The present economic crisis in North Korea is nearly as bad as the one in the 1990s. Back then the end of Russian subsidies triggered a sharp reduction in GDP. The most damaging aspect of the 1990s crises was the food shortage and famine that killed ten percent of the population. This time around North Korea has given food supply high priority. Now there is a lot of hunger but deaths due to starvation, malnutrition and related causes are much lower. The current recession is doing the most damage to the overall economy and economic health of the country. Since the 1990s there has not been much investment in infrastructure (transportation, utilities and construction). North Korea, outside the capital, looks shabbier now than it did in the 1990s.
Because of increased sanctions, better enforcement and refusal to tolerate the usual negotiating scams North Korea has used for decades, North Korean foreign trade fell by nearly half in 2018 (when, by mid-year, the stronger sanctions were fully in play). The sanctions are holding, despite vigorous North Korean efforts to avoid that. American and South Korean leaders are refusing to settle for anything less than verifiable denuclearization. The North Korean government has come up with new ways to get around this but these new ideas are not working because half a century of bad behavior has made it clear to everyone how this works. North Korea cannot reply on anyone trusting them because there is no reason to. The north still goes through the motions of “negotiating and threatening” while pretending the internal economy meltdown is not happening. That does not work either. Despite strenuous measures to throttle the flow of information out of the country, that is no longer possible, at least not as completely as in the past (pre-cellphone and Internet).
Worst of all, longtime patron and ally China has turned against North Korea because the mess the Northern leaders have made of their country threatens to overflow into northeast China. South Korea is much less at risk because of the heavily guarded DMZ. North Koreans seeking to reach South Korea know that the quickest route is north, via China. The DMZ is a deathtrap for “defectors.”
Time is also the enemy. North Korea has been able to stall another round of mass starvation but not eliminate the possibility. That would require the leadership to admit they have a problem and submit to verifiable monitoring of aid distribution and denuclearization. North Korea has insisted it would never do this. But time is not on their side and internal unrest grows as does the general breakdown in order and “discipline.” That means options for North Korean leaders are shrinking. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not yet capable of scaring anyone into submission. The North Korean military, in general, is run down and suffering from two decades of neglect because of economic mismanagement, corruption and higher priority nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
China has witnessed all of this in more detail than any other country and that is why China is pressuring North Korea to be less of nuisance and that request is more of a demand if North Korea wants to maintain any economic access with China at all. So the North Koreans go along with this, although in most cases what China is asking for North Korea is eager to provide. For example, as economic conditions worsen in North Korea more North Koreans, who are allowed to visit kin in China, often overstay their visas and, in effect, “defect.” China does not want illegal migrants from North Korea and insists that North Korea send secret police teams to China to hunt down, arrest and take back to North Korea illegals that China has identified. The North Korea police make some extra cash by taking back a suitcase or two full of Chinese consumer goods that will fetch a big profit in North Korea.
Information Management Failures
Since 2018 more and more secret police have been sent to the Chinese border in an effort to further reduce the illegal use of cell phones to make calls outside the country. That is actually less of a problem than the fact that more and more of these secret police are being corrupted as a side effect of all the bribes border guards get offered and take. Early on the secret police concentrated on protecting their jobs while seeking bribes. Their method was simple, civilians who wanted to make a phone call in safety and could afford the large bribe (up to a hundred dollars or more) made their call in the presence of the secret police officer. You made the call with the secret policeman standing next to you (“for your safety”) listening in for his own safety because he knew that certain subjects (defense related, criticism of the government, and so on) are not allowed under any circumstances. That is because the North Koreans are not only using special electronic gear to quickly locate illegal cell phones, but are also eavesdropping on some of the calls. So the policeman had to ensure that no forbidden topics were discussed. The secret police also knew of certain locations where the detection gear was less effective. The secret police have to be very careful because they know that the existence of this willingness to take bribes is no secret. That’s because the brokers who arrange these expensive calls have to get the word out and that is picked up by the secret police informant system. The bribe-taking grew and grew so that by 2019 the police informant (internal affairs) system was corrupted. There was simply too much easy money for secret policemen on the border. At the same time, North Korean economic conditions were becoming more desperate, even for the secret police. This desperation was visible, even in the capital where the best of everything was available. That no longer included enough affordable food and you now see hungry (and very thin) people in public. An even more visible shortage in the capital is electricity. This is very unusual because the capital had long received the highest priority got electricity but there is no longer enough power to go along.
