Since late 2013 North Korea has been fortifying some parts of its border. Some units have managed to scrounge up concrete and rebar (reinforcing steel rods) and built machine-gun positions. Otherwise troops have dug trenches and reinforced them with lumber. At the same time efforts to prevent North Koreans from leaving have been increased. Security on the border (including cell phone detection teams) has sharply increased. The state controlled media is talking about the possibility of a Chinese attack and the presence of Chinese spies disguised as other foreigners.
In the north the secret police received orders to crack down on public displays of opposition to the government, especially nasty remarks or jokes about leader Kim Jong Un. In the last few years people have become more disdainful and even aggressive against the security forces. Part of that is because of the growing corruption among the military and police. The secret police, especially the MPS (Ministry of People’s Security) is more resistant to bribes and much less tolerant of bad behavior. One reason for the bad attitude is the growing decline in government distribution of food, booze and candy for public holidays (like the recent “celebration” of Kim Jong Un’s birthday). The government has less and less to give out. That makes the government look weak and the people are less afraid.
The food situation up north, especially outside the capital keeps getting worse. One of the signs is a recent government order for all families to collect and deliver more excrement to be used as fertilizer.
Despite the growing tensions between the Chinese and North Korean governments, economic ties continue to grow. Last year 93,300 North Koreas received work visas from China. This is up 17 percent over 2012. Last year a record 206,600 North Koreans legally visited China as tourists, which is up 11 percent over the previous year. Given the level of paranoia in the North Korean leadership, stats like this have another, more sinister, meaning. North Korea sees any contact with foreigners as potentially polluting and likely to make North Koreans less loyal.
Despite the paranoia Chinese businessmen are optimistic about more investments in North Korea. One opportunity in particular is the growing evidence that North Korea contains even more rare earth deposits than China. Back in 2010 China tried, and failed, to use its near-monopoly on the production of "rare earth" metals to jack up prices. The reaction from the rest of the world was vigorous and hostile. "Rare earths" are ores that are found in tiny quantities all over the world. Because that they are difficult and expensive to extract many mining companies don't bother. But in the last century more and more rare earths have been found to have useful applications in metallurgy, electronics and other areas. In the last few decades China has extracted rare earths more cheaply than anyone else and driven nearly all foreign rare earth mining operations out of business. But because of the new Chinese threat other countries are reviving their rare earth mining operations, even if it requires government subsidies. One reason many countries heavily regulate rare earth mining is because this process can easily cause pollution. That’s a big reason American rare earth mining operations shut down. None of this is a problem in North Korea, which is already heavily polluted in some areas. If there’s money to be made, the North Koreans will deal.
North Korean leaders are very worried about losing control of the economy and that those who are creating the new market economy might eventually overthrow the traditional (since 1945) ruling class. While described as a communist police state that is only half true. North Korea is definitely a police state, but it stopped being communist in the traditional sense during the early 1970s. At that point North Korea declared that it had developed its own unique form of communism called juche. This development was partly to extricate itself from the ideological battles going on between its two conventionally communist neighbors (China and the Soviet Union). Juche was described as a nationalistic form of communism (which in its pure form is very international). Juche stresses making North Korea economically self-sufficient and strong enough to defend itself from anyone. Juche still depends on a command economy, where the state owns all commercial enterprises, but uses all this for the benefit of Korea (north and, eventually, the south), not anyone else. Communist purists in China and Russia (the Soviet Union) protested but were overruled by their political bosses who saw this as a clever way for North Korea to disengage itself from the growing political tensions between China and the Soviet Union. While these two large neighbors have since become friendlier, juche continues to be the state religion.
