Ever since the North Korean economic collapse in the 1990s (and a famine that killed over five percent of the population) China has been trying to avoid a collapse of the North Korean government, something that suddenly became a possibility in the 1990s. It was between 1989 and 1991 that all the communist governments of East Europe suddenly (at least to believers in communism) collapsed, including the Soviet Union in 1991. That led to the disintegration of the Russian empire and an end to four decades of generous economic aid to North Korea (and Cuba). Both these long-time Soviet clients were never the same after 1991 but North Korea is a major concern for China.
For over 500 years Koreans have tried to establish and sustain a “united Korea.” But with aggressive and powerful neighbors like China, Japan and, for the last few centuries Russia, it has been a struggle. But there have been periods when all of modern Koreas, and sometimes a bit more, were ruled by Korean aristocrats. The Koreans have proved to be tough and persistent despite their stronger and sort tempered constantly coming in and destroying Korean unity. Their last unified Korea state lasted 13 years and disappeared in 1910 in the aftermath of a war between Japan and Russia which Japan won. Japanese rule was harsh and lasted until 1945 when Korea was again divided because Russia would not comply with a post-World War II agreement to remove the Japanese occupation forces and then leave. The United States did so but the Russians refused and created the current North Korean police state and equipped it lavishly with orders to invade and take over South Korea in 1950. The UN responded with uncharacteristic unity and resolve and authorized a UN force to deal with the situation. Russia then persuaded the newly established communist government of China to invade and rescue the North Koreans from certain defeat three months after the invasion. Russia was technically not involved because Russia and the U.S. were the only ones with nuclear weapons and Russia knew it would come out second best in any nuclear war with the United States because the Russian nuclear arsenal was more propaganda than reality. The secret deal Russia used to end the fighting was that they would continue financing a North Korean communist government and compensate communist China for its sacrifices in North Korea (where over half a million Chinese died).
Aside from the communism angle both Russia and China knew that a “united Korea” included parts of the Russian Far East and northeast China, areas where there were, and still are, significant ethnic Korean populations. Russia (as the Soviet Union) faithfully kept promises to North Korea but China felt it had been played by Russia and the two countries almost went to war with each other in the 1970s. China still considers Russia a longer-term problem (China has ancient claims on most of what is now the Russian Far East) but sees another mess in Korea as a more immediate problem. If the North Korean government collapses China takes it as a given that they will have to go in and maintain North Korea in order to avoid another united Korea with democracy and powerful allies in the West. While this is something most Koreans would prefer it is something China is willing to go to war over, or at least make some serious moves in that direction.
The new Korean threat to China goes beyond a united Korea. Even divided Korea has become a threat. The aggressive and heavily armed North Korea openly threatens China. This is especially real if North Korea has nukes and ballistic missiles to deliver them. North Korea shows no signs of halting its efforts to develop a reliable nuclear weapon and a reliable ballistic missile to carry it. This, North Korea leaders believe, will solve their economic and political problems. So far in 2017 there have been eight ballistic missiles tests and preparations for another underground nuclear test. In 2016 there were 24 ballistic missiles tests and two nuclear tests. The first nuclear test occurred in 2013 and despite the fact that the test was not a complete success, the nuclear bomb program continued and the sixth nuclear test up there seems imminent.
The most recent ballistic missile incident was today, but it appears to have been an elderly SCUD type missile with long enough range (450 kilometers) to land close to Japan and thus make some headlines for the North Korean propaganda bureaucrats to use (because the missile annoyed Japan). These missile are nothing new and thus not a demonstration of any new tech. But they are useful to annoy the neighbors and this is the second time North Korea has fired a missile than landed this close to Japan.
The reaction has not been what North Korea expected and actually achieving the objective (a reliable nuke in a reliable missile) is not likely to work out the way the northerners hoped. One ray of hope is Russia, which is less concerned about a nuclear North Korea and willing to continue trading and so far this year North Korean exports to Russia and imports from Russia have increased. The problem is that Russia less to offer North Korea and is having economic problems of its own. Moreover Russia is also dependent on China and cannot afford to annoy the Chinese too much.
For China South Korea is also a military threat, given it more modern armed forces and defense industries that are even more advanced than anything China has. South Korea also has Western allies and recently installed an American THAAD anti-missile system that is there to protect South Korea from North Korean attack but has also proven to be a threat to China because THAAD can diminish Chinese missile effectiveness as well and gives South Korea a powerful radar system that enables the South Koreans to more carefully monitor aerial activity in North Korea and adjacent areas.
