Korea: Paranoia In High Places


November 3, 2014: In North Korea it appears that another ten senior officials were recently executed for corruption. The ten had disappeared from view in September. The charges also included viewing videos of South Korean TV shows, but the main charge was stealing money meant for the state. Even more officials were sent to labor camps, where is a slight chance they may later be “rehabilitated” and returned to power. So far this year Kim Jong Un has had at least fifty senior officials executed and over 200 demoted and some of these were sent to labor camps. Some officials disappeared for a while, apparently for “interrogation and review” and later reappeared in new jobs, usually less senior than their previous ones. All this is generally seen as Kim Jong Un eliminating anyone he considers a threat to his rule. This is something of a tradition in his family as his father and grandfather also carried out occasional purges to eliminate potentially disloyal subordinates. At the same time Kim Jong Un appears to be nervous as he has been smoking and eating more heavily since taking over. He has gained a lot of weight, which is bad for his image considering how many North Koreans are short of food.

It’s not just senior officials being punished for watching forbidden videos. The secret police have increased random home inspections by agents who have been very resistant to bribes. This means more people are being caught with the videos and are usually persuaded to tell where they got it from. This leads to the arrest of the smugglers who bring in and distribute the videos. As a result these videos are noticeably more difficult to obtain recently. Just another reason for be unhappy in the north. The secret police are apparently not just after illegal videos but are seeking to cripple the smuggling networks that help get people out of the country. The video smugglers are persuaded (by avoiding labor camp or execution) to reveal all they know about the smuggling business and this is leading to some major operators in the smuggling business. The government has been intent on reducing the number of people escaping to China and this program is one of the few things in the north that is working.

Growing electricity shortages in North Korea have caused record delays in processing (threshing and polishing) the rice harvest. This process is usually complete in September but in parts of the country that suffered the most electricity cuts people were still processing the harvest long after it should have been completed. Doing this manually leads to more theft but local officials are looking the other way as long as they theft does not become too large to attribute to inexperienced workers doing the work instead of electrically powered machinery. Aging and poorly built power plants plus a drought (reducing hydroelectric power) and similar declines in the railroad system (preventing coal from getting to coal fired power plants) have increased the number of blackouts. This time of year farms have priority on electricity so they can complete the harvest. This means a growing number of cities (except for the capital) are conspicuously dark at night. Satellite photos of the north have been available regularly for over a decade and show the continuing decline in the availability of electricity. These power shortages are a vivid reminder of how decrepit the economy is and are a major source of discontent in the north. In addition to the power shortages, many rural North Koreans will notice reduced food supplies over the next few months. This is also due to the drought and is compounded by the power shortages and general lack of all resources.

The military is no longer immune to the shortages, especially of fuel and food. Some units are sending some troops home (under the supervision of an officer, to prevent desertion) to beg for supplies from parents. In North Korea young men are conscripted for six years and troops often do not get to go home for a visit for years at a time, if at all. So when the son shows up, looking older and thinner, asking for help, many parents give (cash, fuel, food, whatever). Civilians have more options and a growing number are going into business (legally or otherwise) for themselves. This is possible because more North Koreans have already done this and more details are getting in to more North Koreans about how business is done in China (where the market economy has been legal since the 1980s and China is visibly much better off for it.)

Kim Jong Un also has some real external threats to deal with, the latest one being moves by the UN to indict him and other senior officials for war crimes. This comes after the UN recently released a report on the infamous labor camps and other forms of suppression in North Korea. In response North Korea has undertaken a media campaign to prevent the indictment. This includes invitations for UN inspectors to visit North Korea and see for themselves that the charges are false. North Korea will attempt to create “evidence” to refute the many claims made in the UN report (from satellite photos and the testimony of many who had escaped North Korea.)

American and South Korea defense officials admit that North Korea may have mastered the technology to build a nuclear weapon that will work on a ballistic missile. The Chinese apparently agree as in 2013 China joined the international effort to ban weapons exports to North Korea. In particular this was directed at the nuclear weapons program in the north and was expected to delay, at the very least, the development of a working warhead. The Chinese ban meant that many industrial items North Korea needs to make a workable nuclear warhead are no longer easily available from Chinese manufacturers. This is critical if North Korea is to “weaponize” 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 had allowed older ballistic missile tech to be sold to North Korea, but in the last few years has stopped 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. Before the recent announcement it was believed it would be another 5-10 years before they would have a working warhead for their missiles, or at least one compact and reliable enough to be dropped from an aircraft. The new revelations indicate that the North Korea weapons smuggling operation has again succeeded in obtaining forbidden tech. Then again, maybe not and it may all be paranoia in high places.

