Despite expanding international economic sanctions China has continued to do business with North Korea. This is, literally, keeping the North Korean economy going. The China trade, mainly in raw materials, helps the North Korea GDP actually grow a bit (one percent a year in 2012 and 2013). One of the smaller, but more profitable, bits of business with China is tourism. Tourism has a lot more growth potential than mining, fishing and timber and requires less investment. Eager to get more foreign currency from Chinese tourists the government recently announced it is resuming some domestic air routes, which will mainly carry tourists and senior government officials. Without these flights the only way to get to some tourism sites is via long rail or road travel. Two decades of economic decline have left the highways and railroads in a terrible state, making travel via those routes uncomfortable and time-consuming. In 2013 several hundred thousand Chinese visited North Korea (Chinese and North Korean officials give different numbers) and the North Koreans have found that, while uncouth (to North Koreans) the Chinese will spend and there are lots of them willing to come if North Korea makes popular more areas accessible.
There are far fewer Western tourists (about 6,000 in 2013) although they each tend to spend more money. Western nations discourage their citizens from visiting North Korea because the security forces there will sometimes kill or injure Western tourists. Moreover North Korea will sometimes kidnap Western tourists and hold them until some concession is obtained from a foreign government. Chinese tourists are largely immune to this sort of mistreatment because the Chinese government will quickly get the attention of North Korean leaders by halting trade or interfering with North Korean smuggling (weapons, tech and other illegal stuff) going through China.
In the last year China has become a lot less tolerant of North Korea misbehavior. It’s believed Chinese officials recently told their North Korean counterparts that China expects North Korea to obey the “three nos” (no nuclear weapons, no economic or political collapse and no war). North Korea was told that it must obey these rules or face serious retribution from China. This apparently now includes a Chinese sponsored coup or a Chinese invasion if needed. China is not certain this threat will work, because the North Korean leadership has long proved it will do stupid and self-destructive things. The Chinese, however, have run out of patience, or hope that the North Korean leaders will wise up on their own or without forceful persuasion.
July 3, 2014: In an effort to restore Japanese aid (free food and trade access) North Korea delivered a long-sought list of ten Japanese living in North Korea who had been abducted from Japan or were their descendants. In May North Korea agreed to “reopen” the investigation about kidnapped (by North Korea) Japanese in return for some food and medical aid supplies. These were the first such talks since 2009. For decades Japan has been trying to obtain information about thirteen Japanese citizens that North Korean agents kidnapped in the 1970s and 80s. Obtaining more information on these kidnapping victims is a big issue in Japan, but North Korea has never been eager to release anything, other than, until recently, the fact that the kidnapping program did exist. Japan eventually responded by cutting foreign aid and trade links which North Korea desperately needs, until the questions about the kidnapping program were answered. Over the last decade this gradually got North Korea’s attention, especially once the North Koreans noted how intense anti-North Korean public opinion in Japan had become and how ineffective it was to criticize the Japanese for past misbehavior in Korea. The Japanese basically don’t care about that history and many Japanese believe it is all a lie and that Japanese activities in Korea during the first half of the 20th century were in the best interests of the Koreans. North Korean military threats have simply encouraged the normally (since World War II) pacifistic Japanese to buy more weapons and become more warlike. Recently Japan openly warned North Korea that any military aggression against Japan would result in a massive and violent response. Eventually the North Koreans wised up. This situation is mainly about money and that’s how the North Koreans are now treating it. It’s just business.
The police and soldiers guarding the Chinese border are suffering from economic and morale problems. That’s because since January 2014 the secret police have been carrying out orders to crack down on corruption among the military and police up there. The secret police, especially the MPS (Ministry of People’s Security) is more resistant to bribes and much less tolerant of bad behavior. One reason for the bad attitude is the growing decline in government distribution of food, booze and candy for public holidays (like the recent “celebration” of Kim Jong Un’s birthday). The government has less and less to give out and people who can do what they can to make up the shortages. That makes the government look weak and the people are less afraid. North Korea has responded by making more strenuous efforts to control the smuggling and illegal immigration on the Chinese border. Security personnel have been warned that they face the death penalty if caught working with the smugglers. In February border guards were ordered to shoot on sight anyone seen trying to cross the border illegally. The government has put more undercover operatives on the border, to collect information, set up arrests, make the smugglers (and corrupt officials) nervous and generally disrupt and discourage smuggling. People on the border just put up with it, secure in the knowledge that the government will not keep up these efforts indefinitely. Reliable secret policemen are in short supply and if you keep them on the border too long some will be corrupted and might even defect. Patience is in short supply for those working on the border and everyone wants the secret police to leave. But now it appears that the secret police are being corrupted, despite the government custom of rotating secret police operators in and out of border duty frequently.
The secret police are finding that people living along the border are adapting to the continued efforts to curb illegal cell phones. Late last year the crackdown on illegal cell phone use near the Chinese border turned around with the arrival of new detectors that had longer range and greater sensitivity. Moreover the government has brought in so many of the new detectors that they could constantly monitor even remote areas for anyone using a Chinese cell phone. Before that people were able to defeat the imported cell phone signal detectors by using an earpiece and walking around or cycling in a crowded areas. That was not working anymore. Those who are caught find the special secret police personnel brought in for this duty are willing to take a bribe most of the time, but not always. Meanwhile word got around that if you kept your calls very short the detectors could not pinpoint your location, so the secret police are finding easy arrests are declining rapidly. Information continues to get in from China and the world, just not as much or as frequently. The growing and continuing war on cell phone use is causing a lot more anger among many North Koreans this time around, something the secret police have noted and reported to their superiors.
