apartment building collapse in the North Korean capital is turning into a nightmare for the government. That began before the dust had even settled on the collapse of the 23 story building. Some survivors trapped in the rubble used cell phones to call for help. But the government did not immediately send construction equipment to aid in the rescue effort. Initial rescue was done by hand with government officials ordering hundreds of people to aid in the effort. This is believed to have led to more deaths. In an unprecedented move the government later publically apologized for the collapse (apparently caused by the growing corruption throughout the country). This is all very embarrassing for the government because most of the state built housing goes up in the capital for the benefit of military and government employees. Tall apartment buildings in particular are reserved for high ranking officials and their families. Now everyone housed in recently built tall buildings are living in fear. Thus all the victims in these buildings and those in similar buildings are wives, children and parents of mid-level officials. These people know about the corruption and now they know it can hit them where it hurts the most. This also means that the officials responsible for the corruption that led to the building collapse will be punished, perhaps publically. That sends a chill throughout the military and government bureaucracy because the corruption is quite widespread now but that knowledge is still considered a state secret. It later turned out that the military was responsible for putting this building up and that casts a bad light on the military which always insisted that it was largely immune to the spreading corruption. That is a lie, as anyone in the military (or their families) has realized for some time. What is really shocking is that the corruption has gotten to the point where it would endanger the families of military personnel. That is a line that no one thought even corrupt soldiers would cross. The government has a big morale problem on its hand as a result. Worse, officials believe that more people will blame the new leader, Kim Jong Un, for being unable to stem the growing corruption and for the deterioration of the economy and most everything else.
The May 13
In sharp contrast to the collapsing government people can’t help but notice how different things are in the growing (legal and illegal) market economy. Most of the new housing in the country is being built by the new entrepreneurs and no shoddy construction practices are tolerated. While many of the new entrepreneurs are corrupt (often of necessity to get around government anti-business laws) they are responsive to their customers. This is in sharp contrast the government, which let nearly two million citizens die of starvation in the 1990s and hasn’t improved much since. People expect lies and deception from the government. A recent example was the exposure of the government rebranding of Chinese cell phones to make it appear that they were made in North Korea. This was discovered when some of these phones were dissembled (or had internal components exposed via an accident) and it was discovered that all the components were Chinese.
North Korean fears that North Koreans allowed to legally visit China are the source of the growing number of security leaks and that has led to a sharp cutback (over 80 percent) in the number of visas issued for travel to China. The government is also paranoia about North Koreans coming into contact with Christians and possibly bringing these “subversive” beliefs with them. Normally up to a hundred North Korean a day travel to China. This is part of a program that included North Korean secret police being sent to China to arrest North Koreans who had overstayed their visas and were apparently refusing to return to North Korea. This paranoia is also showing up more in North Korea itself, where orders have gone out to assign more civilians to duty guarding and beautifying the thousands of statues and pictures of members of the ruling Kim family found all over the north. The increased incidence of graffiti and other forms of vandalism against these sites has upset many senior officials. The government has also added new laws that make it a serious offence to use a cell phone illegally, look at foreign videos or have “improper” contacts with foreigners. All these violations can now be punished with the death penalty. Apparently at least one man, caught using a Chinese cell phone to call outside the country, was executed for this illegal activity. At the same time the government is trying to entice some of those who fled to China to return. This is being done with promises that there will be no retribution. It is implied that such returnees would also get family members out of prison camp. It’s common for immediate family (parents, siblings or even more distant kin) are sent to prison camp to punish escapees.
A recent survey to measure unhappiness in countries (using things like unemployment, high crime rates, economic growth rate, inflation, shortages, high prices, political strife and so on) ranked Venezuela as the most miserable country in the world followed by Iran, Serbia, Argentina, Jamaica, Egypt, Spain, South Africa, Brazil and Greece. Where is North Korea? Like many of the most miserable nations on the planet the needed statistics for the ranking are state secrets. Japan is the least miserable (out of 89 nations ranked) followed by Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand. The U.S. ranks 71st and China 82nd. Misery often leads to instability and an atmosphere where criminal activity flourishes.