Treason In Paradise
What China pays the closest attention to is what is happening in North Korea, especially the ability of the current government there to stay in power. The news is not good. The system of local informants, long a staple of police states (and especially communist ones) is dying in North Korea (and China too) because of the corruption. Despite recently providing police phone numbers the secret police have discovered that too many of the local officials and police are corrupt and use threats or rewards to prevent informants from reporting illegal acts. The government is too broke to offer informants any incentive to report crime and sometimes reporting illegal acts gets the informant investigated by police for possible complicity or those who were informed on exact revenge.
Back in 2014 the secret police found that incentives still worked when they tried something new to scare the key few percent of the population (who control the rest) away from these poisonous foreign (mainly South Korean) media influences. The secret police have been identifying the more loyal members of the ruling class (especially students) and recruiting them as informants. Now 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. Those who succeeded in their mission were noted as loyal and effective candidates for key positions in the government. An incentive was required because arrests were made (meaning careers and lifestyles ruined) and that created even more fear among the ruling class. Interestingly the members of the few hundred most senior families are exempt from punishment and most spying.
The government knows which policies are unpopular and counterproductive. The Kim dynasty survived by adapting and in these cases the government will back off. This is often not a solution to a problem but at least prevents the problem from getting worse. An example is the disappearance of public trials and executions. These had long proved effective in terrorizing North Koreans into submission but other the last few years it was noted that such traditional methods were making people angrier and more willing to leave the country or engage in other anti-government activity. So in mid-2016 there were suddenly fewer public punishments. That included no more public executions (usually by firing squad) for major non-political crimes (like murder). The executions still take place, just not where anyone can see it. By the end of the year this became official policy and so far in 2017 it has worked. But that just means anti-government attitudes are growing at a slower rate. The fact is, many North Koreans, even in the senior leadership, see major changes coming. No one in North Korea or China is sure what the changes will be but the growing number of North Koreans in northeast China (legally or illegally) and Chinese in North Korea (on business) report increased anger (at their own government) among North Koreans and despair because nothing the government does to fix the economic mess seems to work. Even the most loyal members of the secret police are dismayed at the degree to which most North Koreans, especially those born after 1990s, no longer believe in the Kim dynasty or the North Korean form of government.
Another disturbing development is that recently anyone who is able to has been hoarding oil and other petroleum products in the expectation that because North Korea is extremely vulnerable to China halting all oil exports, China will take measures to reduce the supply still further. China is the only source of petroleum for North Korea and China has already cut the tonnage over the last year but is reluctant to halt all shipments. Further reducing the amount of oil getting into North Korea risks triggering the total economic and government collapse there. Despite trying to adapt some oil is necessary to keep the Kim dictatorship going. For example, North Korea has, for over a decade, been converting thousands of trucks to run on coal gas. This sort of thing was popular in Japan and Germany during World War II because of oil shortages but largely disappeared after 1945. In North Korea these coal powered trucks are an increasingly common sight. But coal gas is half as efficient as petroleum fuels, and vehicles using it are slower, have less range and require more maintenance. Thus coal gas is not suitable for most police and military vehicles or combat operations. The sluggish and smoky coal powered trucks remind North Korean that their government is a failure and the enemy of the people.
Another disturbing bit of gossip (often accompanied by recent cell phone photos) are obviously ill-fed soldiers doing farm work for this year’s crops. North Korean soldiers have long grown some crops on or adjacent to bases as well as raising animals (pigs, chickens, cattle). Commanders also began to offer troops for rent as farm or factory labor. The troops sent on these jobs were usually better fed and better paying “outside work” is something of a reward for loyal and useful troops. But those extra meals are no longer as frequent or as filling as in the past. These soldiers report that corruption among officers and senior Defense Ministry officials is growing and less food, fuel, medicine and spare parts (to keep vehicles and weapons operational) is reaching the troops. A growing number of officials are making as much money as they can to finance getting themselves and their families out of North Korea. So this year the rented soldiers are visibly very hungry.
