Korea: The Great Hunger 2


June 6, 2012: Two decades of growing privation in North Korea has created an unprecedented catastrophe for the population. The health care system, never very good to begin with (except for ruling families), has wasted away to nothing in most parts of the country. Famine has returned to a population still weakened (stunted growth and terrifying memories) by the horrific one (over a million dead) in the 1990s. In many parts of the country rainfall is less than 20 percent of normal, imperiling essential crops (like rice) that have longer growing seasons. If this drought continues through most of June there will be major crop losses up north. The drought causes major electricity shortages because of heavy dependence on hydroelectric systems. Because North Korea has been so hostile for foreign aid organizations, many North Koreans do not expect enough food aid to deal with a major famine. Much food aid has been halted because of North Korea's insistence on continuing to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Even China has refused to increase food aid unless the north agrees to resume disarmament negotiations. China is also cracking down on North Koreans escaping across the long border into China. While this is seen as a favor for North Korea, it is also a response to the growing number of crimes committed by the desperate refugees when they reach China which, comparatively speaking, is seen as a wealthy paradise by most North Koreans. There are also a growing number of border guards who flee with their weapons and sometimes use them for bloody crime sprees.

For those who stay behind it gets worse, for in the midst of all this privation, the frightened and hungry population has come to see South Korea as a paradise, one even more prosperous than China. This is despite decades of government propaganda depicting the south as an economic and cultural failure. But the growing number of pirated South Korea TV and movie videos getting into North Korea (via Chinese traders and smugglers) has changed all that. North Koreans view all this with envy and wonder, taking pride that under the right conditions, Koreans can be rich and happy. Naturally, this causes North Koreans to lose faith in their own government and its policies. The government recognizes this and long ago established an official list of 51 social classes in North Korea. Most (29) of these classes are either hostile to the government or leaning that way. Alas, for North Korea, most of the population falls into these 29 social classes and they are getting increasingly hostile to a government that seems to do nothing but create one disaster after another. The people are hungry, the soldiers are hungry, the secret police are stealing whatever they can get their hands on, and the senior officials are planning their escape routes. The highest caste people, who have long come to regard themselves (quite accurately) as a hereditary aristocracy, are growing more corrupt and fearful. These aristocrats are aware of the outside world and feel trapped in a society that could collapse into chaos at any minute. It's among these people that the revolution will begin because if enough of the northern aristocrats flee or succumb to corruption, the police state will lose control.

South Korea's official position is that, despite the unrest and economic disorder up north, the North Korean government is unlikely to collapse any time soon. The Korean Worker's Party may be corrupt and inefficient but its 350,000 members (and family members) amount to nearly ten percent of the population and have always been ruthless when it came to holding on to power and insuring that the other 90 percent of the population did not get out of control. Much of what passes for "unrest" in the north is simply members of the Korean Worker's Party using their connections to run some kind of scam. The farmers markets (basically a legalized black market) have long prospered under the protection of local Korean Worker's Party officials. Smuggling and other criminal activity prospers because members of the Korean Worker's Party are paid off. Senior, and conservative, officials in the government try to stamp out this corruption (which they see as the party losing control for the economy), and hundreds of party members are punished each year. But the corruption persists and grows because the economy does not improve, while the greed of party members does. Moreover, without the markets, millions of North Koreans would face starvation. While over a million starved to death in the 1990s, the belief in the north is that, this time around, many would fight, rather than just slowly die. Memories of the Great Hunger in the 1990s, remains, despite official attempts to make them disappear. There has always been a lot of fear in the north, but now the uncertain future has pumped the fear up to unbearable levels.

The growing number of people escaping from North Korea to South Korea has brought more clarity to the extent of the arrests and prison camps in the north. At least 200,000 people are in police custody at any given time, with over 60 percent of them serving multi-year sentences in labor camps. Many of these inmates do not survive their sentences and hundreds each year are executed rather than being sent to camps. It’s also been discovered that the north executes dozens of senior officials a year via staged accidents. This is to avoid the embarrassment of admitting so many senior people were caught stealing or spying for China or South Korea. But many loyal officials are doing great damage by using their powers to force thousands of North Koreans to work for weeks at a time on public works. This power is normally used to help farmers plant and then harvest their crops. But now it is increasingly used to try and repair (without adequate tools or materials) structures and roads. The infrastructure in the north is falling apart and growing use of slave labor won't fix it. But the effort looks good to the senior leadership, so local leaders go through the motions to increase their political standing.

The growing number of refugees is also bringing more refugees who are actually North Korea spies posing as refugees. The North Korea intelligence agencies go to great lengths to prepare these agents to survive the screening given all refugees arriving in South Korea. But many are caught, and some have been caught trying to carry out sabotage or assassination (of senior defectors from the north) missions. There's not a lot of this but it's a constant threat that South Korean counter-intelligence forces have to deal with. One blowback angle to this is the South Koreans discovering that the North Korean agents often commit crimes when they reach China. One recently captured North Korea spy described to her South Korean interrogators how she came into China with several hundred thousand dollars-worth of counterfeit Chinese currency. It's widely known that North Korea makes counterfeit American hundred dollar bills, but now the Chinese have confirmation of where all the high quality counterfeits of their own currency are coming from.

More accurate reporting of suffering in North Korea has led to public threats by North Korea to fire artillery or missiles at specific South Korea media outlets. One recent northern announcement named these outlets and their precise coordinates. The location information was not secret but the specific threat was something new. North Korea loves to play these mind games and has been doing it for decades. South Koreans now find it annoying, or even amusing. The northerners rarely follow up on these threats, and when they do the results are miniscule compared to what was threatened.

Six years after the order was given, nearly all Japanese cars and trucks have disappeared from the streets of North Korea. The original order was one of those impulsive things the supreme leader (then Kim Jong Il) can get away with. But there was no getting away with the fact that it would take time, and a lot of money, to replace thousands of Japanese vehicles. Most were used by senior officials or for vital economic tasks. For years North Korea had been a major market for second-hand Japanese vehicles. At first, energetic local officials made a public spectacle (often in sports stadiums) of crushing hundreds of Japanese cars. Then someone did the math and realized that these cars could be sold in China to help pay for replacements. That was a more gradual process, plus the fact that many officials delayed losing their Japanese vehicles (long noted for reliability and comfort) for as long as possible. The new leader, Kim Jong Un, ordered the process to be completed, and in the last few months it was.

June 1, 2012:  South Korean accident investigators now believe that the May 10th, crash of an S-100 UAV, which killed two people on the ground, was the result of the April 28-May 15th,  North Korean GPS jamming campaign. The crash was caused by operator error, which would have been prevented if the S-100 GPS signal (used as a safety backup) was not being jammed.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close