North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has apparently agreed to obey China from now on.
China has openly criticized Kim for not adopting economic and political policies that have worked in China. Kim had earlier refused because allowing a more open and free economy as well as a more rational spending policy would mean the end of the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile program and a weakening of the police state control the Kim family has installed over the last 70 years. China believed that North Korea was going to end up like the Soviet Union and other East European communist governments three decades ago when all those communist governments collapsed because of poor economic performance and mismanagement in general. Kim Jong Un became obsessed with going his own way because that has long been important to Koreans in general, especially when it comes to “Big Brother” China. Covid19 and continued economic pressure from China and the United States proved too much for Kim to handle. Or so it appears. For Kim to remain in China’s good graces Kim must obey all Chinese requests or else.
What exactly “or else” entails is unclear, but whatever it is will not be good for North Korea and the ruling Kim dynasty. North Korea expects some prompt Chinese help with covid19 and the economy. North Korea has not been able to obtain covid19 vaccine because it does not trust the Chinese or Russian vaccines and insists on obtaining Western vaccines with a proven track record. That has been difficult, mainly because of the difficulty outsiders encounter in dealing with North Korea. Even South Korea has had problems getting enough proven American and European vaccines quickly and does not expect to achieve herd immunity (70 percent of the population vaccinated) until next month.
The other problem is the damage done to the economy because of covid19 and continued sanctions. North Korea has a miniscule GDP (about $25 billion in 2020), which is pathetic compared to South Korea’s $1.6 trillion that is one of the ten highest in the world. On a per-capita basis South Korean GDP is more than 20 times larger than North Korean. Per capita GDP of China and Russia is more than five times larger than North Korea. North Korea is an island of poverty in a sea of prosperity.
Unleashing The Supersnitches
Over the last few months North Korea has been recruiting the most effective and loyal local female informants with an offer to join a well-paid (with cash and food) secret police organization that will seek out and identify people or officials violating the growing number of laws and restrictions. The secret police keep track of the loyalty and effectiveness of the local informers, a staple of government rule from the beginning and are now turning these super snitches into an elite group that detects illegal behavior among any outlaw group, including the secret police and local police who are supposed to be enforcing laws but aren’t, and have become very adept, like many North Koreans, at not getting caught. This is not the first effort to build a specialized organization of willing amateurs to seek out and identify law breakers. These super snitch groups are usually described as temporary, in part because the super snitches eventually get corrupted once their potential victims find a weakness they can exploit. It’s all a very competitive and Darwinian operation.
Too Many Thought-Criminals
North Korea has a prison shortage. Since early 2020 the covid19 restrictions have led to more people violating those rules, often to avoid starvation. The government has shut down of nearly all foreign trade and trying to restrict the movement of people has accelerated a decline in crop yields. There is less fertilizer and fuel for farm machinery. Some of the covid19 shutdowns limit access to food by people who need it most. More people risk arrest and imprisonment to overcome the restrictions. The government cannot afford to expand the labor camp capacity and has enacted new rules that allow “model prisoners” to be released early to make room for the new criminals, especially the large number imprisoned for thought and behavioral offenses.
North Koreans are more outspoken with their criticism of the government or defying harsh new laws and continuing to obtain, view and distribute South Korean movies and TV videos. Now the growing number of arrests has the labor camps holding 20,000 more prisoners. The camps are more hellish than ever with less food and heat during the four months a year of cold weather. In the past this has meant a higher death rate among prisoners. The government wants to avoid that because so many of the new prisoners are children of the “cadres” (ruling class) families.
North Korea was founded in the late 1940s with the implementation of a caste system as a way to maintain the survival of the new communist government. The newly established secret police and communist party reported on everyone making it possible to create an official list of every family assigned to one of 51 social classes. Most (29) of these classes were composed of people considered either hostile to the government or leaning that way. These new lower classes included business people, the most successful farmers, professionals and the usual suspects. Most of the population belong to these 29 social classes, and these North Koreans are getting increasingly hostile to a government that seems to do nothing but create one disaster after another. These lower caste families retained their talent and despite decades of imprisonment or execution of any lower caste North Koreans who showed any sign of disloyalty, the survivors learned to hide their true feelings and forget nothing.
The children of the higher-class families can afford more food and luxuries like electronic devices to view forbidden content stored on USB or MicroSD devices crammed with recent South Korean entertainment and news video. MicroSD cards are cheap (a few dollars for a Chinese or South Korean card that carries at least 32 gigabytes of data). Normally these tiny cards are used for smuggling South Korean movies and TV shows. Possessing one of these in North Korea is considered treason. The distribution groups will duplicate videos on USBs or MicroSDs and sell these for up to $12 each or an equivalent amount in Chinese or North Korean currency. While many of the distributors are crafty lower-class types, many of the buyers are children of the cadres. The police offer lenient punishment for the growing number of cadre kids they catch viewing forbidden videos if they will reveal who they got the forbidden material from. The distributors respond by developing more furtive operations. Some of the cadre kids have become duplicators and distributors and are easier to catch. Lower class distributors are often executed but so far, the cadre class distributors have been spared that, although longer sentences in labor camps can be a death sentence for a cadre kid not accustomed to surviving on little food and a hostile atmosphere. The government is very upset at the growing lawlessness and defiance by the children of cadre.
