North Korean food shortages are getting worse. The year started with crops reduced because of less rainfall since late 2021. More recently some snow and too much rain in some parts of the country reduced crop yields even more. In most of North Korea April was warmer than usual with less than half the usual rainfall. Springtime retail food prices are at record high levels at a time when many non-form workers have little or no income. Starvation deaths are occurring in the worst hit provinces. South Korea can better deal with bad weather but cannot avoid some agricultural losses. The crop disaster is worse in the north because of continuing fertilizer shortages due to inability to import key ingredients for fertilizer.
Grain imports are more expensive this year because of the war in Ukraine. The Russians planned on a quick victory but after 11 weeks of fighting Russia is losing and discussing peace terms or nuclear war, depending on the mood of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. 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. Russia is even stealing grain in areas it occupies and shipping it back to Russia. None of this is reaching China or North Korea because more distant customers will pay more.
Over the last few years Kim Jong Un has ordered over 50,000 new housing units to be built to replace those lost in floods or simply to improve the lives of North Koreans believed worthy of it. Like most major projects, the construction goals fell short of targets and many of the “completed” units are missing key components or access to water or power. This is even occurring in the capital, which has priority when it comes to construction materials and other resources
Another chronic problem in North Korea, addictive drugs, has become worse since the covid19 lockdown began in early 2020. This year the government is trying to persuade North Koreans to stop using meth and opium, which are produced mainly for export. Those exports are a growing problem for China. Three years earlier China cracked down on North Korean meth production and smuggling. This was a matter of self-defense for China and is effective because North Korea makes the highest profits from methamphetamine (“meth”). China was the source of a critical component, phenylacetic acid, in the form of white crystals that were usually smuggled in from China. That was more difficult after 2017 and North Korea had to find another supplier of phenylacetic acid. Russians could supply it, but it cost more as did any other source. Since 2020 less meth has been smuggled out of North Korea and more of it has been consumed locally because Chinese medications were not getting in and North Korea refused Chinese covid19 vaccines. Locally produced opium and meth were available and more North Koreans turned to these pain killers for relief. Since the early 1990s the government has encouraged the production of meth as well as growing poppies, the raw material for opium. With the importation of a key chemical, opium is turned into heroin. The presence of these drugs in North Korea was always seen as a threat in the form of more local addicts. The government cannot afford to prosecute local addicts but does go after illegal manufacturers and distributors.
May 10, 2022: In South Korea a new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, took office. President Yoon said he would take a hard line on North Korea. The many North Korean weapons tests this year were an attempt to intimidate Yoon and appear to have failed. Yoon did offer to provide aid for any verifiable North Korean weapons reductions. North Korea showed no official interest. The new South Korean Defense Minister followed up with pledges to carry out prompt and powerful retaliation in response to any North Korean attacks.
May 7, 2022: Off the east coast, North Korea launched another SLBM (Submarine launched ballistic missile) from its only sub equipped to do so. This SLBM appeared to be a version of the land-based KN23, which is based on the Russian Iskander ballistic missile. The North Korean submarine Gorae (Whale), is a 1,500-ton diesel-electric sub modified t0 include a single ballistic missile launch tube in the sail. This sub was used as early as 2016 for SLBM tests but most SLBM tests were still launched from an underwater platform. North Korea used Gorae for a SLBM test last October and the test apparently failed and damaged the sub. The damage has since been repaired. This Gorae was modified to test the North Korean Polaris SLBM, a copy of the Russian Cold War R-27 but with a solid fuel motor. Since 2015 North Korea has been building a larger diesel electric sub that can carry three SLBMs. Progress has been slow because of growing shortages in North Korea and higher priority for land-based missiles and developing nuclear warheads that can work reliably on ballistic missiles.
May 6, 2022: The U.S. believes North Korea is preparing to carry out another underground nuclear test by the end of the month. The last such test took place in 2017. So far in 2022 North Korea has carried out 14 missile tests, which are easier to perform because there are plenty of such missiles and they do not need the deep tunnels required for the tests. Each tunnel is destroyed during a nuclear test and that means the construction of a new tunnel can be monitored via surveillance satellites.
May 5, 2022: South Korea has become the first Asian nation to join NATO’s CCDCOE (Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence). South Korea has a lot of experience dealing with North Korean and Chinese hackers. These hacking operations have become an increasing threat to NATO nations. East Asian nations like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore, along with Australia and New Zealand, have been increasingly cooperative with NATO nations because they have a common enemy in China and its smaller sidekick Russia.