Also note that getting caught with cell phone photos of soldiers in general, and emaciated ones in particular, can get you in big trouble (either a huge bribe to get free or severe punishment). But if you can get such photos to a data broker up in China the payoff can be substantial. These brokers sell (sometimes via auction) photos and documents from North Korea to foreign publications and intelligence agencies. As long as the Chinese government gets a free (or very cut rate) peak the brokers are left alone. The photos and documents have proven to be a reliable source about what’s really going on in North Korea and one recent item describes the optimism among North Korean leaders that the newly elected South Korean president would be more willing to pay tribute to the north. These payments became essential in the 1990s as Russia withdrew its generous subsidies. In the 1990s aid from South Korea grew from a few hundred million dollars a year to nearly a billion a year early in the 21st century. Then North Korea overplayed its hand with the 2010 military attacks on South Korea and the aid fell back to record lows (less than $100 million a year) and the North Korean government would like to fix that largely self-inflicted (by inept North Korean diplomacy) problem. Alas, in the past North Korea has proved incapable of making obvious adaptations that cost little and provide much. At this point the need for additional cash by the North Korean government is extreme. Lower level officials, given orders to maintain or increase payments of cash or goods to the national government (or else) are raising local taxes and fees. While most of this additional (and technically illegal) income goes to the national government, a growing amount goes into the emergency fund more local and provincial officials are maintaining for the harder times ahead.
May 28, 2017: In a rare move the U.S. Navy has ordered a third carrier task force to head for Korea. The Americans only concentrate this much naval power when there is a major crisis.
May 27, 2017: North Korea declared that its locally developed KN-06 air defense system had passed its final test and was entering mass production. First displayed publicly in a 2010 parade KN-06 is believed to be an attempt to clone the Chinese FT-2000 (which is a clone of the Russian S300). China may have quietly provided some data on KN-06 recently along with other intel on the capabilities of North Korean air defenses. It appears that no one has actually seen any successful tests of the KN-06 system or if they have they are keeping quiet about it. In terms of technical and manufacturing resources it is highly unlikely that North Korea has successfully closed the Chinese FT-2000 and even if they had all the tech given to them (along with equipment samples) North Korea has demonstrated no capability to manufacture it in any quantity. The recent North Korean KN-06 announcements are seen (by South Koreans and Chinese) as a response to recent South Korean comments describing and disparaging the capabilities of North Korean air defenses. This was a side effect of South Korea recently starting production of its new KM-SAM (Iron Hawk) surface-to-air missile systems. The first batteries will enter service in 2018. KM-SAM is what North Korea implied they had with KN-06 but KM-SAM is real, developed and manufactured in South Korea and has numerous successful tests to its credit. News like this spreads quickly to North Korea these days and North Korea will often respond with some bizarre (t0 knowledgeable outsiders) claim that is mainly intended for the shrinking number of North Koreans who support their government.
May 24, 2017: The U.S. is moving five Global Hawk UAVs from their base in Guam to one in Japan. This will make it easier for these high flying, long-endurance surveillance aircraft to continually monitor China and North Korea. Global Hawks began operating out of Japanese bases in 2014 on a temporary basis when two arrived. Since then there have been calls from Japan and South Korea to have Global Hawks spend more time off North Korea and China and the best way to do that is to base them in Japanese. That is most easily done by moving them, and their support personnel (about 400 airmen) to Japan and eliminate all the commute time flying from Guam. Meanwhile Japan has three Global Hawks on order.
May 18, 2017: Russia and North Korea officially opened a new weekly ferry service between North Korea and Vladivostok, the major Russian port on the Pacific coast. A 1,500 North Korean ship will be used, a vessel that carries 193 passengers plus cargo. China and the West fear that Russia is taking over the lucrative North Korean smuggling operations that long went through China and made a lot of money for Chinese businesses and officials willing to take a bribe. China has cracked down on all trade with North Korea this year, especially the long-tolerated smuggling. Russia and North Korea are doing a lot more legal trade now that China has enforced the UN sanctions. Chinese imports from North Korea hit a record low (under $100 million) in April but Chinese exports to North Korea were three times that and North Korea has to pay for it using foreign currency. That means North Korea has to increase their illegal trade, which is where Russia comes in. The problem is that the Russian economy cannot deliver the quality and diversity of items North Korea regularly gets from China.
May 14, 2017: North Korea conducted another ballistic missile test, this time launching what it described as a Hwasong-12 (KN-17) IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) in its first successful test. The last test, at the end of April, failed. KN-17 is a single stage SCUD type (liquid fuel) ballistic missile that has long been in development. It is used on a tracked mobile launcher and is rumored to have a warhead with a guidance system capable of hitting a large, moving ship (like an aircraft carrier) at sea. In theory the KN-17 could have a max range of over 4,000 kilometers but this test only took the missile out to about 780 kilometers.
