Korea: Stay The Course, Take The Loss

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February 16, 2022: The increasingly belligerent North Korean attitude, expressed in more ballistic missile development and tests and efforts to develop a workable nuclear warhead for these missiles, is deliberate. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un mandated this policy even though over two years of covid19 lockdowns have crippled the economy and reduced food supplies and distribution. The response to that was to order local officials to avoid obvious starvation deaths, or else. Farmers who fail to produce are often punished with short terms in labor camps. A few months in a labor camp won’t kill you but anything more than six months is potentially lethal.

China has resumed food shipments via railroad and trucks in an effort to prevent a government collapse in North Korea and a flood of desperate North Korean refugees seeking salvation in China. While China is less concerned about North Korean missiles and nukes, that threat has turned South Korea, Japan and the United States into a more effective coalition opposing North Korean plans. For once South Korea and Japan have put aside decades of disputes over Japanese crimes during their four decades occupation of Korea that ended in 1945. Those grievances will never be forgotten but for the moment the North Korean threat has taken priority.

Kim Jong Un is providing all sorts of benefits to those running his missile and nuclear programs. Many of these program managers have military ranks and Kim recently promoted many of them. In addition, the missile and nuke personnel have priority when it comes to food and consumer goods. They have better housing, medical care and adequate heat and electricity. All this comes at the expense of the military, economy and food supply. This is a continuation of the strategy Kim Jong Un adopted when he became supreme leader in 2011.

Despite over a decade of concentration on ballistic missiles and nukes, neither of these technologies have been turned into a proven (tested) threat to the United States. Progress has been made, but never enough to be more than a threat to South Korea and Japan, and the 75,000 American troops in those two countries. Both Japan and South Korea have invested heavily in ABM (anti-ballistic missile) systems. These lessen the threat but does not eliminate it. Only a change in government for North Korea can do that and the current North Korean leaders are cooperating by making themselves very unpopular in North Korea.

Secret Surveys Reveal All In The North

In North Korea the secret police public attitude surveys are showing increasing hostility towards the government by North Koreas of all social classes. So far, the government response has been more use of force, severe punishments and threats of more until morale improves. At the end of 2021 the government did announce that from now on covid19 control measures would be conducted in a more humane fashion.

There have been changes to the “shoot on sight” rules for border guards along some portions of the Chinese border. In some areas “shoot on sight” has been changed to “shoot a flare into the air” if it is not clear that someone is doing something illegal along the border. Over the last two years North Korean border guards have been issued ammo and ordered to shoot at anyone within two kilometers of the border. The rule used to be to fire warning shots first. These orders evolved to “shoot on sight” and then “shoot to kill”. These deadly policies only applied to areas where the most smuggling was taking place. By early 2021 over a dozen smugglers or defectors had been shot and killed or wounded. Some of the casualties turned out to be local civilians collecting firewood or edible plants. The border guards were expected to fire on anyone near the border, which is difficult to determine when the border runs down the middles of river. Firing bullets so close to the border, especially at night or bad weathers means a lot of those bullets are still moving fast enough when they reach the Chinese side to wound or kill. In the past troops were issued blank rounds to be used for warning shots and if live ammo was used the troops were supposed to fire warning shots into the water or ground near the smugglers. The increasing frequency of troops firing at anything suspicious during the night caused more complaints from Chinese on the other side of the river.

Covid Complications

The appearance of covid19 in early 2020 changed North Korea’s economic situation radically. But some things did not change in the face of an economic recession and growing hunger. Back in 2019 North Korea admitted the obvious; it never had any intention of surrendering its nuclear weapons. The reality was that North Korea was using its traditional negotiating tactic of offering to behave, but only if they received some economic aid first as a show of good faith. That tactic no longer works and now North Korea is back to making threats. The North Korean nukes and military threats remain. North Korea continues falling apart economically and politically and that has led North Koreans to do the unthinkable, which includes openly criticizing the government, putting anti-government graffiti in public places and even attacking corrupt government officials, including police.

North Korea is bankrupt and not getting better. Covid19 made matters much worse because North Korea was totally unprepared to handle it and responded by shutting its borders and restricting movement within North Korea. This crippled an already weak economy and efforts to deal with the threat of another fatal famine. Even the security forces were getting less food and the emergency military food reserve was used up.

Big Brother China is openly losing patience with its unruly neighbor. China is, literally, North Korea’s economic lifeline. China is the primary or only source for essentials like petroleum, food and all sorts of smuggled goods, past a long list of international sanctions. China will tolerate a lot of bad behavior in return for obedience and maintaining order along the Chinese border. North Korea is failing in both categories. China still asks the West to eliminate some of their sanctions, even though the West is where all those new North Korean missiles and nukes are aimed.

Everyone looks to China because Korea has traditionally been a Chinese responsibility and, most of the time, a difficult one. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has obediently gone to China several times since 2018 to receive criticism described as advice. Kim also met with the leaders of South Korea and the United States. So far lots of the right words but little action. China and everyone else fears that North Korea is going to try and scam its way out of another tight situation and risk the very real wrath of China while doing it. Inside North Korea the official word is that the nuclear weapons are essential and not negotiable. Unofficially, more North Koreans want a change of government or a way to get out. Meanwhile South Korea continues to visibly prosper, with GDP per capita that is more than 20 times larger than North Korea. Being caught viewing videos of life in South Korea or South Korean video entertainment, is now a capital (death penalty) offense in North Korea.

