Korea: Friends Close, Enemies Closer


June 22, 2018: After Kim Jong Un returned from his June 12th meeting with the American president in Singapore senior North Korean officials were ordered to assemble and they were told that the Singapore meeting had been a tremendous success and that the economic problems would soon be solved and there would be no more joint training exercises in South Korea. There was no mention of getting rid of the nukes or the strict verification terms the Americans and South Koreans were demanding. Kim Jong Un has not said anything in public or for broadcast yet.

Worse was that no mention was made in North Koreans media that denuclearization and verification were the key demands of the Americans and have not been withdrawn. News of what really happened in Singapore will slowly but inevitably get into North Korea and spread. So Kim Jong Un has a short window (a few weeks) to correct his propaganda minions or face some serious blowback from the Americans and South Koreans. This time around North Korea must perform (and allow that to be continually verified) or there will be no payoff and North Korea will continue down its death spiral. People will look more towards the donju (market entrepreneurs) and disregard their own government as an obstacle to salvation rather than an agent of beneficial reform.

After returning from Singapore Kim did not have to worry about what his subordinates would be told. That had been decided before he left. What Kim did have to concentrate on his visit to China on the 19th, which is as important as the meeting with the American leader.

The Second Coming

Kim Jong Un traveled to China on the 19th using his elderly Il-62 jet, which Kim had never used before (but other senior officials have) rather than using his private train. This trip was more open (to media) and relaxed than the last few. This is the second visit to China this year. The trip to Singapore was his first use of air travel since he took power. His father and grandfather also avoided air travel. The might have something to do with North Korean Cold War era efforts to plant bombs on aircraft used by South Korean leaders.

These days the aversion to air travel has more to do with fear of a coup by military leaders who have a long list of grievances against the Kim dynasty. The details of how this worked during the Singapore trip took more than a week to get outside North Korea. The first signs were the fact that Kim took two senior army leaders with him. He had never taken these fellows to China for his visits with the Chinese leader. Why take them to Singapore? It was another example of the old saying; “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. Kim has a lot of enemies in the military leadership because this privileged group has suffered more loss than any other segment of the senior leadership (the few percent of the population that keeps the Kims in power and lives well because of their services). In order to keep the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs going the military has suffered the most obvious budget cuts during a period of continuing economic stagnation. For the troops, this means little or no new equipment and less fuel, food and other resources to keep the million troops going.

The dire poverty is creeping up the chain of command and the senior military leaders have to deal with more and more unrest in the ranks. Over the last few years, the reductions in food and fuel for the military have led to widespread hunger and low morale in most units. The junior and mid-level officers report the problems (and complain to each other) and notice that lower ranking officers and their families are now suffering from shortages and this privation is slowly moving upwards. Kim is aware of all this because his secret police are well taken care of and maintain a nationwide network of informants. This includes informants within the military and every military unit. So before he left Kim ordered the secret police to put eyes on a long list of senior military officers and to take their cell phones from these generals until he got back. Home leaves for all troops were canceled while Kim was out of the country and the secret police informants in the military were ordered to report any suspicious move by officers immediately. Those under surveillance knew what was going on and behaved. Kim came back, his prepared propaganda declaring his success was rolled out and he got ready to visit China without all the precautions used for the Singapore trip.

Kim has replaced most of the senior military leaders since he took over in 2012 but knows the pool of potential replacements was full of unhappy officers who were not turned into pro-Kim officers with a promotion or two. The problem was that all officers start off as privates and must prove themselves as an enlisted soldier before becoming an officer. The junior officers (lieutenants and captains) command company size units (about 100 troops) and generally leave the military after ten years or so unless they get some promotions. The NCOs in the company size units also tend to get out after their ten years are up. These officers and NCOs have a lot in common and usually work closely together. These junior officers are suffering the most from the growing food shortages. The junior officers can get married the NCOs cannot and even though officers receive more food they have been getting less of it. The anger among the junior officers is noted by the mid-level officers (battalion and brigade commanders and staff officers) and these mid-level officers can identify with the junior officers.