Additional income has become a matter of life and death and having a family member in a “bribe rich” environment was a major advantage. The Chinese border had become a bribe bonanza. Police have become adept at spotting people who have money and, once identified (ID checks cannot be refused) a quick background check to find something you can threaten the victim with (like kin who have fled the country or been arrested for something) and then you just demand some cash, or else. The North Korea secret police have always been terrifying and still are, but now have monetized that.
The growing bribe income of the secret police is no secret to national-level leaders and, as governments are prone to do, that bribe income is taxed. This is being done by imposing mandatory contributions to the “loyalty fund.” This time each agent must come up with $500, which is a huge sum. But if an agent is bringing in a lot of bribe income this tax is affordable. Agents who have not been raking in the bribes and extortion income have to scramble to raise the cash, or else. So the latest “loyalty fund” tax manages to force some agents to become less loyal, or at least more bribable.
With all that illegal income being made the government has had to ensure that this decadent behavior is not too obvious. This has led to a form of “lifestyle police” who monitor the appearance and behavior of government employees and their spouses for signs of unseemly conspicuous consumption. Offenders are warned to tone it down or else. Another type of offense is believing in religion or any form of spiritualism. This sort of thing is popular in South Korea and there are many films and TV shows that feature these forms of decadence. The lifestyle police must be alert to the presence of illegal videos from South Korea that promote these forbidden beliefs and practices. When these thought crime miscreants do not display their decadent thoughts openly it is more difficult for them to be identified and bribes demanded. Those who cannot pay must be made an example of and are often sent to a labor camp for a year or more of reeducation. A growing segment of the population are either perpetrators (demanding bribes) or victims (forced to pay) and “vics” are far more numerous than the “perps.” The vics are getting angrier and angrier at their decadent overlords.
Those who cannot afford a bribe and commit serious crimes on the cheap are considered particularly loathsome. A good example of this are the people to fleeing the country by finding a remote portion of the Chinese border to sneak across. The government now offers rewards (of $12 to $25) for those who provide information on these criminals. When informed of an escape attempt troops are now ordered to promptly shoot to kill and bring back dead bodies to prove it. People who refuse to pay bribes deserve the bullet.
There are some forms of public, and quite criminal behavior that are tolerated, up to a point. This involves
angry North Koreans who outright refuse to comply with government demands for free labor, especially under unhealthy conditions. In remote worksites, the government supplied living quarters are unheated and poorly equipped. Food supplies are meager and these conditions are made much worse during cold weather months. This sort of defiant behavior was considered unthinkable a few years ago but now the government is faced with so much resistance, most of it more subtle, that local security officials have been reluctant to crack down on a large scale. The defiance is tolerated if it is a form of negotiation. That is, those refusing orders to do some loathsome and dangerous task will eventually comply if the government softens the demand and improves working conditions. The government realizes that without some compromise these “persecuted and oppressed workers” tend to escalate to outright rebellion if concessions are not made.
The Farming Crisis
While most forms of spirituality are forbidden in the north, there is one type of magic that is not only acceptable but often mandatory. This is the belief in government assurances that current economic problems can be handled by believing in self-sufficiency (“juche”). This requires resourcefulness and improvisation and the unshakeable belief that all problems will be resolved because Great Leader Kim Jong Un says so. Implying that this is not true can get you killed. So believe, or else. Yet many of these improvisations are counterproductive. For example, growing hunger in farming communities has forced local officials to improvise in an effort to avoid famine deaths, which the national government considers a crime. Not for the dead but for the local officials who did not improvise effectively enough. An example of this is officials ordering crops (of potatoes and barley) harvested early to prevent starvation among local farm populations. Harvesting early means potatoes that are less nutritious and cannot be stored long. For barley, it means less grain and less nutritious grain. So this improvisation delays starvation. The national government refuses to accept foreign food aid because the donors insist on supervising distribution.
