So far this year military and diplomatic affairs have taken a back seat to medical matters. It’s all about the coronavirus or covid19 which quickly spread to Korea because both Koreas still have a lot of commercial visitors from China, as well as tourists. South Korea promptly mobilized a very efficient national public health effort to deal with the crises. In North Korea, the government made all information relating to covid19 a state secret and denied that covid19 was a problem in North Korea. North Korea has no real public health capability, especially the ability to monitor the overall impact of covid19. The only data collected about the disease was the impact on the military. That data was secret, but because just about every family in the country has someone in the military, the data got leaked. By early March several thousand North Koreas soldiers appear to have been quarantined on suspicion of having the virus. These cases were almost all along the Chinese border. North Korea cannot afford to test many people for covid19. Instead, the army has been ordered to isolate any soldiers who exhibit symptoms of the virus. This probably puts some non-covid19 patients in quarantine with those who do have it. Nearly 200 soldiers have died recently of “fever” and families are being told the bodies were cremated.
In South Korea, there have been 10,564 confirmed cases of the virus so far with 222 deaths. Compared to China and North Korea, South Korea has suffered a much lower death rate for people infected. In China, the death rate has been 3-4 percent while in South Korea it has been 0.7 percent. South Korea with a population (51 million) twice as large as in the north has so far apparently suffered 80 percent fewer covid19 deaths. China only reported covid19 data for about two months and then very reluctantly and, for over a month, has claimed that the covid19 danger had passed in China. Unofficial reports getting past Chinese censors and out to the rest of the world indicate that covid19 is still infecting and killing people in China, whose people are resisting government offers to pretend that the covid19 epidemic has passed. A similar situation exists in North Korea where the government insists there has never been a covid19 epidemic, just a few isolated cases that were quickly taken care of. North Korea does have one advantage in restricting the spread of covid19; poor transportation networks. Government mismanagement of the economy has left the roads, and railroads in poor shape, and it is very difficult to travel in North Korea. So covid19 could not spread much from the few active entry points on the Chinese border and a few ports. Even with that, there were some large outbreaks along the Chinese border and in some military units.
By any measure, South Korea has an excellent health system. As a result, South Korea has been able to cope and has already contained the virus, with the number of new cases declining and fewer deaths per thousand infected people. Despite this superior performance, North Korea will not accept any South Korean help in this matter because the official word in the north is that the government kept the virus out. In most of the country that is true. But along the still porous Chinese border, it is no secret with the locals that covid19 got into their part of North Korea. People living near the Chinese border increasingly ignore government propaganda and take their own precautions to avoid the disease. While the military has a rudimentary health system for their personnel and some resources to deal with covid19 infections, modern health care is only available to the most senior officials both military and non-military. These officials also have access to the outside world and what is really going on with covid19 in other countries.
North Korea is going through the covid19 epidemic the old fashioned way, which is not all that shocking in the north where people are perplexed by all the fuss. After all, the North Korean government took no precautions during SARS (2003) and MERS (2015) virus outbreaks. What is different about covid19 is that it spreads more easily and quickly but not to the extent that it could be described as an “exterminating disease”. Only a few percent of those infected dies and these are mainly the very old or already very sick. In North Korea, you have to add a fourth vulnerable group; the malnourished. Food shortages have been worse the past few years and a lot more people are simply not getting enough to eat. There are also more homeless children and adults in urban areas and they tend to be in poor health.
Some of these deaths may be from other causes but even North Korea medical personnel, at least outside the capital, do not have the diagnostic equipment to confirm covid19 deaths. Officially there is a national health-care system but the reality is that only the capital and the military have any significant medical resources. The only place where you see a lot of people wearing face masks is the capital where only key security personnel and the most elite officials (the one percenters) were issued masks. Other people improvise.
North Korea has suppressed any official, or unofficial, news of what is really happening. But North Koreans still have their cell phones, although they have to use carefully selected code words to pass on covid19 related news. Information brokers on the Chinese side of the border are still getting plenty of business even though much less information is getting out since the government began restricting movement within North Korea and across the border in January. On February 20 all schools (except for a few elite science programs) were shut down for a month. Long distance travel by train, plane, automobile or boat was restricted or banned.
