Korea: A Stalinist Soap Opera With Real Bullets


December 13, 2013: South Korea has been very defiant against new Chinese attempts to restrict foreign aircraft hundreds of kilometers from the Chinese coast. Japan has the most powerful military force, next to China and the U.S., in the region and is taking the lead in opposing China. This bothers China a great deal but plays into Chinese paranoia about foreign enemies plotting to block Chinese attempts to regain what has been lost during the last two centuries of rebellion, civil war, and Western aggression. This plays well inside China, where the communist government uses this empire building and reviving lost Chinese glory to distract people from the corruption and poor governance the Communist Party provided.

What haunts the communist bureaucrats who run North Korea and China is the local history of spontaneous mass uprisings that can overthrow police states. It’s happened over the past few thousand years. The people may not want a revolution just now in China or North Korea, but the people may, like the communist subjects of Eastern Europe and Russia did starting in 1989, just start saying “enough” and doing the impossible. That scenario is also threatening to play out in North Korea. There, an even harsher socialist dictatorship has threatened a key portion of China’s defensive strategy by coming closer to collapse. China wants buffer states on its borders to keep potential foes as far as possible from the heartland (the vast river valleys on the east coast of Asia that contain most of China’s agriculture, population, and industrial wealth). If North Korea collapses China has a problem. Meanwhile, North Korea gets more unstable with every passing year. The most recent problem was the very public dismissal of the uncle of 30 year old North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The uncle (Jang Sung Taek, who is married to the sister of Kim Jong Uns father) was purged for corruption in November and, in part, because the Jang was seen as too cozy with China. Jang was a key Chinese asset in its attempt to get the North Koreans to reform their economy. But Jang overplayed his hand and was purged, arrested, and executed in the last month. Apparently at least two of Jang’s aides have also been executed so far and the government has warned the population against any unrest or misbehavior of any sort. This includes watching videos from South Korea or, worse, Chinese porn. China is not happy with this crackdown, especially its anti-Chinese spin and may push back. That may halt cooperation in reducing the number of people escaping from North Korea via China and in bailing out North Korea with economic aid as needed.

Meanwhile, both Koreas have to figure out how to cope with the latest soap opera (with real bullets) in North Korea. Back in 2010, the second Kim of the ruling dynasty, Kim Jong Il, appointed Jang as “advisor” to the anointed successor Kim Jong Un. In effect, Jang was ordered to show the twenty-something Kim Jong Un the ropes, fast. In 2011, Kim Jong Il died and the younger Kim succeeded him. This was a big gamble because Kim Jong Un was a last-minute choice to be the next leader. For one reason or another his older siblings proved unworthy and Kim Jong Un was the last hope of the Kim family. Having grown up with no thought of becoming leader gave Kim Jong Un a different perspective. But it also made him an unknown quality to the elderly men who dominated the North Korean bureaucracy. The elders feared that the young Kim Jong Un would make catastrophic mistakes and endanger the wealth and power of the geriatric bureaucracy. Jang was supposed to keep Kim Jong Un under control, but that did not work out. For over a year now Kim Jong Un has been replacing many older bureaucrats and even executing some of them. Terror is upon the land up north and uncertainty is making those who run the police state very unhappy.

Kim Jong Un is at a disadvantage because unlike his father, who was groomed for years to be the new leader, the younger Kim had not developed relationships with the senior bureaucrats that make the North Korean police state function. Kim Jong Un was the proverbial “man from Mars” who was able to take a fresh look at how North Korea was ruled. Apparently Kim Jong Un did not like what he saw and the elderly Kim family retainers quickly picked up on this. Kim Jong Un began quietly replacing (by “retirement”) the elderly men who had served his father and grandfather. But he was running into more and more resistance. Then there was his uncle Jang, who was very pro-Chinese and a big shill for Chinese style economic reforms.

