Korea: The Boy Who Cried Nuke Once Too Often

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May 24, 2015: The South Korean intelligence reports that the head of the North Korean armed forces (general Hyon Yong Chol) was executed on April 30 th appear to be true. Hyon has not appeared in several media events (usually with leader Kim Jon Un) that he is normally present at. Hyon is alleged to have been executed for falling asleep during a public appearance by Kim Jong Un and for not doing his job. This led to Hyon being executed using a ZPU 4 (a four barrel 14.5mm anti-aircraft machine-gun). This was done before many senior officers. The Kims have often used unusual executions of senior officials to terrorize and encourage the bureaucracy that actually runs the country. But there is also evidence that Hyon is still alive. For example it is customary for executed officials to be quickly scrubbed from the public record. But Hyon’s name appeared in the official government newspaper on the 30 th and on May 14 th he was seen briefly in a TV documentary. Then again this may have just been sloppiness, which is seen more and more up north, or an attempt to mess with South Korean intelligence. The North Koreans delight in playing those games, especially when it comes to discrediting news about North Korea that the North Korean government does not want made public. The truth will eventually be known when more defectors, especially high level ones, reach South Korea and are debriefed. Meanwhile North Korean travelers and defectors in China report that officers in charge of guarding the border have been told during their mandatory indoctrination classes that Hyon is an example what happens to officers who do not get the job done. North Koreans from other parts of the country also report that local officials were lectured on the need to avoid the fate of Hyon. While Hyon was Defense Minister that is not a particularly powerful job up there where the head of the Defense Ministry is mainly responsible for logistics and maintenance. Hyon may have been killed because he was unable to deal with the growing food, fuel and electricity shortages the troops are experiencing and complaining about. There have been other reports of removing or executing officers responsible for food supplies to the troops. Last year Kim ordered that the troops get more food but food is hard to come by, especially enough to improve the diets of a million young men. You can’t get blood by squeezing a stone or turn sand into rice. Officers in charge of food supplies will have to rely on illegal methods (like taking food from local farmers) to get the troops more to eat.

More verifiable problems up north include a 37 percent decline (to 3,851) in tourist visits to North Korea during 2014. While few in numbers the North Korean government gets a lot of foreign cash (about $2,000 per person) out of these visitors and foreign currency is one thing that is always in short supply. That’s especially true when you consider that the North Korean GDP is only about $35 billion. The tourists stopped coming because of bad behavior and greed on the part of North Korea. Despite saying they welcome foreign tourists, North Korea will occasionally kill or arrest one or add new fees and restrictions without warning.

Another verifiable event was recent North Korean claims, via a video clip showing a SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile) test happening behind leader Kim Jong Un. Close examination of this video showed it was faked. What was not faked was the fact that apparently North Korea obtained all or parts of a Russian R-27 SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile). This was 1960s vintage tech that was replaced in the 1970s by more modern designs. But many of the 492 R-27s produced were recycled for scientific research until 1990. After that is believed that all or much of one missile was illegally sold as “scrap” to North Korea. This was deduced from the fact that after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 North Korea bought a lot of discarded Russian weapons for scrap (none of which was supposed to be operational stuff) and it was later discovered that some of the scrap was remilitarized by the North Koreans. For example, the new North Korean Musudan ballistic missile looks a lot like the R-27. There are pictures of the Musudan, serving as a weapon launched from a large truck, not a submarine. So far there has been no evidence of a Musudan test. Typically a SLBM is tested from land facilities before it is tested from a submarine. Oh, and North Korea received ten decommissioned Russian Golf class SSBs (ballistic missile diesel-electric submarines) in 1993, to be recycled as scrap. The Golf class boats used the R-21 SLBM, which was slightly larger than the R-27 that replaced it (in the first Russian nuclear powered of SSBs or SSBNs) in the late 1960s. Foreign intelligence agencies have been watching North Korea carefully for signs that North Korea was working on an SSB but few have been found. 

There’s a related deception. Stories that North Korea had figured out how to miniaturize and ruggedize their nuclear weapons so they work in a ballistic missile are also doubted. So are reports that North Korea has ten or more nuclear weapons ready to go. All this is seen as more of the scary propaganda Kim Jong Un has ordered in an attempt to extort more freebies from South Korea, China or the world in general. It doesn’t work as the north has cried “nuke” too often for it to be convincing or frightening. But Kim Jong Un is a big fan of propaganda and has averaged 3-4 “inspection visits” a week since he took over the government in early 2012. Each of these visits is a media event that is heavily covered by state controlled print and electronic media. When foreigners turn on local TV they are surprised at how often Kim Jong Un appears in news shows as well as the many “specials” (advertorials in the West) that are common TV fare in the north. These visits do provide Kim Jong Un with a better idea of how bad things are. He often visits military sites and has noted how gaunt, hungry and sullen many of the troops appear.

