Korea: The Price Of Free Has Gone Up


July 2, 2021: North Korea has ordered its local war reserve rice supplies released to reduce hunger and avoid starvation deaths between now and September, when the next harvest comes in. The local war reserve rice is meant to feed, for 90 days, the local militia. These are former soldiers organized into military units and armed with older infantry weapons and ammunition stored in local armories. Both the food reserves and armories are guarded 24/7 by police and party volunteers. Local Workers Party officials are in charge of these food reserves and armories. Given the growing incidence of corruption among local officials, release of the local rice reserves will reveal if that has included plundering those rice reserves for personal gain. This new rice distribution includes an escape clause that corrupt officials can use.

Normally such emergency food distributions are free, but this one is not. The amount of rice issued to each family is regulated as to the amount provided for each working adult and child. It is enough to avoid starvation deaths but not much else. Moreover, each family will only get a five day supply each week. The big catch is that the rice is not free, but sold for about 70 percent of the current market price. News of the new food distribution, which is supposed to start this month, caused market prices for rice to fall a bit. The government does not expect that to last because the national supply of rice has been shrinking as the government maintains the ban on imports to keep covid19 out. The government insists there have been no covid19 outbreaks in North Korea but there have and it is getting more difficult to hide that news. The government knows that experience worldwide has shown that healthy adults and children rarely catch or die from the virus. Most of the victims are those with existing health problems. Usually that means the elderly, but it also means the malnourished. In North Korea fewer people have jobs or assets to sell.

The food shortages are even being felt in the capital (Pyongyang). Most (over 70 percent) people in the capital have not received any free food since mid-April, when every legal-resident of the city received a ten-day supply to commemorate the 105th anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth. Only the senior officials and secret police and their families have received free food regularly. The legal (and illegal) markets still operate but food prices keep going up and the situation is getting desperate.

In mid-2020 every household in Pyongyang began receiving some free rice and corn each month, which became a matter of life and death for more and more North Koreans. The rest of the country has been distributing local and military reserve food supplies since March 2020. By early 2021, most capital residents stopped receiving any free food. Dipping into the military food reserves made it possible for Pyongyang residents to obtain three months of missing food allocations in 2020. Then came the 10-day supply distribution in April. These sporadic food distributions have not covered all the missed allocations but did prevent the degree of hunger being felt in the rest of the country. Pyongyang residents do not openly complain about the missing free food distribution because that might result in expulsion from the capital. Even with food shortages Pyongyang is the best place to live in North Korea.

Pyongyang contains twelve percent of the national population but a much higher proportion of GDP and national income. The city became the capital because it was a major industrial center during the Japanese occupation (1910-45) and has remained an economic powerhouse. The city also contains the headquarters and many subsidiary components of all national organizations. This includes the secret police (Ministry of State Security or MSS).

Residence in the capital requires official permission and that is difficult to get. Police are constantly tracking down and arresting those living in the capital without permission. Legal residence in the capital is not freely granted, mainly because it is a much nicer place to live. There is more of everything, including more hours of electrical power and more economic opportunities for illegal residents. Although the food distributions are only for legal residents, many of those legal residents were helping to support illegal family and friends living in the capital. Since the end of regular food distributions there have been more illegal food markets in the capital and fewer new illegals trying to settle down. There are poor families in the capital and the government is providing some of them with additional food once it is verified that these households are not harboring illegals. This prevents visible signs of starvation but not hunger, which long-time residents have not experienced since the Great Famine of the 1990s. The government is trying to avoid that by getting more food to the capital markets. This will keep prices from rising as fast as in the rest of the country. In some parts of the country the food shortages have already reached levels not seen since the 1990s. Back then the shortages continued long enough to kill about ten percent of the population. This time the government believes it can prevent mass starvation, but not mass hunger.

Dependence on the Fall harvest is also in doubt. Farmers have not been able to get their usual supplies of fertilizer, pesticides or fuel (and spare parts) for tractors. State-controlled media were ordered to play down these shortages but the reality is that all these problems will reduce the quantity and quality of food produced and that secret can only be suppressed until late in the year. After that either food imports are resumed or there is another 1990s scale starvation situation.