Meanwhile, nature continues to misbehave and make farming more difficult. Water shortages this year delayed the planting of crops in much of North Korea. There is also a rural labor shortage and police have been ordered to round up people who are unemployed or not at their assigned job and force them to work on farms for as long as needed. This is not a popular policy.
There are many new farm-related policies that are not popular. For example, the government is cracking down on rural residents who build new homes on farmland. This was never considered a problem in the past because farmers usually selected less productive plots for new construction. That was not good enough and North Korea is still a command economy. That means nearly all farming decisions are coming from bureaucrats in the capital. Farmers showing initiative are suspect even if the farmers are usually right. Government decisions often hurt farm productivity. Thus orders to bring additional land under cultivation are often counterproductive because marginal land requires more resources for much less food produced. The “center” (the planning bureaucrats) are always right, even when they aren’t. If a new directive fails it is always the fault of the farmers.
Worse, some of the new rules from the center cause a lot of trouble. Case in point is a new order for that graves near roads have the bodies exhumed and cremated with the ashes used as fertilizer for the reforestation program. Any gravesites that no longer have descendants to look after them will be considered abandoned property and the bodies will be cremated. Families consider graves of their ancestors as sacred, but the center disagrees.
This cremation order was but the latest unpopular reforestation directive. In 2018 the government banned firewood collection and sales because of the higher priority given to the reforestation program. This reforestation effort is an aftereffect of the mass famine and economic collapse of the 1990s. That crises let to about a third of North Korean forests disappearing. Since the 1990s illegal tree cutting had become increasingly common in North Korea as people sought fuel with which to survive the cold weather and coal shortages. Coal was for export, not keeping North Koreans warm. Satellite photos show the sharp difference between forestation in the north and south. South Korea is the only nation on the planet to have succeeded at artificial reforestation since World War II. Other nations (mainly in the West) have regrown depleted forests but usually as a result of rural populations moving to urban areas over many decades and allowing forests to naturally return to abandoned fields and settlements. But in areas where huge areas have been stripped of trees, that solution can take centuries, not decades, to work. Both Koreas were heavily deforested in the last two centuries but South Korea fixed the problem while in North Korea it got worse. Even North Korea recognizes this and was willing to adopt the techniques South Korea used and try to replace its depleted northern forests. But the South Korean effort did not do this at the expense of the fuel supply for heatless and hungry rural populations. Nevertheless, South Korea gave the north access to technical aspects of their reforestation problem, including valuable data on how to handle tree disease that would be encountered as certain types of trees are reintroduced to areas where they haven’t been for over a century. South Korean advice did not include cremation of bodies for fertilizer.
North Korea also decided that continued resistance to seizing land used for family gardens (so they could be reforested) was treason and local officials were ordered to act accordingly. In practice, this meant local officials could justify demanding larger bribes to move mandatory (as demanded by the central government) tree planting somewhere else. So when you see whose garden got replaced by new trees you know which family is not doing well in an increasingly competitive North Korea.
One advantage North Koreans have in rural areas is relatively clean air. In the capital, with all its advantages (like more reliable electricity supply and more fuel for heating and vehicles), there is one growing disadvantage; air pollution. Since 2012 the government has recognized the air quality was getting worse in the capital. The reason is that there are many aging factories in the outskirts that always produced air pollution but are now producing more of it because older equipment is not being replaced. These older facilities also produce more bad odors and that situation has reached crises levels with more of the city suffering from foul-smelling air that is also full of more pollutants. Local plants tend to still burn coal and do so less efficiently as plant equipment ages and better quality (cleaner burning) coal is exported. Actually, there is a lot of pollution in North Korea that is tolerated, up to a appoint. North Koreans tend to avoid North Korea made medicines and processed food because both have a reputation for poor quality. For medicines that can be fatal.