May 3, 2022: In April South Korean exports to China were down 3.5 percent compared to last year. This is mainly because of the covid19 shutdowns in Shanghai and a growing number of other Chinese cities. Problems with Russia, a major source of energy and raw materials for China, will have an increasing impact on the Chinese economy. South Korea currently exports about half a trillion dollars’ worth of goods and services each year, with China the largest customer, accounting for 26 percent of these exports. Because of Ukraine related sanctions, exports to Russia are down 70 percent. Russia accounts for less than one percent of South Korean exports.
May 2, 2022: In the relatively prosperous North Korea capital, Pyongyang, police have been stopping random pedestrians and checking their cell phones for evidence of illegal activity. That includes South Korea music or videos as well as calls to South Korea or China. These inspections began in schools and other facilities in early-April, including areas outside the capital. There the emphasis was no detecting evidence of corruption. In some cases, local officials were found to have made money by leaking official documents to information brokers who sold those documents to foreign news and intelligence organizations. The crackdown on information brokers has been intense for more than a year yet some of them survive and thrive because there is less competition.
The demand for foreign videos remains strong and harsher punishment of distributors has not discouraged anyone. The government blames these videos for growing unrest in the country, rather than the increased hunger and poverty.
Pyongyang police continue checking for illegal inhabitants in the capital, which has become more of a problem as food, energy and fuel shortages worsen in the rest of the country. Police noted that a disproportionate number of the illegals in the capital came from one province. An investigation in that province revealed that local officials took bribes to allow residents illegally leave the province and travel to the capital for a visit. Entry to Pyongyang is regulated, requiring official documents to enter and even more difficult to obtain permission to live there full time.
May 1, 2022: China has halted train traffic into North Korea because Chinese cities on the North Korea border are dealing with a new, faster spreading strain of covid19.
April 29, 2022: In South Korea an army captain and a local businessman were arrested and charged with spying for North Korea. The captain had access to key military communications systems that North Korea was interested in. Normally North Korea cannot afford this kind of espionage because the spies have to be paid a lot of money, in this case it was done with cryptocurrency. North Korean hackers have managed to steal a lot of cryptocurrencies and this enables them to pay for well-placed and expensive South Korean agents.
April 28, 2022: North Korea announced that in the coming year it was not discharging enlisted soldiers serving in the SRF (Strategic Rocket Force). The military is expanding the number of units requiring these highly trained SRF soldiers, who undergo two years of training before they are ready for service. In addition, the number of recent draftees assigned to the two-year Strategic Rocket Force school was increased fifty percent. This implies that North Korea has enough new missiles and nuclear warheads to require this. Conscription is unpopular in North Korea and was recently reduced from nine or ten years to eight for new male conscripts.
April 25, 2022: North Korea put on a spectacular night-time parade to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the North Korea military. The parade was organized to look spectacular on TV, which is how most North Koreans saw it. Military and civilian participants spent two months or more rehearsing for a few minutes of camera time. The parade participants did not get enough sleep or food because of the constant drills. The finale was a speech by leader Kim Jong Un that contained declarations that from now on North Korea was ready to use nuclear weapons first against nations that threaten North Korea interests. Kim appeared to believe that Russian threats to use nukes if Ukrainians continued to resist Russian efforts to annex Ukraine was working. That turned out to be a false hope, but North Korea remains one of the five nations that continue to support the Russian operations in Ukraine. North Korea expects payback beyond Russia blocking UN efforts to condemn North Korea.
Currently North Korea nukes can only reach South Korea, Japan and China and the Americans are expected to submit to North Korean demands rather than see South Korea and Japan hit with a preemptive nuclear attack. Many hungry and unemployed young North Koreans saw this as a reasonable response to their situation, especially if the government had shifted blame for all the economic problems on wealthier neighbors. The reality is that South Korea, Japan and the United States all continue to maintain that retaliation against North Korea will be swift and devastating if the North uses nukes.
After the parade North Korea did distribute extra food, mainly pork, to military units, ordering local officials to obtain the pork any way they could. In the last few years food and other shortages have increased and a growing number of military units are going hungry.
April 22, 2022: The increased economic sanctions on Russian energy exports has increased worldwide demand for coal. North Korea has coal and will smuggle it to the highest bidder. For North Korea that means they are getting nearly 50 percent more for their coal than in late 2021. There was also a shortage of coal in China last year because of a trade war with Australian coal producers. That started the price increases in China for foreign coal. The sanctions on Russia include a lot of other minerals that North Korea also produces and these are fetching record prices for those willing to buy smuggled goods from North Korea, which is also sanctioned.
