Lower rainfall over the last six months means much lower wheat and barley will be harvested in Korea. South Korea and the U.S. monitor North Korean agriculture via multispectral satellites, and the drought in both Koreas is so bad that brown fields that should be green this time of year mean hunger in the north and more grain imports in the south. South Korea can better deal with drought but cannot avoid some losses. The crop disaster is worse in the north because of continuing fertilizer shortages because of problems at the main fertilizer plant. The crop shortages cause hunger on the collective farms, which is made worse in some provinces where officials violate the farm laws by taking more than 30 percent of the crop. This began in 2021 when the provincial share was raised to 35 percent and for 2022 that has been raised to 42 percent. The national government ignores the desperate plight of farmers that see their crop yield decline because the state cannot supply fertilizer and then take more of the smaller crop. As long as the local security forces receive enough food, there is not much the desperate farmers can do about it.
Grain imports are more expensive this year because of the war in Ukraine. The Russians planned on a quick victory but after five weeks of fighting Russia is losing and discussing peace terms. Russia and Ukraine account for nearly a third of global grain exports and a lot of the 2022 crop is going to be missing or delayed in reaching export customers. Ukrainian leaders are demanding all the Russian forces leave but Russia is offering something more like North/South Korea and that is not acceptable in Ukraine or Korea.
North Korea and China are alarmed at how quickly and decisively the Western nations came together to oppose the bold act of Russian aggression. This casts even more doubt on the capabilities of the North Korean military. The official North Korean reaction to the Russian problems in Ukraine is to ignore the sad state of their military and emphasize the continuing progress in the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs. Most North Koreans are worrying about avoiding starvation or arrest for criminal activity, which includes not being able to pay the legal or illegal bribes demanded to keep you out of labor camps. North Korea is also upset that the war in Ukraine is pushing North Korea out of the headlines. North Korea has long considered coverage in foreign media, good or bad, as essential for keeping North Korea seen as a major military power or at least a threat that cannot be ignored.
Death By Bribe
Earlier in the year China resumed food shipments via railroad and trucks to prevent a government collapse in North Korea and a flood of desperate North Korean refugees seeking salvation in China. Within weeks the North Korean demand for freight train business declined because the North Korean border control officials raised the import tax rates without warning, causing the North Korean trading companies to lose money. Raising consumer prices did not solve the problem because there was less demand. The government was no help because the trading companies were allowed to operate freely to obtain needed goods in China for resale in North Korea and do it profitably. The sharp increase in import taxes meant more cash for the government as well as customs officials who work at the railroad crossings. Many traders turned to a nearby port in the hope that the import taxes would not be as high. The port officials were told that if the cost of bringing in goods is too high there will be a lot less imports. The border officials do not seem to be raising rates for food imports or imposing them on food aid from China. The North Korean traders and other North Koreans legally working in China have been increasingly nervous about their status and what is going on in North Korea. This has led to a noticeable increase in suicides and visibly worried North Koreans in China.
Inside North Korea the reaction to bribery and abusive police is expressed differently. There are increasing incidents where street vendors will turn violent against police. The police cannot use lethal force without authorization and the police know that someone is probably capturing the street violence incidents with a cell phone and such videos tend to travel, even as North Korea and China crack down on the data brokers in both countries who buy useful documents and videos from North Koreans and sell it to foreign journalists and governments as well as providing some freebies for Chinese police and intel agencies. Apparently, Kim Jong Un is paying the Chinese police more in an effort to eliminate data brokers. That won’t happen and the more of them you put out of business, the survivors can pay more for good stuff and charge foreigners more for it.
North Korean police are also in trouble because of more incidents of females arrested for any number of real or imagined crimes are raped. There are more shocking punishments as the adult daughter of a senior government official was publicly executed for viewing and distributing videos of South Korea TV shows and movies. The children of high-ranking families are increasingly showing signs of disloyalty, or as the kids put it, dissatisfaction with the way North Korea is run. This is now punishable by death.
China is less concerned about North Korean missiles and nukes, but 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.
North Korea is bankrupt and getting worse because of the escalating corruption and mismanagement. Covid19 also made matters 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, and still are, getting less food and the emergency military food reserve was used up. In 2022 North Korea was forced to open external and internal border controls and more North Koreans are moving about. Health experts, both local and foreign, expect it to spread rapidly throughout the country with fatal results for a population already weakened by food shortages and increased poverty. Few North Koreans have been vaccinated. Senior officials quietly obtained and used Western vaccines as it has become clear that the Chinese vaccines are less effective. That is causing massive shutdowns in China to halt the spread of new covid19 strains that spread more quickly but are less lethal. In North Korea the less lethal versions of covid19 are more lethal. North Korean officials refuse to comment on this.
