Now that China has completely joined the international effort to ban weapons exports to North Korea the nuclear weapons program in the north will be delayed, at the very least. The Chinese ban means many industrial items North Korea needs to make a workable nuclear warhead are no longer easily available from Chinese manufacturers. This is critical because North Koreans have not yet “weaponized” their nuclear device design to work in a missile (or even an aircraft bomb). Russia had earlier made it very difficult for North Korea to obtain Russian warhead tech. In the past Russia has allowed older ballistic missile tech to be sold to North Korea but is not allowing any nuclear warhead stuff out. The same with technical assistance from Pakistan, which was helped by China to develop its nuclear warhead equipped missiles. The Chinese have apparently persuaded the Pakistanis to rebuff North Korean offers to buy warhead tech. For North Korea the biggest obstacle to having a useable nuclear weapon is a reliable warhead design. Testing such a design without actually firing a live nuke into the ocean requires another bunch of tech (and high-performance computers) that North Korea does not have. The North Koreans have been resourceful about situations like this in the past and can build some of the banned industrial items themselves, but that can take years of additional effort. Illegally obtaining some key chemicals and high-tech electronics takes cash and time to organize. If the North Korean government remains in operation for another 5-10 years they will likely have a working warhead for their missiles, or at least one compact and reliable enough to be dropped from an aircraft. China is determined to prevent that from happening but is not sharing its plans with anyone else.
China seeks other ways to increase pressure on North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program. For example, China wants the United States, South Korea, and Japan to negotiate a bribe (economic aid in return for dropping the nuclear program) in the hopes that it might work. This is highly unlikely, as none of these countries trusts North Korea anymore and its unlikely North Korea would agree to the intrusive inspections required to make a deal that could be trusted by the donor countries. China long believed the North Korean nukes were not much of a threat. They probably were not because all indications are that North Korea has not yet developed a robust enough weapon to be useful under combat conditions. China preferred to wait, as there is an extensive Chinese intelligence network inside North Korea, including a constant flow of legal and illegal North Korea visitors to China who also provide quality information on a timely basis. The Chinese strategy was one of preparing for the collapse of the North Korean government and responding with a friendly invasion by Chinese troops and secret police to “help” establish a new North Korean government. Most North Koreans see China as a more likely “better future” than South Korea (which is seen as fantasy land, an impossible improvement over the grim conditions in the north). Moreover, decades of anti-South Korean propaganda, and constant praise for China, has had an impact. Thus, China is able to monitor North Korea carefully while preparing to install a new, more pro-China (in terms of subservience and economic policy) government. South Korea and the United States will be handled with the threatening potential of China’s new armed forces to halt any South Korean attempt to unite the two Koreas, even if the U.S. agrees to help out. But this year a growing number of Chinese officials became alarmed at the prospect of North Korea keeping it together long enough to actually develop a combat ready nuke. This was seen as a threat to China, and now action is being taken to at least delay the threat.
Increasingly effective economic sanctions have sharply cut the amount of foreign currency available to the North Korean government. The north has responded by exporting more workers (paid in foreign currency that the government takes most of) and seeking foreign currency from any sources, including the black market. The government also looked the other way at previously forbidden schemes that brought in foreign currency. This included tolerating vendors going out in boats to sell things to foreigners on Chinese sightseeing ships on the Yalu River (that marks the border between China and North Korea). At the same time the government continues to pressure the secret police to tighten controls over the border guards. The result has been that bigger bribes are being extracted from smugglers and those who can’t pay are more often beaten (to extract more bribes) and suffering harsher official punishment if a large bribe is not forthcoming. Arrested smugglers are sometimes held, in effect, for a large ransom. If the family or friends of the smuggler can’t pay, a long jail term follows. The government tolerates this because it has cut down on the smuggling and greedy secret police are eager to serve on the border.
It’s become more difficult for smugglers on the Chinese side of the border because China is putting more obstacles (barbed wire fences and flood control walls, especially in places where they are not really necessary) on their side. Each year for the last decade China has increased the number of police, border guards, and soldiers stationed along the border. This is not just for smugglers but also the increasing number of North Koreans who cross over to commit crimes and escape back to North Korea. China also wants to be ready if the North Korean government collapses and millions of North Koreans try to flee into China.
One unfortunate side effect of the increased border security is more drug addiction in North Korea. Although the North Korean government has long produced methamphetamines for export, there is a growing problem with northerners obtaining meth and becoming addicted. This is a serious problem because most of the people with enough money to support a drug habit are from the small ruling class and the growing number of market entrepreneurs. The government has ordered the security forces to crack down on drug dealers. Peddling this stuff is very lucrative, as a gram of meth goes for over $250 on the street and it costs a lot less than that to get it from corrupt officials in the meth production operation. Addicts within the government are more prone to steal government assets, or even sell information to foreigners. Tribal drug lords in northern Burma are the other big source of meth, which has become hugely popular in China and throughout East Asia. China wants to keep the Korean and Burmese meth out and is having more success on the heavily guarded North Korean border. This means non-government North Korean meth producers have to find another market and some have put more meth into circulation within North Korea.
