North Korean leader Kim Jong Un apparently did come close to dying in April and, since he has no adult children, the most likely successor was Kim Yo Jong, his younger sister. She was already being prepared as a possible successor because she had demonstrated ability and ambition. She is not a designated successor and has expressed no interest in the job. But in North Korea, you do what you have to do, especially if you belong to the ruling family. The younger sister is 32 years old, married since 2014 and has one child. Since 2019 she has had a senior job in the propaganda department and seems to possess the management and other skills needed to succeed. Her older brother is something of a disappointment and little seen since April. While ruthless enough in murdering any real or suspected opponents, he presents a poor image. In a country that has been suffering food shortages and famines since the 1990s, Kim Jong Un is obviously obese and apparently unable to control his need to feed. The sister is trim, fit and skilled at handling personal appearances as well as developing and implementing propaganda and public relations campaigns. No word on what she really thinks about the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, or the ways her brother has mismanaged the economy and relations with the Chinese. That said, Chinese leaders seem to respect her skills.
Without any effort from Kim Yo Jong, the rumors of her brother’s possible demise are growing, and probably for good reason. Kim Yo Jong does not have a clear shot at the succession as many North Korean officials see her role as a regent until the twelve-year-old son of Kim Jong Un is old enough to take over. That could take at least fifteen years and by then auntie Kim Yo Jong might be difficult to remove from power. All this assumes the Kim dynasty will still be in power during the 2030s. Meanwhile, the sister has been assigned to crack down on South Koreans who are sending leaflets across the DMZ using balloons. The U.S. has taken notice as can be seen by the increased flight of American electronic and photographic reconnaissance aircraft along the DMZ and North Korea’s maritime borders. So far there has been more rhetoric deployed than actual troops and vehicle movement. North Korea cannot afford to burn much fuel over this matter. Talk is much cheaper and the currency for buying attention from foreign media.
Permanent Practical Problems
In the north, the struggle to contain growing corruption continues without much effect. The corrupt practices keep evolving to evade government countermeasures and so far the government is losing, although many secret policemen and senior officials are getting rich as long as they don’t get caught.
Some examples all this can be seen in the futility of halting the use of Chinese cellphones to call outside North Korea from border areas where you can get a signal from Chinese cell towers. The government brought in more cell phone detectors and more trustworthy security officials. Many of these elite guards succumbed to bribes, to the point where bribes were offered to get assigned to border duty. Rotating new border security personnel more frequently was expensive and had little impact because the word was out that a border guard could get rich up there by catching people using Chinese cell phones and demanding bribes. That business is not as lucrative as it used to be because covid19 restrictions have fewer people on the border with Chinese cell phones, or much cash for bribes. Now that covid19 restrictions have been lifted more Chinese business travelers are back in North Korea and many are offering to rent their cell phones for fixed periods. Prices are high to cover the cost of possible bribes or phone confiscation and payable in American or Chinese currency. Dollars are preferred. More Chinese commercial visitors also bring more Chinese cell phones for sale, again with North Korean currency not accepted. These phones are in demand because North Koreans find that renting them is lucrative and is relatively risk-free.
After years of efforts and millions of dollars’ worth of expensive Western cell phone detectors, the cross-border calls are still a regular occurrence. Most of the calls are about business or family matters but enough of them involve gossip so that the outside world can keep up on North Korean internal affairs and North Koreans know what is really happening in the outside world.
North Korea is going through the worst economic crises since the famine years of the 1990s. GDP is expected to shrink by at least seven percent in 2020. This is mainly because China is enforcing the economic sanctions and there have been additional problems caused by efforts to keep covid19 out of North Korea. Kim Jong Un continues to anger China by refusing to accept Chinese advice about following the Chinese example of economic reform. In effect that means adopting classic fascism; a relatively free economy ruled by a dictatorship. So far, the Kims and their cronies have been wary of the “Chinese Solution” even though it appears more and more likely to be the best way out of the economic mess North Korea created for itself.
June 22, 2020: In South Korea, former North Koreans revealed that they had defied the governments of both Koreas and released balloons overnight carrying 500,000 leaflets, 2,000 one-dollar bills and hundreds of small books into North Korea. This has increased tensions between the two Koreas and with it threats of military retaliation from the north. That would be a bad idea because despite South Korean efforts to curb their citizens from sending items across the DMZ most South Koreans expect a major military response to any use of violence by North Korea. The continued efforts by dissident former North Koreans endangers all South Koreans living near the border because North Korean troops are sometimes ordered to use their machine-guns to fire at the balloons, a practice that has bullets landing near where South Koreans live. This means the balloon users are blamed for endangering the lives of fellow South Koreans and that makes these former North Koreans unpopular in their new country.
June 17, 2020: North Korea announced new military exercises along the DMZ as well as a program of releasing 12 million propaganda leaflets that will drift into South Korea.