This anger about the shortages and the measures taken (theft from local civilians, selling army equipment, taking bribes) to cope are seen as corrosive. These illegal practices are now so widespread that they are rarely punished and considered a matter of life and death for some units stationed in rural areas where the farmers have suffered from poor harvests. Many officers are desperate and often ask (among themselves) how their leaders could treat the defenders of the nation so badly. No wonder Kim Jong Un is so worried about his military. He cannot threaten his angry soldiers with nuclear weapons and he cannot risk a widespread “purge” of “subversive elements” because so many troops qualify as “subversive” because of their attitudes and desperate situation. Put more simply the military force Kim Jong Un fears most is his own, not the Chinese, American or South Koreans.

Chinese Demands

Part of the recent willingness of the North Korean leaders to discuss denuclearization and peace is their growing fear of what China might do if the nukes were not eliminated. Historically China was always a threat to Korea but since the Korean War (1950-53) North Korea has depended on China for economic, diplomatic and military support. All that is now at risk because the North Korean leaders would not obey Chinese demands. North Korea sees itself in a situation similar to Vietnam, which has also had a historically hostile relationship with China. But now Vietnam is allied with the United States, South Korea, Japan and many other nations against Chinese aggression. China is aware of this North Korean attitude but China has always believed that it was better to be feared and obeyed than to be loved. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un has often indicated that he feared China more than South Korea or the Americans. China is now the main conduit for imports and exports. Essentials like food come mainly from China but so do smuggled goods (both the items the North Korean government wants and those it forbids).

In North Korea, most people don’t know or care about the nuclear weapons. Basic needs like food, fuel and education for their children are more immediate issues. Among North Koreans working in China (who often speak “off the record”) and the donju (entrepreneurs) and senior officials in North Korea know about the denuclearization and either back keeping the nukes or believe that giving up the nukes would bring more economic reforms as well as foreign aid and investment. The nukes are simply not as big an issue for most North Koreans because so many are living on the edge as a result of shortages. North Korea also take for granted that the news of peace talks is just more state propaganda and means nothing unless something actually happens to make their lives better. A growing number of North Korea see better trade relations with South Korea and the most worthy goal, especially if it led to reunification and North Koreans living as well as South Koreas. A growing number of North Koreans are learning that South Koreans are even wealthier than the Chinese and that knowledge involves a degree of national pride because China has always been a potential threat to Korea.

One Chinese demand that Kim Jong Un is apparently agreeing to is implementation of market economy, using the Chinese experience (a successful market economy in what is still a communist police state). Kim has long resisted this, feeling that was too risky and might not work as it did in China. At this point, Kim has few options and the Chinese economy plan no longer looks as dangerous as it once did. For one thing, Kim has had more time to study it. Kim showed keen interest in the Singapore “economic miracle” (by an ethnic Chinese majority state on an island with no natural resources other than location near a major trade route and a large port.) during his brief visit. On the June 19 visit to China Kim spent more time inspecting economic activities. Kim is increasingly desperate to get some economic aid and if giving up nukes does that, and restores good relations with China (and guarantees to keep the Kim dynasty in power) then life becomes much safer for the Kims and a lot easier for most North Koreans. Another indication that North Korea is serious this time is the both Koreans have already agreed to play down any thought of reunification (something China is very much against). All Koreans will still want unification but the attitude now is, one major crisis at a time.

Another problem area not addressed in the denuclearization program is the growing hacker threat from North Korea. This is a big problem for South Korea, which is the primary target of North Korean hackers. Again, this item has not been eliminated, just put aside, like reunification, until denuclearization and the immediate economic crises in North Korea can be attended to.

