March 22, 2013: The number of North Koreans fleeing into China is on the increase. This includes more North Korean soldiers, often armed groups of them. Both the civilians and soldiers, when caught, are sent back to North Korea and execution or a labor camp. Recently Chinese border patrols caught several South Koreans, who turned out to be North Koreans who had reached South Korea and had returned to arrange the flight of family into China and, eventually South Korea. The recent increase in hostile rhetoric from the North Korean government is not driving the increase in North Korean refugees, it’s all about hunger. North Koreans in China provide a lot of details about this. For example, most North Korea troops stationed near the border have not received additional food shipments for months and are dependent on food they grow themselves (often just vegetables) or can seize or steal from local farms (which can cause tension with local police and officials).
The government has declared many alerts and training exercises since the February 12 nuclear test and people are visibly tired of all the disruption in the midst of the cold weather and electricity and fuel shortages. To make matters worse, the troops often enter areas where soldiers are rarely seen and steal food from civilians and cut down what few trees are left for fuel. This sort of thing is increasingly common and North Koreans have come to regard their troops as bandits not defenders. Many of the worst stories of misbehavior come from the reservists who are mobilized for these exercises. So many of reservists were called up this year that many companies had to shut down. A growing number of reservists are simply not showing up when ordered, despite threats of punishment. When reservists return there will be more stories of shortages and misbehavior in the military. Not all the soldier scams are against civilians. More soldiers are selling fuel from their vehicles to black market fuel merchants. This has been going on for years but there is a lot more of it this year.
China shipped no oil to North Korea last month. Last year North Korea received 523,000 tons of oil from China and it’s not unusual for there to be no shipments in February (because of bad weather and the inability of the poorly maintained North Korean railroads to handle the shipments). But the lack of shipments might have reflected Chinese displeasure with North Korean nuclear tests and generally bad behavior. China has made no announcement about cutting oil shipments and it appears that there have been some this month. There continues to be a chronic fuel shortage in North Korea.
North Korean media continues to broadcast threats to outsiders. Some of the latest ones include reminders that North Korean missiles (a few of them, anyway) can reach American military bases in Guam and Alaska, and a larger number of North Korean missiles can hit U.S. bases in Japan. This has, over the last decade, prompted Japan to invest heavily in anti-missile defense.
For the first time the UN has voted to investigate human rights abuses in North Korea. This was denounced as a political ploy by North Korea. UN aid officials in North Korea have been complaining about these abuses for years but the UN refrained from officially noticing this in the hope that North Korea might try and fix the situation. The UN has given up hope of this ever happening.
The economic sanctions against North Korea have changed over the years to target the leadership. This has not worked well because China refuses to participate. Thus Chinese firms do a brisk business supplying several hundred thousand families that comprise the North Korean ruling elite with luxury goods. These families always have electricity and heat and the latest gadgets. There has been more Chinese investment in North Korea over the last few years, the most successful being mining ventures. But the foreign currency earned is not being spent on the North Korean people in general but rather to keep the rulers comfortable. The shortages are reaching the military and lower ranking members of the secret police, who are more frequently reported stealing food and complaining of not getting as much food as they used to.
The troops have been suffering growing fuel shortages for years. Refugees tell of seeing military trucks less frequently, and when these vehicles do appear many of the drivers appear untrained, which causes a lot of accidents. This would have serious implications if the North Korean army were ordered to move south, as there aren’t many roads across the DMZ and accidents would cause traffic jams that attract enemy air and artillery strikes. Most of the military vehicles used for transporting food, other supplies, and personnel on a day-to-day basis have been converted to run on charcoal. Locals can always tell when a lot of these vehicles are about because of the smoke they give off. It’s also been noted that the army suffers a shortage of spares (especially tires) and crudely repaired tires on military vehicles are an increasingly common sight, as are military vehicles disabled by tire failure sitting roadside for a long time waiting for a tow or a replacement tire to arrive.
North Korea continues to refuse demands that it halt its nuclear weapons program. North Korea says it must have nuclear weapons in order to deal with the threat posed by American nukes.
March 21, 2013: North Korea released a four minute video on the Internet depicting a three day war with South Korea in which paratroopers captured Seoul and took 150,000 Americans living their hostage. The video predicts a quick advance across the DMZ by North Korean troops and ineffective defensive efforts by South Korean and U.S. troops. South Korean military planners see a different outcome to such an invasion but don’t release videos depicting the details. Other recent North Korean videos have shown their leader (Kim Jong Un) visiting troops and urging them to train harder. That is difficult because of food and fuel shortages. The UN estimates that at least a quarter of North Korean children are chronically hungry. Because of two decades of such shortages it’s become easier to tell who belongs to the small ruling class in North Korea, as they are noticeably taller than the majority who have grown up hungry.
March 20, 2013: Three banks and two broadcasters in South Korea suffered a coordinated attack on their computer networks. Later analysis revealed that a server in China was involved and that the target computers were infected days or weeks earlier with a secret program that erased hard drives. These attacks interrupted banking and broadcasting operations of the victims for several hours (until backups could restore the infected machines). Last year a similar attack was launched against oil companies and banks in the Middle East. Iran was suspected of that one and North Korea is the main suspect in the recent one. It will take several weeks to tease out more details and form a more accurate picture of who actually did what and why.
March 18, 2013: The U.S. imposed more sanctions on North Korean banks. Interfering with North Korean use of the international banking system has been one of the most effective sanction weapons against the north.
March 16, 2013: The U.S. announced that 14 more anti-missile missiles were being sent to launch sites in Alaska. The anti-missile systems in Alaska protect North America from long range ballistic missiles from North Korea. At the moment North Korea only has a few missiles that could reach any part of North America, but more of these missiles are being built and the North Korean nuclear weapons test last month appears to have been a smaller and lighter weapon suitable for a missile warhead.
March 11, 2013: A week of widespread military exercises in North Korea begins, it has shut down many roads and made it difficult for civilians, many living day-to-day because of chronic shortages, from getting food or other supplies.