Korea: The Devil Was In The Details


April 20, 2018: Four weeks after the rare visit to China by Kim Jong Un it appears that the talks with the Chinese leader cleared the way for North Korea to make peace with South Korea and the West in general. The meeting was at the request of Kim and China expressed satisfaction with the results. China apparently showed its approval by loosening up the sanctions a bit. A few hundred North Korea female workers were allowed back into China and there were a few other minor concessions. Apparently, China also relaxed its enforcement of sanctions when it came to sending all North Korea workers home. Everyone is optimistic and in the last week, North Korea announced that it was willing to give up its nukes and officially end the Korean War. All this was possible if South Korea and the West (especially the Americans) provided some immediate help for the broken economy in North Korea. The South Koreans and Americans indicated that was all possible. But the devil was in the details and those details were not known yet.

In the last few days, senior officials from South Korea and the United States met with their North Korean counterparts to work out details of the upcoming (April 27) meeting between the leaders of north and south Korea as well as the May meeting between the North Korean and American leader. Apparently, the north is ready to give up the nukes and allow verification. Meanwhile, North Korea announced changes in its government that appeared to prepare the North Korean people for some major changes (like an end to the Korean War and the North Korean nuclear weapons program). The North Koreans are asking for the Americans to pull their nukes out of South Korea and that does not appear to be a problem. The American nukes have been in South Korea since the late 1950s.

Historically North Korea has been difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate with. In the past they would renege on the few deals they appeared to make and always asked for more than could expect to get. This time it appears to be different. China is fed up. Even with the Chinese censorship of their Internet some public issues (corruption, pollution, North Korea) do break loose and it is possible to see what Chinese really think. North Korea is one of those “we are fed up” issues in China. The Chinese leader apparently told Kim Jong Un that China can solve its North Korea problem a lot more easily than they can the corruption and pollution problems in China. This is not a sudden development, the Chinese have been pressing North Korea for over a decade to change and that eventually escalated to the current “change or else” level. New leaders in South Korea and the United States are unwilling to tolerate any more North Korean unwillingness to make peace. The world agrees and the UN has approved the recent expansion of sanctions and these sanctions are so extensive and strictly enforced that they are having an unprecedented impact on North Korea.

The most advantageous move for North Korea is to give up the nukes in return for economic aid and at the same time institute more economic reforms inside North Korea. Because North Korea has often rejected the most advantageous moves in the past there is no guarantee that North Korea will do what is in its best interest this time. Yet it appears that the North Koreans are ready and willing to actually help themselves for once. Then again the Chinese may have pointed out that North Korea cannot feed itself without access to Chinese food supplies and that China has many friends in the North Korea bureaucracy and the North Korean leader knows that because he tried, and failed, to get rid of them. There were too many and often these pro-China officials had hidden their attitudes very well. China could replace the Kim government. It would be messy and expensive for China but it could be done. However, if North Korea had a lot of effective nuclear weapons (which they do not have yet) that could be an unacceptable threat to China. It also became clear to North Korea that for once the Americans, China and South Korea are all united in demanding some fundamental reforms in North Korea, or else. By the end of May, the meetings with South Korean and American leaders and Kim Jong Un will have taken place. A deal will have been agreed on, or not. If there is a deal it will require verification and that can be implemented quickly, as can the delivery of economic aid. So within two or three months, it will be clear if all this is a major change for North Korea or more of the same old mistakes. That in itself is progress of a sort.

Sex In Uniform

Several recent sex scandals in South Korea, where senior officials forced female subordinates to have sex (and were prosecuted for it) created interest in how that worked in North Korea, especially in the armed forces. About 30 percent of the personnel in the 1.2 million strong North Korean military are female. Most are in non-combat jobs and interviews with the many North Koreans who had made to South Korea revealed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse in the North Korean military. Technically, marriage, dating or sex is forbidden for enlisted personnel (who comprise some 80 percent of the force and are in for up to ten years) but senior (major and above) officers regularly take advantage of their rank to have sex with whoever they want. The women have no one to complain to unless there is a pregnancy. Some of these women commit suicide but when they do reveal the officer responsible he, at worst, is demoted or simply transferred. Less common is officers going after attractive young male soldiers. This rarely results in any punishment although it is generally looked down on. It is estimated that over half the female soldiers are subjected to some sexual abuse while in the North Korean military.