North Korean police have been warned to be careful while patrolling near the Chinese border at night. There have been several incidents recently in which individual policemen have been attacked and robbed, even though the victims were in uniform and armed. This sort of thing has long been a problem across the border in northeast China. There the police are regularly investigating robberies and murders committed by North Koreans. Often the attackers turn out to be North Korean soldiers. There was a time, a few years ago, when China and North Korea kept incidents like this quiet. No longer, mainly because it is happening more frequently and China believes the North Koreans are losing control with desertions in their military and security services on the rise. There are often no announcements of the murders in Chinese media but the diplomatic protests are usually big news outside of China and despite Chinese Internet censorship news of these murders gets into China and spreads rapidly. Since at least 2008 North Korea has been trying to do something about the growing number of soldiers who are deserting and fleeing to China. There are always some troops who desert and just disappear inside North Korea. But more of these deserters are being found in China, and South Korea. Those who make it to South Korea report that the troops are now going hungry, and senior officers are stockpiling food and attempting to move their families to China. The worst desertion incidents are the ones where the deserters take firearms with them and rely on robbery to survive. This is especially bad if they do this while still wearing their North Korean uniforms. Both China and North Korea have increased their border security but the number of people, armed or not, trying to get out of North Korea increases faster and the escapees are more desperate and resourceful. China has also formed a civilian militia along the North Korean border to watch and promptly alert border troops if anything suspicious is seen.

The increased border security imposed since Kim Jong Un took over in 2011 has seen the number of North Korean defectors reaching South Korea decline 52 percent (to 1,396) from the peak year (2,914 in 2009). The total number of people escaping from North Korea has only declined about a third because far fewer are seeking to make it all the way to South Korea, which requires getting to a country, like Thailand, that has a South Korean embassy and local police who tolerate North Korean refugees arriving to visit the embassy for sanctuary and transportation to South Korea. For many escapees it is easier and cheaper to stay in China or go to some other country. While the cost of hiring a people smuggler to get you into China has doubled since 2011, there are a growing number of relatively wealthy people in North Korea (because of the legalized markets) and many of them are getting out. There are about 28,000 North Korea refugees in South Korea and about ten times as many in China and a growing number showing up, often illegally, in other countries.

May 23, 2015: South Korea and Japan continue to rebuild their diplomatic and economic ties by having the Finance Ministers from both countries meet and begin working out new (and often long-delayed) economic cooperation agreements. Two days earlier the Defense Ministers of both countries also met for the first time since 2011. These have cooperation efforts have been delayed for years because of popular opposition in South Korea to any cooperation with Japan. Despite the threat both countries face from North Korea (and China) such cooperation has been difficult to implement because of continued Korean anger over 40 years of brutal Japanese occupation early in the 20th century. This the Japanese consider a self-destructive attitude as it wallows in the past at the expense of dealing with current and future threats. Yet Japan continues to ignore the fact that Japanese post-World War II policy (documented in decrypted Japanese diplomatic messages sent out right after the Japanese surrender in August 15, 1945) of claiming to be a victim in World War II and guilty only of trying to liberate all Asians from Western oppression is the obstacle. That “Japan as victim” view was never very popular with Japan’s neighbors, who saw Japan as no better (and often a lot worse) than Western imperialists. To the countries of East Asia Japan compounds these historical sins by continuing to insist that Japan is innocent of any wrongdoing. This makes it more difficult for South Korea and Japan to unite to deal with threats from North Korea and China and the Japanese have resisted changing their attitude. Recently both South Korea and Japan agreed to compromise a bit and move on to deal with present and future threats.

May 17, 2015: South Korea announced that it had charged three of its citizens with plotting with North Korea to import methamphetamine into South Korea and also arrange for the murder of a North Korean refugee in the south whose statements had angered the government up north. The target was the former head of the North Korean parliament. This is a ceremonial institution but the guy in charge had access to a lot of state secrets. This refugee died of natural causes (at age 87) in 2010, a year after North Korea ordered him to be killed. The assassination plan was to have paid $40,000, a huge sum by North Korean standards and no doubt to be covered by drug smuggling profits. The three South Korean men accused of all this were still working out ways to get the drugs into South Korea. 

May 15, 2015: South Korea launched its sixth Type 214 class submarine. This is part of a major expansion of the South Korean Navy. In February 2015 South Korea created a new Submarine Command. This was in recognition of the expanding South Korean submarine fleet, currently nine Type 209 and four Type 214s in service and the five additional Type 214s to be delivered by the end of the decade. The main purpose of the new Submarine Command is to develop better anti-submarine capabilities against North Korea or even China. Another reason for the Submarine Command was to make it easier to curb the procurement corruption that has developed in the navy. Several senior navy officers and officials have recently been prosecuted for this sort of misbehavior. Since the submarine service is rather elite and much more sensitive to getting the most for their money the Submarine Command, run by submarine officers, is expected to be more resistant to corruption. That is important because South Korea is putting a lot more money into submarines. North Korea currently has 70 subs, but most (over 70 percent) of them are very small (and often elderly) coastal types. There are twenty larger (1,800 ton) Romeo type boats but these are also very old, noisy and easy for other subs to detect underwater.

May 9, 2015: North Korea announced that it had test fired a ballistic missile launched from a submarine. There were later reports that the TV video was faked and then came information from cell phone chatter and RUMINT (rumor intelligence) that this fake announcement angered the North Korean personnel actually working on seal launched ballistic missiles. To the North Korean weapons developers false reports like this simply bring unwanted attention to their work and the increased possibility of a pre-emptive attack to prevent such a North Korean weapon from becoming operational. Actually, a lot of people escaping North Korea in the last few years have reported dissatisfaction (among weapons developers) with the growing use (by Kim Jong Un) of false claims about new weapons developments.

 

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