China is 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 useful 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.
South Korean Surprises
South Korea became a major economic power by performing in surprising and unexpected ways. An example is the South Korean response to China seeking to become the largest shipbuilder in the world. While the Chinese shipbuilding industry continues to expand the types of specialized ships it sells, it is still facing serious competition from South Korea, which had more orders for new ships than China in 2022. South Korea was long the number one producer but during the last few years the lead has been changing month to month. In late 2021, South Korea had another winning month. South Korea has become a serious economic competitor for China, which has a much larger economy and population. South Korea had a GDP of $1.8 trillion and a population of 51 million compared to $18 trillion for China and a population of 1,400 million. South Korea is now the tenth largest GDP in the world.
March 16, 2022: North Korea launched what was described as an SLV (satellite launch vehicle) that was carried by and launched from a
TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher). TELs are not built in North Korea but Chinese large (nine axle) commercial transporters are available and five years ago North Korea bought and modified at least six of the Chinese transporter trucks to be TELs for large North Korea ballistic missiles, or SLVs. When news of the Chinese origins of the North Korea TELs became known China cut off the supply of such dual use vehicles and North Korea did not have the resources to build its own. Launching a ballistic missile equipped to put satellites into orbit makes it an SLV and if done from a TEL that makes the TEL part of the SLV system. Nowhere else in the world do SLVs use TELs. Today’s test was a failure because the new rocket motors were defective and the SLV exploded shortly after launch. The government was planning to carry out three of four more launches of the new ICBM/SLV. North Korea is serious about putting satellites into orbit, but these will be military communications or surveillance models. North Korea has created a new bureaucracy for this and put one of its rocket scientists in charge.
The new rocket was described by North Korea as the
Hwasong-17 (or HS-17)
an improved version of the
Hwasong-15 that was first tested in 2017. The HS-17 is physically larger than HS-15 but uses a similar TEL. Both of these designs are
similar to the American Cold War era Atlas, which was one of the last U.S. liquid-fueled ICBMs. Atlas was retired as an ICBM in 1965 and most of the missiles were converted to SLVs. North Korea said their new HS-17 could reach all of the United States and that is true if it has a guidance system capable of handling that. The HS-15 apparently did not have the adequate guidance system and a number of other problems that were fixed in the HS-17. At least one of those fixes failed, which is why you test.
North Korean media described the missile tested as a HS-17 but after more foreigners examined satellite and other photos of the “HS-17” test they concluded that the missile was actually an HS-15 and Kim Jong Un was trying to deceive foreigners about North Korea’s progress. This deception was also aimed at the newly elected president Yoon of South Korea. Yoon is expected to be more aggressive in opposing and actively disrupting the North Korea missile and nuclear programs. That means more pressure on China and more cooperation with traditional enemy Japan.
Testing is expensive and North Korea cannot afford to carry out the tests as frequently as China, the United States or South Korea, which is now developing longer range missiles to deal with North Korea, or Chinese aggression. In response to this North Korea has changed its response to failure. There are no longer extensive investigations of the technical staff and dismissal of a few of them. Kim Jong Un realized that North Korea did not have an abundance of rocket scientists and engineers and halted the practice of criticizing the senior specialists and this time he praised them even though the test was a failure. There will still be an investigation but it will concentrate on manufacturing, which Russia had a lot of problems with despite its abundance of world-class rocket scientists. If manufacturing problems are because of design defects, the situation will be discussed with the well paid and treated experts who will be encouraged, not threatened, to make it work.
North Korea is apparently continuing with preparations for another underground nuclear test. North Korea has a nuclear weapon, but it is a crude and unreliable design that requires a lot of testing to improve.
South Korea quickly responded with tests of its own long-range ballistic missiles. These have sufficient range to reach targets in North Korea and China. South Korea also showed off over a dozen of its new F-35A stealth fighters assembled for quick take-off while armed with guided bombs and missiles. North Korea ‘s antiquated air defense system cannot detect and track the F-35s as well as they could older South Korean warplanes and the F-35s were armed to go after the North Korean air defense system, clearing the way for the rest of the South Korean air force. The disparity in weapons and troop training between the two Koreas has widened considerably in the last two decades as South Korea has become a major developer and manufacturer of modern weapons and is exporting more of them. Kim Jong Un can do that math and is determined to have effective nukes as soon as possible to counter the growing military advantage in South Korea.
February 27, 2022: North Korea launched a shot range ballistic missile from an east coast launch site. This increases the number of missiles launched to at least nine. South Korea is not too concerned, China is annoyed and most North Koreans are distracted by hunger and poverty.