Peace Talk Aftermath

Since all the peace talk activity began in May China has greatly reduced border security. There are far fewer police and soldiers patrolling the border and China based smugglers are back in business. On the North Korean side of the border security has been increased. But North Korea security personnel are easier to bribe, so with fewer problems on the Chinese side the smugglers are back in business. There has also been more legitimate commerce with more North Korean going to China on business or to work.

The meeting between the two (north and south) Korean leaders in April was mostly about good will because both sides agreed the real work on a peace deal would come with the meeting between the North Korean and American leader in June and, more importantly, the meetings between senior American and North Korean officials to work out details on what their heads of state would agree to at Singapore on June 12th.

China has assured the United States that China wants North Korean nukes gone but China is in a better position (politically, culturally and physically) to work out and enforce the details of denuclearization. The Americans insist on CVID (Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearization) and the Chinese say they agree. But it appears there will be no detailed timetable for the entire process, even though the Americans and South Koreans don’t want to start shipping aid to North Korea before they have something verifiable to show for it. This part could get messy on several levels but at least the Americans have an experienced negotiator. The lead U.S. negotiator is the American Secretary of State who was previously the head of the CIA. This puts the North Koreans on the defensive since none of their usual negotiating stunts will work. At the very least this will speed the process along, whether it is succeeding or not. The U.S. negotiator is to visit the two Koreas before the end of June. Working closely with South Korea is important because the South Koreans have excellent intel on what is going on inside North Korea and the South Koreans have to sign off on many of the negotiating goals (especially those covering South Korean aid).

Kang Must Die

With so much attention focused on peace talks this year some even more important items have received little attention. Case in point is the hunt for Colonel Kang, a senior North Korean official who successfully defected, apparently to a NATO (European) country. Even though this defection took place in February North Korea agents are still searching China for evidence of how Kang managed to get out of China with so many valuable assets (plates for counterfeit printing U.S. currency, a large quantity of foreign currency and, most importantly, many documents about North Korean intelligence operations). Kang was North Korean counter-intelligence officer stationed in northeast China who managed to slip away with a huge quantity of valuable material. Kim Jong Un was furious about this defection and seven North Korean agents were sent to China with orders to find Kang and execute him immediately. These seven agents failed, apparently because they were unable to obtain sufficient assistance from their Chinese counterparts. Another three more experienced and better financed agents were then sent after Kang, wherever he was, with the same “execute on sight” orders. Recently another team of agents were sent to Europe specifically to find and kill Kang. That details of this case were leaked by April indicates the Kang has arrived in a nation willing to grant asylum and also protect Kang from the North Korean assassins expected to follow. Kang’s value to foreign intelligence agencies is enormous. Unfortunately, colonel Kang’s family was not so lucky. After a 2016 incident in which Thae Yong Ho, a senior North Korean diplomat, escaped with his family (wife and two sons age 19 and 26) to South Korea North Korea ordered that senior officials posted abroad could no longer take their immediate families with them. This did make it more difficult for senior officials to defect but Kang had an additional incentive. His son had recently been accused of corruption and was apparently going to be punished. Despite the fact that Kang belongs to one of the most revered (high status) families in North Korea he knew how things worked now and took off with a lot of embarrassing (to North Korea) information on how North Korea deals with China and Russia. This knowledge apparently helped Kang get to Europe with his treasure trove of documents.

Kang, it turns out, is even more special. He is a distant cousin of Kim Jong Un (they both share a great grandfather). Such kin are well respected and taken care of, so when one defects, especially in such a spectacular fashion, there are serious repercussions. One of these aftereffects was an effort to find out what and how the security services missed any hits of Kang defecting.

Reviewing security services performance is also meant to shed more light on how a growing number of senior officials are getting out of North Korea. In some cases, North Korea can get them back. This usually happens when the senior defector is still in China and North Korea can give something up to persuade China to allow North Korean agents in to arrest the defector. There are not many of these arrests, but there are a growing number of such officials getting out of North Korea.

