People smugglers in northeast China report an increase in business (or at least inquiries) from high ranking North Korean officials. The cause is the declining standard of living, the growing corruption (and demands for bribes) and, most importantly, growing use of foreign media as a source of news. Chinese who regularly work with North Koreans (legally or otherwise) report that more than half of their North Korean contacts appear (or openly admit) to be regular users of foreign media. As a result people at all levels of North Korean society have done the math and realized that all these nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are expensive (a favorite topic in South Korean media, complete with financial and economic data to explain it) and that is now seen as the main reason the North Korean economy is in bad shape and getting worse. North Korean police reports confirm this because a growing number of people are caught using state approved radios (that only can access a few frequencies) that have been illegally modified to receive foreign (especially South Korean) broadcasts. Modifying North Korean radios has become another illegal but booming business in the north. Also growing in popularity are tiny radios and digital music (and recorded radio shows) smuggled in from China. These allow northerners to more easily avoid detection while they indulge in forbidden media access. All this was foreseen in the north.
Since 2011, when Kim Jong Un came to power, the North Korean secret police have been warning their bosses that a growing number of propaganda efforts that worked for decades are now doing more harm than good. This is largely because people have access to cell phones and foreign media which provide contrary views of what is really going on in North Korea. This sort of thing leads to doubts and uncertainty among the population, even the senior leadership and their families. As a result there are more whispered anti-government (or anti-Kim Jong Un) jokes and, worse, the same message in graffiti. More North Koreans are openly complaining to government officials that they are hungry and cold not because of foreign enemies but because of bad government policies. For example a lot of free market activities are still illegal despite that fact that most people depend on access to the free markets for most of the essentials the state supplied until the 1990s. Implicit in this treasonous talk is a popular perception that most North Koreans survive in spite of the government rather than because of any assistance from the government.
From the beginning (right, after World War II) it was taken for granted that exposure to other cultures was also a threat to the Kim dynasty. Thus for decades few North Koreans were allowed any contact with foreigners or foreign media and consumer products. The wisdom of this decision is becoming more and more apparent. Since the late 1990s secret police reports documented a strong correlation between disloyalty and exposure to foreign cultures. In other words, those who have been outside the country (even to China) are much more likely to become more disloyal. Almost as bad is exposure to foreign media, especially South Korean video or just consumer products. Despite strenuous efforts to halt or limit this “contamination” more North Koreans are being exposed.
the government has openly declared foreign media (videos, TV shows and movies), especially from South Korea, as a major threat. To scare the key few percent of the population (who control the rest) away from these poisonous media influences the secret police have been identifying the more loyal members of the ruling class (especially students) and recruiting them as informants. Informants are nothing new in North Korea but these new ones are coached on how to be new enthusiasts for the forbidden media and, more importantly, a source for such forbidden delights. Arrests have been made (meaning careers and lifestyles ruined) and that has created even more fear among the ruling class. Interestingly the members of the few hundred most senior families also enjoy the forbidden media, despite the risk of
Unleashing The Pundits Of Doom
Since September 9th China and South Korea have adapted and taken advantage of the new information situation in North Korea. For example China has allowed its approved pundits (scholars and popular media personalities) to freely (without censors coming after them) discuss subjects like unannounced Chinese air or missile strikes on North Korea nuclear and ballistic missile targets. South Korea doesn’t have the huge Chinese censorship bureaucracy to worry about so seriously scary media messages are delivered by senior government officials. In this case some details of South Korean plans to locate and kill Kim Jong Un and his senior officials were revealed by the South Korean Defense Minister. This would involve South Korean commandos, smart bombs and all sorts of stuff that show up in the action movies Kim Jong Un and his father were known to be fond of. North Korea had always assumed this sort of attack was planned and prepared for it but now it is official and out there for all Koreans to contemplate. Many North Koreans see this an unprecedented new threat; a joint Chinese-South Korean (and presumably American) effort to go after Kim Kong Un. To reinforce that perception American B-1B bombers very visibly flew over South Korea a week after the nuclear test.
The Other Sanctions
Despite recently easing up on sanctions China promptly condemned the September 9th North Korean nuclear test and closed the border crossings with North Korea for three days. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner, buying over half of legal North Korean exports. In turn North Korea imports over $3 billion worth of food, medicine and other unsanctioned items from China. Nevertheless there were some severe economic reprisals by China. This had more to do with recent discoveries that North Korea had bribed a lot of Chinese officials and gone into partnership with a number of Chinese companies to illegally obtain key components for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The Chinese tried to keep the details of its crackdown secret but, as is often the case in the age of the Internet, this proved impossible. All this was complicated by the fact that the Chinese government has made a major public commitment to fighting domestic corruption and protecting China from foreign military threats. For decades Japan and the United States were identified as the principal foreign threats. But in the last few years the government has allowed growing public anger at North Korea to be openly discussed in Chinese media. These threats; to use nukes and ballistic missiles against China for not supplying North Korea with enough free fuel, food and other aid, had turned Chinese public opinion against North Korea, which had long been seen as an ally against the evil West and their South Korean and Japanese puppets. Until the latest North Korean nuclear test China was directing more anger at South Korean refusals to halt the expansion of their anti-missile defenses. China is still angry about that but is now more concerned with the North Korean threat.
