December 26, 2019:
In North Korea, the government has been raising taxes, especially on farmers and donju (legal entrepreneurs). The donju are being taxed at about 30 percent of their income and they pass most of this onto their customers. This drives up prices and causes more popular discontent. This has also led to the return of illegal markets. These are temporary affairs and constantly move around to evade the police or tax collectors. Locals protect these pop-up markets because prices are lower and there are more and more of them.
Once a year, after the harvest, farmers have a lot to tax. So from October until the end of the year, the tax collectors are a common and unwelcome sight in areas where the harvests were good. Technically, there are no “taxes” in socialist North Korea but there are lots of fees and “contributions” to state activities. Many of the contributions are applied at the household level and the cash or goods are collected by local officials. These officials have quotas to meet. Failure can meet unemployment. But anything beyond the quota can easily be stolen by audacious or well-connected officials.
The increased taxes are not doing much to improve the lives of most North Koreans. The electricity shortages are getting worse and more groups, like universities, are no longer getting full-time electricity. These universities used to justify their full-time electricity because a lot of important defense-related research was done there. For really important defense work the academics can get portable generators to keep the lights on and avoid delays. The military itself is already suffering electrical blackouts for half the day or more. Even military hospitals and clinics have been ordered to voluntarily “go dark” for most of the night and some hospitals have been cut off for much of the day, like most everyone else. Same with some parts of the capital, which had always been safe from all sorts of shortages in the past. The electricity supply is vulnerable because for over a decade the government had diverted money needed to maintain electrical generation facilities and to the military. This eventually led to the current situation, which is getting worse as the government continues to giving priority to nukes and missiles, as well as goodies for the top officials and their families to maintain their loyalty.
The higher taxes are an effort to make up for the damage the sanctions have done. Legal exports of raw materials are still forbidden and largely enforced. North Korea is monitored more thoroughly than ever before and many smuggling operations are being detected and disrupted. The Americans refuse to ease up on the sanctions and that is the main reason why North Korea has abandoned discussions about denuclearization. North Korea was never serious about giving up its nukes and ballistic missiles but just pretended to negotiate in an effort to get some sanctions eased as a “goodwill” gesture. That has often worked in the past but does not anymore.
While the nuclear and missile-related projects get priority on resources, everything else suffers. The nukes and missiles are mainly for intimidating the United States, South Korea and Japan into providing tribute in the form of free food and other economic aid as well as lifting all sanctions. Kim Jong Un has visited China and Russia frequently in 2019 for a meeting on subjects that were kept secret. The most likely topic was how much help North Korea could expect in evading sanctions and how sincere North Korea was in not harming or threatening China or Russia. After all these two neighbors, especially China, could shut down the Kim Jong Un government quickly and with a lot of Kim’s government and military loyalist leaders dying. In short, the Kim dynasty would disappear and few would mourn its passing. For Kim Jong Un to survive he must convince his key allies that he understands who he can abuse and who he must respect and obey.
Despite these arrangements with the northern neighbors, Kim is not getting any economic and not much food aid. China and Russia have their doubts about Kim and his deteriorating country. But Kim can provide a useful surrogate with which to harass and bewilder the Americans, Japanese and South Koreans. These three nations are the true economic and military superpower in East Asia and North Korea can be useful in diminishing that power. So far North Korea has not proved very effective in that role but Kim is determined to keep trying. For him, this is all a matter of life or death. He seems to have painted himself into a corner and does not appear to have many if any, options left.
Welcoming Wandering Women
There is one North Korean export that China is now encouraging, young women. Most of those women getting out of North Korea illegally have been those seeking to continue to South Korea and start a new life while also using the money smugglers to get cash back to their families. Until recently these illegal migrants were promptly sent back to North Korea if Chinese police caught them. In something of an experiment, the Chinese are now offering an alternative to certain punishment (labor camp) or death for those returned to North Korea. If the arrested women answered all the questions police asked them about how they got across the border and who helped them, they could remain in China. But if they sought to leave China for a Southeast Asian country and its South Korean embassy, they would be sent back to North Korea. So far most of the women involved have accepted these terms. While life in South Korea is better, legal residence in China is a major improvement over North Korea. This new amnesty extends to women who married (voluntarily or otherwise) Chinese men but were unhappy with that situation and abandoned their new families and headed south to get to South Korea. There are more and more North Korean women finding themselves forced to marry a Chinese man or, as an alternative, work in a brothel. The third alternative is death. Many women find that the people smuggler they hire to get them into China and thence to a Southeast Asian nation are actually seeking foreign women to sell to Chinese men seeking a wife.
