Up north, the government, alarmed at the growing number people fleeing the country has apparently given the secret police permission to go after the families of any “defector” (illegal migrant) and seize their assets and use hidden assets (like cash or other valuables hidden away) as proof of criminal behavior. The secret police can keep a portion of the seized assets while the rest goes to the state. Many of the new entrepreneur families use savings to send family members to China or South Korea one at a time. Once established and sending back money (also illegal) the family will send more kin out. This approach has become more prevalent and the secret police have been unable to stop it. Now local authorities are being audited by the secret police to see who has paid a bribe to make sure their prolonged and unexplained absence was not reported as “suspected defector”. This new police efforts not only discourages fleeing North Korean rule but also improves secret police morale and discourages the growing number of establishment families (who run the government and military) from making plans to flee together (as a family), as a growing number have done.
It’s not just people illegally leaving the country and never coming back, it’s also the growing number of North Koreans legally working outside the country who are “defecting”. This is a growing economic problem for the government. Apparently some of the foreign 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 (a death sentence if you are too young or too old).
Tales of Despair And Paranoia
Since 2015 there have been three successful defections of North Korean diplomats to South Korea. There they join a growing number of North Korean officials who have gotten out via a passport they were given so they could work in Chins. Most of these officials are now allowed, or even encouraged (but apparently never forced) to appear on local or international media and discuss what life was like for them in North Korea and why they left. The most recent of these defectors report that most senior officials and bureaucrats agree that the Kim Jong Un government is a failure and that collapse is inevitable. The question is how long the North Korean ruler can scrounge up enough resources to keep the security forces loyal and functional. The loss of most support from China is apparently what made the situation move from “difficult” to hopeless. As a result of that Kim Jong Un is desperate to convince the world that he has functional nukes and the senior defectors believe Kim would use a nuke against the United States if he felt he was losing control. Few of the senior officials who escaped have much detailed knowledge of the nuclear and missile programs. They can confirm that the thousands of people who work on those projects are well taken care of, and tightly guarded. Nukes and missiles get priority on imports, especially the illegal ones that have to be smuggled in at great (and increasing) expense. Foreign experts believe North Korean nuclear and missile tech is still primitive and unreliable and more bluff than reality.
An Offer You Cannot Refuse
The North Korean government is also increasingly ignoring laws that prohibit the new entrepreneurs (donju) from taking over more sectors of the economy from less efficient state owned organizations. As long as these donju moves make more money, especially foreign currency, for the government they are left alone. But the laws prohibiting private control of these state owned firms remain on the books, as a reminder that failure to deliver the cash is not an option. This is a dangerous business because not only do donju have to deal with the usual difficulties of establishing (or reviving) and running a new enterprise but have to worry about interference from government officials. This interference is often an effort to extort a bribe and the donju are having a hard time convincing the most senior government officials that this corruption makes it difficult and often impossible for the donju to obtain the cash the government so desperately needs. This is why many donju families are making plans to flee. While that is a dangerous act, sometimes staying and trying to deal with deluded, greedy and corrupt officials appears even more risky. Even non-donju families are feeling this because while the donju run operations provide jobs these pay as little as possible. After all the donju are competing (for workers) with the government who these days has fewer jobs and many of them pay starvation (literally) wages. Paying higher wages is often not an option because the donju market answers to what the government wants which is always more money, usually in the form of “fees” and “donations” to the government as well as bribes to officials who cannot be ignored.
The extent of corruption in North Korea is recognized worldwide. The 2016 international corruption ratings reveal that North Korea continues to occupy a position at the bottom (174 out of 176 nations rated). Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea and/or Somalia) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (usually Denmark) is often 90 or higher. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. The current North Korean score is 12 compared to 40 for China, 53 for South Korea, 29 for Russia, 72 for Japan and 74 for the United States. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. South Korea ranks 52 out of 176 nations rated.
