Korea: The Paper Defense


September 6, 2022: North Korea, in a desperate effort to keep news of the outside world from North Koreans, has ordered residents of border areas to sign oaths promising to never use a foreign cell phone and report any incidence of someone else in the border area doing so. Failure to sign was not an option so everyone signed and went on with business as usual, using foreign cell phones at every opportunity.

South Korea is a key component in the coalition formed to oppose Chinese territorial claims on land and at sea. This coalition exposed some harsh truths about the military balance in Asia. India is not considered a reliable ally nor is India as powerful as its population (second only to China) would suggest. Despite their equal populations, China’s GDP is over five times larger than India’s. Tiny Japan has a GDP twice that of India and the Japanese and South Korean fleets combined are more powerful than the ramshackle Indian Navy. At the same time India still cooperates with Russia and China in military and economic matters. India has nuclear weapons, and these are seen as a last resort against Chinese efforts to annex Indian territory. China is less impressed with India’s non-nuclear forces. South Korea and Japan are another matter.

September 4, 2022: North Korea has agreed to send a thousand workers to eastern Ukraine (Donbas) to help with construction projects. The North Korean workers are already in Russia, where they have been stuck since 2020 because North Korea shut its borders because of covid19. Russia is also sending North Korea large quantities of wheat because North Korea has officially recognized the Russian arranged independence of the two provinces in Donbas. Those two provinces are still a war zone but North Korea is sending the workers anyway because it is an opportunity to earn hard currency. Russia is also buying artillery ammunition (shells and rockets) from North Korea, to replace the ammo used against Ukrainian forces or destroyed by Ukrainian missile attacks. These attacks on ammo storage sites have been particularly heavy and caused noticeable shortages at the front, where Ukrainian troops noted the decline in Russian artillery fire. Russia can pay for the ammo with food, which North Korea is desperately in need of. Since North Korea and Russia share a border, and a rail link, moving these goods is not subject to any outside interference. North Korea seizes any economic opportunity it can because the country is in bad economic shape and it has been getting worse because of covid19 lockdowns and continued economic mismanagement. Foreign economists estimate that North Korean GDP has declined at a rate of 2.4 percent a year over the last five years.

August 30, 2022: The population of North Korean labor camps declined 11 percent in the last year. There was no reduction in people sentenced to years of imprisonment in labor camps. Death rates from overwork and other forms of mistreatment were always higher in these camps than outside the camps. With the current food shortages, the quantity and quality of food supplied for camp inmates has declined, in part because the guards are also receiving less food for themselves and their families and are augmenting their diets with food stolen from what is sent to feed the inmates. Inmates with family or friends able to bribe the guards do better. Those lacking such outside help starve and more frequently die. Bribing your way out is, so far, not possible. The only way out is to survive your sentence to die before that. The food shortages were particularly acute in the last year, as was the increase in deaths from illness, usually covid19. There is also overcrowding in the camps. The year before camp population increased by 23,000. In the last year the decline was 26,000. This is particularly dangerous for those serving long (over five years) sentences. North Korea recently sentenced twenty university students to long terms in labor camps for distributing or watching South Korea video. There was a public trial.

August 26, 2022: South Korea agreed to sell $5.8 billion worth of tanks, self-propelled artillery and ammunition to Poland. Deliveries will be made within a year and Polish tank crews will begin training in South Korea this October. This purchase is part of Poland’s effort to improve its defenses in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Last month Poland ordered billions of dollars-worth of South Korean K2 tanks, K9 self-propelled 155mm howitzers and FA-50 jet trainers reconfigured for combat use. While the K2 and K9 purchase amounts to nearly a thousand vehicles (most built in Poland under license), only 48 FA-50s are being purchased. The subsequent order was for armored vehicles delivered as soon as possible.

August 23, 2022: Two Russian TU-95 bombers violated South Koreas’ ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone). Russia said it was a scheduled flight but South Korea was not informed.

August 14, 2022: Responding to complaints of food shortages by troops guarding the border, the central government ordered provincial authorities to ensure that troops guarding the Chinese border in their province receive adequate food. This includes families of officers, who live with their husbands. Shifting food supply responsibilities to provincial authorities won’t make it any easier to obtain the needed food. There are shortages throughout the country and no surpluses available. Someone will go hungry in these provinces to ensure the troops are fed.

August 12, 2022: The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry thanked Latvia for designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and called on other nations to do likewise. Since July such a resolution has been making its way through the U.S. Congress. If that resolution is signed into law, it will make Russia the fifth nation the U.S. has designated and imposed sanctions and other restrictions related to terrorism support. The other four “state sponsors” are Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Syria.

