Procurement: Russian Demand and North Korean Arms Production


March 12, 2024: Despite large orders from Russia for weapons to use against Ukrainians, shortages of raw materials and electrical power have left some North Korean arms factories only able to produce 30 percent of their full capacity. North Korea has not been able to obtain the metals and explosives needed to build lots more 152mm shells or unguided rockets fired in salvos from launchers on trucks that hold 20 or 40 rockets that can be launched at once. The problem is that North Korea is unable to obtain the metal, explosives and gunpowder needed to build enough 152mm shells and unguided rockets to fill Russian orders. North Korea had already shipped millions of old 152mm shells and thousands of old unguided rockets from its stockpiles. It took North Korea decades to accumulate these stockpiles. When Russia offered to buy these weapons and pay with cash and food, the North Koreans could not resist. Now they are encountering problems producing more shells and rockets for Russia, and replacements for their own stocks, but find they don’t have raw materials to build more than 30 percent of the Russian demand. For decades North Korea arms factories operated at low capacity to produce shells, rockets, and bullets for stockpiles to be used in a war with South Korea. Now North Korea has unexpectedly large orders from Russia but can’t obtain the raw materials needed to fill those orders.

South Korea is, on a per-capita basis, twenty times more prosperous than North Koreans and that’s because the south has a free market economy and a democracy. Socialist North Korea is run by a hereditary dictatorship. North Korea is an outlaw state and subject to a growing list of economic sanctions.

North Korea also suffers from epic levels of corruption. For 2023 the North Korean corruption score was 17 (17 in 2019) compared to 63 (59) for South Korea, 42 (41) for China, 41 (37) for Vietnam, 62 (61) for Israel, 69 (69) for the United States, 35 (35) for Egypt, 25 (26) for Nigeria, 41 (44) for South Africa, 23 (20) for Iraq, 34 (39) for Turkey, 52 (53) for Saudi Arabia, 36 (30) for Ukraine, 37 (45) for Belarus, 54 (58) for Poland, 78 (80) Germany, 67 (65) for Taiwan, 34 (39) for Turkey, 39 (41) for India, 26 (28) for Russia, 68 (71) for UAE, 83 (85) for Singapore, 73 (73) for Japan, 34 (40) for Indonesia, 34 (38) for Sri Lanka, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 29 (32) for Pakistan, 24 (26) for Bangladesh, 24 (26) for Iran, 20 (16) for Afghanistan, 20 (29) for Myanmar/Burma, and 24 (28) for Lebanon.

The North Korean corruption score has improved since 2012 when it was 8. South Korea was 56 in 2012.

Over the last few years North Korea has suffered growing food, energy, and materials shortages. This means North Korea factories, despite current orders from Russia for more weapons to use in Ukraine, cannot do so quickly. At the same time job shortages have led many North Koreans to express a very visible feeling of abandonment by their government. This is not supposed to happen in North Korea, where the power of the dictatorial government is based on the concept of the state protecting and supplying the needs of a grateful and obedient population.

The situation is now worse than it was during the Great Famine and economic recession of the 1990s, which was caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. That ended decades of crucial economic support. Then in 2019 came the covid19 pandemic. North Korea declared a transportation lockdown to avoid the spread of covid19. North Korea did this because they did not have the medical supplies to handle those with covid and refused to accept medical supplies offered by South Korea.

In the north people were prevented from traveling on business or moving food and other goods to where they were needed. The evidence of how damaging this was could be seen everywhere outside the capital, Pyongyang. The capital is an island of plenty in a desert of starvation. Outside the capital there is darkness and little fuel during the coldest months of the year.

For example, in mid-2020 every household in Pyongyang began receiving some free rice and corn each month, which has now become a matter of life and death for more and more North Koreans. The rest of the country has been distributing local and military reserve food supplies since early in the year, but capital residents stopped receiving any free food in March. Dipping into the military food reserves made it possible for Pyongyang residents to obtain three months of missing food allocations. That does not cover all the missed allocations but did solve the current hunger emergency. Pyongyang residents did not complain about the missing free food distribution because that might result in expulsion from the capital. Even with food shortages Pyongyang is the best place to live in North Korea.