The border ban includes North Koreans arrested in China for being there illegally. It is also illegal to leave North Korea without permission and these prisoners are usually transferred back to North Korea for punishment. That has been halted until the covid19 danger has passed. The only legal crossings from North Korea are foreign diplomats being expelled on suspicion of having covid19. The military has banned leave for soldiers and restricted who can leave the base. New recruits are being turned down if they have any indications of sickness, especially lung related. Lacking the resources to test for covid19, military doctors are using cruder methods that see more conscripts having their induction delayed for months or longer. The military only takes in new recruits twice a year but one of those induction periods occurs in mid-January and lasts about a month. The military also discharges soldiers who have completed their enlistments (of up to ten years) at the same time. These discharges have been delayed as well, for a month or more. Same deal for officers retiring or completing their mandatory active service before going into the reserves.
North Korea also demanded that Chinese border guards ban civilians from even approaching the Yalu River that comprises most of the border. North Korea threatened to use violence to enforce this ban. China told North Korea to tone down the rhetoric before something unfortunate, for North Korea, happened.
In early February North Korea halted all Chinese tourism, despite the fact that this is a major source of foreign currency, and curbed normal (business and government) travel to China. North Korea is also very poor and in no condition to deal with an outbreak of the new virus. Yet North Korea still has a lot of smugglers operating along the Chinese border and in some coastal areas.
The border with China has been closed to major traffic since January 30th and that means bulk imports of food and fuel are not arriving. These are legal imports that China is the major supplier of. North Korea cannot afford to maintain much in the way of food or fuel reserves and what reserves do exist are for the military, in case there is a war or other national emergency. These supplies may already have been released to provincial security forces (soldiers and police) but they won’t last long if the Chines border remains closed.
In contrast, by the end of February, the South Korean army has thousands of soldiers quarantined until they are cleared of any possible coronavirus infection. All these soldiers had visited China, Hong Kong or Macao recently and the quarantine was just a precaution often applied to any recent South Korean visitors to China.
The thoroughness of the South Korean testing (for covid19) had a downside in that it revealed in a small number of people who get infected and survive the virus, but later get infected again. This is unusual but not unknown. In most cases with a virus, but you get it and survive, your immune system remembers covid19 and halts or quickly deals with future infection by covid19. While South Korea is confident that its health care system had handled covid19, there is still a danger from China. There the official policy of denying the presence of covid19 in many parts of the country conflicts with the reality that many Chinese are still infected. So how does South Korea handle travelers from China when international travel is allowed once more?
Seeking A Few Good Cavemen
The growth of the legal (and illegal) market economy has made it more difficult for the government to find workers for essential, but dangerous or distasteful jobs. One example is found in In northern North Korea (Chagang Province) which is still rural and sparsely populated. It has long been the site of many secret facilities, including ammo manufacturing, underground record storage facilities (like Iron Mountain in the United States) and escape tunnels to China for senior officials in case of emergency). Nuclear research facilities are being moved here and nearly all these military-related facilities are underground. A new underground nuclear testing facility is being prepared here, which is very unpopular, because the old one had to be abandoned after the mountain where many underground tests were conducted in collapsed and released a lot of radioactivity. Chagang is still considered 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. Chagang Province is not a pleasant place to live because most of the available jobs are in the underground factories. Many factories used to be aboveground where there were better ventilation and natural light. This made all the toxic chemicals used in ammo and rocket production easier to tolerate. The underground plants are very unpopular so many young people are leaving the province. This includes the children of local officials and donju (legal entrepreneurs). For these kids, there are better paying jobs in management or tech specialties underground in Chagang province. Everyone down there breathes the same unhealthy air and soon learns to loath working in a cave. Suddenly leaving the area is illegal as all movement away from your hometown must be approved by the government. This is a staple of communist states, even China. But over the years the people come up with ways to beat the internal passport system and go somewhere else. So many North Koreans do it that the government has largely stopped trying to rigidly enforce it. That means a labor shortage crisis in Chagang and many other rural areas. Internal passport rules are still enforced in the capital, which is another world compared to the rest of North Korea. With the spread of cellphones and Internet use, it is possible for people in remote areas to find out about living conditions and worker demand in other provinces. While getting out of North Korea is very expensive and dangerous, loving to a more prosperous and pleasant part of the country is much easier and local officials in Chagang Province have a growing labor shortage on their hands. This is one reason the government put a new ski resort here. The abundance of snow during the nearly six months a year was another attraction. Despite poor attendance this year (due to sanctions and covid19) the Chagang ski resort is being expanded. This provides more attractive jobs for locals and a reason to stay in the area. That won’t be enough.