August 10, 2022: North Koreans continue dying of flu-like symptoms. These people were not tested for covid19 and the deaths were simply attributed to flu. Many people who showed symptoms of influenza were sent to isolation centers for a few weeks before the survivors were released. Now North Korea admits that it does have a covid19 problem and is testing people more often or, as is the case in the capital, more frequently. China is keeping its borders with North Korea closed because of the perceived risk of reinfection by North Koreas visiting China. This cannot last long because China has many economic and political interests in North Korea so a testing and quarantine procedure for North Koreans crossing the border will be imposed.

The North Korean economy is in free fall because of draconian covid19 lockdowns and mismanagement of covid19 treatments when new strains (faster spreading, less lethal) got in despite the efforts to keep it out. This was made worse by mismanagement of the economy. This is especially embarrassing in comparison to the South Korean economy, which has a GDP per capita that is more than twenty times that of the north. The GDP gap continues to widen, which is why North Koreans caught viewing recordings of South Korean media are sent to prison and those responsible for distributing these recordings are often executed. These extreme punishments don't work in the north. This is especially true when it comes to forced contributions of time and money to government projects. Noting the backlash from North Koreans in general and especially those provinces with the most problems, the central government ordered party officials to pay closer to public attitudes in areas they were in charge of. In many cases this order was not carried out as intended. The officials approached locals to make enquiries but often acted like they were feudal overlords dealing with local serfs.

While the South Korea GDP continues to grow despite covid19 related problems, the north has experienced a nine percent GDP decline in 2020 and five percent in 2021. The shrinkage continues in 2022. Since 2020 North Korea has suffered persistent trade deficits (more exports than imports). In 2020 the deficit was $684 million and $549 in 2021. There will be another deficit in 2022 because internal lockdowns continue, although not as widely as last year. Nearly 60 percent of imports are petroleum products. Not enough other items, like fertilizer, are getting in, which increases the food shortages. Even imports of items for the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons have been reduced, but not eliminated. The state of the armed forces grows worse, mainly because of food shortages. Desertions are up as are the percentage of new conscripts physically unfit for service. The desertions include border guards, who are supposed to receive adequate food supplies but don’t and most of them are simply leaving their weapons behind and wading or swimming across the river into China.

Fewer imports of industrial raw materials means that more weapons systems (ships, aircraft, vehicles, artillery and unguided rockets) are unavailable because fuel or key replacement components are not available. The official government explanation for all this is “insufficient loyalty” by workers and managers was at fault. It’s a criminal offense to openly criticize senior leadership, especially supreme leader Kim Jong Un.

August 8, 2022: South Korea is the latest newly affluent East Asian country to suffer an almost inevitable population decline associated with increasing per capita GDP’s. All the 2021 data has been analyzed and it confirmed that in 2021 the South Korean population declined .2 percent. This was not a surprise because this curse of affluence could be seen coming a long way off. The post-Korean war population boom peaked in 1960 (at three percent annual growth) and began to decline over the next three decades as South Korea’s industrialization took place. By the late 1990s the population growth fell below one percent a year and this decline accelerated as South Korea became an economic powerhouse. In the last few years, the South Korean economy has become the 10th largest in the world. That’s remarkable for a country with a population of only 52 million.

Communist North Korea saw its population double between 1965 and the present, just as South Korea’s did, but North Korea could not compete in economic growth. North Korea initially grew its GDP somewhat after the Korean War because of generous subsidies from the Soviet Union, but those ended in 1990 when the USSR collapsed. Even before that the South Korean free market economy was growing rapidly and is now 40 times larger than in the north, meaning the per-capita GDP is 20 times larger in South Korea.

The North Korean solution to this problem was to develop nuclear weapons to intimidate South Korea into subsidizing the failing North Korean economy. That did not work and actually backfired as South Korea developed a much more powerful military at the same time that the North Korean military becomes less effective each year because of a declining economy that diverts much money towards developing obsolete ballistic missile and crude nuclear weapons that anger more than terrify the neighbors. North Korea’s population continues to grow but just barely. Migrating (officially “defecting”) is illegal but people still try. Increasing hunger and poverty has produced a growing number of abandoned children who can be seen in towns and cities. For South Korea the major problem is economic growth, not threats from North Korea.

August 4, 2022: South Korea revealed details of its first jet fighter, the KF-21. Also called Borame (“Fighting Hawk ''), the fighter made its first flight on July 19th and expects to enter service by 2026. Developing the KF-21 cost at least $8 billion. The South Korean air force wants to buy 120 of them. The first 40 will be Block 1 while the other 80 will be Block 2. There is also an export customer, Indonesia, which is contributing 20 percent of the development funds. The South Korea government is supplying 60 percent of development costs and the KF-21 manufacturer the remaining 20 percent. Indonesia and the South Korea aircraft manufacturer expect to receive contracts for production of KF-21 components and future upgrades. Indonesia will eventually assemble KF-21s in Indonesia from components supplied by South Korea and Indonesia.




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