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The new leader in the north, Kim Jong Un, is still something of a mystery to outsiders. He has made changes, but to what effect is unclear. In the last few months hundreds of military and government officials have been retired and some executed or jailed. This included over 30 senior military and government officials. Those dismissed were promptly replaced by younger people. Kim Jong Un has made it clear, in public announcements, that it's time for a new generation. Many of the dismissed older officials were seemingly loyal to and supportive of Kim Jong Un, so this appears to be more a desire to shake up the leadership, than to purge opponents. Despite much talk of change, there has not been much of that up north. State controlled media portray Kim Jong Un as less dour and more approachable. He is often seen with his wife, something that rarely happened in the past. He is seen appearing to enjoy himself, which is also something new for how leaders are portrayed in the north. But Kim Jong Un still supports giving the military and security agencies priority when it comes to money and other resources. North Koreans are still being called on to make more sacrifices to make this happen.
Kim Jong Un isn't doing all this by himself, as he has a small group of advisors he relies on a lot. This includes his uncle, Jang Sung Taek, who is married to Kim Jong Ils sister. Jang has long been a powerful government official and is believed to be quite wealthy. That's because Jang has a lot to say about how North Korea earns (by legal or illegal means) foreign currency. In a country so extremely poor, the man who controls the most money has a lot of power. Jang, for example, earlier this year ordered house searches of families believed to be hoarding foreign currency (Chinese or American), rather than, as the law demands, putting it in the bank. People do not want to put their foreign currency in the bank because the government pays you less for it (in North Korean currency) than the black market money changers (who give fair market value). Jang understands how the North Korean economy really works and is trying to increase government control over the "new economy." Yang and his wife have a lot more knowledge of, and experience with, the North Korea government and economy than their nephew Kim Jong Un and, for the moment, they have his ear and trust. While the senior leadership makes a fuss and changes little, the situation continues to get worse. Food shortages grow and the threadbare economy sputters along in the face of energy shortages and growing unemployment.
For over a month now China has allowed a Chinese firm to openly discuss (in the state controlled media) a bitter dispute with North Korean bureaucrats over how a joint mining venture in North Korea was mishandled. China accuses North Korean officials of trying to extort additional cash while the North Koreans call the Chinese partner exploitative and inept. Both sides are probably right, to a certain extent, but this public debacle makes it clear that many North Korean officials do not yet know how to do business efficiently. China allows its firms to undertake joint ventures in North Korea and is not happy with the way corrupt northern officials try to cheat Chinese investors. The publicity this mining fiasco is getting is telling other Chinese firms that it’s very risky to do business in North Korea and that the Chinese government, for the moment, won’t do much about it, aside from letting the Chinese investors complain openly.
While military threats from the north grab a lot of headlines in South Korea, the major concern for southerners is the continuing lack of growth in the economy. Since the global recession began four years ago, South Korea has suffered very slow economic growth. For the last 18 months there has been no growth at all. This puts pressure on the government to cut back on military spending, despite the growing threats from the north. But most southerners know the north is in much, much worse economic shape and that the threats are more desperate bluster than a real threat. Not all South Koreans agree with that but all are concerned about the stalled economy. That is mainly the result of slower export sales and there’s not a lot anyone can do about that.
There is some economic progress in the north but this does not always benefit the people who need it most. For example, last April a new hydroelectric power plant came online, to great fanfare. But most of the power has gone to the leadership (the wealthier neighborhoods in the capital), the military, and security agencies. Most of the country still only gets a few hours of power a day.
The talk of agricultural reforms in the north apparently got stuck because many government agencies do not want to see their share of crops reduced. A government investigation found that over the years various government and military bureaucrats have increased how much of the crops they can take and that the farmers themselves are left too malnourished and weak to increase production even if they receive more resources (fuel, fertilizer). Changing this means taking food away from the military and security agencies, this is not a popular idea with most North Korean officials.