April 13, 2020: In western North Korea several more short-range missiles were fired into the sea. These appear to be cruise missiles.
April 12, 2020: In North Korea leader Kim Jong Un has carried out a major reorganization of some of the senior bureaucracies. Kim replaced a lot of veteran officials with people he believed would be more loyal to him. This is a process that has been going since 2011 when Kim replaced his deceased father as ruler of North Korea. Since then Kim Jong Un has dismissed or even executed a lot of senior military or police commanders his father had appointed and believed loyal. The younger Kim had different ideas. One of the more recent different ideas is to form a new elite secret police organization, the MGGD (Military Government Guidance Department). This outfit will seek out and identify military personnel, especially senior ones, engaged in corrupt practices. Even before Kim Jong Un took over the corruption was getting worse throughout North Korea. In the last decade, the secret police have been corrupted to the point where its capabilities are much diminished, Kim sees the same trend in the military and hopes the elite MGGD will get it done. The odds are against that because efforts to cure corruption in the secret police and border guards with such elite units had only limited success and even that did not last as bribes and other financial incentives eventually won. The fate of the MGGD is rather more personal for Kim and his close associates because the prime goal of the MGGD is to ensure the survival of Kim Jong Un and his government.
April 10, 2020: In North Korea, the government changed its plans again and announced that schools would reopen April 17th rather than May 1st. The decision was made in part because Kim Jong Un realized that Internet access was too limited for online learning to take place while schools were closed. The lost class time will be made up by keeping schools open during the normal July-August recess. Schools have been closed since February 20th to deal with the covid19 threat.
April 9, 2020: In North Korea, local leaders thought it would be good for morale if a new hospital was built in the capital. This is already the only place in the country with an adequate supply of modern medical facilities. There has been a growing need for another new and modern hospital and that’s what the government has promised to provide by October. That short construction schedule is seen as a bad sign. For a decade now construction managers have been under tremendous pressure to complete high profile construction projects. That usually means that Kim Jong Un had a personal interest in it. His father Kim Jong Il started this practice which resulted in construction managers cutting corners drastically, with the understanding that he would have to get himself and his family out of the country in the next few years before the shortcuts manifest themselves in building or bridge collapses. These are death penalty events for the building managers although shoddy work is more obvious and often publicized but tolerated because of the impossible goals these projects impose. Managers are given authority to impose “special taxes” on the local population to help pay for these projects but the locals are increasingly broke, or expert at pretending to be and of little help to desperate managers operating on a dwindling budget. In a growing number of cases senior government officials recognize the risks here and have come up with a solution; give the project to one of the donju (entrepreneurs). In effect, the government has been contracting out more and more of their work to donju. This is not a good idea for a dictatorship, because this is now you become too dependent on the private sector which, if the past is any guide, eventually decides that the dictatorship can be easily eliminated.
Overly ambitious building plans often turn out horribly wrong. Not only do these plans not produce the quantity of new construction promised but the quality is low and getting worse. Most new structures are built using substandard materials and unsafe practices. Hundreds of students and other civilians drafted to help in the construction were killed or mutilated by work accidents. The construction managers are under tremendous pressure to get the new projects built, at any cost. A decade ago the results began to become obvious. The new buildings were so poorly built that Pyongyang residents feared being given an apartment in one of the new buildings. Some of the shoddy new buildings have collapsed, and city residents were wondering how the government would spin the collapse of finished and inhabited, ones. Now capital residents fear the completion of the new hospital and the risks of being a patient there.