June 16, 2020: On the North Korean side of the DMZ, in the border city of Kaesong, the four story inter-Korean liaison office building was blown up on orders from North Korean propaganda chief Kim Yo Jong. The liaison office was built in 2018 by leader Kim Jong Un with $15 million provided by South Korea, in an effort to persuade South Korea to provide more aid to North Korea. South Korea refused to cooperate because providing such aid, which has been done often in the past, never improves relations between the two Koreas and the north continues to threaten invasion of the south. North Korea says it may have to do this in self-defense. North Korea blames the destruction of the liaison office on South Korea. In response South Korea made it clear it was out of patience with North Korean aggression and any violence the north perpetuates in the south will be met by a lot more and if that spirals out of control it will be the fault of the north.
The problem here is that southern
dissidents (North Koreans who had escaped to South Korea) had resumed sending gifts and leaflets about South Korea to the north. This sort of thing has been going on intermittently for six years. Former North Koreans and like-minded South Koreas protest the North Korean dictatorship by using balloons or river and ocean currents to sneak small items into North Korea. The gifts are items of great use to average northerners, Things like plastic bottles full of rice, thumb drives full of South Korean TV shows and movies, small radios, dollar bills and common, at least in South Korea medicines that are often unavailable in the north. In the past, the south usually responds to northern pressure and sends police to try blocking these gift sending protests. At first, South Korea askes the dissidents to refrain. There has always been a lot of debate in the south over this because South Korea is a democracy and there is no law against trying to send small gifts north and not a lot of enthusiasm to outlaw this form of protest. The dissidents often respond by not announcing when or where they are releasing items to float north via balloon or water currents. This was largely the result of South Korean opposition, not threats from the north. This began in 2014 when the dissidents had confrontations with local (to the balloon launch sites) residents who, joined by leftists seeking an end to these propaganda efforts against the north. At first, this forced the dissidents to back off. There were a lot more balloons going north in 2014. The small helium balloons drift into North Korea with a variety of cargoes. It’s always something that annoys the North Korean government. The usual cargo is DVDs, one-dollar bills, sweets or pamphlets and leaflets providing accurate information on abuses in North Korea and life in South Korea. This sort of thing makes the North Korean government very angry and anyone caught with balloon delivered goodies can be sent to prison camps. In the south, the threats of retaliation from the north cannot be ignored because in 2014 North Korean troops fired machine-guns into the south. While that did not kill anyone, artillery fire would be different. By the end of 2014, South Koreans living close to the border began blocking roads or calling on local police to stop people from releasing balloons. This was difficult to do and ultimately the police assigned some surveillance personnel watch to the dissidents and mobilized an interception effort when it was known that the dissident vehicles were headed for the border. There is still a lot of support for the protestors in the south and that led to the government leaving the protestors alone, especially if they carried out their cross-border efforts without publicity. In the recent situation, North Korea provided the publicity and the subsequent threats.
June 15, 2020: Back in March the North Korean government did something new, it stopped issuing basic food supplies to all residents of Pyongyang, the national capital. The reason given was the covid19 emergency. But now that those emergency measures are being lifted, restoring the free food distribution is still not happening. Apparently, that is to discourage North Koreans from coming to live illegally in Pyongyang. Legal residence in the capital is not freely granted, mainly because it is a much nicer place to live. There is more of everything, including more hours of electrical power and more economic opportunities for illegal residents. Although the food distribution only went to legal residents, many of those legal residents were helping to support illegal family and friends living in the capital. Since the end of food distributions, there have been more illegal food markets in the capital and fewer new illegals trying to settle down. There are poor families in the capital and the government is providing some of them with additional food once it is verified that these households are not harboring illegals.
June 12, 2020: Chinese companies employing North Korean workers have a more favorable attitude towards North Korean illegals. China has a labor shortage, because of the three decades of “one child only” population control. The North Koreans work harder and cause fewer problems. Technically the North Korea workers are employees of the North Korean state, which takes most of their pay as “taxes and fees”. This relationship continues with most North Korean workers. In some cases, Chinese employers are finding North Korean workers who are willing to abandon North Korea by signing contracts with Chinese firms for higher pay, longer terms and no return to North Korea. The Chinese government doesn’t care and without Chinese intervention, North Korea cannot force these workers to return, especially if these workers have no family in North Korea, or don’t care what happens to their family. This is another example of China reminding North Korea who the “elder brother” is in their relationship and that elder brother continues to be displeased with how North Korea is mismanaging its economy and foreign affairs.
May 27, 2020: South Korea reports that foreign hacking efforts against South Korean military and defense industry networks nearly doubled in 2019 but that these attacks failed to achieve any significant results. There were about 4,000 of these attacks in 2017, 5,000 in 2018 and 9,533 in 2019. North Korean or Chinese hackers are behind most of these attacks.
May 24, 2020: In
northeast North Korea (North Hamgyong Province), several weeks of police investigations have failed to identify who stole 60 meters (nearly 200 feet) of heavy electrical cable from the railroad. The theft was discovered May 1st, shortly after the theft caused a two-day shutdown in local rail service. There are a lot of industrial facilities in that area and the two-day transportation disruption was noticed in the capital. Railroad employees are suspected because whoever did it knew how to avoid leaving any clues. If the thieves are not found and punished it is feared there will be more such thefts.
May 22, 2020: China continues to enforce the UN trade sanctions by seizing millions of dollars’ worth of illegal North Korean exports. This often means the North Korean exporter does not get paid and is left to explain to the secret police where all the missing product went.