What apparently hurt Jang the most was Kim Jong Un finding out about the secret overseas bank accounts, each containing millions in government funds and controlled by senior government officials. Some of these accounts were revealed and publicized in the last few years by stricter American sanctions. This caused a bit of a fuss back in North Korea because many senior officials didn’t know about these accounts, especially how large some of them were. Kim Jong Un was not amused and has his own ideas, which were neither practical nor original, about how to fix things in North Korea. He wanted North Korea to deliver on the many promises that had been made over the decades. This makes a lot of people nervous because North Korea has neither the economic freedom nor entrepreneurial skills to create rapid economic growth. Moreover, decades of aggressive attitudes towards South Korea has resulted in many economic sanctions and calls for North Korea to drop its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. Kim Jong Un has backed continuing these programs and trying to force economic miracles to happen. In this respect Kim Jong Un is using his grandfather’s mentor, Russian tyrant Joseph Stalin, as a model. That will not work. After Stalin’s death in 1953 the Soviet bureaucracy denounced him and dismantled many of the nastier aspects of the police state Stalin had used to terrorize everyone. Stalin also conducted massive purges of the bureaucracy and had senior officials executed or assassinated. Stalin’s economic decisions killed over ten million Russians and weakened Russia militarily. Stalin believed it was better to be feared than loved but that is no way to run a country, and as soon as you are gone your terrorized subjects will turn on your legacy. Stalin began his reign of terror in the 1920s right after a civil war and in a much more prosperous country. Kim Jong Un presides over a failed state, at least as far as the economy goes. The last thing North Korea needs at this point is a Joe Stalin imitator. Kim Jong Un apparently believes that if he eliminates the corruption at the top there will be sufficient resources to make things better. There won’t, but pointing that out to Kim Jong Un can get you killed.

In the short run Kim Jong Un’s use of terror will throw his foes in the government off balance. But they may push back and China might encourage that. China is not happy with the way young Kim is treating pro-China officials in North Korea, especially the late uncle Jang. Kim Jong Un may be feared by North Koreans but not by the Chinese.

Kim Jong Un is apparently aware of the danger he is in and has been raising wages of workers and distributing more rice in the last few months. But there is little surplus food or cash to support these efforts. Kim Jong Un has been criticized by military officials for dipping into the military rice reserve in order to prevent starvation. With the carrot comes the stick, as soldiers are seen more frequently standing guard on the Chinese border, especially at places where people are known to walk across the ice and into China.

The Philippines and Japan recently announced further military cooperation to deal with growing Chinese claims on offshore areas that have long been considered the property of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. These five nations have formed a loose coalition, along with the United States and Australia, to oppose the Chinese aggression. India, faced with extensive Chinese land claims, is something of an associated member of this group. The coalition gets stronger every time China makes another aggressive move, as happened recently when China claimed control over large areas of international air space. China wants all military and commercial aircraft in these new ADIZs (air defense identification zone) to ask permission from China before entering.

Coalition members responded by sending in military aircraft without telling China but warning their commercial aircraft operators to cooperate because it is considered impractical to provide military air cover for all the commercial traffic. China sees this as a victory, despite the obvious coalition intention to continue sending military aircraft through the ADIZ unannounced and despite whatever threats China makes. In response to that, China has begun running combat air patrols through the ADIZ and apparently intends to try to intimidate some of the smaller coalition members.

Growing electricity shortages in North Korea have caused record delays in processing (threshing and polishing) the rice harvest. This process is usually complete in September but in parts of the country that suffered the most electricity cuts people are still processing the harvest. Doing this manually leads to more theft but local officials are looking the other way as long as they theft does not become too large to attribute to inexperienced workers doing the work instead of electrically powered machinery.

South Korea has sold Iraq 24 of its new FA-50 light fighters. This is a variant of T-50 jet trainer. The FA-50 is better equipped for air combat and is actually quite formidable. South Korea also sold the Philippines twelve TA-50 because Philippines needs something to oppose Chinese warplanes that are beginning to show up near Filipino territory. Indonesia has also bought the T-50. The Iraqi FA-50s will be delivered in 2015-16 and pilot and ground crew training will apparently begin next year. The Iraq sale is worth over a billion dollars and is the largest single South Korean arms sale to date.