Border Blues

The secret police have special units on the border to seek out and punish any border guards who do not arrest (rather than demand higher bribes) from North Koreans who are using Chinese cell phones on the border to talk to the outside world. While most of these calls are business or family related, they tend to include gossip about life in North Korea. This is considered treason and the guilty must be found and severely punished (with a death sentence because it is considered treason). For civilians caught with illegal cell phones, the punishment (life in a labor camp) is imposed immediately without the formalities of a trial. The urgency of this task has been emphasized by a growing number of arrests and punishment of border guards who took bribes to let guilty cell phone users walk away. Some police get around this by arresting innocent people who have been caught before and torturing them for a confession. But for the moment a lot of bribe income is less available and security officials who were getting it are keeping their heads down. Another change is the appearance of younger secret police agents. Kim Jong Un has ordered that many of the older (over 50) agents be replaced with young men who recently graduated from colleges that select and train North Koreans to be trusted officials in the government. That usually meant starting at the bottom and working your way over a decade or two. Now Kim has ordered a change and is providing opportunities for younger men to get into key secret police jobs earlier. This is an extension of a program that saw the most senior leaders replaced with younger men, especially in the military.

Similar pressure has been applied away from the border to find and punish more North Koreans who have been watching South Korean videos (of TV shows, movies and even news programs). Bribes still work, but often will only reduce the punishment. This can be a lifesaver if someone is sentenced to a long term in a labor camp. So people hide these videos for the moment and watch the government approved TV, which is currently praising the efforts of leader Kim Jong Un to deal with enemies. Not just South Korea and the United States but also China. North Korea needs to control the news about this and that is being done with another nationwide effort to convince people that correct political thought is essential and criticism of socialism is not allowed. It is a little late for that because the belief that socialism has failed is widespread and decades of failed government efforts to prove otherwise are more convincing than another round of mandatory “loyalty lectures.” North Koreans still show their contempt for the government by acting like South Koreans. Over a decade of South Korean videos taught a generation of kids (and young adults) South Korean slang, speech patterns and even physical mannerisms. These are now used to show defiance and there is still the anti-government graffiti. But if you want to show your opposition to the government in a less risky fashion, just walk and talk like a South Korean if only for a few minutes. The secret police measure the spread of this sort of thing and Kim Jong Un sees the reports. They apparently had an impact.

While the government is intent on controlling news about upcoming meetings between Kim Jong Un with the South Korean president and, in May with the American president, it also wants to keep out the bad news about how disliked North Korea has become, especially in China. All it takes is a few photographs to make that point. One of the more popular photos shows the interior of one of the few high end North Korean restaurants in China. The picture shows the staff and nothing but empty tables. The usual Chinese customers are staying away and the reason is anti-North Korea sentiments.

This continued hostility, especially by younger North Koreans to the communist dictatorship, is a major concern of the Kim government because the one-on-one negotiations are apparently going to offer the end of the nuclear program in return for enough economic aid to preserve the current North Korean political system. That goal placates the North Korean ruling class (a few percent of the population) but is highly unpopular with everyone else in North Korea. Even the lower level (local) officials are feeling the pain. Many have obtained some luxuries (flat screen TV, refrigerator, even a car) but cannot enjoy these perks because of the growing electricity and fuel shortages. The negotiations with Kim Jong Un may come down to issues like how quickly can South Korea and the Americans deal with the power shortages.

