Korea: Korea May 2024 Update


May 6, 2024: North Korea is trying to reduce corruption in the military logistics system. The government ordered the replacement of many older logistics officers with younger, hopefully more idealistic, and honest officers. Government officials gave speeches about the need for reliable, as in not corrupt or otherwise deficient officers.

North Korea also has a problem with workers sent to work in Russia. This paid well and, even though the North Korean government took a large percentage of worker pay, what was sent back to families in North Korea made life much better for those families. When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, one side effect was massive economic sanctions on Russia. That meant less or no more work for North Koreans working in eastern Russia near the border with North Korea. These North Koreans could not go home and were considered a problem by residents and the government of the Russian Pacific coast city of Vladivostok.

Inside North Korea the government continues to threaten use of their nuclear weapons against South Korea. In 2023 South Korea declared it would develop and manufacture nuclear weapons. As of 2024 there is no progress in that area. South Korea still fears the United States will not honor its pledge to attack North Korea with nuclear weapons if the North attacked South Korea with nuclear weapons.

The Americans and South Koreans view North Korea as currently less stable and more prone to reckless actions against the south. These new North Korean attitudes began to appear after November 2023 when South Korea canceled a 2018 agreement with North Korea that reduced the surveillance and spying, they carried out against each other. South Korea took a closer look at North Korean military activities and concluded that North Korea might be tempted to emulate the recent Hamas attack on Israel, and back it with the threat of using nuclear weapons. This is a dangerous form of diplomacy, and it is unclear if North Korea was contemplating such a thing. Now North Korea is temporarily prospering by selling weapons and munitions to Russia in return for cash and much-needed food. This is good news for the North Korean government, which until last year was facing more popular unrest due to poor economic conditions and not enough food.

Last year Russia bought weapons and munitions from North Korea to supply their troops in Ukraine. More orders followed and soon this was visible on satellite photos of increased activity on the Trans-Siberian railroad. The Russians later discovered that about half the North Korean artillery shells they purchased were defective, particularly due to substandard propellant and unreliable warhead explosives. Further investigation revealed that North Korean munitions had long used poor quality raw materials and sloppy production methods to produce 152mm artillery shells and various types of unguided rockets. This was apparently the result of corruption because few North Koreans believed their government would ever go to was with the more prosperous and better armed South Korea. North Korean factories produced munitions that appeared OK, but in reality, were defective. When the government ordered sales of some of the large North Korea stockpile of munitions to Russia, no one dared to speak up about how many of the shells were defective. When Russia got the North Korean shells to Ukraine and used them, they found that about half the shells were defective. Some of the shells detonated when fired, destroying the howitzer barrel and injuring members of the gun crew.

Russia complained to the North Korean government, which was unaware that its munitions factories were producing defective shells and rockets. There wasn’t much, if any, testing of newly manufactured shells. If there was, munitions factory managers apparently bribed military officers or officials in charge of testing the reliability and quality of the munitions. No one ever expected these shells to be used by the North Korean army or anyone else. North Korean soldiers rarely trained firing their elderly 152mm howitzers because their weapons had little useful life left in them. If there was a test firing, the munitions factories would supply special shells that were manufactured to a higher standard.

While North Korea received payment from Russia for the weapons shipments, the North Koreans preferred barter rather than cash. The Russian ruble is a sanctioned currency that is difficult to spend. North Korea preferred Russian food supplies to pay for the shells. Starvation and poor diets were a growing problem in North Korea and additional food supplies would make a difference and reduce the growing unrest among North Koreans who were desperate and increasingly unruly and even violent towards government officials.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is visibly overweight and not worried about where his next meal is coming from. Senior military and government officials are well fed but most soldiers and civilians are suffering from food shortages and often surly about it. North Koreans are also more aware about how much of the national wealth is spent on ballistic weapons and nuclear weapons rather than food and other necessities for the general population.

Not all the new weapons production is sent to Russia. North Korea is keeping its ballistic missile production going and testing more of them with launches into the waters between Korea and Japan. This frightens the Japanese, who note that most of these missiles seem to work and are not fired at their maximum ranges. While North Korea is pleased with this, Japan is also acquiring more BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) systems. Japan has recently increased its annual defense spending 26 percent. Now the Japanese are spending $53 billion a year, which is about 1.4 percent of GDP and the largest Japanese defense budget ever. It is also the sixth year that Japan increased defense spending and the goal is to eventually reach two percent of GDP. Japan and South Korea are now spending about the same amount on defense and are both in the top ten defense spenders in the world. The others are the United States, China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, Britain, Germany, and France. South Korea is number nine, spending a little more than Japan at number ten.

