Korea: Why The North Needs Nukes


September 9, 2016: North Korea admitted that it detonated a nuclear weapon earlier today. This was the fifth time North Korea had done so. This came hours after South Korea reported that seismic activity sensors indicated either a small earthquake up north or, more likely, another nuclear weapons test. This bomb was the most powerful yet and apparently not a failure like the first two. Both 2016 nukes appeared to be the same design as the 2013 one. So there appears to be a stable design.

North Korea has made more nuke threats recently and now says it will use its nukes, really it will. North Korea is not happy that its threats are often dismissed by foreigners, especially after their January 2016 test which North Korea claimed was a fusion bomb. In response to all the foreign criticism North Korea has been threatening another test real soon, like in 2016. That was also ridiculed as North Korea had never conducted two tests in one year. In 2013 North Korea threatened to resume producing plutonium but did not do so. Earlier in 2015 North Korea says it has resumed plutonium production and also developed smaller and more effective nuclear weapons designs. North Korea also claims that it can hit targets in the United States with nuclear warheads and can do it on shorter notice than before. It’s difficult to tell what is fact and what is fiction here because so many North Korean claims turn out to be false. North Korea claimed the January 2016 test was a fusion (H-bomb) test when it clearly was not.

In early 2013 North Korea conducted its third nuclear weapons test. That one appeared to be seven kilotons and a complete detonation. The second test was a five kiloton weapon in 2009 and the first one was in 2006. Western intelligence believed that the original North Korean nuclear weapon design was flawed, as the first test was only a fraction of what it should have been (less than a kiloton equivalent in high explosives), and is called in the trade, a "fizzle." The second test was a complete detonation and apparently a much modified version of the original design. Thus North Korea needed more tests to perfect their bomb design and is still years away from a useful nuclear weapon even though the second bomb appeared to be more effective. The third test was considered overdue and that may have been because more time was spent designing and building a smaller device that could fit into a missile warhead. The September test may have been done just to frighten the neighbors. One thing these nuclear tests achieve is to make the neighbors angrier and more willing to cooperate in measures to defend themselves from North Korea and to prevent the north from continuing their nuke program. Even Japan, long estranged from South Korea (because of early 20th century Japanese atrocities in Korea), is now developing stronger military and diplomatic ties because of the common threat from North Korea.

Paying For The Nukes And Missiles

Some wonder how North Korea can continue to pay for nuclear weapons research, build new ballistic missiles and ships while refurbishing bases used for the missiles tests, new ships and still maintaining its commando forces. In North Korea there is now an emphasis on developing and building weapons that can threaten, harass or intimidate but not win a war. North Korean commandos, who are less than ten percent of army manpower, are still well equipped and taken care of. The navy is getting money for new submarines, either small ones for sneak attacks along the coast or a few large ones carrying long-range ballistic missiles. For the small boats there is the new K-35 anti-ship missile. North Korean hovercraft are being maintained, as these would be used for coastal raids. The rest of the military gets very little and the impact of that is becoming quite obvious.

The reason for major policy shift is simple; Kim Jong Un apparently decided, soon after he came to power in 2011 that most of the North Korean military was unaffordable. This decision was kept secret but over the next few years the evidence confirming this new direction piled up. The first clue something was up was in how quickly Kim Jong Un ordered the execution of dozens of officials he apparently felt were not completely behind the new way of doing things. This included senior military leaders who, it turned out, opposed cutting the budget for most of the military to absurdly low levels. Kim Jong Un then replaced many senior commanders with men who would support the new strategy.

All these changes produced more reports of hungry troops living in poorly heated barracks during the cold weather who now spend even more time on non-military activities (farming, construction, factory work or being rented to commercial firms for short periods). Thus recent calls for more “combat readiness” and “modern weapons” by Kim Jong Un came to be seen as purely propaganda. Even South Korean troops serving on the border (the DMZ) noted this because the North Korean “protests” against large annual South Korean-American training exercises used to trigger the appearance on the DMZ of many North Korean combat troops, armed and often accompanied by armored vehicles. This was all for show but since 2011 fewer and fewer North Korean troops are showing up on the border and fewer North Korean soldiers are seen armed. For most North Korean troops there is little opportunity to handle their weapons, especially when they are loaded. This was partly a budget problem as there was little money for fuel, spare parts or ammunition. There was also less confidence in the troops being able to fight effectively or even obey orders to fire in the direction of the enemy.

