The North Korea government has decided, or been forced to, accommodate the growing corruption in its bureaucracy and secret police by tolerating certain forms of economic corruption. Thus officials (bureaucrats or police) inspecting the many legal free markets are allowed to keep much of the stuff they confiscate (because of some legal violation). There is a lot of leeway when it comes to what kind of bribes will get you sent to prison camp. The understanding is that these corrupt practices will be tolerated as long as the officials concerned maintain their loyalty to the Kim dictatorship and refuse bribes for things that threaten Kim rule. The downside of this is that many government employees (including low ranking soldiers, armed or unarmed) go around “enforcing laws” they have no responsibility for just to get bribes or “seize” illegal goods. This sort of behavior is causing more and more popular discontent. At the same time the bribery is often a solution to a serious problem. For example, because of low pay, high food prices in the markets and much less government supplied food many highly trained government employees, especially medical and educational, must take bribes or starve. So obtaining medical care or good grades in school now depends on your ability to pay bribes. Getting conscripted into the military, or promoted, or assigned to a comfortable job or base is all a matter of bribes. Those with money, be they corrupt officials or members of the new entrepreneur class, see this corruption as a form of freedom and security. Thus students with affluent parents can bribe their way out of living in a dormitory (which is monitored by secret police informers) and stay in a rented room off campus. Students prefer this because it allows them to freely watch South Korean TV shows and movies.
Yet most North Koreans can’t afford too many bribes and see the corruption as just another obstacle to survival in what they have always been told is the best of all possible worlds. Meanwhile the many new entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly aggressive in protesting and opposing unpopular actions by the police and government. This is most frequently happening in the legal markets, where the police often seize goods (for real or imagined infractions) or demand bribes from merchants. The government also keeps introducing new fees and rules entrepreneurs must deal with. For example the government has banned men under age 60 from legally selling in the markets. Younger men are still legally allowed to provide support services, like transportation of goods, setting up stalls and joining in when the largely female vendors get in a violent dispute with the corrupt police. The entrepreneurs are now openly proclaiming how essential they are to keep people fed and supplied with all manner of goods. It is implied that the government would be worse off without the entrepreneurs and that it is in the best interest of the government to make life easier for entrepreneurs. The government is not interested in becoming more dependent on this new class of capitalists. That may change because the protests are becoming more intimidating and often the police just back off and leave.
China is having a hard time convincing the North Korean leadership that ignoring serious economic and corruption problems is not acceptable. Many Koreans (north and south) believe China is fed up with the incompetence and intransigence of the North Korean leadership and is now willing to wait for the North Korean government to collapse and then go in and rearrange the situation to its satisfaction. At the same time many North Korean leaders blame their problems on China. That is made worse by China demanding that North Korea halt its nuclear program and follow Chinese advice (free the economy) to deal with the growing economic crisis. Turning up the heat on its unstable and increasingly troublesome neighbor has not worked as well as China hoped. In late 2014 China told North Korea that it could no longer depend on automatic Chinese support if North Korea got involved in a war. China cut off various forms of aid but that did not change North Korean refusal to reform its economy and get rid of its nukes. Not only did North Korea refuse but increased its public defiance of China. What makes this really painful for China is that they are simply asking North Korea to improve their economy using what worked for China (which remains a communist police state). The death of Kim Jong Il in 2011 made Chinese style economic reforms more acceptable, but not in a big enough way. China continues to pressure the north to implement reforms and this fails because the North Korean government has split into reform and conservative factions, making change difficult to agree on. Despite all this China has made it clear to the world that North Korea is a Chinese responsibility and if the North Korean government collapses China, not South Korea, will pick up the pieces. South Korea does not agree with that, and this could be a big problem in the future. In the last few weeks North Korea had made some friendly gestures towards China, but not indicated they are going to do what China wants.
