Korea: Oops, My Bad


January 4, 2011: While the big issue in the south is war, in the north everyone is obsessed with food, or the lack of it. Families of Communist Party and security service officials are buying all they can, and apparently stockpiling it. Lower ranking officials are increasingly asking that their bribes be paid in food (especially rice), rather than cash (which is declining in value at the black market currency exchanges). Similarly, several factories, that are still working and exporting, are asking to be paid in rice. Chinese traders and others who regularly deal with North Koreans (especially along the border) note a growing demand for food, and more people planning an attempt to escape North Korea. While South Korea talks of war, in the north the fears are of starvation, and of everything getting worse. What is different is that it's now the ruling class up north that fears starvation. For decades, it was the ruled who worried about food, and quietly died of starvation by the millions, when the food was simply not there. This Winter, there's some new in the air; fear for everyone. This despite, or perhaps because of, bold government proclamations that the economic situation will be much improved by 2012. These kinds of promises are typical communist propaganda, and have been used many times in the past. This one is supposed to be special, because 2012 is the centennial of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung's birth and, many fear, the year Kim Il Sung's son will die and be succeeded by his grandson. North Koreans are openly disdainful of the current "plan," and all its aspects and implications. This is why the ruling class up north are in a panic.

A recent opinion survey in the south indicated that fear of the north, and another war, has undermined morale for decades. Even though per-capita income has tripled in South Korea during the last two decades, the constant fear of another northern invasion has made South Koreans unhappy, unwilling to have children, and more eager (than other nations in East Asia) to emigrate. For southerners, the north is a source of sorrow, fear and unhappiness. But in the decades after the 1960s, North Korea ceased to be the "enemy." They were wayward brothers in need of help. Now the north is the "enemy" again. It's a mark of resolve in the south, but a source of fear in the north.

Although South Korean officials deny it, that there are apparently talks going on with Japan over military cooperation. Because of harsh Japanese behavior during the 1905-45 occupation, Japan is still seen as a hated enemy throughout Korea. But Japan has been trying to make nice for a long time, and both countries have developed many economic and cultural links. They also have North Korea, as an enemy, in common, and military planners in South Korea and Japan are trying to do something about their common threat.  

In South Korea, the military is suddenly highly respected, and all eyes are on what the troops do next. Freed from decades of being shoved into the background, the generals and admirals are announcing lots of new training and readiness programs. Draft dodging is declining, even though basic training just become twice as long (in hours) to complete, and a lot more grueling as well. Reservists are being ordered to double check their preparations for wartime, and how they will cope with expected North Korean infiltrators (who will try to get in via tunnels, low flying transports and all manner of ships and submarines.) Finding secret tunnels under the DMZ is once more a hot topic, as are exercises by the  navy to shut down any maritime activity by the North Koreans in wartime.

In the north, the military is in a sorry state, the result of two decades of shrinking budgets, reduced training and little new equipment. The only big changes have been a reorganization of the reserves (disbanding many divisions and transferring their equipment to active duty units that needed it more) and expanding the "Special Forces", which are 16 percent of all troops and apparently the only ones the government feels it can depend on. Keeping the armed forces loyal is apparently the main function of the North Korean Special Forces, not leading another invasion of the south.

Apparently sensing a change in South Korean attitudes, North Korea has suddenly become much more accommodating. North Korea has called for new peace talks, while reminding everyone what war would result in the north using nuclear weapons. That's doubtful, given the state of nuclear weapons work up north. The last two bomb tests, even though underground, released nuclear material into the atmosphere that was measured by Western sensors. That revealed the primitive nature of the North Korea weapon, and the fact that the tests were not entirely successful. Then there's the fact, which the north is well aware of, that American nuclear weapons have been stored in South Korea, ready for use, for over half a century. This has always annoyed the north, for it meant that no matter what the north did, the American nukes could quickly turn North Korea into a wasteland.

Despite the increasingly militant attitude in the south, South Korea has agreed to resume peace talks with the north. But based on past experience, no one expects anything to come of it.

Last year, for the first time, South Korea GDP exceeded a trillion dollars. North Korea's GDP is estimated as being less than $20 billion a year, providing a per-capita GDP of less than $1,000 (it's more than 20 times higher in the south). Because the communist elite and security forces are well taken care of, most North Koreans meet the UN definition of very poor (living on less than two dollars a day). The latest round of sanctions are hurting, especially those that make it difficult for the government to move money through the international banking system. North Korea has painted itself into a corner with its greed, incompetence and aggressiveness. This includes exporting weapons and nuclear weapons technology, as well as pressing South Korea over ownership of valuable fishing grounds on their maritime border, and the misuse of foreign aid (the north tends to divert food and other aid to keep the ruling class and secret police happy). The northerners break agreements at will, and are not trusted. The northerners hoped to be feared, but now realize that southerners are simply calling them the "enemy" and appear resolved to defeat their foe.





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