Korea: Too Big To Fail


July 22, 2013: The North Korean freighter recently discovered off Panama, carrying Cuban SA-2 anti-aircraft missile systems and MiG-21 components (including over a dozen jet engines) buried under a cargo of sugar was apparently part of a regular trade between the two countries. Panamanian authorities conducted the search because of an American tip that the North Korean ship was carrying illegal cargo. A Panamanian warship passed near the North Korean vessel approaching the Panama Canal and also noted that the North Koreans had turned off their tracking devices. This is what drug smugglers often do and the Panamanians had to force the North Korean ship to stop so they could search it. The 35 man crew tried to resist the search and scuttle the ship but the heavily armed police made it clear that this might just get a lot of the North Korean sailors killed. The North Korean captain later tried to commit suicide. The ship was brought into a Panamanian port for a search and the crew were arrested.

In recent years, a North Korean freighter would show up in Cuba every three of four months. Often the North Korean ships travelled (in violation of international law) with its tracker turned off. This is the AIS (Automated Identification System) and was originally developed to make it easier to track ships at sea. AIS is essentially an automatic radio beacon (transponder) that, when it receives a signal from a nearby AIS equipped ship, responds with the ship's identity, course, and speed. This is meant to enable AIS ships to avoid collisions with each other. Most large ships also carry INMARSAT, which enables shipping companies keep track of their vessels, no matter where they are on the planet. INMARSAT uses a system of satellites which transmit AIS-like signals to anywhere on the oceans. It only costs a few cents to send an INMARSAT signal to one of your ships, and a few cents more to receive a reply. The trackers, especially AIS, are essential to prevent collision and GPS and INMARSAT are crucial to avoid running into reefs, rocks, or (in bad weather) coastline. Only smugglers will turn these devices off, and this is often discovered when navies spot one of these ships on the high seas.

North Korean cargo ships are often found “running dark.” The North Koreans will turn on their devices when entering foreign ports, to avoid problems with the local authorities. The trips to Cuba were long believed to be some kind of smuggling operation, but since Cuba had little of military value for North Korea, no one looked too closely. Now it appears that Cuba was, at least in this case, trading sugar for repair services (on the missiles, the jet fighters and their engines, which wear out quickly). Cuba may also have been selling sugar as well as surplus weapons. Whatever North Korea and Cuba are saying, it is still in violations of the sanctions against North Korea, although North Korea insists that it is not. Besides, North Korea might have bought the old missiles and jets for their own use. North Korea has been caught recently buying MiG-21s illegally.

Cuba at first claimed that the North Korean ship was only carrying a donation of 25,000 tons of bagged brown sugar. When the 240 tons of weapons were discovered, Cuba said they were Cuban and being sent to North Korea for repairs but refused to comment further (as in why the weapons were hidden under the sugar and not declared on the ships manifest, which is required by international law if you want to use the Panama Canal).

Trade with Cuba is much less of a problem than the growing street crime trends at home. Teenage criminals are becoming a growing problem. The government blames Chinese movies, especially those seen by North Korean kids illegally and which popularize carrying knives, drinking, and not taking any crap from adults. This has led to gangs of kids, some as young as twelve, attacking, and sometimes killing, adults. The big problem with this is that the culprits are increasingly the children of the affluent and powerful families. For over a decade there have been problems with homeless kids, but now these are only a part of the problem. Theft and other crime has become more common, committed by teenage boys who have left home (or been orphaned and fled to avoid an orphanage) and joined young gangs. In the cities, these gangs survive because the cops are corrupt and lazy, and if you avoid high profile crimes, you can keep out of labor camps. Begging also works, although the kids often fight over the choice spots. The gangs are also responsible for a lot of the anti-government graffiti. The better-off kids were long told that this was incorrect behavior, but the Chinese movies of teenage bad boys cast the local lost boys in a new and more admired light. The government is also having more difficulty organizing units of teenage communists to search for illegal cell phones and other forbidden items (especially along the Chinese border). The young fanatics were also used to prevent corrupt border guards from taking bribes to allow people to get out of the country. The kids eventually found they could also get paid to see nothing. Sometimes payment was in illegal videos from China or South Korea.

The government has been unsuccessful in halting this erosion of discipline among teenagers and is trying to recruit even younger (ten and eleven year olds) kids to inform on the slightly older kids. To encourage this the government let the middle-school students out for Summer vacation two weeks early and said it was a gift from their leader Kim Jong Un. That backfired and all efforts to control the kids are not working out so well, although the younger kids have no problem ratting out adults. The kids have less and less respect for adults, especially the new leader, Kim Jong Un. Actually, many adults are openly contemptuous of Kim Jong Un. Okay, not too openly, but openly enough for everyone to know that their supreme leader is widely considered a failure. That’s mainly because since Kim Jong Un took over two years ago things have gotten worse. There’s less food, less electricity, and more secret police harassment. Yet the official propaganda is that Kim Jong Un is changing things for the better. Meanwhile, many of the kids let out of school early are engaging in illegal behavior (like swimming the rivers marking the boundary with China to buy or steal goods to take back and sell in the North Korean black market).

When caught, some of these kids implicate their parents, who encouraged their children to do whatever they could to earn more money. Getting arrested is not as scary as it used to be because there are fewer and fewer police who will refuse a bribe. If your kid gets picked up for black marketing you can bribe him out of jail and beat him for getting caught. It’s a new age in the north.