South Korea has agreed to formally notify neighboring countries in advance when South Korea forces are holding major military exercises. North Korea always protests these exercises, largely out of fear (the training makes South Korea forces more capable) and jealousy (because broke North Korea cannot afford much of this large scale training). South Korea wants China and North Korea to reciprocate. China might, North Korea probably won’t. China has been greatly increasing its defense budget in the last two decades and more of that money is being spent on large scale exercises, some of them on the North Korean border. This makes North Korea nervous, despite being told that this training is to help keep North Koreans from entering China without permission. This is something North Korea has become more concerned with, but Chinese troops training just across the border just does not go down well with North Korean leaders. That’s because the men who run North Korea know that China has long had the option of staging a coup. There are many pro-China people in the North Korean upper class, despite growing attempts to root out these “traitors.” So as China continues to show restraint in the face of growing mayhem in the north, the Chinese continue to cultivate their growing number of supporters across the border.
China expressed displeasure with the latest North Korean crackdown on real or imagined traitors, especially its anti-Chinese spin has led to more cooperation between China and South Korea. Now Chinese officials regularly meet with South Korean officials to discuss how to handle a collapse in North Korea. This is another example of Chinese flexibility and pragmatism. China and South Korea may be at each other’s throats over who owns some uninhabited islands in offshore waters, but that does not interfere with growing trade and mutual concern over a North Korea collapse. North Korea is in effect another territorial dispute between the two countries. South Korea wants to unite Korea and if North Korea collapses the opportunity will be there. China does not want a united, democratic Korea on its border. Neither country wants to start World War III over the dispute so they will try to negotiate some sort of compromise. The U.S. has agreed to accept whatever decision South Korea makes, although America advises avoiding any actions that could lead to a major war. Meanwhile China is equally pragmatic with North Korea and continues to round up North Korean refugees and send them back. Those who are wealthy enough or useful enough (as in senior North Korean officials fleeing possible execution
Meanwhile North Korea is waging one of its “charm offensives” seeking more aid from South Korea by offering to be nice (by North Korean standards.) Apparently North Korea doesn’t want to antagonize all its neighbors at once because currently relations with China are a bit tense. So now North Korea is willing to resume family reunions. In 2013 North Korea cancelled, at the last minute, a reunion between members of 200 families who had been divided during the 1950-53 war. A month before that the north had 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 in 2010 because of southern anger at extortionate demands by the north. The north had promised to be reasonable in how much food and fuel aid it would demand from the south to make another round of reunions happen but soon reneged. This cancellation was seen as another northern ploy to obtain more freebies. The south protested but did not offer more aid. So now the north has come crawling back to get what it can. This is humiliating for the north, but the economic situation grows more desperate each year, even though the GDP actually increases a bit. That’s mainly because of a few Chinese mining operations. Most North Koreans face more and more food and energy shortages. Meanwhile the northerners continue to let the world know about North Korea military capabilities. This is done via media coverage up there about Kim Jong Un visiting military bases. Kim Jong Un does that a lot and one recent media report of this involved commando unit that was practicing how it would attack a major airport in South Korea.
One aspect of all the misery in North Korea is the fact that international media report more on the pain of the north than the much more successful, and pleasant-to-live-in south. This bothers a lot of South Koreans, although they appreciate people paying more attention to the troublesome north. This is fueled by the growing number of “guerilla journalists” in the north, who risk their lives to use cell phone cameras to document the misery up there. These reporters are supported by a growing number of people in South Korea, China and around the world who supply cash, ideas and services (especially hacking). It’s an old problem with the media, where “if it bleeds it leads” because you get more attention with bad news than otherwise.
There’s always plenty of bad news up north. For example, multiple sources inside North Korea report that all the blood relatives of Jang Sung Taek, the uncle of supreme leader Kim Jong Un, have been killed. Jang was denounced in early December and executed on December 12th. The reports indicate that shortly after Jang was executed the secret police rounded up Jang’s siblings along with their children and grandchildren and killed them all. Some who resisted orders to leave their homes and accompany the secret police were shot on the spot, in front of witnesses. Those who had married into the family were spared and sent to live with their families. Such mass murder is an ancient custom and was once found all over the world. It persisted longest in East Asia, where has been less frequently used in the last century or so. The purpose was to prevent family members later seeking revenge for the execution of their kinsman.