China is concerned about the erratic behavior of North Korea but for a long time officially insisted that there was little it could do except criticize North Korea and urge the North Koreans to back off on their nuclear weapons development. In reality, there is much China could do to get the attention of the North Koreans, but that would involve the possibility of making North Korean leaders more erratic and aggressive. Cutting economic (oil and natural gas) and food aid as well as halting unofficial aid to illegal North Korea exports (drugs, counterfeit currency, weapons) would hurt more than the current sanctions and might cause a collapse of the North Korean government. That is something China wants to avoid, because it would force China to confront South Korea and the West over Chinese plans to occupy North Korea in such a situation. China would call this peacekeeping but the rest of the world would call it an annexation. This could get very nasty. Another option is to back pro-Chinese North Korean officials in a coup to install a more obedient (to China) government. This is risky, as the North Korean leaders have been aware of this threat for over a decade and have regularly purged the ruling bureaucracy of anyone believed to be pro-China. A failed coup would be, well, messy. According to China quick solutions and very critical of anyone making military threats against North Korea.
Above all China wants to avoid chaos in North Korea because that would be bad for the Chinese economy and increase the threat of conflict with even more dangerous opponents like Japan, South Korea and the United States. The most extreme (but acceptable) measures China could take include literally taking control of North Korea (which China has done in the distant past). Staging a coup in North Korea has always been a possibility but the paranoid (for good reason in this case) North Korean leadership has made it difficult for China to recruit enough North Korean officials to make this feasible. That said, the potential is still there and China could still go this route. Many North Koreans believe that the Chinese will just move in and take over if it appears that the North Korean government is about to fall apart or otherwise becoming too dangerous to China. The Chinese takeover plan apparently includes installing pro-Chinese North Koreans as head of a new "North Korean" government, and instituting the kind of economic reforms they have been urging the North Korean to undertake for over a decade.
The Chinese do not want North Korea to merge with South Korea, nor do they want North Korea to collapse economically and politically because that would send millions of desperate and starving refugees into northern China. All the neighbors (especially China and South Korea) want North Korea to stay independent, and harmless. Thus China is willing to unofficially annex North Korea, knowing that the South Koreans would go along with this as long as the fiction of North Korean independence was maintained. South Korea won't admit this, but most South Koreans know that absorbing North Korea would put a big dent in South Korean living standards. That is more unpopular than any other outcome. While all Koreans would like a united Korea, far fewer are willing to pay the price. China is keeping its diplomatic channels with North Korea open and active as they know that the recent nuclear test was not as successful economically and diplomatically as Kim Jong Un had hoped. China is trying to that unease in the nuclear armed north.
September 29, 2016: For the second time since 2012 a North Korean soldier defected by making his way across the DMZ without being detected and fired on and avoiding the landmines). The unarmed soldier walked across an eastern portion of the DMZ in daylight. He was unarmed when he walked up to a South Korean outpost and asked for asylum. This last happened in June 2015 and under similar circumstances. These last two episodes were less embarrassing than the 2012 incident. Back then a North Korean soldier stationed 50 kilometers from the DMZ fled to the south by crossing the DMZ and asking for asylum. What the initial news reports did not mention (because the government kept it a secret for a while) was that the defecting soldier had crossed the DMZ undetected and then entered a military camp just before midnight and had to pound on doors in two buildings until he found someone to surrender to. The government ordered an investigation of how the security along the DMZ was run. There was another investigation in 2015, on both sides of the border. Yet South Korean intelligence warns that there will be more such defections. Reports from North Korea indicate that morale is plunging in the armed forces and the government is imposing more punishments (often physical) on any real or perceived “insubordination.”
Further south a Chinese fishing trawler caught fire off the southwest coast after it was caught illegally fishing and when ordered to stop by a South Korean patrol boat. The trawler tried to run for international waters and apparently radioed for help from the Chinese military. The South Korean patrol boat launched a speedboat with a boarding party which caught up with the trawler. South Korea police climbed aboard and found the Chinese crew of 17 had locked themselves up in their work spaces. The police headed for the wheelhouse and tried to get in by first breaking a window and tossing in two flash-bang grenades to incapacitate the Chinese inside. That worked but the grenades started a fire which quickly spread, producing lots of smoke. The patrol boat soon caught up and sent in sailors with firefighting gear to put out the fire. Three of the Chinese crew had locked themselves in the engine room and were found to have died from smoke inhalation. The Chinese crew were apparently under orders to stay locked in until help arrived. The other 14 Chinese sailors were jailed until the situation could be resolved (usually by China paying a large fine).
