In the last decade the growing number of Chinese business travelers to North Korea and the continued use of Chinese cell phones by North Koreans along the border has produced a steady flow of information about conditions there. Intelligence agencies love this sort of thing and that has created a new way to make money in northeastern China; collecting verbal news and passing it onto intel personnel working out of foreign embassies. Cell phone photos and videos are particularly valuable, and can also be sold to foreign journalists. There are also more North Koreans willing to risk prison or execution by smuggling out government documents and publications. Foreign intel pay well for these as well.
The sheer volume of data makes it possible to use statistical analysis software to weed out fabricated stuff and get a sense of what it really going on in North Korea. One of the most striking recent trends is the open disdain North Koreans, especially members of the ruling class, show for their new ruler Kim Jong Un. In the past anyone showing open disrespect for the ruling Kim family could expect prompts and often fatal retribution. That is less and less the case. Subordinates will not disrespect Kim Jong Un to his face, but such disdain is increasingly being seen in the vicinity of Kim Jong Un. The disdainful includes high ranking North Koreans as well as the general public. This was apparently accelerated by the May building collapse in the capital. This involved a recently constructed apartment tower collapsing because of corruption and shoddy construction killing 400 family members of senior bureaucrats. This had an immediate, lasting and quite negative impact on the several hundred thousand members of the “ruling class” that keeps the Kim led dictatorship in power. The tower collapse made many of these privileged North Koreans realize that their world was indeed crumbling and likely to collapse at any time. Kim Jong Un can give orders all he wants, but if the people who normally carry out his decrees continue to lose their enthusiasm and effectiveness it means the Kims are doomed.
Chinese officials recently told their North Korean counterparts that China expects North Korea to obey the “three nos” (no nuclear weapons, no economic or political collapse and no war). North Korea was told that it must obey these rules or face serious retribution. This apparently now includes a Chinese sponsored coup or a Chinese invasion if needed. China is not certain this threat will work, because the North Korean leadership has long proved it will do stupid and self-destructive things. The Chinese, however, have run out of patience, or hope that the North Korean leaders will wise up on their own or without forceful persuasion. Then again, the North Koreans may believe, with some justification that China is bluffing. China could manage an invasion of North Korea, especially after a political collapse that left the North Korean military disorganized. Moreover most of the North Korean troops are deployed in the south, along the DMZ and have neither the modern weapons nor the fuel and superior training that Chinese forces possess. Nevertheless the Koreans are fierce fighters (and fiercely nationalistic, especially when it comes to China) and such an invasion could be a bloody embarrassment for China. This spotlights the fact that, for all the hundreds of billions China has spent on defense during the last two decades, they are still a second rate military power with a long history of poor performance on the battlefield.
The Chinese have gained some leverage by providing something the North Korean leadership does want; help in halting North Koreans from escaping into China. More North Korean “defectors” are being arrested by Chinese police and sent back to North Korea. It’s unlikely North Korea will go so far as to drop their nuclear weapons program because of this, even if that’s what China really wants. Meanwhile North Korea has developed other ways to get escapees back. This is being done via a program that openly rewards returnees with new housing and jobs. More importantly returnees get their families out of prison camp, which is where the families of defectors are often sent. There is always the risk that the government will later change its mind and imprison returned defectors and their families. But many who flee to China find life hard over there, with employers taking advantage of the North Koreans not having legal ID and always at risk of arrest and deportation. So these North Koreans get paid less. When the escapees get news that family members have been imprisoned because kin left the country illegally it is demoralizing. Now that word is getting around that the “rewards program” for returnees is real, more escapees are taking advantage of it. Most do not, because the North Korean government is not only feared and hated, it is also not trusted. Meanwhile other North Koreans are upset at how “traitors” are being rewarded. Then again people who get caught using cell phones along the Chinese border sometimes get off by convincing the secret police that the call was actually to convince an escapee that the rewards program was real. That and a bribe will get the secret police to let you walk away.
