In the north no one who knows what is going on will say anything about missing leader Kim Jong Un. There is no evidence of a coup and the government up there appears to be functioning (or malfunctioning) normally. There are plenty of problems that need the attention of the supreme leader and the constant propaganda pushes the idea that only the 30 year old can make things better. So the young dictator is missed by many North Koreans.
Meanwhile North Koreans are still hungry. It is estimated that North Korean food production has been the same for the last three years, despite well publicized efforts to increase it. It also appears that free food distributions in the north continue to decline, as more people are told to use the growing free markets for their food needs. Meanwhile North Korea officially insists that it is still only four years away from self-sufficiency in food. All North Korea has to do is increase grain production about 20 percent. Such self-sufficiency has been elusive during the last century. In the early 20th century Japan (which occupied Korea from 1905-45) industrialized northern Korea and relied on the traditionally more productive (in terms of food) south to feed the entire country and export food to Japan as well. After World War II Korea was divided and Russia supplied North Korea with the additional food it needed. This free food aid continued until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. For a few years in the 1980s, thanks to massive aid (in the form of fertilizer) from Russia North Korea did achieve the ability to feed itself, more or less. But the communist government in North Korea was inept when it came to managing agriculture and even with the massive aid from Russia (which felt it was more economical to just send North Korea food, as it had long done) food self-sufficiency was an elusive goal in North Korea. The North Korean government has always resented being dependent on food aid, especially from “enemy” (non-communist) states but after 1991 communist (in name anyway) China could not supply all the free food North Korea needed and the North Koreans often refused to take food aid from non-communist states. In part that’s because conditions were often attached, like the right to supervise the distribution (to make sure the food go to the hungry and was not sold on the open market, something the government often did) or in return for North Korea halting its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs and cease being so hostile to the rest of the world. North Korea made it clear it would rather starve than give in. Not the leaders, of course, but many North Koreans who had no say in how their government was run went hungry.
The North Korean government is disturbed at the growing number of escapees who are illegally sending money back to their families. This money is used to start new businesses (making the owners more independent of government control) and help more people escape. So the police have been encouraged (with rewards) to find and arrest the people involved in making these transfers happen. The main suspects are Chinese businessmen in North Korea (some of them North Koreans). This crackdown is very unpopular with most North Koreans, including the police, who receive a lot of bribes financed by these remittances. The government recently revealed that a senior member of the secret police was arrested for helping someone get out of the country. The government said it was an espionage case but most North Koreans believe it was another case of corruption. With enough cash just about anyone in the government can be bought, or at least rented for a while.
In North Korea the government has found that a new order for most, if not all, agents of the secret police to take a six month English course is rather unpopular. It is also unclear why leader Kim Jong Un ordered thousands of secret police to study English. While many already know Chinese it has been noted that for students studying English is now more popular than Chinese and schools are adapting to that. It is known that Kim Jong Un studied English when he was going to school in Europe and has been interested in all things Western ever since. Many secret police agents believe Kim Jong Un is more afraid of is Chinese “allies” than his American “enemies” and the language is part of some secret plan.
Satellite photos of North Korean missile launch facilities indicate that one of them appears ready for another long-range missile test before the end of the year.
October 11, 2014: North Korean media announced that the resumption of high-level peace talks was now on hold because the South Korean government refused to shut down non-government groups that were releasing balloons into North Korea. This displeasure was emphasized when the north ordered soldiers on the border to try and shoot down balloons with machine-gun fire. Some of the dozen or so 14.5mm bullets fired today landed in South Korea and South Korean troops fired machine-guns into the north. There were apparently no casualties on either side. South Korean political activists have been increasingly active this year releasing small helium balloons that then drift north into North Korea. What the balloons carry varies. It’s always something that annoys the North Korean government. The usual cargo is DVDs, one-dollar bills, sweets or pamphlets and leaflets providing accurate information on abuses in North Korea and life in South Korea. This sort of thing makes the North Korean government very angry and anyone caught with the cargo these balloons carry can be sent to prison camps. In the south the threats of retaliation from the north and today’s machine-gun fire have caused South Koreans living close to the border to block roads or call on local police to stop people from releasing balloons. This is difficult to do and ultimately does not work. The locals fear the north will fire rockets and artillery next and put them in great danger.