A growing number of troops began to consider themselves uniformed slaves of the state because the mandatory term of service was extended (for up to 12 years). A new conscription law obliged all women to serve for a few years as well. Since 2012 more and more North Koreans who fled the country, or were in China legally doing business reported more incidents of robbery and looting by hungry (or just greedy) soldiers. By 2015 the reports indicated this violence was getting is out of control. The most recent trend is groups of hungry and desperate soldiers stopping trucks on country roads and robbing the passengers and stealing cargo. Sometimes the soldiers throw rocks at the drivers to encourage cooperation. If drivers are lucky the soldiers only want a free ride to somewhere. Truckers often earn extra (and technically illegal) income by carrying passengers. Note that there is not much road traffic in North Korea and nearly all of it is trucks. What few cars you see either belong to senior government officials (who cannot be robbed without risk of retaliation) or, increasingly, to one of the growing number of donju (entrepreneurs) who may or may not have sufficient political connections to trigger retaliation. So the troops tend to go after trucks.

The hungry troops know that, so far, government will not punish soldiers unless people are killed or badly injured during these incidents. Police are often called to catch soldiers who have robbed someone. At first this was usually troops breaking into a house seeking food and valuables. The soldiers that are caught are often arrested but must be taken back to their base where the military takes over. The soldiers are “punished” with some verbal abuse for getting caught and that is all. The government has made some effort to address the problem. In 2015 there was a new program to expand food production by the military. Troops were allowed to raise pigs as well as the usual vegetable and grain crops. Meat has been in particularly short supply for the troops in the past few years and hungry troops often steal small livestock (chickens, ducks, pigs), kill them on the spot and carry them off to be cooked and eaten before returning to base. As more reports came in it became apparent that most military units didn’t have enough to eat, either because the food was not to be had or, as is more often the case, corruption (someone in a position of power stole it.) This led to more soldiers stealing food from civilians or selling military clothing and equipment on the black market so they can buy food. Soldiers have opportunities to steal food and sell stolen goods when they are off their base doing construction or farm work. This is how troops spend a lot of their time and they receive no extra pay or food even when the outside work requires heavy (and calorie consuming) labor. All this is illegal, but commanders are not eager to punish hungry soldiers. For commanders their troops have become profitable slaves who can be rented out with the commanders getting part of the payment.

This “starve the many to fatten the few” strategy is no stroke of genius but rather recognition of an unpleasant reality. When the young (about 30) Kim Jong Un succeeded his father in 2011 he saw the situation with fresh eyes and it was obvious to him that the conventional North Korean forces were now no match for the South Korean army, even though North Korea had 50 percent more troops. South Korea had been upgrading its forces since the 1990s, often with modern weapons now built in South Korea and increasingly exported. In contrast the North Korean economy and military budget had been in decline since the early 1990s when over four decades of Russian subsidies of cash, food and cheap military equipment ended. People of his father’s generation refused to fully appreciate the degree to which the situation had changed. Kim Jong Un did and he began making the obvious, and long overdue, changes. Nukes and special operations forces were all North Korea could pay for and these weapons would not win a war but they would make it easier to extort free food and other aid from neighbors. So far this is not working but Kim Jong Un apparently sees no other choice.

China Is Not Amused

Despite recently easing up on sanctions China promptly condemned today’s nuclear test in North Korea and threatened unspecified (yet) retaliation. Until now the Chinese were directing their anger at South Korean refusals to halt the expansion of their anti-missile defenses. To coerce South Korea China loosened the UN sanctions on North Korea it began enforcing in March as part of an international effort to get North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. That may have encouraged North Korea to detonate the nuke today but China is embarrassed because they told the world that they had North Korea under control. Even before the recent test China quietly cancelled some investments that were going to be made in North Korea. China always wanted North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program but it is also opposed to neighbors like South Korea and Japan installing anti-missiles systems. China can’t seem to get any Koreans to do as they are told. Then again, that describes the relationship between China and Korea for over a thousand years.