August 3, 2021: South Korea revealed that it had been approached by North Korea officials about reviving the hotline, which the north cut in early 2020. Hotlines between the two Koreas have been around for fifty years but the north often shuts them down, or revives them as a negotiating tactic. Now North Korea wants to negotiate again.
August 2, 2021: It was confirmed that a North Korea army general was court-martialed and executed on July 18th, for openly criticizing Kim Jong Un’s order to use the military war reserve of food to avoid mass starvation. This information was later widely distributed within the military, which led to it reaching the civilian population and eventually China and South Korea.
August 1, 2021: In North Korea it appears there is no government distribution of free food to the general population during July. Instead, the new “cheaper rice for the people” program began July 6th as government-run food shops offered rice at below-market prices. There were other foods at the shops, but non-staple items were sold at market prices. By mid-July two things became clear. First, a growing number of people had no money at all to buy any food. In the last year a growing number of families have sold everything they could, plus any state assets they could get away with selling, in order to buy food. Now a lot of these families are broke and often homeless.
The government food shops ran into another problem, no steady supply of rice or no rice at all. In many cities the staff show up to work in a shop with nothing to sell. In some cases, there is no more food available from government reserve supplies. In other cases, the officials in charge of those rice reserves have secretly sold them off and pocketed most of the money after bribing enough other officials to hide the crime.
More of the free-market food vendors and even some farmers, are hoarding food in anticipation of the food shortages getting worse. Getting caught “speculating” like this is considered treason but for many merchants staying solvent has become a matter of life or death any way you look at it. The government has warned local officials that starvation deaths is a career threatening event for them and trying to conceal starvation deaths a criminal offense.
The government doesn’t help demanding North Koreans do more for the government in the form of recycling more than they already do and providing more free labor. The government gives nothing and return and all North Koreans can do the math on that.
July 30, 2021: In Cambodia, port authorities seized a small oil-products tanker (the Courageous) for smuggling refined petroleum products to North Korea. The United States had photographic and electronic evidence of this and issued an international warrant to seize the 34 -year-old vessel that was purchased, very cheaply in 2019 by Kwek Ki Sen, a citizen of Singapore who kept the ship operational by participating in the lucrative smuggling business that had tankers with legal cargoes turn off the AIS (mandated electronic location devices) and rendezvous with North Korean tankers and transfer some or all of their cargo to the North Korean ship, which then delivers it to a North Korean port. Kwek Ki Sen was paid in dollars and used various money laundering schemes to hide the transactions. The money laundering was detected, along with how the tanker was used to deliver small quantities of refined products at a big markup which made the Courageous far more than it would be just dealing with legal cargoes. The owner has not yet been arrested.
July 25, 2021: In North Korea state-controlled media admitted the obvious, that large agricultural areas were suffering another severe drought this year. In 2020 there were floods and covid19 restrictions. This year the drought is back again.
A major drought in 2019 meant food production was down two years in a row and over ten percent of the population was at risk of starvation. South Korea offered 50,000 tons of free rice, with no strings attached, like having observers ensuring that the food gets to the hungry and is not sold by the North Korean government. This offer was refused because South Korea refused to halt joint training with American military forces. In 2021 China was the only donor of food, and did not restrict how it could be used. But until recently, China refused to send food because North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was not following orders. Kim recently wrote several letters to the Chinese leader that convinced China that North Korea would obey in the future. Among the Chinese demands was that Kim strop arresting or firing senior military and political officials for being “pro-Chinese”. Kim has long believed that China was developing friendly ties with many senior North Korea officials in order to prepare for a possible coup against the Kim family because of continued mismanagement, incompetence and disregard for China or the North Korean population.
July 23, 2021: Global shortages of many electronic components, caused by the covid19 restrictions in East Asia where most of this stuff is produced, has hit North Korea particularly hard. Although North Korea’s miniscule economy needs few of these components, those that are imported are vital to new factories or products the government touts as signs that progress continues in North Korea. This is true of items the government does not publicize, like weapons. This is especially true with the missile and nuclear weapons programs, which get a disproportionate portion of the defense budget and find many key projects stalled because key electronic items cannot be obtained.