October 10, 2014: In the north leader Kim Jong Un missed another important event. This was the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party. Normally senior leaders make public appearances on this day, mainly by visiting the Kumsusan mausoleum. For the first time North Korean media did mention, in passing, that Kim Jong Un was ill. There were no details.
October 8, 2014: Off the west coast, near the maritime boundary, a South Korean patrol boat spotted a North Korean patrol boat crossing the line and fired a few warning shots to encourage compliance. The North Korean boat did turn around after about ten minutes when it had gotten about 800 meters into South Korean territory. Before retreating the North Korean boat fired a few heavy machine-gun rounds in the direction of the South Korean ship, which fired a few more rounds in return. Fewer than two hundred heavy machine-gun rounds were fired in total and there were no casualties or damage.
October 7, 2014: For the first time North Korea officially acknowledged the existence of labor camps, in response to a UN investigation of the camps and the release of a report on that in early 2014.
Until 2011 t
hese "labor camps" (which kill a large number of inmates via malnutrition, violence or disease) were overcrowded. Normally built to hold about 150,000 enemies of the people, by 2011 there were closer to 200,000 inmates. The further growth in the prison population was controlled with less food and more violence. About 60 percent of those under arrest in North Korea are 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. Until 2011 one percent of the North Korean population was in these labor camps, and 5-10 percent did not survive their time there. Since then North Korea has reduced its labor camp population to under 100,000 prisoners. This appears to have been the result of a higher death rate among prisoners in the last few years and not a policy of sending fewer people to prison and closing the unneeded camps. Some of the deaths were the result of more executions, but most were caused by food shortages. With growing hunger among civilians and military personnel, the government sought to obtain more food wherever it could. Cutting the already skimpy rations for prisoners was one such desperate measure and it meant more prisoners dying of starvation and disease. For decades the UN had looked the other way (under pressure from many powerful member nations like China and Russia) when it came to the North Korean “labor camps.” But since the 1990s too many former inmates escaped North Korea and testified about what they went through, As a result the UN could no longer ignore the situation. This led to a formal investigation and documenting what went on, and apparently still goes on up there. In the last two decades the UN has become increasingly critical of conditions in North Korea but there was little the UN could do except publicize these problems. This bad publicity finally got to the point where North Korea decided to admit the camps existed and try to spin that news in their favor. One motivation for this may be the current effort by the EU (European Union) and Japan to get the UN to act on its damning report about North Korean labor camps and prosecute North Korean leaders for crimes against humanity. China is blocking that, but the EU and Japan continue to demand action and the bad news just keeps on coming.
In South Korea the defense ministry repeated its belief that North Korea is still preparing for war, despite the growing shortages of food, fuel and cash for military imports.
October 4, 2014: In a surprise move the most senior North Korean government official (after Kim Jong Un), Hwang Pyong So and two other senior officials (Cho Ryong Hae and Kim Yang Gon) visited the south to attend the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Asian Games (which North Korea sent athletes and a few spectators to). Even more surprising was that Hwang asked for a meeting with South Korean leaders and proposed the resumption of high level peace talks. These talks had been stalled (by the North Koreans) since February but are now supposed to resume in November. Hwang Pyong So also officially revealed that leader Kim Jong Un was well, but would not say more than that to explain Kim Jong Uns absence from public events since September 3rd.
September 27, 2014: North Korean media mentioned, apparently to explain the absence of Kim Jong Un from public events since September 3rd, that he was suffering some discomfort. Video of Kim attending public events in July showed him limping. There was never any official North Korean comment on the limp.
September 26, 2014: A senior government official in charge of leader Kim Jong Uns “slush fund” (cash from legal and illegal government enterprises that is set aside for the supreme leader alone) has disappeared. The government has made no official announcement and the rumors shed no light on why. He would not be the first North Korean official to flee the country, often with a large supply of cash.
