China has increased its efforts to gain some control over the North Korean government by doing nasty things the North Korean leaders want. In the latest case the Chinese are providing something the North Korean leadership wants badly; help in halting North Koreans from escaping into China. More North Korean “defectors” are being arrested by Chinese police and sent back to North Korea. That does not stop the escapes, but it does reduce them. As part of this effort China has also applied more pressure to Christian charities and foreign Christians in general who are operating in China near the North Korean border. Many of these Christians (especially ethnic Koreans from the West) are known or suspected of helping North Koreans escape North Korea and get to South Korea. It is unlikely North Korea will go so far as to drop their nuclear weapons program because of all this assistance, even if that’s what China really wants. Nevertheless China is trying the carrot with North Korea although the stick (messing with the North Korean economy by halting trade and Chinese investment) is still ready for use. The anti-Christian campaign is not confined to the North Korean border but is also taking place in areas where Christians are a large (meaning over five percent) of the population. Christians have often been persecuted by the communist government and that usually happens again when more Chinese Christians are too active in practicing what they preach.
Over the last few months North Korea has made another round of more strenuous efforts to control the smuggling and illegal immigration on the Chinese border. This effort is also falling apart due to the growing corruption in the north. Originally security personnel were warned that they faced 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 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. It appears that the locals were right and that will back off on these crackdown efforts. That’s because there have been several embarrassing incidents on the border lately where large groups of people disappeared into China. This sort of thing was not supposed to happen anymore and the government has learned not to keep hammering away at things that backfire.
And then there is the South Korean border. The North Koreans have frequently shown, usually via some of their soldiers quietly making their way through the DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone) and showing up at a South Korea outpost seeking to defect, that they can get across this well-guarded barrier. North Korean troops have also done this as part of their training or to get spies or other agents into South Korea. On paper South Korea troops are equipped and trained to prevent this, but often inattention and other forms of sloppiness and poor discipline negate those defenses and allow North Koreans to walk right in. While the air force tends to stay alert and effective, even the navy has had some serious lapses and embarrassments. All this makes more South Koreans inclined to support efforts to end conscription and go with an all-volunteer force.
In North Korea the 2013 effort to outlaw South Korean style haircuts (and South Korean products used in hair care and styling) has been quietly dropped. Apparently too many of the senior leadership (who, with their families, are about one percent of the population) liked the styles and products and the government decided to back off for the sake of morale at the top. The same approach was taken with the growing popularity of cosmetic surgery among the women of the one percenters.
The UN complains that donor nations are refusing to fund food aid programs for North Korea. As a result of this the UN says it can only provide about a quarter of the $100 million worth of aid is wanted to distribute in North Korea each year. While North Korea announced in 2012 that a drought in key food producing areas would mean major food shortages, that situation has since improved. There were shortages in the last two years and some starvation. South Korea believes North Korea is trying to obtain more free food not to feed its hungry population but to sell to raise cash for weapons programs and goodies for the ruling class up there. This is a widely held attitude and most food aid donors will no longer give to North Korea because so often in the past the food was sold rather than distributed to the needy. North Korea refuses to let foreigners supervise the distribution of food aid. Since 2012 North Korea has become more open about its food shortages, publicly urging farmers to make greater efforts to produce food. There are definitely shortages in the north, and foreigners report malnutrition in many parts of the country. South Korea and the West is offering food and fuel if the north will halt nuclear weapons programs and allow inspection of that, and the distribution of food. The North Korean government continues to refuse those terms. While the North Korean leadership is well fed, it is willing to let its people go hungry rather than submit to “foreign interference.”
Satellite images show that work continues on a west coast (Sohae) rocket launching site. Construction so far indicates the facilities are being built for a multi-stage ballistic missile at least twice the size of the current largest one (the Unha 3). The work at Sohae appears on track to be ready to launch long range rockets by early 2015.
North Korea officials received a sobering economic lesson when, after they recently issued a new 5,000 won note they found that this note (worth about 63 cents) was used so infrequently that there was no rush to turn in the old ones before the deadline (and the old notes became illegal). Most people are using Chinese and American currency. The extent of this switch to foreign currency was made clear with the popular reaction to the new 5,000 won banknote.
August 18, 2014: Rumors that North Korea suspects China of supporting a coup against current ruler Kim Jong Un received a boost as North Korea transferred one of most combat-ready tank brigades from the South Korean border to the Chinese border. This is very unusual, but it’s no secret that China has been sending more troops to the North Korean border in the last year and is very unhappy (and openly critical) over how the North Korean leadership refuses to accept Chinese economic (more free market) and diplomatic (shut down the nuclear weapons program) advice.