The military food reserves were soon gone as part of an effort to prevent nationwide starvation but there are still stockpiles of fuel, ammunition and other items needed to keep the troops going for 30 days or more in a major war, especially if enemy air power prevents movement of supplies. These military reserves are stored adjacent to major military units. While the military food reserves were being depleted, military units throughout the country still have priority when it comes to medicine and other supplies for themselves. This is causing a lot of resentment, but the government recognizes the importance of keeping the military loyal. Starving the locals is not a perfect solution because the long terms of conscription, up to ten years, means most families have young men in the military. These conscripts keep in touch with families and hear about how the priority allocation of supplies is benefiting those in uniform at the expense of the families of the men in the army. Despite that favoritism, military families are also going hungry. Political officers, who monitor such things, report that a growing number of military personnel, both conscripts as well as career officers and their families, are hungry and openly criticizing the government.

Even the capital is feeling the pain. Pyongyang has always been a showcase city, but a decade ago it became obvious that an even greater portion of the shrinking economic pie was going to the capital. This caused more resentment around the country, especially among officials running the provinces. Even with private generators plus special food and medical shipments, provincial officials felt exiled and abandoned. It became an obsession with many provincial officials to get a job in the capital or, increasingly, to get out of the country.

Pyongyang contains twelve percent of the national population but has a much higher proportion of GDP and national income. Pyongyang became the capital because it was a major industrial center during the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 and has remained an economic powerhouse. The city also contains the headquarters and many subsidiary components of all national organizations. This includes the Ministry of State Security or MSS secret police.

Residence in the capital requires official permission which is difficult to get. Police are constantly tracking down and arresting those living in the capital without permission. Legal residence in the capital is not freely granted, mainly because it is a much nicer place to live. There is more of everything, including more hours of electrical power and more economic opportunities for illegal residents. Although the food distribution only goes to legal residents, many of those legal residents were helping to support illegal family and friends living in the capital. Since the end of food distributions there have been more illegal food markets in the capital and fewer new illegals trying to settle down. There are poor families in the capital and the government is providing some of them with additional food once it is verified that these households are not harboring illegals.

Outside the capital, especially along the Chinese border, life is much worse and punishment for disobedience much more severe. For example, in northeastern Yanggang Province, two cities were at one point sentenced to 30 days of strict lockdown because smuggling with China was continuing and some of the smugglers were getting caught. Provincial officials were under a lot of pressure from the national government to curb smuggling, preferably all of it. To that end border guards were issued more ammunition and ordered to shoot on sight anyone seen crossing the border and ignoring orders to halt. Before long over a dozen smugglers and defectors were killed or wounded. 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 before firing to kill.

The lockdown meant there were roadblocks everywhere and few people were allowed to freely go to work or markets. This lockdown order proved more troublesome than useful and was lifted after two weeks and several hundred people starving to death. More alarming was the starvation deaths in over twenty army officers’ families. The husbands were stuck on base when the lockdown order came and were unable to contact their families to ensure they got enough food. Before the lockdown, quantities of food supplied to these families were reduced and most families had less than a week’s worth of essentials. Starvation victims often ended up in hospitals where there were no special foods or saline drips available to deal with it. There was also visible anger among the general population over the strict lockdown order.

For decades Yanggang has been notorious for the amount of smuggling that went on along its lengthy Chinese border. Much of that border is in unpopulated areas. In 2020 Yanggang was where illegal border crossers from China brought covid19 into North Korea several times. Those line crossers who were later caught and tested for the virus were quietly executed if they had it. The province also has lots of illegal pleasures available for those who can pay. This includes senior government officials as well as donju entrepreneurs and career criminals. There was gambling, prostitution and all manner of videos or live entertainment. Neighboring Chagang Province also has a lot of smuggling activity and during 2020 the entire province was on lockdown for five days. The reason for this was a border guard sergeant had deserted after it was discovered that he probably had covid19, because several soldiers he had regular contact with recently died from what appeared to be covid19. The sergeant was also involved in several illegal enterprises.

Yanggang and Chagang provinces are both landlocked, sparsely populated and considered undesirable places to live, if only because this area is known as the coldest in Korea. The two provinces contain more than half the North Korean border with China. Chagang province also suffered a recent water pollution incident in a local river when a newly built chemical weapons plant began dumping something into the water that killed most of the fish and discouraged locals from using the river water for anything. The government was not very helpful, first describing the facility as a paint and varnish manufacturer. Local residents did not believe that and some openly mocked that official version. The pollution began at the end of 2020, is still present and the locals are angrier over the government inaction.