November 1, 2014:  North Korea admitted that it had restored a retired Russian Golf class ballistic missile submarine to service. Russia built 23 of these 2,800 ton diesel-electric boats. Each had three launch tubes in its elongated sail. The Golfs were in service from 1958-1990, and the last of them carried the 16 ton R-21 (SS-N-5) ballistic missile, which had a max range of 1,600 kilometers and carried a single nuclear warhead. North Korea received ten decommissioned Golf class boats in 1993, to be turned into scrap. North Korea bought a lot of retired Russian military gear in the 1990s, stuff that was being disposed of as scrap. Some of this obsolete gear was returned to some degree of service and restoring this Golf class sub is the most ambitious effort so far. It is unclear if North Korea actually has a ballistic missile that will operate from a Golf class sub as the silos on these boats were designed for a specific missile.

October 30, 2014: North Korea will begin forcing all foreign visitors to remain in quarantine for 21 days after arrival to ensure they do not have Ebola. This appears to be a scam to extract more money from visitors as they will have to stay in designated hotels for the quarantine period and pay for it. Business and official visitors will not be subject to the quarantine.

October 29, 2014: South Korean intelligence reported that between May and September North Korea distributed over 20,000 games containing spy software to South Korean smart phone users. The North Korean “spyware” was seeking information from banks as well as documents relating to reunification plans and defense matters. The government reported that this effort has been blocked. North Korea denied any involvement in this.

North Korea has sent a senior official to Uganda to discuss providing trainers for the Ugandan national police. This would presumably be done for money. In the 1980s North Korea sold Uganda weapons and security services. The same was done to other African nations. All this is another effort to raise desperately needed foreign currency.

October 24, 2014: In South Korea, near the DMZ, there was another confrontation between local residents and activists seeking to launch balloons into North Korea. The locals, joined by leftists seeking an end to these propaganda efforts against the north, forced the activists to back off. South Korean political activists have been increasingly active this year releasing small helium balloons that then drift into North Korea. What the balloons carry varies. It’s always something that annoys the North Korean government. The usual cargo is DVDs, one-dollar bills, sweets or pamphlets and leaflets providing accurate information on abuses in North Korea and life in South Korea. This sort of thing makes the North Korean government very angry and anyone caught with the cargo these balloons carry can be sent to prison camps. In the south the threats of retaliation from the north, especially recent machine-gun fire has caused South Koreans living close to the border to block roads or call on local police to stop people from releasing balloons. This is difficult to do and ultimately does not work. The locals fear the north will fire rockets and artillery next and put them in great danger.

October 23, 2014: South Korea announced that it would again delay having South Korea assume control over all military forces in South Korea during wartime. It was planned to do this by the end of 2015. Since the 1990s South Korea and the U.S. have been negotiating the details of how South Korea will take over command of wartime military operations in South Korea. Since 1950, the U.S., in the name of the UN, has been in charge. This was supposed to change in 2012 but has been delayed by political and technical difficulties in South Korea. There are 28,000 American troops in South Korea, along with 640,000 South Koreas.

October 21, 2014: North Korea agreed to release an American tourist, held in prison since May and threatened to prosecute him and put him in prison for ten years or more. The offense was leaving a bible in a public place. The American admitted he did that and after he got back to the United States he admitted that he was, as the North Koreans suspected, trying to persuade North Koreans to accept religion. That sort of activity is illegal in North Korea.

October 19, 2014: For the second time in ten days soldiers from the two Koreas exchanged gunfire across the DMZ. The shooting lasted about ten minutes and began when South Korean troops fired on North Korean soldiers who appeared to be in the DMZ.

October 16, 2014: For the first time North Korea revealed details of the secret talks that are periodically held in the DMZ between officers from the two Koreas. These revelations were about talks held the day before. The south responded by pointing out that the north was not revealing all that was said and was trying to manipulate what was actually said to suit their goals (in getting more aid and cooperation from the south.) At least the north is trying something different.

October 15, 2014: South Korea admitted that its database of national identity numbers and some data on South Korea citizens had been hacked, apparently by North Korea. All South Koreans are issued an ID number at birth and that ID is used extensively for the rest of their lives. It would cost the government over $600 million to fix this data breach.

October 14, 2014: In the north leader Kim Jong Un reappeared in public after being absent from view for six weeks. Kim was using a cane to walk. South Korean intelligence later reported that Kim Jong Un had been out of sight since September because he had surgery to remove a cyst on his ankle. The cyst was discovered in May and arrangements were made to fly in foreign medical experts to take care of it.






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