North Korea also announced that it was shifting priorities to address the growing water and electricity shortages. Since this new policy does not involve diverting resources from the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, not much is being done except to announce that the problem is recognized and local leaders are urged to do whatever they can at the local level.

Permanent Damage

The government response to covid19 in North Korea is causing permanent damage to the economy, especially to the welfare of much of the population. Over a year of growing food shortages and higher prices, plus less economic activity, and personal income, has led many people to sell most of their possessions, including homes, to avoid starvation. A growing number of families are homeless and either crowded into homes of kin or without any permanent shelter at all. Before this it was noted that more young children were being abandoned but now it is entire families.

Slave Shortage

Reneging on earlier assurances that soldiers completing their military service could go home and help their families, soldiers working as emergency replacements for miners are being forced to work that job as civilians once they are discharged. The soldiers assigned to remain miners are called volunteers but anyone who has been in the military, and that includes nearly all adult male North Koreans, know that “volunteer” is a code-word for mandatory. The secret police opinion surveys warned senior leaders that forcing soldiers to continue their emergency work as civilians would be very unpopular because the families of discharged soldiers need their sons at home to help with the current economic and hunger crisis. The surveys also show that the usual propaganda and appeals to national pride continue to lose their effectiveness.

It’s not just lies to discharged soldiers that are a problem, there is still a problem with people not believing an earlier propaganda campaign honoring orphans who volunteered to work in coal mines, a job most adults, especially recently discharged soldiers, avoid. There were photos and videos of masked (covid19) orphans living in what appeared to be well kept buildings, as well as photos of the same masked children in work clothes outside a mine shaft. The masks made it easier to conceal revealing expressions younger kids have not learned how to hide, yet. All this was seen as the north responding to years of accusations about orphans being used as slave labor and insisting that orphans volunteer for these jobs, which often include unpopular and dangerous jobs like mining. This is an old problem. Since at least 2013 police have been seizing more and more homeless children and putting them into guarded farms or factories. In effect the kids were being sent to labor camps the government pretends are orphanages.

June 30, 2021: The government announced the replacement of several senior officials because of a serious covid19 related incident. No details were given and it was unclear if the officials were civil or military. Both groups have made a lot of mistakes lately and replacement of senior officials is rarely publicized, as that would make the national leadership appear as incompetent as many North Koreans believe they are. From the beginning Kim Jong Un has been suspicious of the loyalty of senior military officials and continues to retire older generals and replace them with younger ones apparently selected for their apparent loyalty to Kim. Even some of those younger generals became suspect. The announcement did confirm to foreigners that there have and continue to be covid19 outbreaks. North Korea sought to keep this scandal 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. The informal, but very reliable, information broker run network in China in North Korea has been under heavy attack by North Korea in the last year, with extraordinary efforts to halt the use of Chinese cell phones by North Koreans near the border and the movement of any people out of the country. These escapees (or “defectors”) often pay a lot of money for people smugglers to get across the border safely. Otherwise, a crossing attempt is currently suicidal most of the time. Once into China these North Koreans can make some money by giving information brokers detailed reports on their recent experiences in North Korea. These brokers make money several ways. First, they facilitate communication between their counterparts in North Korea clients and the broker network in China. In the last year the broker network has been crippled, but not destroyed by extraordinary North Korean efforts to eliminate the flow of information out of North Korea. One tactic was to offer arrested North Korean brokers unprecedented concessions in return for revealing all they know about their fellow brokers inside China, where Chinese police will arrest any of these brokers if they can identify them. Normally, broker personnel arrested in North Korea would have the cash, and additional help from the Chinese side of the border, to be let go. Sometimes these North Korean brokers would move to China because their identities were now known to North Korean security officials. This expensive “get out of jail” system has been weakened but not destroyed because of the covid19 lockdown. The surviving brokers, especially in North Korea, simply raised their prices for those paying to get cash or information smuggled in. The brokers in China have raised the cost, for foreign journalists and intelligence agencies, for the first-person reports of the much-reduced number of border crossers or people in China contacted by North Korean owners of Chinese cell phones. This information confirms that covid19 still survives in North Korea and that a widespread spread of the disease would be catastrophic for North Korea and the government which will not accept foreign help to deal with the crisis.