Welcome Back, Or Else

Since 2014 the North Korean government has put a lot of effort into curbing the ability of defectors sending money back to their families. This money is used to start new businesses (making the owners more independent of government control) and helps more people escape. So the police have been encouraged (with rewards) to find and arrest the people involved in making these transfers happen. The main suspects are Chinese businessmen in North Korea (some of them North Koreans). This crackdown is very unpopular with most North Koreans, including the police, who receive a lot of bribes financed by these remittances. It is common knowledge that even senior officers of the secret police can be bribed to get someone get out of the country if you have the right contacts and a lot of cash. With enough cash just about anyone in the government can be bought, or at least rented for a while. All that remittance money getting into North Korea, especially from defectors who reached South Korea, is a continuing embarrassment. Since the crackdown began is has become more dangerous to be a “money broker” because the risks of getting arrested have increased. What the secret police have been after has been contact information (like a phone number) for clients (defectors) in South Korea. That gives North Korea a better idea of how many made it to South Korea and the ability to have their agents in South Korea collect further information on defectors. Early on the goal was to kidnap or kill defectors who were seen as particularly troublesome to North Korea but that has become more and more difficult as South Korea cracked down on that sort of thing. That led to the current North Korean practice of having a secret police officer call defectors in South Korean and make them an offer; if they voluntarily return there will be no reprisals (as long as they appear on North Korean TV and denounce their life in South Korea). If the defector firmly rejects this offer and they have family back in the north, the North Korean officer will threaten those kin. This phone call program has led to a few returnees (which are well publicized) but it has also apparently led to a number of defectors accepting a compromise deal that involves doing some spying for North Korea. This doesn’t get much publicity but is known to exist.

Back in North Korea, there is a growing problem with members of elite families refusing to take government jobs they are offered and instead, try to become donju. A greater number of these high ranking North Koreans basically do nothing, which they can get away with because they are guaranteed a place to live and regular free allocations of food and other goods. That has changed as the economic conditions in North Korea have gotten worse and now the unproductive members of the elite families are getting less (or no) free food. This is unpopular among the elite families because then it falls on the other family members to do something to prevent their kin from starving, or worse (defecting or becoming a local criminal).

June 19, 2018: Kim Jong Un arrived in China for his third meeting with Chinese leader Xi. American and Chinese officials have long agreed that these talks with Kim Jong Un won’t work unless the nukes are gone and effective verification installed. The last two (March and May) meetings between Kim and Xi were apparently to make sure Kim understood what was expected of him and what the consequences would be if he did not comply. The Chinese realize that the Kim dynasty can decide to go down fighting, which has been a common outcome in Chinese-Korean disputes in centuries past. China does not want an unstable, nuclear armed North Korean “ally” on its border.

The U.S. and South Korea announced that they would cancel, for the first time in 26 years, joint U.S./South Korea computerized joint training exercise would be canceled. This joint exercise was conducted completely indoors with the American and South Korea computerized command and control operating together as they would in wartime using senior commanders on both sides to make the decisions and react to a theoretical combat situation. The two computer systems are updated and tested operating together regularly but it is only during these annual exercises where the senior American and South Korea commanders and their staffs call the shots in a relatively unpredictable and more realistic test.

What the Americans and South Korea refused to halt were the training exercises involving actual troops and their equipment. These are held separately and since there are more than twenty times as many South Korea troops than Americans in South Korea doing this the benefit is mostly for the South Koreans. The North knows this and for years North Korea has not had the fuel or other supplies needed to carry out these basic training exercises. The South Koreans also have modern weapons and a lot more of them than the northerners.

June 18, 2018: South Korea announced that some sanctions could be lifted before the denuclearization process was completed. The U.S. will keep all its sanctions in place until the denuclearization process is complete. Meanwhile, China has loosened up many of its sanctions since Kim Jong Un went to Beijing and met with the Chinese leader.

June 16, 2018: North Korea has not yet started to dismantle its six missile launching sites as it said it would. In Singapore, Kim Jong Un said one site dismantling is underway but there is no evidence of that.

