Korea: Serves No Useful Purpose


November 20, 2019: In the last few days North Korea has announced it is no longer interested in negotiating with the United States over denuclearization and sanctions. At least not until there is first some reduction in the economic sanctions. The Americans refuse to consider that because in the past the North Koreans have used such threats to get some relief, and then refused to do anything about reducing their military threats to South Korea, the U.S. and Japan and allowing that to be verified.

The current economic sanctions are the most damaging North Korea has ever endured. Even China is enforcing most of these sanctions. There is little support in South Korea for easing up. North Korea continues to demand a halt to joint U.S.-South Korea military training, considering this an aggressive act. In reality, these exercises are largely about neutralizing North Korean efforts to attack South Korea and at least heavily damage the capital, which is within artillery range of the DMZ.

North Korea realizes the American-South Korean forces are superior and joint training just increases that advantage. For the same reasons, North Korea criticizes Japanese missile interception training. While North Korea is its main threat Japan also has to worry about Russian or Chinese missiles. North Korea believes the missile defenses are mainly there to make North Korea weaker. The official American reaction to the North Korean threats is, “we remain open to talks and meetings between the leaders of North Korea and the U.S.” These meetings are big media events for both leaders but when the North Korean leader keeps returning home with no reducing in sanctions he is seen as a failure and weak. Meanwhile, the sanctions do their work, making the already bad conditions (from growing corruption and decades of mismanagement) worse.

China is playing the sympathetic but sanction-enforcing ally, waiting for something to happen, like a coup to overthrow Kim Jong Un and replace him with a more cooperative (to China) government. Currently, Kim Jong Un has mismanaged his economy so badly that it will be difficult to rehabilitate quickly even if sanctions are lifted. Meanwhile, Kim devotes a ruinous percentage of GDP to the military, especially nuclear weapons and missiles. China has been unable to convince Kim that a bankrupt and starving North Korea armed with nuclear weapons serves no useful purpose. America, South Korea and Japan have shown no indication that they would submit to nuclear blackmail by North Korea (give us free food and economic aid or we nuke you). That, in short, is the basic problem with North Korea and even China cannot quickly solve it.

Chinese Cheats

Although China has eased up somewhat on enforcing economic sanctions that is not enough to halt growing shortages that are so bad even the military and secret police are suffering. The North Korean military decided to undertake its own smuggling operations to obtain foreign currency for equipment that cannot be obtained in North Korea. The main illegal export is coal, which commercial photo satellites show headed to the port of Nampo by the truckload and in quantities far in excess of local needs. Such satellite photos also show North Korea ships unloading coal at a nearby Chinese port. It’s all rather blatant. UN investigators found evidence of over 200,000 tons of illegal coal exports a month in the first half of 2019. The military controls some coal mining operations and those have been active in smuggling.

Illegal coal exports that are not enough to keep all the coal mines open. Some miners go into closed or poorly maintained mines to dig coal for personal use or to sell to neighbors. A growing number of these miners don’t return and the mine they had gone into turns out to have had a collapsed shaft.

The fishing industry is also hard to hit, not just because of the loss of lucrative foreign markets but the inability to get fuel or spare parts for their already decrepit boats. More boats are going out and coming back late or not at all because of outboard engine breakdowns, bad fuel or running out of fuel. In some cases, the crew is close enough to row back in or even get a tow. But a growing number of boats just never return.

On the plus side, China and Russia have been allowing more North Korean workers to enter and work in China and Russia. Most of the workers’ pay goes to the North Korean government as a “tax” but the North Korean workers are still making more than they could in North Korea, and most of that pay supports family back in North Korea while the exported workers have more food and heat than they would back home.

Tax Magic

The sanctions have caused an economic recession which is made worse by increasing desperate government schemes to raise cash. North Korea does not have taxes in the normal sense but there are a lot of mandatory fees and “voluntary contributions.” The government is now adding new fees that try to raise money from people believed to have it. An example is a new fee levied on all women aged between 30 and 60 who do not have jobs. Previously most rural women were exempt but now all are expected to pay the annual fee because the government believes most of them are involved in free-market activities. Local officials are responsible for collecting the tax, one way or another.

Many of these fees, which normally were small amounts most families could afford, have been going up and new ones are appearing. That means more and more families have to reduce food, clothing and fuel purchases or risk imprisonment. The government has ordered many of these nominal fees to increase to painful levels. The amounts demanded are supposed to be the same nationwide but in practice vary because local officials add surcharges which the local tax collectors keep. The national government has increased audits of how accurate local tax collections are and in some cases found massive fraud. Punishments are usually severe and increasingly include some executions and sending entire families to labor camps for long (and often fatal) periods. Worse, this increased retribution no longer produces as much compliance as it used to. That’s because the corruption is so widespread that even auditors and prosecutors are more often open to discussing a bribe. Auditors are usually sent out in the expectation of bringing back a certain minimum amount of cash and guilty officials. More auditors are realizing that once they meet their quota, anything else is “profit” for them.