July 14, 2021: North Korea has agreed to begin allowing North Koreans arrested in China (for being illegal aliens) to return to North Korea. The first batch included some North Korea military personnel who had fled to China and lived there illegally for years. Some of them had married and had children. Others had become quite wealthy but large bribes did not work this time because North Korea was told that if it behaved and did whatever China requested, China would be generous with its obedient neighbor. North Korea has been making preparations to take back over a thousand North Koreans stuck in Chinese jails because of covid19 restrictions. In late 2020 North Korea began expanding labor camp capacity and ordered more camps to be built in order to house the North Koreans arrested in China. Another reason for the new camps was that the inmates are increasingly being used as slave labor in government owned enterprises that cannot afford to pay their employees. There has been a number of the slave laborers dying of starvation or malnutrition related diseases. Outside work is often more strenuous than what is done inside the camp. The camps are not getting more food for this, or not enough to keep the slave laborers going. This is a growing problem in government owned coal mines where the work is not only very strenuous but requires training and learning how to follow safety rules. Many of the first batch returned are apparently going to be used to help further damage the network of people smugglers and money brokers in North Korea and China that sustain continuing illegal departures from North Korea.
In Russia nearly a thousand North Korea workers have not been able to return home at the end of their work contracts because of North Korean fears that some of them may have been infected by covid19 and are not showing any symptoms. North Korea is considered paranoid and irrational in the way it deals with covid19, but North Korea still controls its borders and can close them whenever they want for whatever reason they choose to disclose, or no reason at all.
July 6, 2021: North Korea began offering below free market price food in the government run food shops throughout the nation. The government planned to offer all North Koreans up to a three-month supply of below-market rice. This plan failed.
In neighboring China,
there were public events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). The party was hailed for helping win World War II, uniting China after the war and lifting millions of Chinese from poverty to prosperity. The reality was different. The CCP created an army that sat out most of the fighting during World War II and made major gains at the end of the war when Russia finally (as per a treaty with the West) declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria, where the bulk of the Chinese ground forces were stationed. Russia quickly defeated this force, which Chinese troops were never able to defeat. Russia turned over captured Japanese weapons to the CCP forces and that enabled them to defeat the Chinese Nationalist Forces, which had been doing most of the fighting against the Japanese for over a decade and prevented Japanese forces from overrunning all of China. Once in power in 1949, the CCP was called on to repay its debt to Russia by sending over a million Chinese troops into North Korea to prevent the collapse of the communist government Russia had established there in 1949. In 1950 Russia ordered North Korea to invade South Korea, where the last American troops had recently left and Russia felt it would be an easy victory. It wasn’t and the UN authorized an international force, led by the Americans, to liberate Korea. Russia could not afford such a humiliation and told China to send in “volunteers” into Korea, where several hundred thousand died before the 1953 armistice. Among the dead were the sons of many senior CCP leaders.
With Korea out of the way the CCP turned to reforming the Chinese economy. This was done via the disastrous “Great Leap Forward” that left over 20 million Chinese dead from the resulting famine. In the early 1960s the CCP feared a popular revolution and to avoid that called on young Chinese to lead the cultural revolution against their elders and anyone suspected of harboring anti-CCP views. This paralyzed the economy and caused another famine. After a decade of this there was a coup within the CCP and the were radicals jailed or executed.
The new CCP leadership recognized that the Russian version of socialism, where the entire economy was owned and managed by the state, would not work. By the end of the 1970s, after killing off over 40 million Chinese, the CCP made some fundamental, and very successful decisions. Starting in the 1980s, the CCP set the economy free to finally get China through the Industrial Revolution, which most Western nations underwent in the 1800s. With little state interference, the return to a market economy worked. As happened in the West, this led to explosive growth. The re-introduction of a market economy helped create the first large (several hundred million strong) Chinese middle class of well-educated professionals. These are the people who were key to China quickly creating the second largest GDP in the world.
July 3, 2021: In North Korea the shortage of fuel has been a growing problem since 2020 but in the last month prices have plunged as more of these refined oil products were received from China and smugglers. Apparently North Korea leader Kim began writing personal notes to his Chinese counterpart apologizing for past misbehavior when it came to handling Chinese aid and from now on Kim Jong Un would do whatever China wanted in this area. This was a big change from the past where Kim often blamed someone else when China complained of North Korean misbehavior. The halt in refined products began during 2020 when China more frequently halted deliveries of gasoline and diesel fuel to North Korea because the Chinese deliveries were not being used in the market places, where everyone had access, but diverted to the military. North Korea kept promising to comply with Chinese restrictions and kept getting caught cheating. Smuggling these fuels via ship-to-ship transfer at sea was limited by increased scrutiny and more North Korean tankers being caught and seized. At the end of 2020 North Korea assured China that it would not cheat on fuel allocation and evidence was visible in early 2021 as market prices for gasoline and other fuels declined. Imports of refined petroleum products from China and Russia during the first six months of 2020 were only 17,000 tons, half what came in during the first six months of 2019. Kim kept sending apologetic messages to the Chinese leader and finally convinced China that North Korea, unlike South Korea, was from now on going to show the proper respect and obedience a younger brother (neighbor of China) owes their elder brother (China). These ancient attitudes never really disappear and China has been more frequently demanding this traditional homage from nations it does business with.