China has a shortage of women because decades of the “one child” policy produced many more male than female children. This was because of the preference for a son and medical technology that enabled the gender of the fetus to be determined early enough to abort many females. Now foreign women are in great demand for wives or for brothels. Chinese police will leave these forcibly married North Korean women alone as long as they stay married. The same with those forced to work in brothels. But if these women go rogue and travel towards the southern border they can be arrested and persuaded to cooperate rather than being sent back.
While this new process provides Chinese police with more information on people smugglers, who they now arrest, it is still possible to sneak out of North Korea without using a smuggler. But that means it is much more difficult to survive on the Chinese side, much less continue south to Thailand and then South Korea. Word of this new policy has reached North Korea and for women, it seems to be a reasonable option. Just get across the border and surrender to the police. North Korea is none too happy with this new Chinese policy but cannot afford to damage relations with China right now by complaining.
Speaking of power, North Korea has, over the last decade, lost most of its conventional military capabilities, especially relative to South Korea and Japan. This trend accelerated after 2010, when Kim foolishly ordered a South Korea island, near the west coast sea border, fired on by his coastal artillery. The island had a civilian population as well as a military garrison and there were casualties among both as well as property damage. South Korea retaliated in the most damaging (to North Korea) way possible. Instead of counterattacking, South Korea changed its fundamental attitude towards North Korea and revamped its military and diplomatic attitudes towards the north. From then on North Korea was definitely the enemy and had to be treated as such. South Korea announced military reforms that have provided South Korea with specialized troops and equipment to better deal with North Korea's sneaky tactics like torpedoing ships, as well as murdering South Korean diplomats and blowing up commercial aircraft, all of which North Korea has done in the past. Since the 1990s, South Korea had built up its conventional forces to the point where North Korea was no longer confident in its ability to invade the south and have any chance of conquering it.
After 2010 that situation got worse. Now South Korea concentrates more on countering North Korea's commando capabilities; over 150,000 special operations troops, 80 small submarines and specialized aircraft for sneaking these commandos into South Korea. South Korea admitted that after 2009 North Korea had moved, by 2010, 50,000 of these special operations troops to near the DMZ. It was not known why this was done, but now there are suspicions that the move was made to make it easier to do more dirty deeds. So South Korea responded in kind.
South Korea also took advantage of the increasing decline of the North Korean military. South Korea had noted that since the 1990s that decline has continued uninterrupted and the best the North Koreans could do to deal with it was publicity stunts. A perennial gambit was carried out during the annual cold-weather military training exercises held in North Korea. In some years, like this one, there was more activity than usual and most of the additional activity consisted of special operations troops practicing for operations during an invasion of South Korea. In 2010 that included low-level parachute jumps. This was something that has not been seen for a while and not at all since 2010. That was explained back in 2007 when refugees from North Korea reported that the air force there had ceased, or greatly reduced, training flights of the 300 An-2 aircraft it maintained for delivering commandos into South Korea. The reason was apparently lack of fuel for training, and spare parts to keep the fleet of 30-40 year old aircraft in working order. That situation has not improved and the An-2s are older now and the pilots more inexperienced because of lack of flight time.
Before 2010 AN-2s were often seen in the air. The AN-2 is a strange bird. It’s a single-engine bi-plane made mostly of wood and canvas. This makes it difficult to pick up on the radar, especially if it’s coming in low. The 5.5 ton aircraft was developed by Russia in the late 1940s, and it was most frequently used for crop dusting and fire-fighting, as well as a light transport. It can carry up to a dozen passengers. The An-2 can fly as slow as 60 kilometers an hour, making it excellent for crop dusting, or parachuting commandos to a precise location. Its range of 800 kilometers is sufficient to reach most of South Korea. Over 10,000 were produced, by Russia, China and Poland, until the early 1990s. The North Koreas regularly had theirs up for training flights, as the pilots had to be pretty good to get across the DMZ (or via open water) into South Korea at night. But fewer AN-2s were seen flying in the late 1990s and except for some media events, there has been less and less flying in the past decade.