North Korea has released video showing its warships firing what appears to be a Russian Kh-35 anti-ship missile. Russia denies it sold the missiles to North Korea thus the only other likely source is Burma, which has been conducting an illegal (and always denied) arms trade with North Korea for over a decade. The Kh-35 is similar to the American Harpoon but lighter (610 kg/1,340 pounds, compared to 728 kg/1,600) and has less range (130 kilometers compared to 224 for the latest version of Harpoon). The Kh-35 (also known as the SS-N-25 or Switchblade) can be fired from helicopters, aircraft, ships, or shore batteries.
June 9, 2014: South Korea recently confirmed that it is not buying American SM-3 anti-missile missiles for its three Aegis equipped destroyers or for use on land. Instead South Korea is buying PAC-3 anti-missile missiles for its land based Patriot systems and developing its own anti-missile missile with capabilities similar to the SM-3. South Korea has built a substantial arms industry in the last two decades and wants to demonstrate that it can handle really high-tech stuff (like anti-missile systems).
Singapore is prosecuting a local shipping company and a Singaporean citizen for complicity in the 2013 incident where a North Korean ship was caught in Panama trying to carry out an illegal arms deal between Cuba and North Korea.
June 8, 2014: North Korea issued unspecified threats against the UN for establishing an office in South Korea to monitor the worsening abuse the North Korean government is inflicting on its own people.
June 6, 2014: North Korea has arrested another American tourist. This time the charge has to do with the man having a bible with him. The North Korean government is currently carrying out a major crackdown on Christianity, which is seen as a subversive belief in the north.
June 5, 2014: In a defiant but inconsequential gesture Russia and North Korea agreed to conduct their foreign trade using the Russian currency (the ruble). That trade only amounts to about $120 million a year. Russia is currently being temporarily cut off from many Western economic opportunities and organizations because of Russian aggression in Ukraine. The Russian leaders are using the Ukrainian situation to build support for the increasingly authoritarian government.
June 4, 2014: South Korea has agreed to give the Philippines a decommissioned Pohang class corvette. These ships were built in the 1980s and come in two variants. The first is an anti-ship version which has two Exocet anti-ship missiles, a 76mm gun, and a twin 30mm anti-aircraft gun. The second is an ASW version which has two 76mm guns, two triple 324mm (12.75 inch) torpedo tubes and two twin 40mm anti-aircraft guns. This ship is being decommissioned at the end of the year and it is unclear if it will come with weapons and electronics. South Korea recently gave the Philippines an old LST and 16 inflatable boats.
June 1, 2014: A recent opinion poll in South Korea showed only 22 percent of South Koreans supported providing aid to North Korea. That was not surprising, considering how North Korea has behaved for decades. But a surprising 58 percent of South Koreans saw North Korea as a country that the south could make deals with. Blood is thicker than reality.
May 31, 2014: A South Korean patrol boat rescued three North Koreans from a boat that had lost power and was drifting off the east coast of South Korea. Two of the three North Koreans asked for asylum which enraged that the North Korea government who demanded all three be returned.
North Korea sentenced a South Korean man to life in prison for espionage and trying to spread Christianity.
May 30, 2014: The U.S. has sent two Global Hawk UAVs to Japan where these high flying, long-endurance surveillance aircraft will monitor China and North Korea for the foreseeable future.
May 29, 2014: South Korea is buying hundreds of American CBU-105 half ton bombs. Each of these bombs is actually a container carrying 40 BLU-108/B SFW bomblets. These were originally called SADARM (Search And Destroy Armor Munitions). Individual SADARMs have their own radar and heat sensor that searches for armored vehicles below and destroys them with a special shaped charge warhead. The SADARM sensors can search and attack vehicles within an area of roughly 150 x 360 meters. SADARM, or "sensor fused munitions" are 1980s era weapons that are also carried by artillery (or mortar) shell or artillery rocket. The self-forging metal projectile used by SADARM punches through the thinner armor on the top of the vehicle. If a target is not found, SADARM self-destructs. The first use of the CBU-105 was on April 2nd, 2003, when a B-52 dropped six of them on an Iraqi army column moving south from Baghdad. Most of the vehicles were later found destroyed.