April 14, 2022: Covid19 is spreading in China because new strains of the virus spread faster, although they are less lethal. Most Chinese are vaccinated, but the local vaccines are less effective than Western ones and leave more people vulnerable to new strains of covid19. Because of this some Chinese cities near the North Korean border are suffering shutdowns to contain the virus. North Korea responded by ordering border guards to wear gas masks if they are working at border crossings close to infected Chinese cities. North Korea continues to insist it has no covid19 and refuses offers of South Korean or Chinese covid19 vaccines. Senior officials have apparently received regular doses of the most effective Western vaccines and other treatments. Border guards complain that the masks are uncomfortable and make it difficult for others to understand what masked men are saying.
Meanwhile North Koreans dying of flu-like symptoms are not tested for covid19 and the deaths simply attributed to flu. However, many people show symptoms of influenza and are sent to isolation centers for a few weeks before the survivors are released. The increase in arrests for corruption and anti-government behavior has meant more people in already overcrowded prison camps. It is difficult to isolate showing flu symptoms and there are more deaths from flu-like diseases in these camps.
April 9, 2022: North Korea has ordered North Korean workers in China to remain in the factories where they work full time. These factories have dormitories for workers and North Koreans used to be able to leave the factory compound once or twice a week. They did so in small groups accompanied by one of the security personnel that monitor worker performance. Those trips are no longer allowed and the government has increased the percentage of worker salaries taken as a tax. This pay cut comes at a bad time because widespread covid19 shutdowns in China have reduced the wages of North Korean workers and increased food prices. This has reduced food supplies for the workers but not as badly as back in North Korea. None of the workers are in danger of starving and they remain healthier than people in North Korea.
These workers have been stuck in China since early 2020 when North Korea ordered North Koreans working in China illegally to remain there, and that has not changed. North Korea did increase the portion of their wages hand over to the North Korea government as a “loyalty tax.” All this did not go unnoticed. In January 2020 the U.S. provided evidence that North Korea had failed to comply with the December 22 deadline to bring all foreign workers’ home. This was mainly about 50,000 North Korean workers in China and 30,000 in Russia who were supposed to be back in North Korea by December 22nd, as per the UN sanctions. Russia sent home all the North Korean workers officially still in Far East Russia, where there is a labor shortage and cheap North Korean workers have been popular. Many of the departing North Koreas said they expected to return soon and they did so using tourist or other deceptive visas. Using various visa and other deceptions China and Russian managed to keep or replace (with other North Koreans) all their North Korean workers. The UN economic sanctions on North Korea called for all North Korean workers employed in other countries (mainly China and Russia) to be sent home by late December. That did not happen in China, which has been allowing more North Korean workers to enter and work, many with no visa at all. At least half the workers’ pay goes to the North Korean government but the North Korean workers are still making more than they could in North Korea and most of that pay supports family back in North Korea while the exported workers have more food and heat than they would back home. China and Russia are officially supporting the sanctions but are unofficially tolerating all manner of smuggling and sanctions evasion. The end result is that China and Russia cooperated with North Korea to ignore these economic sanctions. North Korea earns about $500 million a year via this exported labor. North Korea sent more security personnel to China in 2020 to ensure that the North Korean workers do not try to escape from China and North Korean control. The U.S. subsequently put individual sanctions on two China-based but North Korean controlled companies that provided various support (housing and transportation) services for the foreign workers and the security personnel who keep them under control.
April 7, 2022: North Korea replaced those in charge of prosecutors’ offices at the Workers Party Central Committee and those in charge of similar operations at several senior military headquarters. New chief prosecutors were appointed and instructed to compile reports of performance of prosecutors over the last decade and recommendations for any action needed to improve operations, including charging former prosecutors with corruption.
April 3, 2022: In North Korea, the government is disappointed with the outspoken negative reaction of many North Koreans to the successful March 24 SLV (satellite launch vehicle) test of the new Hwasong-17 (or HS-17) after two earlier tests on March 4th and February 26 that failed. People in provinces suffering the most from food and other shortages complained that the money spent on the new rockets could have reduced the shortages that were killing North Koreans.
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 HS-17 can function as an SLV or ICBM. HS-17 is an improved version of the Hwasong-15 that was first tested in 2017. The HS-17 is physically larger than HS-15 and both 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.
The HS-17 tests were also aimed at the newly elected South Korean president Yoon, who 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. Yoon was not impressed, nor were many North Koreans. 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 usual response to failures. 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 if a 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.
A growing number of North Koreans are going beyond criticism and resorting to violence in an effort to rectify local economic problems. This has occurred several times after police seized goods from merchants in legal markets. The seized goods were often illegal but popular because they worked. This included locally produced pesticides or medicine requiring a prescription but were generally unavailable. With the public on their side merchants would confront and intimidate the security personnel and take back the seized goods. In some parts of South Korea corrupt police are being physically attacked and sometimes murdered.