October 25, 2012: A North Korean patrol boat apparently accidently crossed the maritime border off the west coast for about seven minutes. The intrusion quickly ended when nearby South Korean patrol boats used radio to contact the northern boat and warn them about the intrusion. In the past, such intrusions have sometimes been deliberate and led to gunfire. This time it was apparently an accident as the northern patrol boat was monitoring a nearby group of Chinese fishing boats that were working close to North Korean waters. The Chinese will poach in North Korea waters but prefer to do it off the South Korean coast because the northerners will shoot to kill.
October 23, 2012: A group of 17 South Korean politicians visited the Dokdo Islands (which are claimed by South Korea and Japan) in a well-publicized trip that increased the tension in both countries. This is all political theater as the two nations would never go to war over the dispute. But the political sensitivity (and centuries of ill-will) of the counterclaims makes settlement very difficult. Diplomats in both countries wish the situation would just go away, as it hinders cooperation, especially against Chinese and North Korean threats.
October 22, 2012: Eluding police sent to stop them, South Korean pro-democracy activists (many of them refugees from the north) released balloons that carried 200,000 leaflets and cheap consumer goods into the north. Although North Korea threatened to open fire if this happened, their guns and artillery remained silent after these balloons floated north. There, police and soldiers are sent out to seize the cargo carried by the balloons, lest northerners be polluted by this South Korean propaganda. Over the years many of these downed balloons have been found by civilians and the word slowly circulated about what the message really was.
In the north the government ordered three days of air defense training. This meant many workers had to undergo air raid drills (going to bomb shelters and securing their work places for an attack). Someone may have felt this would send a message to South Korea or China (which has been increasingly aggressive in criticizing northern leaders).
October 20, 2012: China made a public call for the two Korea’s to stop threatening each other over South Korean pro-democracy groups releasing balloons (carrying propaganda items) that fly into the north. This has been going on for years. To the north this is a deliberate provocation by the south. But the reality is that many South Koreans want the North Korean dictatorship to collapse, and that is more likely to happen when more North Koreans know the truth about life in the two Koreas. For decades the North Korean government has restricted information in the north and smothered the people with propaganda describing the north as the best of all possible worlds and the south as worse off. In the last decade more and more northerners have learned the truth, and this has caused confusion, fear, corruption, and calls for change. Many northern leaders believe some of their own propaganda and don’t understand how a democracy works. They cannot comprehend people doing anything without first obtaining permission from a government official. The balloon releases must be a South Korean government operation. In the most recent case the north openly threatened military action if balloons were released again. Southern officials responded that the south would fire back if attacked, but in the end the southern government did ban the balloon release.
October 16, 2012: South Korean coast guard found a group of 30 Chinese fishing boats poaching and went to board some of them and arrest the crews. As often happens the Chinese fishermen were armed with knives, saws, and axes and were willing to use force to repel the South Korea coast guardsmen. Using clubs and rubber bullets, the Chinese were subdued. But one fisherman was hit in the chest with a rubber bullet and later died. China protested the “rough treatment” of its fishermen but does little to curb the poaching or violence against South Korean coast guardsmen. South Korean regards this as another example of Chinese arrogance. While South Korea and China are big trading partners, they are also at war here. This is low level stuff off the South Korean coast where, so far this year, the South Korean coast guard has seized 130 Chinese fishing boats for poaching. Chinese fishermen consider the risk acceptable because the fish stocks off the South Korean coast are much richer (in quantity and quality) than off China (where overfishing has done a lot of damage). The Chinese use tactics that sometimes lead to violence.
October 15, 2012: The South Korean defense minister apologized for a recent incident where a North Korean soldier walked across the border undetected and eventually found some South Korean troops he could surrender to. Three South Korean army officers, including a division commander, were dismissed because of this. The north is also having problems with its military. Not just incompetence but a growing breakdown in discipline. Hungry and angry soldiers are not just talking back, they are often attacking their superiors and sometimes killing them. Rebellious soldiers usually desert after these acts of defiance. Morale is low in the military, largely because there is less food and fuel and cold weather is approaching.