The latest international corruption rankings put Somalia, Afghanistan, and North Korea at the bottom of the list, as the most corrupt countries on the planet.

December 12, 2013: Jang Sung Taek was executed in North Korea for planning a coup against leader Kim Jong Un, who is Jang’s nephew. No mention was made of his wife, who is the sister of Kim Jong Uns father. The 67 year old Jang was, until recently, believed to be the power behind the throne because of his years of service in the North Korean government.

December 10, 2013: South Korean officials are openly speaking of a possible “reign of terror” in the north. That would make a government collapse up there more likely.

December 9, 2013: The north went public about the recent purge of Jang Sung Taek. Jang was long seen as Kim Jong Uns chief adviser and, in effect, the number two man in the government. Northern media went after Jang big time today, showing video of Jang being publically arrested at a government conference and led away by police. The purge process for Jang apparently began at least a month ago and he was officially removed from power on the 8th.

December 8, 2013: South Korea expanded its own ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) for the first time in 62 years. The ADIZ overlaps with the new one China declared on November 23rd. South Korea is openly defying China, in part because the new Chinese ADIZ includes a bit of disputed submerged rock (Leodo) that South Korea has stationed troops on using a platform built on the rock. South Korea does not recognize the new Chinese ADIZ.

December 7, 2013: The fallout from the purge of North Korean leader Jang Sung Taek has begun. An aide to Jang, who handled financial matters outside North Korea, has fled and is seeking asylum in South Korea. More Jang aides are expected to take the same route, and this will mean an intelligence bonanza for South Korea and the United States.

December 6, 2013: North Korea released an American tourist (Merrill Newman) who was taken off his airplane by police on October 26th and held under “house arrest” (in a hotel) ever since. The American is a retired 85 year old businessman who had spent ten days visiting North Korea and was about to fly out of the country when he was arrested. North Korea refuses to say anything about the situation other than that they are holding an unnamed American. Since 2009, North Korea has arrested six American visitors, but all of these were religious or political activists while Merrill Newman was neither. At first it was believed to be a case of mistaken identity, because another Korean War veteran with a similar name had won a Silver Star for defeating a Chinese attack during the war and that’s enough to get you called an “enemy of the people” in the north. The truth was even stranger. Merrill Newman also served in Korea during the war as part of a joint U.S.-South Korean group that recruited and ran agents in North Korea. Apparently North Korea never forgot how much trouble that activity caused them. Merrill Newman had revisited South Korea as a tourist as well and that led North Korea to accuse him of trying to revive his 60 year old espionage operation. The northerners eventually realized their PR error with this arrest and decided to just let the man go after getting an obviously coerced “confession” out of him. Newman thanked American diplomats in China and Swedish diplomats in North Korea for helping to get him out. In the meantime, incidents like this do little to encourage foreigners to pay a lot of money (North Korea charges 1st class prices for 3rd class tourist services) to visit.

December 3, 2013: Russia has officially agreed to comply with the stronger UN economic sanctions against North Korea. The new UN sanctions were adopted in March of 2013.

November 29, 2013: Satellite photos indicate that North Korea is continuing to work on developing longer range ballistic missiles. North Korea has made no secret of its desire to have a missile that can deliver a nuclear warhead against targets in the United States.

November 28, 2013: South Korean analysts believe that North Korea has spent some $500 million on pro-Kim family propaganda in the last two years. At least $200 million was spent on monuments to the three national leaders of the Kim dynasty (founder Kim Il Sung, son Kim Jong Il, and grandson Kim Jong Un). The rest was spent on economic projects (like the new ski resort and water park) that exist mainly to show what swell fellows the three Kims are. 


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