In South Korea officials are alarmed at the recently revealed fact that, of 25,000 North Koreans who have made it to South Korea, 800 are currently unaccounted for. Many South Koreans feared that most of these missing refugees had returned to the north. But North Korea had only announced 13 such returnees and it is unlikely that North Korea would hide the existence of many returnees, expect for spies sent south as refugees who were ordered home for debriefing, rewards or to avoid getting caught down south. Some returnees may have been quietly imprisoned or executed because they were suspected of being South Korea spies. But it appears that nearly all of the 800 missing North Korean refugees just wanted to get away from Korea in general and do so quietly. These missing North Koreans probably slipped into China or some other Asian countries using false documents.
One bit of news that northern leaders find particularly annoying is that International surveys identify North Korea as one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. For these surveys corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The three most corrupt nations have a rating of 8 (Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia) and the least corrupt is 91 (New Zealand and Denmark).
Another dubious distinction for the north is it being accused of being a major source of Christians killed for their beliefs. In 2013 over 2,100 Christians were killed for their beliefs. While most of the deaths were due to Islamic terrorists, at least ten percent were committed by non-Moslems. The biggest offender here was North Korea, where the militantly atheist government considers possession of a bible a major crime and has over 50,000 local Christians in prison camps. The death rate in those camps is high and North Korean Christians who have fled the country report many fellow Christians simply disappearing.
Some of the bad news is self-inflicted. For example, North Korea recently released population statistics that show there are only 95 men for every 100 women in the north. In the south its 100.3 males for every 100 females. In China its 115 to 100 and throughout Asia it’s 105 to 100. This is a new mystery, for in North Korea few parents have access to technology that allows them to know the gender of their unborn child early on to get an abortion. This has resulted in a growing imbalance throughout Asia, because in so many nations parents can afford to check the gender of unborn children and abort it if it is a girl. That has resulted in a shortage of brides for young men. But in North Korea there is a shortage of men. Going back to interviews with over 25,000 North Koreans who have made it to South Korea (where they are scrutinized to detect who is a North Korean spy) provided some clues. The refugees indicated that the death rate among men was high in the prison camps, which was expected. But it had gone unnoticed that refugees also spoke of “high” death rates in the military, where most men spend a mandatory six years. It appears that more men than women died during big famine of the 1990s (which killed five percent of the population) and that work related accidents kill more men than women. According to North Korean data the up there men live shorter (by 16 percent) lives than southerners (for women it’s 15 percent). Moreover, the government exports a lot of men to work in foreign countries. Most of their pay comes back to North Korea and most of that is taken by the government with the rest going to the families of the workers. The cause may be nothing more than bad data. One thing is clear, life is a lot harder, and shorter in the north for men and women.
January 23, 2014: In Libya a South Korean government trade official was freed by a police raid. The South Korean had been kidnapped three days earlier, apparently for ransom. Four of his kidnappers were arrested.
January 21, 2014: Chinese and South Korean military officials held their 13th meeting to coordinate their military activities in the event of problems (of all sorts) with North Korea. Such cooperation is another reaction to the increasingly unpredictable events in North Korea. China and South Korea have had growing trade relations for the last two decades and that has led to efforts to negotiate issues that divide them. North Korea is one of those issues, especially what the Chinese and South Korean military will do if the North Korean government collapses. North Korea interprets these frequent and recent (since last year) meetings between South Korea and China as an indication that the two countries are plotting against North Korea.
January 18, 2014: The South Korean military was ordered to increase security on the North Korean border (the DMZ and the coastal waters patrolled by warships from both nations). South Korean intelligence indicates that North Korean forces near the border have been more active in the past few months.
January 7, 2014: The U.S. announced that it is sending 800 more troops and more weapons (40 M-1 tanks, M-2 infantry fighting vehicles and some F-16 jets) to South Korea. This is part of a general U.S. effort to shift more of its armed forces to the Pacific.