June 14, 2018: North Korea offered to withdraw its long range artillery (guns and rockets) from the DMZ. This is not seen as a generous offer by South Korea because the south has developed considerable countermeasures to the North Korean artillery.

June 13, 2018: North Korea now says that denuclearization of Korea must come first, not CVID (Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearization). The U.S. and South Korea want to concentrate on CVID first and North Korea will have to agree for the peace deal to proceed. For North Korea denuclearization means no more American nuclear powered warships visiting Korean ports or even entering Korean territorial waters. North Korea also wants a guarantee that the United States will never use nuclear weapons against North Korea for any reason.

June 12, 2018: In Singapore, the North Korea and American leaders signed an agreement that would lift sanctions on North Korea once North Korea denuclearized.

June 11, 2018: In North Korea, the brief visit of leader Kim Kong Un to Singapore for peace talks did create fears of a coup and the secret police and other security forces imposed movement restrictions in the capital and issued a public call for any suspicious movement, even by senior officials, should be reported. Police also carried out more identity checks in to find those living in the capital without permission. Manpower was also increased on the Chinese border, to make it more difficult for anyone to get into or out of the country without permission.

Before Kim Jong Un left for the Singapore talks all senior government officials were warned not to speak of reform or more links the outside world. The government does not want to get hopes up among North Koreans, especially the senior officials.

Kim traveled to Singapore aboard one of the four B-747s China uses for travel by senior officials. Kim has an official airliner (which he has never used) but it is an elderly Russian Il-62. Kim did not trust his Il-62 for his first foreign travel.

June 4, 2018: During the April 27 meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas senior North Korean commanders were in attendance. One point the three most senior generals of the North Korean military found themselves near the South Korean president and the three generals saluted the South Korean leader who acknowledged the gesture. It recently became known that those three generals were replaced soon after they returned to North Korea. Apparently, the generals had not received instructions on how to recognize the South Korea leader. North Korean generals rarely get to meet foreign heads of state or even foreign officers of similar rank. But when North Korea generals find themselves in the presence of the North Korean, Chinese or Russian leader they are expected to salute.

June 3, 2018: In North Korea, the government issued an order to increase efforts to prevent unauthorized distribution of information, especially about the upcoming trip by Kim Jong Un to Singapore. All officials were ordered to report any suspicious activity, especially illegal movements.

May 24, 2018: For the sixth time a Japanese Navy patrol aircraft photographed a stationary North Korean tanker tied up to a Chinese tanker off the Chinese coast and apparently transferring petroleum. Another transfer had been spotted on May 19th. The UN has put sanctions on s growing number of cargo ships and tankers but these vessels can still do transfers at sea. This takes longer, is still illegal and is increasingly being witnessed (and photographed) by American, Japanese or South Korean patrol aircraft. China responded with new rules making it more difficult for Chinese companies to get away with the false paperwork, turning off the automatic ship tracking devices and other scams North Korea uses to illegally export items to China. North Korea got around that by using ships registered in Hong Kong, where it is easier to hide the identity of the owner.

May 23, 2018: North Korea officially closed its troubled (by tunnel collapses and radiation leaks) nuclear test site in the northeast at Kilju (North Hamgyong Province). This province is largely rural and undeveloped, one reason for putting the nuclear test site there. But before the Kilju site was officially shut down (with foreign reporters, but not any foreign nuclear experts, present) the government carried out a quiet effort to move anything of value, including some items that were not really portable (structures). Such frugality is common in North Korea but at the same time another rural border area, Chagang Province to the west, was declared a restricted military area. Chagang is already the site of some secret facilities, including underground record storage facilities (like Iron Mountain in the United States) as well as escape tunnels to China for senior officials in case of emergency). Border security is being increased in the province and it is believed that a new underground nuclear testing facility is being prepared, just in case. Chagang would be an ideal place to hide all manner of secrets, like a nuclear weapons program that would be continued after a treaty denuclearized all of Korea. Just in case.


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