August 15, 2014: As Japan commemorated the end (with Japan’s surrender in 1945) of World War II it made it clear that it was unwilling to keep apologizing to China and Korea for Japanese atrocities during the war. Now Japan is putting more effort into its defensive alliance with the United States. South Korea has turned down Japanese proposals that both nations coordinate military policy against common enemies (China and North Korea). Such cooperation is still very unpopular in South Korea because of continued anger over 40 years of brutal Japanese occupation early in the 20th century. This the Japanese consider self-destructive as it wallows in the past at the expense of dealing with current and future threats.
August 14, 2014: North Korea fired three more unguided rockets into waters 220 kilometers off the east coast.
August 5, 2014: in South Korea the head of the army resigned because of recent, and well publicized, incidents of brutality towards conscripts. The public outrage at this was more intense because the army had assured everyone that the problem was being fixed. For example, back in 2011 South Korea adopted a bunch of new rules and procedures that were meant to decrease the bullying and violence in the military. These practices were inherited from the Japanese during World War II (where many Koreans were conscripted for support jobs). For a long time, the rough atmosphere in the barracks was tolerated because it appealed to the macho attitude among South Korean men. But most of the troops are still conscripts, and parents, and their conscripted kids, are no longer tolerating all the violence. Since the 1990s there has been growing pressure to curb the culture of brutality and the latest conscript deaths were more of a media issue because the army leaders are now accused of lying to the government about how the brutality issue was being addressed. The head of the national police also resigned, but not because of brutality. The public was outraged at the inept search of the man most responsible for a recent ferry sinking that caused over 300 deaths (most of them high school students). It was quickly discovered that the man who owned the company that operated the ferry was very corrupt and responsible for operating an unsafe ship that would not have sunk if rules had been followed. The wealthy and corrupt ferry owner eluded capture for months until he committed suicide recently.
August 2, 2014: North Korea allowed two American tourists it had arrested this year to make a public plea for the United States to do something to get them freed. The U.S. has been holding quiet discussions with North Korea over the matter but the North Koreans are demanding a higher ransom (probably in terms of diplomatic or military actions rather than cash or goods) than the U.S. is willing to pay.
July 30, 2014: In South Korea 200 South Koreans (and North Koreans who had escaped) got together and bought 10,000 Choco pies and fifty large balloons. When the wind was right the balloons and the Choco Pies were released to float into North Korea, where this particular treat was recently outlawed. While Choco Pies are a cheap (about 25 cents each in South Korea) chocolate covered vanilla cream filled cake snack in South Korea, for North Koreans they are a special treat. Not many sweets are available in North Korea and the Choco Pies (based on a similar popular World War I era snack in the American south) has been tweaked to appeal to Korean tastes. Each 30 gm (1.1 ounce) Choco Pie has about 125 calories. Choco Pies entered North Korea in large quantities after 2004 when the Kaesong Industrial Complex opened in North Korea. There, over a hundred South Korean companies set up shop and employed more than 50,000 North Koreans. The complex was as a place for South Korean firms to establish factories, using cheaper North Korean workers. The South Korean employers had to pass all worker compensation through the North Korean government and were forbidden to pay workers directly. The North Korean government wanted nothing to do with capitalist practices like better pay for superior performance. The South Koreans found that they could get away with giving snacks to workers as secret bonuses. Choco Pies were particularly popular because they brought the highest prices on the North Korean black market (a dollar or more per Choco Pie). The North Korean government was not happy with the popularity and growing availability of Choco Pies, which were a tasty reminder that life was better in the capitalist south. For decades North Korean propaganda had insisted that South Koreans were worse off. How was that possible if the southerners had all the Choco Pies they wanted. North Korea officials are not completely clueless and will allow South Korean managers to give out other snacks from the south (sausages and chocolates are popular as are instant noodles). But Choco Pies are a snack too far and were banned. North Korea has threatened to kill those responsible for sending in Choco Pies via balloon.
Independent of the Choco Pie invasion North Korea fired four more unguided rockets into waters off its east coast.
July 28, 2014: The UN has put a North Korean shipping company on a blacklist for violating weapons sanctions against North Korea. This company was responsible for the ship used to try and smuggle weapons from Cuba to North Korea in 2012. Back in February North Korea finally paid the reduced (to $693,000) million dollar fine Panama had imposed on the ship. This got the ship released and it was sent back to Cuba with a new crew. Illegal Cuban weapons were found on ship in July, 2012, during a surprise inspection. Such weapons shipments are forbidden by international sanctions and were seized. Cuba was being paid over $100 million for these weapons and others already shipped. The North Korean ship and its crew had to remain in Panama until North Korea paid the fine. The Panamanians threatened to seize the ship and its cargo and auction it off to pay the fine. This threat eventually persuaded the North Koreans to pay. The ship is the North Korea built Chong Chon Gang, a 14,000 ton (DWT) vessel built in 1977.