Militarily, South Korea is a superpower compared to North Korea. This is obvious when you consider annual defense spending. While the United States accounts for about 40 percent of worldwide defense spending, China, and Russia together only account for about 17 percent, though such estimates include money wasted by corruption as there is no means of estimating the latter, for any country including the U.S. Japanese military procurement costs per unit have been higher than any other country’s for many years for political reasons which are basically corruption. The rest of the top ten are either allies of the Americans or friendly. Ukraine is, in terms of total defense spending that includes donations from NATO countries, figuratively in the top five when it comes to defense acquisitions (27% of GDP). This is a dubious distinction for Ukraine, which is using it all to repel a Russian invasion. South Korea has profited from this because NATO member Poland, which borders Ukraine and Russia, has increased defense spending, and purchased nearly $15 billion worth of South Korea weapons and munitions. South Korea produces a lot more weapons and military equipment than the north and the southern weapons and munitions are top grade. One side effect is that once Poland receives all the South Korean tanks, mobile artillery, and rocket (guided and unguided) launchers from South Korea, they will have the most powerful army in NATO Europe. This is to discourage any Russian attacks on Poland or any other NATO nation in the area.

South Korea fears that their more numerous and effective weapons and munitions are not having the desired effect on North Korea. Since the 1990s South Korea has become an economic powerhouse and one of the top ten economies in the world. Because of that South Korea has more friends and trading partners in East Asia than Russia does. South Korea has the wealth and technical skill to build nuclear weapons and reliable ones at that. Russia believes that offending South Korea is a bad idea while disappointing North Korea creates no new problems. Then there are the earlier South Korea efforts to keep nuclear weapons out of the Korean peninsula. The Americans have already taken the lead in this. In 1991 the United States withdrew all its nuclear warheads from South Korea and managed to get the two Koreas to agree not to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. This included both Koreas signing the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). North Korea went ahead and developed nuclear weapons anyway, even though it was obvious that South Korea could do the same and produce greater numbers of more reliable nuclear warheads and effective submarines to launch them from.

When North Korea violated the agreement, South Korea went ahead and produced SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles) with conventional warheads launched from South Korean designed and built submarines. Since 2014 South Korea has been building nine 3,300-ton KSS-III submarines, each able to carry six or ten locally developed SLBM ballistic or cruise missiles with a range of up to 3,000 kilometers. These missiles can carry nuclear warheads instead of the high-explosive ones they currently have. Two of these subs are in service with another two entering service in 2024 and 2026. North Korea realizes they could not develop and build anything similar.

Most South Koreans now approve of building nuclear warheads, just in case North Korea foolishly makes a serious threat to use such missiles against South Korea or any other country. This made North Korea realize that the economically more powerful and technically more accomplished South can not only outproduce the north when it comes to any type of weapon, but has actually done so many times and is now a major producer and exporter of modern weapons. South Korea is not impressed with North Korean threats to attack them with devastating effect. The north can attack, but the south can retaliate with far greater destructive force. That is why the north continues to issue threats that South Korea ignores.

The South was not always the major military power, and the current situation is a relatively recent development. There is another complication, much of this traced back to the Korean War that began in 1950 when the overconfident North invaded. The fighting went on until 1953 when both sides agreed to an armistice, not a peace treaty. The combat forces remained in place to avoid a revival of fighting. This created the 250 kilometers long DMZ (four kilometers wide demilitarized zone), which became the border between North and South Korea.

Since 1953 South Korea has become democratic, industrialized, and now has a GDP in the worldwide top ten. South Korea also became a major manufacturer and exporter of modern weapons. That included over fifteen billion dollars’ worth of weapons to NATO countries that border Russia or Ukraine. North Korea held onto its socialist ways and was misruled by the Kim dynasty. On a per capita basis, South Koreans are twenty times wealthier than the average North Korean. North Korea does have some nuclear weapons, but the Kim’s have not yet found a way to turn that into an improved standard of living for the average North Korean.

South Korea has been expanding its arms production since the 1990s and now, because of demand from NATO nations that sent a lot of weapons to Ukraine, South Korea is poised to enter the Top Five arms exporters.

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 failed in both categories.

Everyone looks to China because North 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 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.




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