Along the Chinese borders the dreaded secret police and their new cell phone signal detectors have finally been defeated, by greed. The government feared that sending the secret police to the border area would lead to corruption and tried to avoid it by rotating agents in and out of border duty, often after serving there for less than a year. This didn’t work out because the numerous tours of border duty hurt morale as it kept agents away from families and more comfortable duty in their regular areas. As was feared some of the agents began to take bribes and now, according to local cell phone users, most do. The agents still have quotas of arrests to fulfill, but they work extra hours to catch as many cell phone users as possible so that a certain percentage (who offer the largest bribes) can be let go. Secret police commanders first became aware of this phenomenon when it was noted that agents were increasingly eager for another stint on the border. Getting caught taking bribes will get a secret police agent executed, unless he can find a senior officer willing to take a bribe. That is becoming more common and gradually the secret police go from being pillars of support for the government to a bunch of mercenaries for sale to the highest bidder.
Corruption in the military is increasingly visible. Because military units have always depended on “gifts” (bribes) from local organizations, their own farms for food and the local economy for all manner of support the troops stationed in the poor parts of the country (about half the provinces are much worse off than the capital and areas long the Chinese border) just looking at the quality of the cloth and stitching on a soldiers uniform tells you what part of the country they come from. Troops from poor areas have, over the past decade, looked much worse. Not only the shabby uniforms but these guys are often painfully thin from food shortages. Parents with the means try to get their sons into the border guards, which always have better uniforms, living conditions and the opportunity to make a lot of money from bribes. Even if a soldier finds himself in an impoverished unit, his parents can still help him. The officers of these shabby units will take bribes. And if the kid has money or good (like food) to offer he can get “extended leave” (up to six months at a time) to go home and recuperate and work for the new family business (usually in the many new legal markets that are showing up all over the country) until he has to return to finish his six years of military service.
Lebanese weapons smugglers have apparently been approached by Palestinian Islamic terror group Hamas to expedite a shipment of North Korean weapons and other military equipment to Gaza. There, Hamas is taking a beating in its latest war with Israel. Hamas has been buying North Korean weapons and smuggling it in at least since 2009, when a major shipment of this stuff was detected and seized when the aircraft carrying it was caught in Thailand. That shipment was headed for Iran, which often handles the tricky task of getting the stuff to Gaza (via Sudan, Egypt and bribes as needed). North Korea gets a down payment and receives the rest when the stuff arrives in Iran. Freight airlines using elderly Russian transports will fly the cargo if arrangements are made to prevent the aircraft from getting seized. That means arranging a flight path that goes through a cooperative China and Moslem nations. China does not always cooperate, especially these days when China is trying to persuade North Korea to shape up and save itself.
South Korea is also suffering discipline and effectiveness problems in its military. But the South Korean problems are minor compared to what is going on in the north. As military historians have long noted, in war it’s not a matter of who is better but who is worse and the North Koreans are far worse off.
July 26, 2014: Defying a recent public criticism from the UN, North Korea fired more ballistic missiles into the sea. These particular firings were to commemorate the July 27th 1953 signing of the ceasefire that ended the Korean War. Actually, that war did not end as the ceasefire was never turned into a peace treaty so technically the UN (which organized the military force that fought North Korea and China in Korea) is still at war with North Korea and China. North Korean media showed leader Kim Jong Un personally “supervising” today’s launches. North Korea has fired over a hundred ballistic missiles and large rockets into the sea this year, along with hundreds of artillery shells. While this sort of thing is mainly for propaganda, it is also good training and a way to use aging rockets and artillery ammo before the stuff becomes too old and unreliable to safely fire. These weapons ”tests” are also the North Korean answer to calls by the UN and neighbors (including China) to dismantle the nuclear weapons and get rid of the long-range ballistic missile program. North Korea refuses to do this.
July 23, 2014: China and South Korea agreed to establish a communications hotline. This would enable either side to quickly contact the others military headquarters to sort out any incident involving the armed forces of one or both countries. A hotline like this is quicker and more accurate than waiting for the usual diplomatic channels to be used (and having to depend on the mass media in the meantime.) China may eventually back out of this hotline proposal, but only time will tell. China and North Korea have long had the equivalent of a hotline in that senior Chinese military leaders could always pick up a phone and call their North Korean counterparts. This is something that dates back to the Korean War, when Chinese forces saved the North Korean military from certain destruction and kept the Korean War going for another 30 months until the ceasefire. This cost China over half a million dead, something China has not forgotten. Meanwhile South Korea already has a hotline with the United States.