April 6, 2020: Commercial satellite photos of the northeastern North Korea Sinpo shipyard revealed what appears to be land-based ejection testing of the tubes that would carry ballistic missiles in an SSB (diesel-electric submarine carrying ballistic missiles) has been under construction. A year ago satellite photos showed a large number of ship or submarine components accumulating at the Sinpo shipyard. These components had arrived in the last few months. Back in mid-2018 aerial and satellite photos indicated that the Sinpo shipyard was experiencing increased activity. Sinpo is where a North Korean SSB is being built and work on the unfinished sub continues. SSB is in the water and apparently “fitting out” (having missing components added before sea trials). It has taken a long time to get this SSB built. Back in early 2015 when aerial photos clearly (despite a camouflage net) showed an SSB under construction. Based on what was known in 2015 it appeared that North Korea could have an operational SSB (carrying reliable missiles) by 2018 if they completed and successfully tested the new 3,000 ton SSB as well as the SLBM (Sea launched ballistic missile). But construction activity in Sinpo declined after 2016, apparently due to lack of resources. The current increase in activity indicates a major effort to complete the SSB soon. The SSB is still not ready for sea trials and it is unclear when it will be.
April 5, 2020: In western North Korea four doctors working at a navy hospital died of covid19. Three were military doctors and one was civilian. The hospital was for seriously ill patients and was supposed to be free of covid19. An investigation found that the source of the covid19 was the Customs Inspector brother-in-law of the civilian doctor. The brother-in-law had caught covid19 from one of the foreigners he met with as part of his job. The brother-in-law was quarantined and recovered but apparently not before infecting the doctor who infected three other doctors and others at the hospital. Nearly a hundred patients and military personnel at the naval hospital have been quarantined along with the families of the dead doctors.
April 3, 2020: In North Korea, the government announced that schools would not reopen until May. This is the third time the date for reopening schools has been put off.
April 2, 2020: In North Korea at least a dozen cargo trucks were seen crossing the Friendship Bridge at the Dandong border crossing. This is normally the busiest trade route between China and North Korea and it has been closed since the end of January because of covid19. China recently allowed North Korean run restaurants in China to reopen.
April 1, 2020: In North Korea, it was announced that the families of officers would have their free food supplies provided by the government cut by two-thirds for six months. Crop failures and sanctions are blamed but most North Koreans know the real reason is the number of resources spent on missile and nuclear weapons development. Food supplies for the largely conscript troops were not cut. The officers and their families live much better than most North Koreans and are expected to be better able to cope. It quickly became clear that these cuts generated a very visible decline in officer morale.
Food shortages are being felt in some agricultural areas where recent crop failures did not result in the government providing much in the way of emergency food supplies. Because of that, so many farmers went hungry over the past few months and many (about a third of them) are not showing up for work to prepare for this year's crops.
The government is also cracking down on the donju, who were allowed to get away with a lot of illegal, or nearly illegal practices as long as they helped keep the economy going. Now the government is demanding more money, especially foreign currency, from donju. Those who don’t produce what is demanded can be arrested or otherwise punished. The donju are not happy. Nor are the smugglers, who are being coerced by the government to spend more time carrying out less-profitable government approved smuggling operations.
March 29, 2020: North Korea fired two more ballistic missiles from an east coast base. Both missiles traveled about 230 kilometers towards Japan before landing in the ocean. North Korea launched 13 missiles in 2019. So far eight missiles have been launched in 2020, during four separate incidents this month.
March 27, 2020: China lifted its ban on North Korea businessmen entering China to do business. North Koreans who have been pre-approved by China and have a health document verifying they are free of covid19 will be allowed in and out.
March 26, 2020: The Google Threat Analysis Group reported that a mysterious hacker group had carried out several successful attacks on North Korean Internet users during 2019. The attackers were skilled and equipped with a lot of expensive (to acquire) zero-day exploits (undetected flaws in browsers and other common Internet software). South Korea was apparently behind these attacks but, as it normally does, will not comment on the situation.