The information brokers also report that work continues on the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs even as, or because of, the continuing collapse of the armed forces from shortages of food, fuel and morale.

June 29, 2021: North Korea has decided to reorganize and expand its Strategic Forces (ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons) to cooperate with China if the United States and South Korea were to attack China. Such an attack would only take place if China triggered a war, and North Korea wanted China to know it was preparing to improve its ability to aid its “Elder Brother” against South Korean and American aggression. Details of this reorganization are not yet clear but the intent of the announcement was. North Korea wants to give China another reason to increase economic aid once North Korea is open to trade once more. When that will happen is still unclear as North Korea is still vulnerable to covid19 and that won’t change until the population can be vaccinated. North Korea is still opposed to using Chinese or Russian vaccines and Western nations are not offering their vaccines free-of-charge.

This shift in strategy is in response to the late May decision by the United States to lift all the remaining restrictions on the range of ballistic missiles that South Korea could develop and build as well as the size of their non-nuclear warheads. This enables South Korea to proceed with plans to develop missiles with ranges of up to 5,000 kilometers, providing South Korea with something to confront the similar Chinese missiles that have long been aimed at South Korea. The only restriction left is the one against South Korea developing nuclear weapons. These restrictions are an artifact of the Korean War (1950-53). In 1953 the fighting ended with an armistice, which is still in force. A permanent peace treaty would involve recognition by the UN and elimination of the outlaw status North Korea achieved by invading South Korea in 1950 and triggering a UN sponsored effort to push the North Koreans out. The U.S. troops are in South Korea as the last remnant of the multi-national force. The armistice gave the UN/U.S. authority to restrict South Korean weapons development, to prevent an arms race with North Korea.

The restrictions were popular in South Korea until 2010, when increased North Korean violence against the south resulted in a major shift of South Korean public opinion against North Korea and calls for lifting restrictions on what weapons South Korea could have. This has led to a lot of new South Korean weapons.

June 28, 2021: North Korea has accepted nearly six billion dollars from the UN since early 2020 to deal with the growing health and food crisis. The UN could not monitor how the money was actually used and expected some of it to be diverted to other uses (like nukes and missiles). There was an understanding that if North Korea visibly applied some of the aid money to the sick and starving the cash would keep coming. The UN is another customer for the Information Broker news network, so everyone understands that massive diversion of aid money will result in that source of aid being cancelled.

June 27, 2021: After no new pictures for a month, recent photos of Kim Jong Un show him visibly less obese. The weight loss was more visible because he was wearing the same clothes he was seen in a month ago. There was speculation that Kim might be seriously ill again, but if that were the case, he would be wearing clothes appropriate to his new weight. More likely is that the growing food crisis in North Korea finally compelled Kim to go on a diet, something he has resisted since he took power. The only accurate news reports allowed in North Korea are the secret police opinion surveys and informer reports that are regularly conducted and delivered a handful of senior leaders. Apparently, the fat jokes about Kim were increasing in quantity, viciousness and accuracy. Kim is supposed to be referred to as the “young general” or more informally as the “young master.” Behind his back he is addressed by less flattering, but more accurate, names like “little Kim” or, more recently, the “only fat man in North Korea.” Kim understood that the growing popularity of these derogatory names was a sign that he was losing power. He finally realized that he had to slim down or die at the hand of one his angry subjects. The propaganda specialists took the hint and advised Kim to not get his clothes taken in right away but to let the rumor spread that he was working himself so hard that he was losing weight. That was something most North Koreans could relate to, but not that this was what their portly dictator was going through.

June 20, 2021: In North Korea hunger in the military has become a major problem. The government has ordered commanders to be creative and use any means necessary to obtain additional food so their troops can get at least one meal a day. About ten percent of the troops, in the elite units, are receiving sufficient food. To do that, more than 80 percent of troops are now expected to grow or somehow forage for enough to stay alive. While not exactly a license to steal, it often seems that way to civilians who love food supplies to the hungry soldiers. Troops on foraging duty are always unarmed, as a security and safety measure.