Kim Jong Un can take credit for some good news. In the two years he has been in charge the North Korean economy has actually grown (1.2 percent last year and .8 percent in 2011). The main reason for that is growing Chinese investment (something started before Kim Jong Un took over) and growing corruption (ditto). The corruption helps because it allows the free market to function more vigorously and that benefits everyone up north. The northern government is also pushing the export of North Korean workers. The government takes up to 90 percent of the wages these men and women earn outside the country (mainly in Russia and China) and holds the workers’ families hostage in case the worker does not return home when ordered. If someone does not come back, their families are sent to prison camps (and an early and unpleasant death). There are over 50,000 of these workers outside the country now, a 50 percent increase since Kim Jong Un took over.

South Korea is convinced North Korea is responsible for the growing number of Cyber War attacks over the last four years, some of them quite damaging. In the last few months several teams of security researchers have concluded that nearly all these attacks were the work of one group of 10-50 people called DarkSeoul. Given the extent of the attacks, the amount of work required to carry them out, and the lack of an economic component (no money was being stolen), it appears to be the work of a national government. That coincides with earlier conclusions that North Korean, not Chinese, hackers were definitely responsible for several recent attacks on South Korean networks. The most compelling bit of evidence came from a March 20th incident, where a North Korean hacker error briefly made it possible to trace back to where he was operating from. The location was in the North Korean capital at an IP address belonging to the North Korean government. Actually, very few North Korean IP addresses belong to private individuals and fewer still have access to anything outside North Korea.

Chinese and South Korean diplomats, who meet regularly to discuss North Korea and compare notes, have come to agree on one thing; both nations are being manipulated by North Korea because the North Koreans take advantage of the fact that neither of its neighbors wants the current North Korean government to collapse. That’s because China and South Korea would both be confronted with a messy and expensive situation and might even go to war over who should take control. China is the most fearful here because they are much stronger than South Korea and could even afford to force the U.S. to back off. In that case, South Korea would be off the hook for the trillions of dollars it would cost to bring the north up to southern economic and social standards. If China took over it would spend a lot less but would do whatever was needed to prevent millions of starving North Koreans from trying to flee into China. While the average North Korean would benefit from the collapse of their government (no matter if China or South Korea came in to take over), dealing with the post-collapse mess is something no one wants to handle. So, the logic goes, North Korea plays fast and loose with both China and South Korea, secure in the knowledge that the neighbors will keep sending enough aid to prevent complete collapse in the north. In effect, North Korea is like the huge American banks and insurance companies that are considered too big to fail (and cause the economy to collapse).

China does want to find a way to shut down North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. These weapons could easily be a threat to China if there were a government collapse in the north or if corruption increased to the point that the nukes were for sale. China also wants the northerners to stop using gangster tactics against Chinese businesses. This ranges from outright theft from Chinese firms set up in North Korea to threatening to arrest Chinese fishermen legally fishing off the east coast of North Korea if the Chinese don’t buy their fuel (at inflated prices) from North Korea. A growing number of Chinese officials are quietly arguing for a coup in North Korea, to install a pro-Chinese government that would implement economic reforms and quickly improve the standard of living there. This would preclude (so the theory goes) any backlash from the traditionally touchy Koreans (who resent the many incidents over the last thousand years where the Chinese did this sort of thing). This option has always been on the table, at least unofficially, and the North Korean leaders know it. Such a coup would be messy and risky. It could go sideways and cause a lot of bloodshed in the north. For the last decade the northern leadership has been increasingly paranoid about “Chinese agents” and showing too much friendliness to China can get North Korean officials jailed or executed (or, at best, denied promotion). But the Chinese feel cornered by the North Korean nuclear weapons program. The North Korean nukes are still pretty crude and not much of a threat to anyone (except their owners). But as the years go by, it becomes more likely that a desperate and vengeful North Korean leader, facing an actual Chinese coup attempt, might toss a nuke across the border to show the Chinese that you cannot mess with the Koreans anymore. The Kim dynasty would still end (as in they would all be dead) but the Kim’s would forever be fondly remembered by all Koreans for that last act against the hated Chinese. It’s the sort of guilty pleasure Koreans are fond of, as in the best thing since the Americans dropped two nukes on the Japanese.  

Satellite photos show that North Korea appears to have been testing new rocket motors in the last few months. Activating these liquid fueled rocket motors while they are secured to the ground is how you test them, because you can inspect them later. But all that blast leaves obvious burn marks on the ground and nearby vegetation.

July 13, 2013: A week of mourning dynasty founder Kim Il Sung ended. During this period all sorts of behavior was forbidden (singing and dancing in public or drinking and gambling anywhere, plus traditional occasions like weddings, funerals, and ancestor worship and the like). Travel outside the area you are registered as from was forbidden and the special patrols sought out and reported “strangers.” To ensure compliance children as young as ten were mobilized to operate patrols and report offenders to the police. Many North Koreans considered this excessive and offensive and were not shy about saying so. That’s a break with past mourning periods, where unhappy citizens kept their displeasure to themselves.

July 10, 2013: A North Korean cargo ship attempting to use the Panama Canal was searched and found to be carrying illegal weapons from Cuba.

North Korea asked for direct peace talks with the United States. This is meaningless, as all North Korea wants to do is demand American forces leave South Korea (along with the UN authorization for them to be there) and that America send economic aid to North Korea. In return, North Korea will promise to cut back its ballistic missile and nuclear programs but will not allow any inspections to verify that. North Korea recently backed off on improving relations with South Korea, blaming the south for not sending the north some aid first (in order to show good will). The south is tired of all this non-negotiating, which the north has been using for over a half a century.


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