January 25, 2017: China has officially banned the export of “dual use” items to North Korea. It’s a long list because it is not just items that could be used for nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles, but for any military use at all. For several years now China has come under increasing international criticism for allowing its manufacturers to export “dual use” vehicles to North Korea when it is clear that North Korea wants them only for military purposes. This has been going on for decades but became big news in 2012 when a North Korea parade featured a 16 wheel TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher) carrying what appeared to be a three stage ballistic missile. A TEL is an unusual vehicle, specially built to carry, then erect and survive launch of a ballistic missile. The North Korean TEL was unlike any seen in the north before, but the cab was similar to a Chinese heavy transporter. A Chinese truck manufacturer soon admitted that they had sold North Korea the vehicle, but that is was not a TEL, unless the North Koreans turned it into one. The truck was designed to haul non-military cargo but, as is the case with many "dual-use" technologies, can easily be adapted to military use. The Chinese manufacturer added that the truck in question was an excellent vehicle and there were many satisfied users. Large trucks modified to be TELs are often not real TELs. There are a lot of manufacturers out there who build huge (12-20 wheel) trucks, and these are often used to carry military equipment (like 60 ton tanks). A 12-50 ton ballistic missile is no problem, but installing the hydraulic gear and controls to erect the missile to a vertical position is tricky. Even more difficult is hardening the rear of the vehicle to minimize the damage from the rocket exhaust. This last bit can be dropped if you only expect to use these TELs once for a live fire. The 16 wheel North Korea TEL may have been one of those "use once and abandon the trailer" models. The Chinese truck being used as a TEL was not the only new Chinese truck to show up in North Korea. Earlier in 2012 cell phone photos appeared of Chinese made jeeps being shipped (by rail) into North Korea. These were apparently to be part of the distribution (of gifts) for the April 15th celebrations. The thousand or so jeeps were gifts from new leader Kim Jong Un to select military officers. In the 12 months before this revelation China had sold (or given) North Korea some 4,000 military trucks. These were not sold as military equipment, but as trucks that were often seen being shipped across the border already painted in the colors of the North Korean Army. The dual use problem became newsworthy again in in 2015 when North Korea showed off its new guided (by a GPS type system) 300mm rockets and the launcher vehicle was later identified as a Chinese ZZ2257M5857A 6x6 vehicle built for civilian or military use. More disturbing is the fact that the new North Korean guided rockets were using technology that could also have been Chinese, as the Chinese introduced such a large guided rocket system in 2010.
There are other North Korean “dual use” scams that are still untouchable. One recently made the news in South Korea when it was revealed that Chinese police had arrested a team of North Korean hackers (12 programmers, one supervisor and the secret police official in charge of preventing this) heading for an unnamed foreign embassy to defect. That defection was apparently going to include the exposure of details of one of the many illegal software operations North Korea staffs and runs in China and a few other Asian countries. This team of hackers created and maintained an illegal gambling site for Chinese gangsters. Most of the money these hackers earned went to the North Korean government. Such operations survive in China with the aid of local officials (including police) who accept bribes and leave the North Koreans alone. The fourteen men are apparently being sent back to North Korea, where they will be executed and their families sent to prison (slave labor) camps.
January 20, 2017: THAAD news. Two months after China banned all legal (licensed) use of South Korean movies, TV shows and popular music inside China it has expanded the list of banned imports to include popular consumer items like air purifiers and heated toilet seats. The bans began with the aspects of South Korean culture were most in China and very lucrative for the South Korean firms that produce them. It’s also a point of pride for South Koreans in general that Chinese admire, and pay for, a very public aspect of Korean culture. This came after China suspended discussions on joint defense matters in early November 2016 because that did not persuade South Korea to halt its efforts to defend against ballistic missiles. Chinese efforts to coerce South Korea to abandon plans to install American THAAD anti-missile system are not working. Because of continued North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile development South Korea now plans to have THAAD operational in 2017, several years earlier than originally planned. China, Russia and North Korea have long opposed THAAD. South Korea wants THAAD for protection from North Korean missile attack and always resisted Chinese objections, even when China hinted that failure to drop THAAD might result in less trade with China. That was a signal to South Korean voters to carefully consider the cost of defying China. That did not work and now China is going through a long list of minor punishments it can apply in an effort to get South Korea to comply. China will not come right out and say it but they object mainly because THAAD would also make South Korea less vulnerable to intimidation by Chinese ballistic missiles. South Korean voters understand that so all the threats are having less impact than China expected. It’s Chinese consumers who suffer and given the degree of air pollution in Chinese cities this latest ban will be something to choke on. In northern China, where the Winters are very cold, the loss of South Korean heated toilet seats will be felt on a daily basis until April or May. Russia also opposes the South Korean anti-missile defenses but that matters little to South Korea because Russia is much less of an economic partner and not nearly as much of a military threat as China.