Entrepreneurs Abide

After six months the latest (and most thorough) round of sanctions are having an impact in North Korea. Less obvious to the outside world is the increased effort to halt news of the outside world getting in and details of what is happening in North Korea from getting out. Most of the usual distributors of illegal South Korea and Chinese videos are no longer available. A few distributors were arrested and sent to a labor camp but the majority have simply taken the hint and switched to less dangerous black market items like food (staples and luxury items) as well as medical supplies. Efforts to catch those purveyors of essentials are much reduced as the government demands more control over information about the outside world. The smugglers were able to get the non-military goods in but the information crackdown was not a complete success and all it did was slow down the flow of information into and out of the country.

In North Korea, the new donju (entrepreneur class) are seen as a somewhat unruly but useful asset by the government. Even senior officials realize that if no one else can get something done, call on the donju and they will find a way. Thus the donju have taken the lead in creating new ways to get hard currency for the government. At the same time, the donju are already getting around the stricter border security. They do this by arranging to bribe border guards on both sides of the border in remote areas. The donju will also arrange for the goods to reach the Chinese border safely and have Chinese merchants on the other side ready to take or deliver the goods on time. The North Korean border guards get larger bribes because they can be executed if caught. But such is the reputation of the donju that the North Korean border guards will take the risk because of the donju tendency to get things done. This is reflected in how the donju carry out these smuggling operations mainly to move commercial goods, not drugs or anything the North Korean government would consider “treason” (like videos of South Korea TV shows and movies). Thus even if caught the donju can probably call in enough favors to escape heavy punishments. In this way the donju show themselves as resourceful while still being loyal North Koreans.

One way the donju prove this loyalty is by making some new government fund raising ideas work. For example, one innovative way to earn more foreign currency in spite of the latest round of sanctions involved some donju level creativity. Donju noticed the government was willing to adopt a more pragmatic attitude towards “defectors” that have established themselves in China, South Korea and the West. The government has long known that defectors often sent money back to family still in North Korea. This was accomplished via a network of smugglers who moved all sorts of forbidden goods in and out of North Korea. Now the government is allowing these remittances to get into North Korea legally, in return for a 20 percent fee. The government is also allowing reunions of defectors with their North Korean kin, for a price (over $100,000). There are people who will pay and the North Koreans see this as an excellent source of foreign currency. Implementing this was possible because many donju ran the older system.

April 19, 2018: North Korea announced that it would no longer insist that American troops leave South Korea as a precondition to any larger agreement.

April 18, 2018: In the United States it was revealed that the new American Secretary of State (previously the head of the CIA) made a secret trip to North Korea in early April to meet with Kim Jong Un and determine how far the North Koreans were willing to go in their negotiations. Kim apparently said everything was negotiable and for real this time. Other details of this meeting were not made public but the American Secretary of State knew details of what was going on in North Korea and could speak with authority to Kim on what the North Korean prospects were. Apparently, the results of this preliminary meeting were encouraging for the United States, especially after discussions were held with South Korean and Chinese officials. The Americans apparently found that North Korea was willing to officially end the Korean War and allow American troops to remain in South Korea as long as the American nukes were withdrawn as part of the “denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. That meant South Korea would promise to not develop nukes. The Americans are all for officially ending the Korean War, as that has been a goal for decades. The American president has also made it clear that he will simply walk away if his meeting with Kim Jong Un was being treated as another North Korean media stunt and not serious negotiations.

April 16, 2018: South Korean officials meeting regularly with their North Korean counterparts report that North Korea leaders were impressed with how the Americans and their European allies launched a missile attack on Syrian chemical warfare facilities and blew right past Russian and Iranian defenses. It was also noted that the Americans were abandoning the 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions on Iran in return for abandoning their nuclear and missile programs. The Iranians cheated, as far as the Americans are concerned, and that means the 2015 deal is history. The North Koreans take this as an example of how the Americans will deal with similar behavior on the part of North Korea.