North Korea has ordered members of the ruling Workers Party to get out and encourage and enforce pro-government behavior. For the last few years the Workers Party (a nationalist-socialist operation that is sometimes called communist) has been calling on members to work harder to eliminate individualism, the black market, the desire to earn money, paying attention to foreign media, and women workers quitting their state controlled jobs to work in illegal markets. The government also wants a halt to the practice of state owned factories and farms producing goods for the black market. This has proved difficult, as many leaders of the Workers Party are involved in making money off the black market or extorting cash from those who are operating in the unofficial economy. The lavish party elite lifestyle, thanks to the Internet and Google Earth, is no longer a secret, and North Koreans eagerly digested this information over the last few years. So exhortations for abandoning the black market and efforts to get rich have little effect.
In an effort to reinforce the loyalty of key people (senior officials, scientists, and enterprise managers) Kim Jong Un has granted more of them senior military ranks (often general rank). Such honors are not unknown in North Korea but it is now being used on a larger scale than ever before. This allows these civilians to wear their other awards (medals given to civilians) on a military uniform. This is a big deal in North Korea where the military is, officially at least, highly respected and wearing the dress uniform is considered chic.
Stories of Kim Jong Uns wife (Ri Sol Ju) having screwed around before she met and married have gotten out. North Korea is officially very unhappy about this but can’t do much about it except find and execute anyone in the north who helped leak details. Ri Sol Ju was formerly an entertainer and in North Korea the easiest way for a talented young girl to get ahead as a professional musician or actress is to have sex with the government officials who run entertainment organizations. These entertainers are sometimes expected to have sex with senior officials, and Kim Jong Un’s father (Kim Jong Il) had a “sex squad” of female actresses and musicians organized.
Recent reports (and satellite photos) that North Korea had reduced its labor camp population (to under 100,000 prisoners) appears to have been the result of a higher death rate among prisoners in the last few years and not a policy of sending fewer people to prison and closing the unneeded camps. Some of the deaths were the result of more executions, but most were caused by food shortages. With growing hunger among civilians and military personnel, the government sought to obtain more food wherever it could. Cutting the already skimpy rations for prisoners was one such desperate measure and it meant more prisoners dying of starvation and disease.
September 27, 2013: Panama has told North Korea it must pay a million dollar fine before it can get its cargo ship and the 35 man crew released. In July inspectors found 250 tons of weapons on a North Korean freighter. The illegal cargo of Cuban SA-2 anti-aircraft missile systems and MiG-21 components (including over a dozen jet engines) were buried under a cargo of sugar trying to get through the Panama Canal. North Korea at first denied any knowledge of the weapons but eventually admitted that they were obtained from Cuba and not declared. Such weapons shipments are forbidden by international sanctions and were seized.
September 24, 2013: South Korea changed its mind at the last minute and rejected the winner of a competition to supply 60 new jet fighters. The winner was an upgraded American F-15. Now South Korea will go back to seeking a stealthy and more expensive aircraft. The American F-35 had earlier been rejected as too expensive. Now the South Korean Air Force will take another look at the F-35 and any other foreign aircraft (except Chinese models) that they believe can offer some stealth as well as the most modern electronics, engines, and airframe design. While South Korea already has an enormous edge over the North Korean Air Force, this new interest in stealth appears aimed at China, not North Korea.
September 23, 2013: China released a 236 page list of items it will no longer export to North Korea. In effect, China has now joined the international economic sanctions in force against North Korea. These sanctions seek to halt or delay the North Korean nuclear weapons development program.
Russia has completed a 54 kilometer rail line from Russia to the North Korea railroad system. This came after a decade of work and links North Korean railroads to the transcontinental Russian railroad, which gives North Korea a more direct link to Russia and Europe. The new rail link was built through some very rough terrain and required 18 bridges and 4.5 kilometers of tunnels to be built or rebuilt. Now it will take only 14 days to get cargo to Europe, compared to twice as long via Chinese rail links or 45 days by ship.
September 21, 2013: Russia demanded that North Korea explain why one of its patrol boats fired on a Russian fishing boat in international waters (the Sea of Japan). There were no injuries. North Korean coast guardsmen boarded the Russian ship, questioned the captain, and left. This was a violation of international law, something the North Koreans frequently do.
North Korea cancelled, at the last minute, a reunion between members of 200 families who had been divided during the 1950-53 war. Last month the north agreed to resume negotiating how much food and fuel the south will pay for North Korea, allowing more reunions of families separated by the Korean War. These reunions were halted three years ago because of southern anger at extortionate demands by the north. The north promised to be reasonable in how much food and fuel aid it will demand from the south to make another round of reunions happen. This cancellation is seen as another northern ploy to obtain more freebies.
September 19, 2013: Mongolia revealed that it had sent 1,850 tons of flour to North Korea to help alleviate the starvation there. Back in April North Korea appealed to Mongolia for food aid. Even before DNA analysis became possible, Koreans knew they had links to Mongols and Turks and were quite proud of that. The Korean language is related to those of Central Asia (the Ural-Altaic family of languages) not the Han family (Chinese, Tibetan, and many others in East Asia). Subsequent DNA studies have confirmed these ethnic links and North Korea used that to seek a handout from Mongolia (which North Korea has long had good relations with).
September 16, 2013: South Korea border guards shot and killed a man who tried to swim across the Imjun River and get into North Korea. The dead man appears to have been a Korean expelled from Japan recently.