North Korea has established another six SEZs (special economic zones). This makes 19 of them created since 2011. These are mostly to attract Chinese businesses. These zones were originally created to produce as much income for the north as soon as possible. That's because in 2011 the government was proclaiming an economic miracle by 2012. That did not happen but more business from China did. Most northerners saw this “economic miracle by 2012” propaganda gambit for what it was, but it was not healthy to say so openly. But you didn't have to say the "2012 economic miracle" is a farce, the government did it for you. For example, one aspect of the 2012 plan was the construction of 100,000 new apartments in the capital. Shortages of power and building materials forced this to be cut to 20,000 apartments. Many believed even that was not achievable. In the capital the failure was there for all to see as only 500 new apartments were completed by 2011, when over 50,000 new apartments were to have been available. Then came the collapse of one of those new apartment towers in early 2014, killing over 400 people (families of government officials). There is now less concern about miracles and more about money. The SEZs have not been a complete success as many Chinese firms are not willing to deal with the corruption and poor infrastructure in North Korea. The corruption is getting worse and the decrepit infrastructure is not getting any better.
July 15, 2014: North Korea recently lifted a flight ban on most of its older warplanes. This ban was imposed in May after a MiG-17 crashed into the sea off the west coast. There was a mechanical failure and given the age of most North Korean aircraft and shortages of spare parts and fuel for flying time over the last decade it was felt prudent to ground most of the air force until the oldest aircraft could be checked for any common problems. The MiG-17s were particularly suspect since they had been in service since the 1950s. North Korea is the only country still using MiG-17s and has a few dozen of them still flyable (at least in theory).
July 9, 2014: North Korea surprised Japan by turning over a list of 30 Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s. So far over two thirds of the names have been found to match decades old missing persons reports. Since 2002 North Korea has only admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese. Five of those were allowed to return to Japan and the others were said to have died. The new list in an effort to restore Japanese aid (free food and trade access). In May North Korea agreed 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. For decades Japan has been trying to obtain information about Japanese citizens that North Korean agents kidnapped. Obtaining more information on these kidnapping victims has long been a big issue in Japan, but North Korea has never been eager to release anything, other than, until recently, the fact that the kidnapping program did exist. Japan eventually responded by cutting foreign aid and trade links which North Korea desperately needs, until the questions about the kidnapping program were answered. This eventually got North Korea’s attention, especially once the North Koreans noted how intense anti-North Korean public opinion in Japan had become and how ineffective it was to criticize the Japanese for past misbehavior in Korea. The Japanese basically don’t care about that history and many Japanese believe it is all a lie and that Japanese activities in Korea during the first half of the 20th century were in the best interests of the Koreans. North Korean military threats have simply encouraged the normally (since World War II) pacifistic Japanese to buy more weapons and become more warlike. Recently Japan openly warned North Korea that any military aggression against Japan would result in a massive and violent response. Eventually the North Koreans wised up. This situation is mainly about money and that’s how the North Koreans are now treating it. It’s just business and the larger list is payment for much more aid.
July 8, 2014: Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. Shortly before he died Kim Il Sung had encouraged efforts to negotiate reunification of the country. But not much but talk and bickering came of that. Kim’s son and grandson have succeeded him and barely managed to keep the creaky communist dictatorship going. Kim Il Sung lived through the end of the Cold War and the death of the Soviet Union and East European communism. He seems to have seen the future more clearly than his son and grandson, who came to be more concerned about hanging onto power than in fulfilling Kim Il Sung’s goal of a united Korea.
July 5, 2014: North Korea announced military exercises to train forces for an amphibious operation against defended islands. This was code for a threat against five South Korea held islands off the west coast of Korea and near the sea boundary between north and south. It’s more media theater, mainly for domestic consumption.