April 11, 2018: In North Korea, the Supreme People’s Assembly (technically the legislature but it does as ordered) was told that government efforts were turning from nuclear weapons to improving the economy and the increasing the standard of living for all North Koreans. If North Korea decides to get rid of its nukes that decision will be “announced” in the Assembly as the “will of the people” (and approved by supreme leader Kim Jong Un). At the same time, there is some real and quite unpleasant “will of the people” being demonstrated at the local level. As economic conditions grow more desperate, especially in rural areas far from the affluent capital (and nearly as well off major cities) the people are responding. In these remote areas, local officials are making more frequent demands of “popular contributions” for government projects. These are supposed to be voluntary but they are not and often involve delivering a certain amount of food (usually rice) or other raw materials. But the hard pressed locals are more frequently openly refusing and demanding that the size of the “contributions” being greatly reduced. The officials know that in some parts of the country demanding officials, and even police, have been attacked and in a few cases murdered. So the local officials no longer feel invincible and have to measure the degree of anger among the locals before making demands, or deciding to reduce demands. All this is helped by the government advising local officials to put more emphasis on keeping things peaceful. The government knows that, despite all the efforts to keep the news from getting in or out of the country, when there is a particularly nasty bit of popular unrest, it tends to get out of the country, often accompanied by cell phone pictures or video.

Officials from China, South Korea and Japan agreed to meet in May to discuss denuclearization.

April 10, 2018: China has quietly released 30 North Koreans who had illegally left North Korea. In the past, China would return these “defectors” to North Korea for punishment.

April 9, 2018: For the first time Kim Jong Un publically confirmed his meeting with the American president in May.

April 8, 2018: China has officially banned the export of 32 specific dual-use items to North Korea.

April 2, 2018: A South Korean destroyer has been sent to the west coast of Africa as part of anti-piracy operations. This is prompted by the kidnapping of three South Korea seamen from a ship off the coast of Ghana on March 26th.

April 1, 2018: In North Korea Kim Jong Un attended a concert featuring eleven K-Pop (South Korean pop music) groups. The concert was held in the capital and it was filmed. The next day portions of the concert were featured on North Korean TV, including Kim Jong Un standing with members of the K-Pop groups. Kim is known to be a fan of K-Pop and he is clearly showing that North Koreans can have K-Pop but only if they obtain it legally. Hard to say if North Koreans got the message.

A senior Chinese diplomat visited South Korea, apparently to deliver news of the recent meeting between the North Korean and Chinese leaders. China has to approve any deals between the two Koreas and this visit was to clarify what China will allow in the future. This is not required by any international agreement but simply due to the fact that China could disrupt any deal, it does not approve of. This was apparently one reason for the March 25 visit of Kim Jong Un to China. The behavior of North Korea over the last few years has been annoying for China and this new North Korean effort to arrange one-on-one meets with other leaders made China look bad and the Chinese wanted to make the best they could of the situation.

March 25, 2018: North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un arrived in the Chinese capital. He traveled aboard his personal armored train. This was the first time Kim has traveled outside North Korea since inheriting power in 2011. Pictures of the unique train soon appeared on the Internet but there was no official confirmation until three days later when the visit ended with an official announcement. Apparently, Kim was summoned to China and told by Xi Jinping for a discussion about the relationship between the two countries. North Korea is seeking to obtain a renewal of the Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty between the two countries which obliges China to come to the aid of North Korea if North Korea is attacked. In 2017 China told Kim that China would not automatically help North Korea if North Korea launched an attack on South Korea or the U.S. and then was hit by retaliatory attacks. Kim was also reminded that the Mutual Aid treaty is due to expire in 2021 and renewal is not automatic. The meeting between Xi and Kim ended without any dramatic announcement about what exactly was accomplished but the official rumor was that Kim was told to drop his nuclear weapons program and get what he could get from South Korea and the Americans in return. Kim and his wife returned with about $400,000 worth of gifts from the Chinese, including some items that, according to current sanctions, cannot be sent to North Korea. It was noted that Xi was invited to visit North Korea and the most likely time would be this July, the 65th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War. That visit is apparently contingent on Kim not screwing up the upcoming meetings with the South Korean president followed, in May, by one with the American president. The meeting in China included North Korea agreeing to again take part in the six-party talks, which were last held in 2009.




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