Chinese media (including official Communist Party outlets) openly mock North Korea missile technology. Nukes are another matter. South Korea later revealed that its new THAAD radar system has spotted and tracked the launch of the KN-17. The U.S. has said THAAD was built to intercept something like KN-17. South Korea mentioned this use of THAAD to send a message to China, which continues to apply economic and diplomatic pressure on South Korea to get rid of THAAD. But now that THAAD is operational in South Korea and North Korea continues to launch missiles and make threats, South Korea will not back any politician seeking to expel THAAD (which South Korea paid for).
May 13, 2017: Chinese government controlled mass media featured stories about new combat UAVs and ballistic missiles with an emphasis on being able to destroy large enemy warships and evade defenses. That means the main target is the U.S. Navy. This media effort included mention of a jet powered UAV similar to the American Sea Avenger and a DF-26 ballistic missile that can find and hit large warships over a thousand kilometers away. Neither of these systems is known to work, even though the carrier-killer ballistic missile has been under development for over a decade. This sort of media offensive is usually aimed at American efforts to dispute Chinese claims in the South China Sea. But this time it’s mainly about American naval forces headed for Korea and the implied threat to North Korea and its nuclear program. It’s also about the South Korea anti-missile systems, which the new Chinese systems were described being able to defeat. China is sending a message to the new South Korean president that took power today. Since 2010 (when North Korea actually attacked South Korea but tried to deny it) South Korean leaders have been less willing to follow the Chinese lead on North Korea and demanded that North Korea back off on its nuclear and other military threats to South Korea. China prefers both Koreas do what China wants and for South Korea this means no anti-ballistic missile systems. The new South Korean leader is believed to be less hardline and has agreed to meet with Chinese leaders to discuss the North Korean threat, and whatever else China is concerned about.
May 12, 2017: North Korea appears to be the source of WannaCry, a major international hacking effort. Internet security firms and intel agencies have been scrutinizing WannaCry in detail. The computer code and other evidence indicated that this attack was the work of North Korean government hackers. This is not surprising but the way WannaCry performed does not make sense if the North Korea professional hackers were involved. The North Koreans do it mainly for the money because North Korea is broke. It did not make any sense for North Korea to unleash Wannacry because most of the victims were in the few countries (China and Russia) that still supported North Korea. These two countries were hard hit because both depend heavily on illegal copies of Windows and other software. Most users of the illegal Windows software don’t bother to pay for security and other software updates provided by other hackers who supply these updates for a fee. Microsoft will not upgrade illegal copies of its software. Worse, even though Microsoft regularly releases free updates via the Internet many users do not immediately apply those updates (because updates sometimes break something else). If this was the work of North Koreans it might be rogue North Korean hackers operating outside North Korea. These lads got in over their heads, which they may quietly have removed by North Korea or China if the culprits are caught.
May 11, 2017: A Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber flew south from a base north of Korea until it got close enough to South Korea to cause two South Korean F-16s to come and investigate. The Su-24 came near (about 150 kilometers away) to an American carrier task force training with South Korean and Japanese warships nearby. Aircraft incursions like this are on the rise in this region. Japan is the most common target and nearly all from China and Russia. These incursions near Japanese airspace hit record highs in 2016.
May 10, 2017: Russia accused the United States of intimidating North Korea and thus being responsible for a lot of the erratic and threatening behavior from North Korea. Russia suggests that the Americans should negotiate with North Korea and try being nice. After the Cold War ended it was confirmed that it was Russia, not China that was responsible for putting the Kim dynasty in charge of North Korea and ordered the invasion of South Korea in 1950. Now Russia is concerned about the threat from North Korea and recently announced that air defenses (interceptors and missile systems) were being increased near the North Korean coast. This decision was prompted by the most recent North Korean ballistic missile test, where the missile went north and landed off the Russian coast. That stance is for the public, in reality Russia is trading more with North Korea and charging premium rates.
May 7, 2017: Japan is changing its laws to make it easier to donate retired military equipment to other countries. One of the first neighbors to benefit from this is Malaysia which is interested in receiving some of the used, but well maintained and modernized P-3C maritime patrol aircraft Japan is retiring (and replacing with a more modern aircraft). Japan and South Korea have been joining the United States in making these donations to local allies. The U.S. has been doing this for decades. China is doing the same but recipient nations prefer the higher quality Western tech that Japan and South Korea are passing out. Both nations have a reputation for creating world-class tech, both commercial and military.
May 4, 2017: American and South Korean intel analysts openly stated that they believe North Korean air defenses are largely obsolete and vulnerable. Most of the North Korean air defenses are Cold War era systems.