The elite forces are armed only when on duty regularly, especially while guarding the Chinese border, which is still porous enough for daring, and well-financed smugglers to go back and forth. Despite sending the most elite secret police of military units to the border, the smugglers quickly find who is willing to take a large bribe to look the other way. There is less smuggling since the covid19 border closure in early 2020 and less demand for expensive foreign goods. The demand still exists and so are the bribes, which are much higher than in early 2020. Desperate to seal the 1,400-kilometer Chinese border the government it putting more cash, and personnel, into building a wall and electrified fence along the rural portions of the border most frequently used by smugglers. This just drives up the cost of bribes to get across more vulnerable portions of the border. The latest scheme is to form another elite, well fed and paid inspection unit to seek out corruption. These units will serve only a few weeks or months at the border, a measure found useful in preventing smugglers from finding members of elite units willing to take a bribe. To further enhance the effectiveness of the new border guard and their inspectors more smugglers and those caught using Chinese cell phones to make calls to Chinese cell towers and thus anywhere in the world, are being publicly executed. This has some deterrent effect, but not as much as expected.

This elite armed units are being augmented by an even larger force of elite local informers. This entails selecting about a dozen people from those working in large (over 3,000 employees) enterprises and providing them with additional pay and food each month. These elite informants are expected to search out and identify those who are engaging in corrupt or illegal economic activities. Evidence is turned over to the secret police who do the rest.

June 10, 2021: South Korea began vaccinating military and diplomatic personnel with the American Johnson and Johnson single dose vaccine. The U.S. provided South Korea with 1.1 million doses of this vaccine for essential personnel. These vaccinations were completed within ten days.

June 7, 2021: Over the last few months North Korea has been reassigning several dozen military helicopters to a new units dedicated to providing rapid response to disasters, both natural and political. The new helicopter force is apparently another safety measure to prevent large-scale unrest from threatening government control of country. The government has also established a new research facility to develop or identify new technologies that can improve security for leader Kim Jong Un during his frequent inspection visits. These were always largely for the propaganda value but a less publicized purpose was to enable secret police public opinion specialists to measure the reaction of locals to visits by their supreme leader. These secret police specialists supply Kim with regular reports on public opinion and the public has become angrier and angrier over the last year. It has also been noted that more local appear, to the trained eyes of the secret police specialists, to be very hostile to the ruling Kim family. Perhaps hostile to make an attempt to physically harm the supreme leader. So new protective measures much be developed, whatever the cost.

June 3, 2021: The U.S. announced it was distributing surplus covid19 vaccines so that allied nations could vaccinate 25 million key personnel. Over half the American population has been vaccinated, a world record. This is largely because it was the U.S. government that got behind the then-radical idea of developing effective covid19 vaccines in less than a year. This involved providing billions of dollars to pharmaceutical companies to develop and manufacture the vaccines that might not work. This concept was based on the fact that there had been some tech breakthroughs in developing new vaccines quickly but this was the first widespread application of the new tech. It was considered risky but it worked. Other nations, like China and Russia, relied on older methods and produced covid19 vaccines that were less effective. This led North Korea to ban the use of Chinese vaccines and overseas North Korean operatives have been ordered to obtain supplies of American covid19 vaccines any way they can. North Korea sees the American shipment of vaccine for the South Korean military, plus half a million civilians, as a hostile military act. While North Korea insists it has suffered no covid19 deaths, it has established special quarantine centers for military personnel suspected of having the virus and it is believed over twenty percent of North Korea troops are currently in quarantine. This includes some border patrol troops on the Chinese border, where the guards are armed and told to shoot on sight and shoot to kill if they spot anyone coming in from China.

South Korea has one of the lowest rates of covid deaths in the world, but 90 percent of its population is waiting for vaccines. South Korea cannot let its people travel to other countries, or allow foreigners in until most of the population is vaccinated. The U.S. and Western nations that followed the American lead in vaccine development will soon have most of their populations vaccinated. North Korea sees these vaccination rates, especially if achieved for South Korea and Japan, as a military vulnerability and is willing to make deals to get vaccinated. How much North Korea is willing to trade for vaccine is unclear but North Korea remains shut off from the rest of the world until it is safe to reconnect.


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