January 16, 2017: Japan and Australia approved a military cooperation agreement in which both nations share information about the military threats arising from China and North Korea.
January 12, 2017: A highly classified 2013 North Korean army assessment of morale and discipline of troops stationed near the capital surfaced in South Korea. It confirmed other tales of declining morale and discipline in the North Korean military. This report gave some rarely heard details, like the anti-government pamphlets being distributed in the base and the inability to halt the growing theft of valuable equipment (computers, radios, any electronics) from military bases. This stuff is very valuable on the black market and the bases around the capital are better equipped than elsewhere in the country. The troops in these units are also taken care of (food, heat, electricity) but at the same time the troops tend to be the sons of wealthy or well-connected families. A large bribe is usually required to get your son assigned to one of these divisions. So the 2013 report was revealing about how bad the situation was inside the North Korean armed forces even when most of the troops belong to families who suffer least. This revelation came from one of the growing number of official documents getting out of North Korea, usually because the person risking their life to get it across the border has a data broker lined up in China to pay for such documents.
January 11, 2017: China (or maybe just some greedy Chinese officials) are accused of making a profit on UN sponsored foreign aid for North Korea that is sent via a Chinese port. China has begun barring some foreign aid from entering China and claiming they are simply enforcing the new sanctions. But the aid groups are then quietly informed that if they buy the aid (food, equipment, medicine) from Chinese firms it can be sent into North Korea.
January 10, 2017: In the Philippines Islamic terrorist group (Abu Sayyaf) released one of their foreign captives. a South Korea ship captain they had kidnapped last October. Apparently some ransom was paid, but a lot less than the $10 million demanded.
January 9, 2017: Ten Chinese warplanes (six of them bombers) entered South Korean air space near Suyan Rock (also called Jeju, Ieo or Ieodo Island). South Korea sent ten fighters up to intercept and the Chinese aircraft left. This sort of thing happened several times a month in 2016 but this was the first incident for 2017. Early in 2016 Chinese pilots would blame the intrusion on navigation error and leave but by the end of 2016 that bit of theatre was abandoned. China still sometimes denies that intrusions even happened and none of their aircraft violated anyone’s air space. Ieodo is actually a submerged (nearly five meters under water) rock in the East China Sea that is 150 kilometers from South Korea and 245 kilometers from China. In 1987, South Korea built a warning beacon on the rock, which is a navigation hazard to large ships. South Korea officially claimed Ieodo in 1951 and China officially challenged that claim in 1962. In 2006 the Chinese agreed not to challenge South Korean claims to Ieodo, which are supported by the international community. But in 2008 China renewed its challenge apparently as part of a more general campaign that included claims to all of the South China Sea and large chunks of India.
January 5, 2017: In December China deported thirty South Korean citizens from areas near the North Korean border. All those expelled were legal residents of China but were known (or suspected) of assisting North Koreans to escape into China.
January 4, 2017: South Korea entered 2017 without any foreign built warships in its navy because South Korea retired its last U.S. built warship at the end of 2016. The South Korean navy is now composed only of ships built in South Korea, a process that began in the late 1970s. This began with patrol boats and advanced to corvettes and frigates in the 1980s, amphibious ships, submarines and destroyers in the 1990s and after 2000 larger destroyers similar to the American Aegis destroyers. By the 1990s South Korea began to export warships to other Asian nations and that continues to expand.