May 27, 2014: In Sweden talks between North Korea and Japan ended on a positive note with North Korea agreeing to reopen the investigation about kidnapped (by North Korea) Japanese in return for some food and medical aid supplies. These were the first such talks since 2009. Actually there was some contact in 2012 in Mongolia between Red Cross officials from both countries. Then, as now, the main topic was Japanese citizens that North Korean agents kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 80s. The talks in Mongolia produced nothing except an agreement to continue the process later with more senior officials. That was aborted when North Korea announced the resumption of long range missile tests at the end of 2013. Obtaining more information on these kidnapping victims is a big issue in Japan, but North Korea has never been eager to release anything, other than the fact that the kidnapping program did exist. Japan refused to resume foreign aid, which North Korea needs, until the questions about the kidnapping program are answered. This has become a big issue in Japanese politics but the North Koreans long refused to cooperate. Now North Korea says it is willing to “investigate” and Japan says more aid will be forthcoming if the North Koreans come clean on the kidnappings.
May 22, 2014: Off the west coast North Korean coastal artillery shells fell near a South Korean patrol boat in South Korean waters. The South Korean ship was not damaged and returned fire. It was unclear if the shelling was an accident or deliberate. As a precaution South Korea ordered all civilian vessels out of the area for a day.
May 20, 2014: Off the west coast three North Korean patrol boats crossed the maritime boundary into South Korean waters and were soon confronted by a South Korean patrol boat that fired warning shots. This caused the intruders to turn around and leave South Korean waters.
May 19, 2014: The United States recently proposed that South Korea and Japan link their ballistic missile detection systems with the American one and all information collected, especially in real time, about missile launches in North Korea would be instantly available to all three nations. All three countries have radars that can spot missile launches in North Korea, with some of the American ones being satellite based. All three have Aegis equipped warships carrying anti-missile missiles. On short notice a dozen of these ships can be assembled off North Korea. In addition South Korea and Japan are each increasing their land-based anti-missile capabilities. While the American proposal appeared to be a good one, Japan and South Korea declined to participate. What is really going on here is continued Korean anger over brutal Japanese colonial occupation from 1910-45, and centuries of Japanese aggression towards Korea. Then there are the conflicts over names of islands and the waters separating the two countries as well as the ownership of some uninhabited rocks. Despite all this strife, Japan recently reported that the largest number of foreign visitors to Japan last year were 2.6 million South Koreans (followed by 2.2 million Taiwanese, 1.3 million Chinese and 800,000 Americans).
May 15, 2014: Recent satellite photos show North Korea may have finally completed two light (about 1,500 ton displacement) frigates. These ships, which feature a helicopter pad on the rear (a first for the North Korean Navy) are among the few new warships North Korea has obtained in the last two decades. Construction on these two ships began in 2007 and they were in the water by 2011. Given the shortages in North Korea and the priority given to the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program it’s unclear if these ships could be completely fitted out and ready for service by now.
May 14, 2014: South Korea is spending several hundred million dollars to upgrade most (96 percent of) their 140 KF-16 fighters. These were assembled in South Korea from 1994 to 2004 under license and are going through a mid-life upgrade in the United States. This will involves installing a more powerful AESA radar, new electronics (displays, sensors and computers) as well as new cabling and other related components f0r 134 KF-16s. The upgrades will begin in 2014 and the first completed aircraft will be ready by 2019. Because not all the new features have been decided on yet the exact price is not yet known but will be at least $4 million per aircraft. The most time consuming aspect will be removing and replacing much of the cabling. The interior of an F-16 is a very crowded place and it’s a tedious effort getting in there to do major upgrades.
May 13, 2014: In the North Korean capital a 23 story apartment building collapsed. There were 93 families living in the unfinished building and only some on the first two floors got out before the entire building came down.