Trying to collect taxes from people who can’t pay and are often destitute is a growing problem. The impact is visible as you see more abandoned children and elderly “retired” adults begging on the streets. Government mismanagement is the main cause and that becomes obvious when you note the growing shortages of electricity. This has caused cutbacks in the production of essential goods, like fertilizer for farms. Fertilizer production dropped by two-thirds in 2019 and one major fertilizer plant has shut down completely because of the energy shortages. Because of a major drought in 2019 food production is down two years in a row and over ten percent of the population is at risk of starvation. South Korea has offered 50,000 tons of free rice, with no strings attached (like having observers ensuring that the food gets to the hungry and is not sold by the North Korean government). This offer was refused because South Korea refused to halt joint training with American military forces.

The growing number of power blackouts hurts the tourist industry, which also suffers from the inability to attract affluent, big spending tourists. Most of those tourists are repulsed by the thought of visiting a police state were even “valued guests” are constantly watched over by the secret police and not allowed to move about freely. North Korea does attract a lot of Chinese tourists, many of them ethnic Koreans from northeast China. Japanese are not welcome and South Koreans are not allowed because that would confirm all the stories about how much better South Koreans are doing than their northern neighbors. Despite these fundamental flaws the government continues to pour enormous efforts and resources to building tourism facilities that foreign tourists do not want to, or cannot, visit.

Denuclearization Negotiations

North Korea has issued a year-end deadline for the United States to come up with a satisfactory proposal that will allow the stalled negotiations to move forward. A satisfactory proposal to the North Koreans is one that allows them to keep their nukes and get the sanctions lifted.

Many South Korea are sympathetic to the plight of North Korea. These southerners back aid to the north as separate issue from denuclearization. These South Koreans are a permanent minority now, after years of South Koreans trying to pacify the north with kindness. That is now seen as a lost cause and South Korea also recognizes that China is a potential military threat as well. South Korea has created a major domestic arms development and manufacturing capability and is offering its modern air, land and naval systems to export customers. Those who have already bought South Korean military gear are satisfied and many have ordered more. South Korea also knows that the northerners have long been aware of South Korean military capabilities are equal to, if not superior to those of the larger (in terms of manpower) North Korean military. South Korean troop morale, training, equipment and leadership are all superior. In the north, the government has a difficult time keeping the troops fed and the majority of the conscripts (who serve ten year terms) are farming or doing other commercial type work rather than training or maintaining their equipment. Pilots cannot afford to fly and ships cannot afford to go to sea. Tanks and other armored vehicles cannot afford to go out and train and there is not enough ammo for the artillery units to become proficient. Worse, cell phones and smuggled in South Korean video media (especially news and documentaries) have let northerners realize what they are up against militarily.

On the downside, the low South Korean birth rate (a common side effect of increased affluence) means there are fewer potential soldiers available. Current plans are to reduce military manpower 80,000, to 500,000 by 2022.

Nuclear Bomb Test Report

Further analysis of the last (2017) North Korean nuclear test indicates that the underground test detonated a 250 kiloton (KT) bomb which caused the mountain the tunnel (for the bomb test) was in to rise several meters (10 feet) and shift sideways about half a meter (18 inches). These measurements were taken using a satellite designed to measure small changes in the geography below. The satellite was equipped with InSAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar Interferometry). This tech usually measures changes caused by earthquakes, volcanos and major storms.

In the past major nuclear weapons tests used much smaller nukes and caused some changes to the mountain where the test tunnels were dug. This caused some cumulative damage, like small amounts of radioactivity escaping into the atmosphere. But as the explosive effect (“yield” in equivalent tons of non-nuclear explosives) of the bombs escalated the damage to the mountain testing area added up. This last 250 KT bomb test did major damage to the mountain and allowed the escape of much more radioactivity than before. The 250 KT test left a crater at the tunnel entrance that was 132 meters (433 feet) wide, and very radioactive

In 2018 North Korea sought to suppress news of what was going on in the northeast border region (Ryanggang and North Hamgyong Provinces) where nuclear tests take place. In 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).

Chinese radiation monitors on the North Korean border recorded levels were up to seven percent a week after the September 3rd 2017 test and were apparently much higher in North Korea after the 2017 test. This data was released because the population along the border know that they face some health risks if radiation levels increase too much for too long. There have also been unreported accidents while digging these test tunnels. In one recent incident, a tunnel construction accident in Mantapsan Mountain near Punggye-ri left a hundred workers trapped and eventually dead. Another hundred tunnel workers sent to rescue them died when a second collapse occurred. This all makes the nuclear weapons program appear to be a threat to North Koreans as well.

November 16, 2019: Japan has lifted restrictions on the last of the three key exports South Korean electronics manufacturers need to operate. This may end the feud that reached crisis levels in August because of another dispute over past Japanese mistreatment of Koreans. This time South Korea ended up terminating the 2016 intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan (and the United States) because Japan had halted shipments of three vital components needed by South Korean electronics manufacturers. That was in response to a South Korean court demanding Japan pay more compensation for World War II era atrocities. The intelligence sharing dispute is still not over and until negotiations are completely done the sharing deal could remain suspended.