The extremely strict lockdowns are considered necessary because in most of the country there is no treatment for those who catch covid19. This still happens, despite the strict lockdowns and border security. Those suspected of having it, because of flu-like symptoms rather than testing, are quarantined, often under armed guard, for two weeks or more. The only place that any covid19 treatment is available is in Pyongyang and a few provincial capitals. The solution to all this is seen as a vaccine. North Korea was buying the same British vaccine that South Korea was using. But while South Korea can produce the vaccine locally under license, North Korea has to import it from India, even though South Korea was willing to supply it at no cost. The vaccine deliveries to North Korea are expected to begin in a month or so and senior officials and security forces have priority. At the end of 2020 North Korea reported that it had carried out 23,000 covid19 tests so far on 11,000 key people and found no cases of covid19. Meanwhile the lockdowns are causing starvation and lots of privation and anxiety.

North Korea is going darker because of growing electricity shortages. It became so bad that only about a quarter of the households have regular supplies of electricity and most homes now get an average of two hours of power a day. This renders most appliances useless. Refrigerators need power for at least half the day to keep perishable foods safe. The power is not turned on using any schedule. Nationwide, priority is given to weapons development and production and even these facilities go dark about a quarter of the time. Senior officials can obtain generators and sufficient fuel to keep them going but this solution is available to less than one percent of households. Satellite photos show night views of North Korea reveal the country is growing darker each year. Higher resolution photos show more people washing clothes in rivers, streams, and lakes because washing machines don’t work without electricity. For those who run the power systems, the growing shortages created more bribery income, although there is so little electricity that there is not a lot that can be diverted without risking arrest, loss of everything and years in a potentially fatal labor camp.

The decline in power supplies is due to several factors, starting with the decision to not invest in new power plants or maintain existing ones. That’s because support of the military and developing missiles and nuclear weapons have priority. This has been especially true since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.

Then there is the water shortage. Drought has been more common since the 1990s and the last few years have been particularly bad. Professional weather forecasters predict more record droughts. The water shortages since 2015 have already caused severe electricity shortages because so much of national power capacity comes from hydro-electric generators at dams. Since 2012 the generating capacity of these dams has sharply declined due to drought. That has reduced economic activity more each year. This hurts transportation because 85 percent of trains are electrified. Most factories are unable to operate, and farms are producing less because irrigation pumps or farm machinery have no power.

Nuclear and missile programs have priority on energy and cash for imports, but this is in short supply as well. This has led to a growing number of emergency measures. The hydroelectric shortages are worse in the cold weather, when reservoirs are at their lowest. The electricity shortages are the worst in the northeast and are so bad this year that many trains are not running at all. It has gotten so bad that mining operations that export and produce a lot of foreign currency are often shut down.

One partial solution to the power shortages is the availability of cheaper and more efficient solar panels. Long a staple of rural life, they are now more common in urban areas as well. Solar panels provide power for recharging cell phones and a few electrical appliances. Solar panel design became more efficient as the power shortages in North Korea became more frequent and widespread. Only the capital can depend on power most of the time. The government noticed the use of solar panels and made an unsuccessful effort to force people using solar panels, an expensive but legal way around electricity shortages, to buy an electrical use meter and pay a tax on the electricity generated. This was seen as an absurd scheme on several levels and so many solar panel owners overtly or covertly refused to cooperate that the government quietly backed down. The government, as the solar panel owners suspected, was not willing to go to war against the so-called solar electricity “bandits”, and the meters for solar panels plan was quietly dropped even though the panels kept cell phones operational, and people could compare their experiences with shortages.

The government realized that despite enabling the spread of bad news, the growing use of solar panels reduced popular anger that energy shortages were creating. It was a way for newly affluent North Koreans to show off their new wealth in a politically acceptable way. While most of the solar panels are sold to entrepreneurs or those working for them, the growing number of government employees enjoying higher bribe income have also become fans of solar panels. The latest panel designs enabled a homeowner to not just provide a little light while charging gadget batteries but to operate a TV and turn on several lights. In this case users also take advantage of the new, low-power, LED light bulbs and panels. While this tech takes the edge off popular anger, it only works if the impact of foreign sanctions is eased. Increasingly effective sanctions mean fewer people can afford solar panels and LED lights, so North Koreans will be less willing to tolerate the sacrifices they make to keep the nuclear and missile programs going.



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