September 26, 2016: The U.S. revealed an indictment of four Chinese executives with DHD (Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Company) a major Chinese trading company. DHD and its managers are being prosecuted for illegally providing front companies and other cover so North Korea can evade banking sanctions. China had earlier announced it was investigating DHD for corruption and criminal activity and let it be known they preferred to handle the DHD situation themselves. The Chinese were serious about this because they had taken the unprecedented step of preventing a large number of North Korean trade officials and businessmen operating in China from leaving the country, especially back to North Korea. The U.S. broke precedent in going after DHD executives and said it was investigating more Chinese firms for similar illegal activities. China protested this, not so much because it wants to ease the sanctions on North Korea but because China is trying to curb the corruption that is crippling the Chinese economy. China insists on strictly controlling publication of details of this corrupt activity, apparently because many of those involved are members of the Chinese Communist Party. China is especially hostile to American efforts to collect enough evidence to indict Chinese government officials. As potentially hazardous North Korean missiles and nukes are to China, damaging the reputation of the Chinese leadership is considered more of a threat.
September 19, 2016: China announced improved cooperation with the United States to eliminate the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Left unsaid is that the U.S. and China have unresolved differences over how to go about this.
September 18, 2016: Japanese and South Korean officials met at the UN and agreed to implement an intelligence sharing agreement that was proposed in 2012 but blocked by huge popular opposition in South Korea. Since the latest North Korean nuclear bomb test, popular attitudes have changed in South Korea. Until 2014 South Korea turned down all 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. Yet Japan continues to ignore the fact that its post-World War II policy (documented in decrypted Japanese diplomatic messages sent out right after the Japanese surrender in August 15, 1945) of claiming to be a victim in World War II and guilty only of trying to liberate all Asians from Western oppression is the obstacle. That “Japan as victim” view was never very popular with Japan’s neighbors, who saw Japan as no better (and often a lot worse) than Western imperialists. To the countries of East Asia Japan compounds these historical sins by continuing to insist that Japan is innocent of any wrongdoing. This made it difficult to unite to deal with threats from North Korea and China, but eventually both Japanese and South Koreans agreed to cooperate to protect their common interests.
September 15, 2016: Russia announced that it would back additional sanctions on North Korea if that would end the North Korean nuclear program. The next day there was a large brawl between North Korean and Russian workers at a shipyard in Vladivostok (the largest Russian city on the Pacific coast). Someone took a video of the incident and posted it on the Internet. Since 2014 Russia has been reporting growing problems with the nearly 50,000 North Koreans working in Russia. This is mostly in parts of Russia near the North Korean border, where there is a shortage of Russians for jobs in factories, construction and lumbering operations. Apparently some of the employers are not treating their North Korean workers well and a growing number of the North Koreans are running away, despite the fact that this means family members back in North Korea will be punished. The legal North Korea migrants are part of what amounts to a slave labor program that has become a major (up to $2 billion a year) source of foreign exchange for North Korea. The export of North Korean workers has gone from 60,000 men and women in 2014 to over 100,000 in 2015. The number of workers outside the country is nearly triple what it was before since Kim Jong Un took over in 2011. The government takes up to 90 percent of the wages these men and women earn outside the country (mainly in Russia and China) and holds the workers’ families hostage in case the worker does not return home when ordered. If someone does not come back, their families are sent to prison camps.
September 14, 2016: As part of a joint training exercise two American B-1B bombers flew low over South Korea. North Korea said it would not be intimidated but it was. These bombers were designed to penetrate air defenses similar to what North Korea has. The B-1B has a scary reputation in North Korea. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq the B-1B flew only five percent of the sorties yet delivered 40 percent of the bombs. The 216 ton aircraft can carry 34 tons of bombs in its three bomb bays. It's a 1970s design that entered service just as the Cold War, which it was designed for, ended. B-1B has since been upgraded and can use all the latest smart bombs. The B-1B also has the Sniper targeting pod which it has used in combat. These pods enable the aircraft crew to see, in great detail, what's happening on the ground, even when the aircraft is flying at 6.8 kilometers (20,000 feet) altitude. For example, the pod users can tell if someone down there is dressed as a man or a woman or is carrying a weapon or where exactly the entrance to a North Korean underground bunker is.
September 9, 2016: China promptly condemned today’s North Korean nuclear test in and threatened unspecified retaliation. This was the second nuclear test this year. This was the fifth such test and this bomb was the most powerful yet (10-20 kilotons). The first two tests were failures but since then the bombs appear to work. Both 2016 nukes appeared to be the same design as the 2013 one. So there appears to be a stable design.