March 25, 2020: In the North Korean capital, a store began selling a unique item, a flat-screen TV that is made in North Korea and has features popular in North Korea, like a long-life (eight hours per charge) battery that allows use if the power in the area has been cut, a common situation in North Korea. Even the capital is now experiencing blackouts. The manufacturing deal was arranged by the government with a Chinese citizen. These investors are guaranteed all profits from the sale of these TVs over the next three years. Retail prices were specified in the contract. When the government realized these new TVs were a popular item they ordered the retail prices increased, mainly because profits from sales at higher (than specified in the contract) go to the government. You need dollars or Chinese currency to buy these TVs as these deals are mainly about getting the government more foreign currency.
All the components for various (15, 17, 19 and 21 inch) models are imported and assembled by North Koreans. The factory workforce includes ten recent graduates from the top engineering college. These grads were ordered to learn all they can the Chinese components so that eventually these can be made in North Korea. These TVs are a novelty item and sell for ten times what Chinese models go for. North Korean TVs have more features that appeal to North Korean users but few people outside the capital are willing to spend $500 for one of these small TVs. The larger flat-screen TVs common in China and the rest of the world are a rare luxury in North Korea. The small flat-screen TVs have replaced the older CRT type TVs mainly because of power needs. Electrical devices that draw less power so they can run for hours on batteries are the most useful. Even in the capital solar panels are popular for operating low-power devices when the electric supply is cut for several hours. Outside the capital, electric power is available fewer hours each day and solar panels even more popular.
The lack of economic growth because of the government emphasis on military spending has forced more North Koreans to depend on cheaper Chinese and North Korean consumer goods and electronics. The increased sanctions plus more secret police emphasis on arresting smugglers and sending more to prison for a few years has reduced the flow of smuggled goods, and bribes collected by police to let the smugglers go. The government has improved the quality of locally made electronics so the quality difference with South Korea models is not as great. South Korea products are still preferred but they are harder to get and cost a lot more than a year ago.
March 22, 2020: In the North Korean capital, there was a breakdown in the water quality in areas near the National Defense University. At least twenty students got sick from drinking tap water, Locals were warned to boil tap water first before using it for drinking or cooking. The contamination turned out to be a local problem. Such incidents are rare in the capital but common in the rest of the country over half the population does not have regular access to a safe water supply.
March 21, 2020: Chinese living on the North Korean border report seeing North Korean soldiers guarding the border who appear sick. The soldiers are lethargic in the cold weather and coughing. There are still North Koreans with Chinese cell phones who can communicate with people in China and they report that young soldiers have been dying, apparently from covid19. Similar reports have come from areas near military bases where there have been a lot more deaths this year from unspecified “disease.”
March 20, 2020: In China Sohu, the largest web search and online news company published an article discussing how Russia was falling apart and that China would have to reclaim its lost (to Russia centuries ago) territories north of Manchuria and Korea. Since the Cold War ended a growing number of Russians became openly concerned about this because of Chinese claims on much of eastern Russia. China never renounced these claims, even after Russia helped the Chinese communists win the post-World War II civil war that put the current Chinese government in power. At the time Chinese leaders mentioned those claims and did not abandon them. Since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991
Chinese entrepreneurs have quietly taken control of the local economy in those parts of Russia that border China and North Korea. That explains why China has ignored North Korea using Russia and Chinese cargo ships to illegally export coal. North Korea moves the coal (illegally) into Russia via truck where it is exported on ships owned by Chinese companies. China is tolerating this because Chinese firms have been exploiting corruption in Russia, where it is worse than in China, to dominate the economy in the Russian Far East. This is the area between Mongolia and the Pacific coast. China has a historical claim on this area, claims which China revived after World War II and again in the late 1960s. Those revived claims led to border skirmishes during the 1970s that were halted when Russia made it clear it was prepared to risk nuclear war over the issue. That Russian policy still stands, although it is not publicized.
At the moment Russian leaders are more concerned with the imaginary threat from the West rather than the very real one from the east.
March 17, 2020: In North Korea, the official explanation for the appearance of covid19 in North Korea was the use of biological weapons by South Korea. Blaming South Korea for anything is not new but admitting that there is an epidemic disease in North Korea was.
March 15, 2020: In South Korea, the origin of the local covid19 has been traced to a mass outbreak at the Sinchonji Church.