February 14, 2022: Commercial satellite photos indicate that the North Korean Yongbyon nuclear research facility is again producing weapons grade uranium and plutonium for atomic bombs. Yongbyon includes a nuclear reactor for producing the plutonium while a larger facility uses centrifuges to enrich uranium sufficiently for nuclear weapons. The satellite photos showed that the numerous uranium enrichment buildings were free of snow, which melts when the buildings are in use and generates a lot of heat. There is also more construction activity at the site.

North Korea began reactivating Yongbyon and its reactor in 2013. The reactor had been completely shut down since 2007 and partially dismantled in 2008. It was believed that it would take at least six months (and possibly years) to resume production at Yongbyon. This reactor was shut down as part of an aid deal but the northerners refused to completely dismantle the reactor. They insisted on leaving some of the structure intact, and would not surrender unused nuclear fuel. This sort of double dealing is so typical of the North Koreans. In response, South Korea increased its defense spending and made it clear North Korea would have to be more convincing to obtain any aid in the future. By 2018 work on Yongbyon facilities accelerated. Now the future is here and North Korea does not appear to have changed even though it desperately needs some economic relief.

February 10, 2022: South Korea is now in the top ten defense technology developers, just behind Japan and head of most European nations. Since 2017 South Korea has been among the top ten economies (in terms of GDP) and the one with the second smallest (after Canada) population. There is one liability to this. The city of Seoul metropolitan region contains half of South Korea’s population and about 40 percent of the economy (GDP). North Korea has, since the 1950s, stationed hundreds of long-range artillery and rockets that could reach Seoul. The quantity and quality of those weapons increased as Seoul became a more valuable target. That played a role in South Korea becoming a major developer and manufacturer of modern weapons. By 2020 South Korea was in the top ten arms exporters as well as the top ten for annual defense spending.

February 8, 2022: Russia arrested a North Korean cryptography expert who was there on official business but was detected trying to arrange asylum in the West via the UN refugee agency. Defections of important tech experts or government officials has been an increasing problem and for that reason few potential defectors are allowed outside North Korea except to “friendly” (likely to arrest and extradite) nations like Russia and China. North Korea has sent additional secret police agents to Russia to work with the Russians to discover who the individuals are that are assisting North Koreans in Russian legally to escape to other parts of Russia and eventually reach any country that does not cooperate with North Korea in these matters. Russia considers these defection supporters to be spies. Most of these defection supporters appear to be Russians who are ethnic Koreans and speak Korean.

February 4, 2022: South Korea has lifted most covid19 restrictions and let the virus spread and add herd-immunity to a fully vaccinated population. The current omicron strain of covid19 has the least impact of any previous strains and is considered no worse than the annual flu in terms of fatalities. So far, the South Korea covid death rate (per million population) is less than two per million and one of the lowest of any industrialized nation. Less developed nations are often unable to keep track of covid19 deaths.

January 30, 2022: North Korea resumed testing its Hwasong-12 (KN-17) IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile). The last test was in 2017 when, after three failures, there were three successful tests. KN-17 is a single stage SCUD type (liquid fuel) ballistic missile that has been in development for over a decade. It is used on a tracked mobile launcher and is supposed to be a threat to American bases on the island of Guam, which is 3,500 kilometers from distant. None of the four successful KN-17 tests have gone for more than 2,700 kilometers. In theory the KN-17 could have a max range of over 4,000 kilometers but this capability has not been tested. After the successful 2017 tests mass production of KN-17 started and so far about forty have been built. It's unclear how capable the KN-17 guidance system is. Currently the only warheads available are non-nuclear. North Korea could install a “dirty bomb” warhead which used radioactive material but does not create a nuclear explosion. Instead, highly radioactive material is spread over a large area using conventional explosives. North Korea has never expressed any interest in dirty bombs, which are seen as a terrorist weapon. To further complicate matters, Guam is defended by ABM systems that can handle ballistic missiles like KN-17. Those ABM defenses can be overwhelmed by a massive use of KN-17s, something that is now more of a possibility but a poor strategic move by North Korea. Over the last 70 years, North Korean leaders have displayed a preference for poor strategic decisions.

January 29, 2022: In the capital the entire family of a high-ranking MSS (secret police) official was sent to a labor camp. The father had already been sent to a labor camp and apparently the cause of all the problems was one of their adult sons had become addicted to watching South Korea TV shows and movies. The son also got involved with duplicating and distributing the South Korean videos to pay for his habit. One of his fifty or so customers, the son of another high-ranking official, was caught in a police raid on a home where such illegal media was viewed. Police and family persuaded the young man to reveal his source, which was the son of an even higher-ranking official. To put the entire family in the labor camp meant another son in the military was discharged and sent to join his family.

The government has used similar tactics against the families of “defectors” (those who made it to South Korea) and persuaded family members to stop accepting the cash.

January 18, 2022: On the Chinese border about 200 North Korean customs and border security personnel received their second covid19 jab and are now fully vaccinated. This was done in secret to avoid speculation that the government was going to open part of the border to trade with China. On the Chinese side of the border merchants and border control personnel believe the North Koreans are preparing to resume large scale trade. North Korea is also tripling the number of security personnel assigned to border crossings.

January 17, 2022: China confirmed that regular rail and truck traffic with North Korea had resumed to and from the Chinese border city of Dandong. What was not mentioned was that the North Korean government smuggling, supervised by the MSS (Ministry of State Security) had also resumed, to replenish the supplies of consumer goods and luxury items. Since the border closing in 2020 even these essential luxury items were unable to get through. Some items did, but had to be brought in via air freight and that was expensive and many items, like cars, could not be brought in that way.

 

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