July 5, 2019: North Korean farmers are facing more farm animal losses with an outbreak of swine flu. Like human flu, this disease is easily spread (via the atmosphere) from pig to pig and although some pigs might survive they must be destroyed (killed and buried) to prevent the spread of the disease. That is not happening because pork is a major source of meat in North Korea and desperate farmers will butcher and eat or sell the meant of diseased pigs and not kill and bury swine that survive. That means the epidemic keeps spreading. Earlier in 2019 North Korean farmers suffered heavy losses from another outbreak of hoof and mouth disease. This one came in via China, which can afford to cope with these outbreaks. North Korea cannot, especially not just now. Worse, the first cases, which were near the Chinese border (where the virus can get across the rural border areas because it is airborne) the cattle deaths were diagnosed as from malnutrition. Thus this early misdiagnosis led to the rapid spread of hoof and mouth. Most (about 80 percent) of North Korean farmers use cattle for plowing and, very rarely as a source of milk and meat (which fetches a high price on the markets) but cattle that die from hoof and mouth must be buried or burned for the dead animal harbors the virus. Killing cattle without government permission is a capital crime in North Korea thus an uncontrolled hoof and mouth outbreak is a potential disaster.
July 3, 2019: In South Korea an army corps commander was fired and several others reprimanded (making future promotions less likely) and the Defense Minister apologized for the failure of the security forces to detect a North Korean fishing boat that entered South Korean waters off the east coast in mid-June and spent two days off the coast waiting for South Korean patrol boats to come to get them so two of the four fishermen could defect. Finally, the boat landed at a small port town so the North Koreans could go ashore and made contact with local police. It later turned out that South Korean sensors had detected the boat entering South Korean waters but did not identify it as North Korea and ignored it for the two days the boat waited to be taken into custody. This was a major failure of border security, something both Koreas suffer from although the northerners are better at it because they have more people working that job and commanders who screw up get shot, or worse (labor camp for them and their families). South Korean security forces do detect and deal with a lot of North Korean fishing boats crossing the maritime boarder on both coasts but most of the time it is because of navigation error (North Korean fishermen cannot afford GPS devices) or engine trouble. Defectors are relatively rare because fishermen can only go out to sea if they leave behind enough family members to serve as hostages (and face labor camp if their guy defects).
June 30, 2019: In an unexpected and impromptu move the American president, while meeting with Kim Jong Un and other regional leaders in Singapore, suggested that the two meet at the “Peace Village” on the DMZ later in the day. This was unprecedented, as no American president had ever entered North Korea. Kim agreed and the meeting took place just across the border as the two leaders chatted and posed for photos. The meeting was short and interpreted differently on either side of the border. The Americans and South Koreans saw it as Kim still willing to work out a denuclearization deal and demonstrating such willingness by agreeing to the unexpected meeting request from the American leader. In North Korea, the meeting was interpreted as being similar to the American president visiting China in 1972 and resuming diplomatic relations with China. This was a historic event in the region because the American leader journeyed to China to do this and in East Asia, it is the subordinate leader who travels to meet with the superior one. That was how North Korean media interpreted the meeting and nothing was said about denuclearization is that it is because of the nukes that North Korea is so powerful, respected and broke. The reality is that only one of those three items is true.
The Peace Village had long been the scene of fruitless negotiations over disagreements between the two Koreas or North Korea and the United States. In 2018 meetings between Kim and the South Korean leader Moon took place on April and May at there. North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and the South Korean president agreed that the Korean peninsula should be free of all nuclear weapons. The two also agreed that there should be an official end to the Korean War, which has been suspended (by an armistice) since 1953. The two also agreed that there should be more meetings between them. The north is still holding out for reduced sanctions, unsupervised foreign aid and no interference with the northern nuclear and missile programs. North Korea feels it has no choice and the other side disagrees with that as well.