To encourage the guards who shot and killed someone, the guard could take most of any valuables the deceased had. This loot-the-dead angle was unofficial but widely tolerated. By late 2020 North Korea, in a desperate effort to halt smuggling across its Chinese and Russian borders, made arrangements with China and Russia to allow North Korean secret police capture teams in to hunt down Korean smugglers and the brokers they work for. The North Korean agents turned over anyone they caught to local police, to be held until the covid19 crisis was over and these prisoners could be transferred to North Korea for further interrogation and punishment. It is not known what North Korea has offered in return for this cooperation. North Korea has used these tactics several times previously in China. Russia accounts for less than five percent of the smuggling but North Korean leaders have become obsessed with curbing smuggling and information leaks. Many incoming smugglers were executed if they were thought to have the virus. North Korea sought to keep this quiet but the information broker network based in China found out. The information brokers have long operated a profitable business by reporting chatter, or verified details of what is going in in North Korea.

 

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