Outside of North Korea, many An-2s were used as light transports in out-of-the-way places. It was a rugged aircraft and could land and take off on a short stretch of road, or a field. The North Koreans may have planned to land some of their commandos that way, thus enabling the troops to carry more weapons and explosives with them. The North Korea Air Force has been cutting back on training flights since the late 1990s and most of their combat aircraft are considered very inferior to the more highly trained South Korea pilots as a result. While North Korea has long maintained a large (nearly a million personnel) military, these troops are poorly led and equipped, plus there has been little cash for new equipment, maintenance of existing equipment or training since the 1990s. Since the 1990s the South Koreans have upgraded their own military to the point where it is considered on par with U.S. troops. But decades of threats from North Korea had instilled a degree of fear in South Koreans that cannot be shaken. The farther you are from Korea the more absurd the North Korean threats appear to be. But if you live within range of North Korea rockets or artillery, it’s hard to get a good laugh out of the situation. That has changed in the last decade as it became more and more obvious that most of the North Korea military was an underfed, poorly armed and untrained collection of conscripts reluctantly putting up with a decade of this abuse.
Northern Commandos In the Dark
In the last decade, even North Korea's special operations troops have lost much of their specialness. Only about 20 percent of these troops retain their “special” skill levels. That does not exempt them from the electricity shortages and the knowledge that the rest of the military and most North Koreans, in general, are in worse shape.
December 25, 2019: Christmas came and went without the promised North Korean “gift” for the United States. North Korea had nothing to say about the missing gift but did complain of the increased aerial surveillance by the United States. American defense officials also pointed out North Korea had no way of making a direct attack on the United States because the U.S. had anti-missile systems that could intercept small numbers of North Korean missiles. North Korea does not yet have any ballistic missile systems that can reach North America, much less a lot of them to overwhelm existing U.S. ballistic missile defenses.
December 24, 2019: In China, the leaders of China, South Korea and Japan met to discuss the situation North Korean nukes and missiles had created. Nothing new was agreed to, just the usual “we must continue talking to North Korea and persuade the north to give up its nukes.” Separately the leaders of South Korea and Japan met to discuss their continuing diplomatic and trade disputes. Apparently little or no progress was made. In mid-November, Japan lifted restrictions on the last of the three key exports South Korean electronics manufacturers need to operate. This was an effort to 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.
December 23, 2019: The U.S. Department of Defense posted month old photos on its website showing American and South Korean special operations troops practicing a raid on a simulated North Korean building and capturing and departing with one person. The Department of Defense revealed the American and South Korean special operations troops and rehearsed several other types of joint operations against North Korean targets. The release of the photos was apparently meant as a message to North Korea, which was not amused.
December 22, 2019: All North Korean workers in China and Russia were supposed to be back in North Korea by today, as per the UN sanctions. Russia has sent home all the North Korean workers officially still in Far East Russia, where there is a labor shortage and cheap North Korean workers have been popular. Many of the departing North Koreas said they expected to return next year. Some North Korean workers remain in Russia but these have 90 day tourist visas. The UN economic sanctions on North Korea call for all North Korean workers employed in other countries (mainly China and Russia) to be sent home by today. That did not happen in China, which has long been North Koreas’ major trading partner. China has been allowing more North Korean workers to enter and work, many with no visa at all. Half of the workers’ pay goes to the North Korean government as “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. China and Russia are officially supporting the sanctions but are unofficially tolerating all manner of smuggling and sanctions evasion.
December 21, 2019: In North Korea leader Kim Jong Un presided over a meeting with senior military leaders to discuss progress on plans to improve defensive capabilities against foreign (American, South Korea and Japanese) airstrikes and ground operations (both commando raids and major ground units crossing the border). The north no longer takes it for granted that they would start a war with South Korea. That’s because the north has little offensive capability left and the emphasis is now on dealing with attacks from the south. Recent commercial satellite photos show North Korea has resumed work at factories and launching sites for long-range ballistic missiles. These can also launch satellites but North Korea does not put much effort into building space satellites. The nuclear weapons program continues but there is no evidence what, if any, progress it has made. The North Korean nukes are apparently still crude and have to be miniaturized and made more reliable before they are considered actual weapons rather than an expensive development project.
December 20, 2019: Commercial satellite photos show North Korea expanding the factory where long-range (like North America) missiles are manufactured as well as improvements in the launch site for these large, multistage missiles. North Korea has announced that there might be a special Christmas gift for the United States and that would apparently be a test for a missile that can reach Hawaii and beyond.