To deal with Chinese aggression nearly all the neighbors have been increasing their defense spending. For 2017 South Korean spending is going up four percent to $36 billion. In Japan it is a 2.3 percent boost. That comes to $51 billion for 2017. Unlike Taiwan and South Korea, which continued to be threatened by China and North Korea, Japanese defense spending declined after the Cold War ended in 1991. But in 2013 that changed and every budget since then has increased. By 2015 Japan had its highest ever defense budget ever ($42 billion). Now that has been increased nearly 20 percent for 2017. Most of this is to buy new weapons and upgrade existing ones to improve defense again Chinese or North Korean attack. While the top three spenders are now the United States, China and Saudi Arabia, Japan was usually in the top ten and remains there even through most everyone in South Asia and points east. Since 2010 China, India and Japan are all increasing their already large budgets.


Chinese police near the North Korean border are heard discussing how Chinese drug gang members are boasting of how senior officials in the North Korean secret police (Ministry of State Security) are using their access to details of security measures on the border to make some money by selling useful data to North Korean drug smugglers. The growing use of illegal drugs in North Korea has provided opportunities that even the most senior security officials could not pass up. This is because opium, heroin and methamphetamine (“meth”) has long been manufactured by the North Korean government for export to obtain foreign currency. These drugs are illegal in North Korea but some get into circulation anyway, especially meth. For a long time some meth was produced privately but after 2012 there was a crackdown on this, especially the smuggling from China or Russia of the raw materials for drugs like making methamphetamine. Breaking bad by making meth was always a dangerous way to get rich, as those caught doing this were frequently executed, often after torture (to ensure they have revealed all they know). Like every other recent crackdown this one eventually succumbed to bribes, which tend to rise until security officials are tempted to risk everything to become rich by ignoring meth labs. Since 2015 meth use has grown dramatically, especially along the Chinese border. That’s where most of the outlaw North Korean meth producers are and most of their meth is smuggled into China and Russia. There is so much being turned out that some is distributed locally. The Chinese border area has become bandit country for other reasons despite the current secret police emphasis is on keeping people from leaving. Things, especially drugs and the larger bribes they deliver, tends to make the police less effective and Chinese gangsters are bragging about it. Since this corruption involves the most senior, and trusted, secret police officials cracking down is difficult.

A somewhat related problem is the use of false accusations against economically successful government officials by their less competent peers. This is partly jealousy but also provides an opportunity to persuade the wealthier official to share with his less fortunate peers. For some time now officials in charge of making business deals (legal or illegal) in China or with other foreigners were richly rewarded by the government. That was necessary to encourage more such deals but also to discourage defection by these North Koreans who spent most of their time outside North Korea. Now the government has to deal with the problem of envy in the senior bureaucracy.

There are also rumors of secret police agents threatening to falsely accuse successful (and affluent) trade officials of crimes as a form of extortion. There are a growing number of complaints from wealthy entrepreneurs (donju) about false accusations by secret police that are actually extortion. Donju who will not or cannot meet the price are given non-lethal punishment to encourage compliance. Such punishments often include travel restrictions or interference with the donju business operations. Donju cannot legally form a trade association to look after their common interests and the secret police depend on that to limit complaints to senior North Korean officials about this. But some of the more successful donju do informally meet to discuss common interests and apparently complaints of the secret police misbehavior have been delivered to senior members of government, if not Kim Jong Un himself. Donju have survived and thrived by demonstrating to the cash-starved government that leaving the donju alone is in the best interests of the government as well as the donju and the many North Koreans they employ and serve with their thriving markets and other enterprises.

September 7, 2016: South Korea reports that, despite increasingly energetic and brutal efforts by North Korea to prevent illegal migration 895 North Koreans made it to South Korea during the first eight months of 2016 and South Korean officials believe that trend will continue and that by the end of the year the number of North Koreans who made it to the south since 1953 will cross the 30,000 mark. Most of those who have gotten out of the north to the south have done so since the late 1990s. The growing number of escapes was another side effect of the markets the government has forced to legalize since 2000. This greatly expanded the illegal black market that had been around for decades. It meant that many poor families suddenly had lots of money (by North Korean standards), which enabled them to hire people smugglers, buy boats or bribe border guards. Most escapees stayed in northeast China but eventually the people smugglers established reliable, if expensive, escape route to South Korea. China had long been a dangerous (for illegal Korean migrants) and less prosperous place than South Korea. Since 2014 China has eased up on its persecution of illegals from North Korea and in 2016 was openly allowing them to legally cross Chinese borders to reach South Korea via Southeast Asia.