September 25, 2014: In the north the government has finally punished the officials responsible for the May 13th apartment building collapse in the North Korean capital. The punishments were not severe (some loss of pay) and are considered an insult by the friends and families of the victims. Since these are all government officials, this incident is turning into a nightmare for the government. The problems began before the dust had even settled on the collapse of the 23 story building. Some survivors trapped in the rubble used cell phones to call for help. But the government did not immediately send construction equipment to aid in the rescue effort. Initial rescue was done by hand with government officials ordering hundreds of people to aid in the effort. This is believed to have led to more deaths and it was later revealed that over 300 died. In an unprecedented move the government soon publically apologized for the collapse (apparently caused by the growing corruption throughout the country). This was all very embarrassing for the government because most of the state built housing goes up in the capital for the benefit of military and government employees. Tall apartment buildings in particular are reserved for high ranking officials and their families. Since May everyone housed in recently built tall buildings has been living in fear. All the victims in these buildings and those in similar buildings are wives, children and parents of mid-level officials. These people know about the corruption and now they know it can hit them where it hurts the most. It was expected that the officials responsible for the corruption that led to the building collapse would be punished, perhaps publically. That thought sent a chill throughout the military and government bureaucracy because the corruption is quite widespread now but that knowledge is still considered a state secret. It later turned out that the military was responsible for putting this building up and that casts a bad light on the military which always insisted that it was largely immune to the spreading corruption. That is a lie, as anyone in the military (or their families) has realized for some time. What is really shocking is that the corruption has gotten to the point where it would endanger the families of military personnel. That is a line that no one thought even corrupt soldiers would cross. The government has a big morale problem on its hands as a result. Worse, officials believe that more people will blame the new leader, Kim Jong Un, for being unable to stem the growing corruption and for the deterioration of the economy and most everything else. With these light punishments it is obvious that the government does not want an open investigation of the corruption that is ever more common in the government.
Many new apartment buildings were part of the widely publicized 2012 plan for the construction of 100,000 new apartments in the capital. This has quietly been abandoned and existing projects have been handed over to private firms for completion. By early 2014 shortages of power and building materials forced this program to be cut to 20,000 apartments. Many believed even that was not achievable. In the capital the failure was there for all to see as only 500 new apartments were completed by 2011, when over 50,000 new apartments were to have been available. Then came the collapse of one of those new apartment towers in May.
September 23, 2014: The United States has agreed to abide, sort of, with the international treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. While not actually renouncing the use of landmines, the U.S. has agreed to only manufacture and use them in Korea, where they protect American and South Korean forces from another attack from the north. Other than that the U.S. will not manufacture or stockpile anti-personnel landmines. While hailed as a victory for backers of the ban, the American decision actually demonstrates again why the ban is more style than substance. While 161 nations have signed the treaty, the 36 which have not comprise some major military powers like China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel (and the Palestinians), both Koreas, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Most of these nations still see a pressing need for landmines, although many are trying to find replacement weapons. Landmines were outlawed by an international treaty in 1999, but most of the nations that rushed to sign up either didn't have landmines or didn't have any reason to use them. While landmine casualties have declined from about 20,000 a year when the Cold War ended to about 5,000 now, that was largely due to the collapse of many communist governments, which were always the biggest landmine users (to keep people from entering or leaving their countries) and exporters. The fall of communism led to more open borders and a lot of mines were taken out of service. Thus the treaty backers like to take credit for 87 countries destroying 46 million landmines, but most of these mines would have been destroyed anyway because the collapse of so many communist governments made most of those mines eligible for retirement and destruction. Despite the anti-landmine efforts, some countries still manufacture and use them. In the last few years Israel, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Myanmar (Burma) planted new mines. In addition, there are three countries still manufacturing landmines (India, Myanmar, and Pakistan). Arms dealers will still provide large quantities of Russian and Chinese landmines, many of them Cold War surplus. China, Russia, and other communist nations were the major producers of landmines during the Cold War. The mines were produced not so much for use against potential enemies but to aid in keeping the borders closed and preventing citizens from leaving these unpleasant dictatorships.
September 19, 2014: Off the west coast, near the maritime boundary, a South Korean patrol boat spotted a North Korean patrol boat crossing the line and fired six warning shots to encourage compliance. The North Korean boat turned around. It was later reported the North Korean patrol boat was seeking an unmanned barge that had broken loose and was believed to be in the area. This was the first such maritime border incident in four months.