November 9, 2019: American officials are openly criticizing China for backing off on its enforcement of sanctions on North Korea. The U.S. and other nations threatened by North Korea have observed and documented growing smuggling of forbidden items in and out of North Korea. China continues to deny it has anything to do with this.

November 6, 2019: UN Sanctions investigators accused North Korea of using Marine China, a Hong Kong based blockchain firm, to handle North Korean money (bitcoin) and make possible laundering of money, usually cryptocurrency, stolen by North Korean hackers. These thefts amounted to about $2 billion dollars in the last year. Marine China enabled North Korea to convert stolen bitcoin to cash via at least 5,000 small transactions. The small transactions were believed more difficult for investigators to spot and trace back to North Korea. That did not work.

November 1, 2019: The South Korean navy received another refurbished Chang Bogo class submarine. That is the last of three upgraded Chang Bogos, all delivered in 2019. The Chang Bogos is a class of nine German Type 209 subs. In the case of these three boats, the refurb work took about two years and involved installing new electronics as well as a towed array sonar. The refurb makes these boats, which entered service between 1993 and 2001, capable of serving into the 2030s. The Chang Bogos, except for the first one, were built in South Korea by South Korean personnel who had gone to Germany to assist with the construction of the first one. These boats, also known as the KSS-1 class, entered service in the 1990s. Each has undergone refurbs, taking one or two years, every eight to ten years. The latest refurb for three boats was very extensive turning each boat into a formidable ASW (anti-submarine warfare) system.

The Chang Bogos began as modified Type 209s and kept evolving. Germany was always willing to modify exported subs for customers and since South Korea licensed the 209 design and built eight in South Korea, each Chang Bogo became unique as they underwent first one then a second refurbishment. The multiplicity of modifications enabled the navy to experiment with new features and South Korea shipbuilders gained practical experience implementing all the changes.

All nine Chang Bogos will remain in service until at least 2025 and some even later. Much depends on what threats the North Korean and Chinese navies pose. The Chang Bogo upgrades usually include new equipment and capabilities as well as more modern versions of original components. For example, South Korea is replacing the original batteries with more powerful lithium Ion type batteries that were designed for submarine use. All Chang Bogos are believed now able to use the torpedo-tube launched Harpoon anti-ship missile and much upgraded passive sensors.

The Chang Bogos began as 1,200 ton boats that are 55.9 meters (174 feet) long, have a top speed while submerged of 39 kilometers an hour, and a top surface speed of 20 kilometers an hour. Range is 20,900 kilometers at a surface speed of 7.4 kilometers an hour. Endurance is 50 days and the highly automated boat has a crew of only 31. Armament is 14 torpedoes fired from eight 533mm (21 inch) tubes. Chang Bogos have become a little longer and heavier because of extensive refurbs. South Korea intended to export subs as well and found an eager customer in Indonesia.

October 31, 2019: In North Korea, two rockets were fired from the west coast across North Korea to land off the east coast. The rockets traveled about 370 kilometers and were apparently launched from a vehicle that can carry at least two of these rockets in launch tubes.

October 29, 2019: China has been ignoring North Korean violations of sanctions when it comes to North Koreans working in China illegally. At least 2,000 North Koreans have been identified as participating in this program. These workers get 30 day visitor visas in China and do not bother to go back to North Korea and get the visa renewed every 30 days. These North Korean workers are not being expelled as was the policy until a few months ago.

October 22, 2019: Off the east coast of South Korea five Russian aircraft (an A-50 AWACS aircraft, three SU-27 fighter jets and two TU-95 bombers) violated South Koreas’ ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) and flew in and out of the ADIZ four times before leaving. South Korea sent warplanes aloft to confront the intruder. South Korea complained to Russia and the Russians said the violation never happened. This is the 20th Russian violation this year.

China is also a problem and now accounts for nearly five times as many violations as the Russians. This is mainly because in 2013 China announced a new ADIZ that overlapped South Korean, Philippine and Japanese air space. China demanded that any foreign military or commercial aircraft request permission before flying into this zone. South Korea and Japan protested while the United States quickly flew some B-52s into the disputed zone without asking for Chinese permission. China protested and the United States ignored them just as China ignores South Korean protests. Yet Chinese aircraft will leave when South Korean fighters show up, Russian violations have sometimes required drastic action. One violation resulted in South Korean fighters being sent to intercept and the drive the Russian aircraft away and the Russian A-50s refused to leave. South Korea fighters fired several hundred cannon shells towards the A-50s to get their attention. The A-50s then left South Korean air space and Russia later insisted that the A-50 pilots never saw the South Korean fighters or cannon fire. Japan also sent up jets during this incident but the South Korean aircraft got there first.

October 21, 2019: Russia sent 2,100 tons of refined petroleum products to North Korea in September. The UN sanctions allow North Korea to legally import about 63,000 tons (500,000 barrels) a month.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close