Only about 500 North Koreans a year were reaching South Korea in the late 1980s. By the late 1990s, after an economic collapse up north and a famine that killed 5-10 percent of the population, the number began to rapidly increase. By 2009 it was nearly 3,000 a year. When Kim Jong Un took over he cracked down hard on this illegal migration and reduced it to about 1,200 a year in 2015. But that trend has apparently reversed. There was another change, now most of the North Koreans arriving in South Korea are women. In the late 1990s less than ten percent of those reaching South Korea were women. Since then this has grown to the point where 80 percent of the arrivals are women. There are several reasons for this. Women are more adaptable and have an easier time finding a spouse in South Korea. For the North Korean men, South Korean society is actually quite hostile. Moreover, men are more closely watched in North Korea. South Korea is scrambling to find solutions to all this, but as they discovered when they studied the experience of East and West Germany reuniting, the culture shock was a generational thing. Those who were teenagers and younger could easily adapt but the older ones, who had grown up in communist East Germany, never fully adapted to life in a free market democracy. Unfortunately for South Korea, most of the northern refugees are not kids, but adults who have been conditioned to live in a police state and have chronic difficultly adapting.

September 5, 2016: North Korea launched three ballistic missiles eastward from a base on its west coast. The three missiles appeared to be Rodongs because they travelled about a thousand kilometers over North Korea and landed off Japan within Japans EEZ (exclusive economic zone). The EEZ is anything within 380 kilometer of the coast. Nations can claim, via an international treaty, that EEZ areas are their coastal waters for economic and some military purposes. This includes fishing and potential underwater oil and gas fields. North Korea is believed to have as many as 300 Rodong missiles, with a range of a thousand kilometers or more. It is basically an enlarged version of the Russian SCUD design from the 1950s. Rodong is not very accurate (landing within a kilometer or so of its aiming point) but carries a one ton warhead. Rodong was developed in the 1980s for bombarding major urban areas using chemical or high-explosive warheads.

August 30, 2016: South Korea confirmed rumors that another senior North Korean official had been executed some time in July. The victim was Kim Yong Jin, the vice premier for education. He was accused of “factionalism” which means he disagreed with leader Kim Jong Un. Two other senior North Korean officials were also punished by being sent to a labor camp for “reeducation.”

August 25, 2016: Apparently another North Korean diplomat has defected with his family. This one was stationed in eastern Russia (Vladivostok) and it is unclear where he is now. This comes after a North Korean diplomat got out in July, via Belarus, and a month later was in South Korea. This makes three North Korean diplomats who have made it out since mid-2015. North Korea is trying to keep news of all this out of North Korea, with some success. But North Korean diplomats know about it because they have access to mass media where they are stationed.

August 24, 2016: North Korea carried out a SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile) test off the east coast. This one was an apparent success as video showed the missiles breaking the surface and moving away. Japanese sensors detected the missiles landing about 500 kilometers from the launch site. A May 2015 test could be considered a “successful failure” as it showed a missile successfully reaching the surface and igniting its main engines but then went out of control and plunged back into the ocean seconds later (and 30 kilometers away). The North Korean SSB (diesel-electric submarine carrying ballistic missiles) carrying these missiles was identified in early 2015 May when aerial shipyard photos clearly (despite a camouflage net) showed an SSB under construction at the Simpo shipyard. Another North Korean missile firing sub has been spotted at sea (mostly using satellites) and it appears locally built but based on 1960s Russian designs and some Russian components. Another video showed this sub had one or two silos built into its sail. This SSB is apparently only useful for testing the SLBM. Based on what is known so far it appears that North Korea could have an operational SSB (carrying reliable missiles) by 2018 if they complete and successfully complete and test the new 2,000 SSB under construction in Simpo.




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