The secret police officially boats of defeating the smugglers and illegal travelers. But it is believed that the most authoritative secret police reports (for only the most senior officials) are describing what is obvious to most North Koreans; the efforts to curb corruption and other bad behavior are gradually being corrupted and subverted. This makes the senior leadership very nervous because it was this same insidious and seemingly unstoppable corruption that brought down the Soviet Union and all the other European communist countries 25 years ago. North Korea thought they could beat this curse and now find that they cannot.
June 30, 2014: North Korea proposed that the two Koreas agree to halt military activities as a way to bring peace to the region. South Korea refused, pointing out that North Korea wants South Korea to halt its extensive training activities. All this training is expensive and it makes the South Korea forces much more effective than the North Korean counterparts because South Korea can afford a lot of this training and North Korea cannot. Moreover the northern proposals said nothing about the North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, which South Korea sees as the biggest threat to the south.
June 29, 2014: North Korea again defied a UN ban on firing ballistic missiles by launching two SCUD type missiles into waters some 500 kilometers off the east coast.
June 26, 2014: North Korea defied a UN ban on firing ballistic missiles by firing three SCUD type missiles into waters some 190 kilometers off the east coast.
June 23, 2014: A South Korean soldier who had shot dead five fellow soldiers and wounded another five on the 21st was captured. The killer had fled the DMZ guard post after the shooting. Thousands of soldiers were dispatched to find the killer and they caught up with him late on the 22nd. After a 24 hour siege the killer shot and wounded himself and was captured. Such incidents are not all that rare along the DMZ where, since 1953 millions of Korean and American troops have served. For about a decade after the 1953 ceasefire there where troops from over a dozen other nations there as well but by the 1960s it was just Koreans and Americans. The DMZ was always a dreary place and there was always a problem with morale and discipline. Suicide and murder have long been a normal occurrence on both sides of the DMZ. Troops up there were heavily armed, had plenty of ammo and spent too much time staring at their armed adversaries. Over the decades ways have been found to boost morale a bit, but not to entirely eliminate the murder and suicide.
June 21, 2014: South Korea recently revealed that one of its four Peace Eye (”Wedgetail”) AWACS (aerial early warning and control) aircraft had detected two of the three North Korean UAVs discovered in South Korea earlier this year. North Korea was using modified versions of the commercial Chinese SKY-09P UAV. North Korea gave the SKY-09Ps a new paint job (to make it harder to spot), a muffler (to make it less detectable) and installed a different camera. The SKY-09P was used via its robotic mode, where the SKY-09P flew to pre-programmed GPS coordinates, taking digital photos over selected areas. The SKY-09Ps found in South Korea had GPS coordinates in their guidance system showing they originated and were to return to a location in North Korea. No further details about Peace Eye performance were released, which is typical for high-tech aircraft like this.
June 15, 2014: South Korea said it would send three North Korean fishermen, recently rescued from their sinking boat off the South Korean coast, back to North Korea. The three North Koreans asked to go back, prompted by harsher punishments recently imposed on the families of those who are found to have fled the country. North Korea is now putting all members of the immediate family, and even members of the extended family, in prison camps to discourage such “traitors” from fleeing North Korea.
June 14, 2014: North Korea recently broadcast a propaganda video showing leader Kim Jong Un visiting an air force training facility. This visit featured a biplane and various elderly trainer aircraft (and one helicopter smuggled in from Germany years ago) firing unguided rockets at ground targets. Then there was the presentation of the new personal aircraft for the national leader. Kim Jong Uns father and grandfather did not like to fly and relied instead on private armored trains. But the 30 year old Kim Jong Un has no fear of flying. That might change once he comes to know the background of his new personal aircraft; an elderly Russian IL-62M done up in a fresh coat of paint. The IL-62M is a design that dates from the 1960s, with a major upgrade (the “M” models) in the 1970s. It used to be a major (292 built between 1967 and 1995) airliner during the Soviet period. But once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 sales for the IL-62M disappeared because now more expensive (but more efficient and a whole lot safer) Western airliners were allowed to be sold in the former Soviet Union (and the East European states under Soviet control until 1991).
June 12, 2014: South Korea is disbanding and reforming its Coast Guard. The current 10,000 Coast Guard personnel will have to go through a “rehiring” process to get jobs in the new Maritime Safety Agency (which will get most of the current Coast Guards 220 ships and 25 aircraft) and maritime safety sections in the national police. Inspection of ships and crews will be handed to another agency. The cause of all this was an April 16th incident where an overloaded ferry sank and over 300 people, most of the high school students, died. The investigation found that the ferry owner, and many others who depended on Coast Guard safety inspections, had simply bribed Coast Guard officials to ignore overloading and the hiring of unqualified officers and crews for ships. The ferry disaster was notable for the captain and crew of the ferry fleeing the sinking ship rather than attending to the safety of passengers on board. As a result over 60 percent of the nearly 500 passengers on board died.