December 16, 2019:
China and Russia are asking the UN to lift key sanctions on North Korea. These include North Korean exports of minerals, especially coal, as well as cheap labor for China and Russia. China and Russia have already allowed North Korean smuggling of coal and other raw materials to flourish and have unofficially allowed North Koreans to resume working in China and Russia. The number of North Korean workers in China illegally is over 50,000 and headed for 100,000. These workers recently received a raise from their Chinese employers, and that additional cash is kept by the workers. The rest of the payment is still “taxed” by North Korea, which keeps half of it. The raise was actually to reflect the fact that since the workers are in China illegally, the employer no longer has to provide housing. Nor does the state have to provide emergency medical care or any other services. Even with these conditions, there is no shortage of North Koreans willing to leave for China and apparently China is going to allow a lot more in to deal with growing labor shortage and pay them less than Chinese.
This comes after North Korea recently told the United States that it would never give up its nuclear weapons. This has always been the attitude inside North Korea, and the U.S. has been told it has to come up with some sort of compromise by the end of 2019 or the negotiations are over. Actually, these negotiations were over months ago when news came out of North Korea that the state-controlled media was confirming that North Korea would never give up its nukes. That was when North Korea began “testing’ missiles again. First, it was older, short-range ones but by now the ICBM type missiles are being tested, but only as satellite launchers. All ICBMs can double as satellite launchers and some obsolete ones do so rather than be scrapped. North Korea has launched 13 ballistic missiles since May, a violation of promises North Korea made to the U.S. as part of the negotiations to end the sanctions.
China and Russia say their request was made for humanitarian reasons. The people of North Korea are suffering and by lifting the sanctions the suffering will be reduced a bit. Russia and China are less concerned about North Korea obtaining workable nukes because the United States and Japan are the designated targets and that is fine with China and Russia. If North Korea should threaten China or Russia with its nukes, these two nations would either stage a coup or just launch their own ballistic missiles first, invade and replace the Kim dynasty. The United States does not have this “Balance of Terror” with North Korea although that may change.
The UN is unlikely to go along with China and Russia and lift sanctions because the major UN members have come to understand that North Korea is an outlaw state and with nukes North Korea is a major threat to everyone. In the past, reducing economic problems in North Korea tended to see more cash going to military than the suffering population.
December 6, 2019:
One way to measure the effectiveness of governments and the societies they represent is the Human Development Index the UN has compiled for 29 years. The index ranks all the world nations in terms of how well they do in terms of life expectancy, education and income. In 2019 South Korea was 22nd out of 189 nations while North Korea is not ranked because not enough reliable data is available on the population or economy. From what is known about the North Korean economy, education and life expectancy, North Korea would not be in the bottom ten nations but would definitely be in the bottom third (120th or worse). The rank of 0ther nations puts this into perspective; United States is at 15 (tied with Britain), Russia at 49, China 89, Israel 22 (tied with South Korea), Saudi Arabia 36, Iran 65, India 129, Pakistan 152, Bangladesh 135, Afghanistan 170, Venezuela 96, Colombia 79, Mexico 76. Egypt 116, Lebanon 93, Syria 154 and Jordan 103. The top ten nations are Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, Hong Kong, Australia, Iceland, Sweden, Singapore and Netherlands. The bottom ten are Mozambique at 180th place (there are a lot of ties) followed by Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Mali, Burundi, South Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic and in last place, Niger.
November 28, 2019: Off the South Korean west coast near the maritime border with the north, a small (500 ton) cargo ship was spotted entering South Korea waters. Several warships and patrol boats were sent to intercept and found a ship flying no flag and with no transponder. The ship was coming from North Korean territorial waters and several shots were fired across its bow to get its attention. The response was that they were lost and would turn around and head back to North Korean waters. This was 11 hours after the cargo ship was detected and the South Koreans are still suspicious about what the ship was up to.
November 24, 2019: Earlier this month North Korean naval units operating from the east coast were ordered to report in (by radio) more frequently (one an hour) by radio and that those warships impose the same rules on nearby fishing boats. This is all about increasing defections, or attempts, by boat. Naval vessels are now supposed to carefully scrutinize all seagoing traffic along the coast.
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 the 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 reduction in sanctions he was 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.