Russia is reporting growing problems with the nearly 50,000 North Koreans working in Russia. This is mostly in parts of Russia near the North Korean border, where there is a shortage of Russians for jobs in factories, construction and lumbering operations. Apparently some of the employers are not treating their North Korean workers well and a growing number of the North Koreans are running away, despite the fact that this means family members back in North Korea will be punished. The legal North Korea migrants are part of what amounts to a slave labor program that has become a major (up to $2 billion a year) source of foreign exchange for North Korea. The export of North Korean workers has gone from 60,000 men and women in 2014 to over 100,000 in 2015. The number of workers outside the country is nearly triple what it was before since Kim Jong Un took over in 2011. The government takes up to 90 percent of the wages these men and women earn outside the country (mainly in Russia and China) and holds the workers’ families hostage in case the worker does not return home when ordered. If someone does not come back, their families are sent to prison camps.
August 5, 2015: For the first time since early 2013 senior defense officials from South Korea and Japan met in person to discuss common threats. The delay was because of Korean anger towards Japan, which is unwilling to keep apologizing to China and Korea for atrocities during World War II. Any cooperation with Japan is still very unpopular in South Korea because of continued anger over 40 years of brutal Japanese occupation early in the 20th century. This the Japanese consider self-destructive as it wallows in the past at the expense of dealing with current and future threats. Meanwhile there has been growing unofficial cooperation. This includes unpublicized joint training exercises and meetings between defense officials from both nations. But now South Korea seems willing and able to make all this defense cooperation official and more extensive.
August 4, 2015: South Korea delivered the first Chunmoo MLRS (multiple launch rocket system) to the South Korean Army. Chunmoo is an improved version of the American MLRS that South Korea has been using since 1998. South Korea also manufactures the MLRS rockets locally under license. South Korea is buying 58 Chunmoo vehicles to complement the 54 American MLRS vehicles it already has and eventually replace the older American systems. Compared to the American MLRS Chunmoo has superior fire control and a more modern vehicle to carry and fire the rockets. Chunmoo uses three different size rockets (compared to two for the U.S. MLRS) with a max range of 80 kilometers. Like the American rockets the Chunmoo ones use GPS guidance. Chunmoo is superior to anything North Korea has and designed to quickly destroy North Korean artillery in the first hours of another North Korean invasion. Such an invasion is less and less likely as the North Korean military falls apart from lack of maintenance, fuel, new equipment and basics like food.
July 23, 2015: North Korea has given a lot of publicity to the recent arrest and prosecution of a border guard commander accused of supplying a Chinese man with video and pictures of living conditions in North Korea. This is considered a serious crime and North Korea media pointed out that the officer (a company commander), his family and one soldier under his command were all sentenced to an indeterminate time in a labor camp. This is a typical punishment for a long list of offenses. It wasn’t until 2014 that North Korea officially acknowledged the existence of labor camps, in response to a UN investigation of the camps and the release of a report on that in early 2014. Until 2011 these "labor camps" (which kill a large number of inmates via malnutrition, violence or disease) were overcrowded. Normally built to hold about 150,000 enemies of the people, by 2011 there were closer to 200,000 inmates. The further growth in the prison population was controlled with less food and more violence. About 60 percent of those under arrest in North Korea are serving multi-year sentences in labor camps. Many of these inmates do not survive their sentences and hundreds each year are executed rather than being sent to camps. Until 2011 one percent of the North Korean population was in these labor camps, and 5-10 percent did not survive their time there. Since then North Korea has reduced its labor camp population to under 100,000 prisoners. This appears to have been the result of a higher death rate among prisoners since 2011 and not a policy of sending fewer people to prison and closing the unneeded camps. Some of the deaths were the result of more executions, but most were caused by food shortages. With growing hunger among civilians and military personnel, the government sought to obtain more food wherever it could. Cutting the already skimpy rations for prisoners was one such desperate measure and it meant more prisoners dying of starvation and disease. For decades the UN looked the other way (under pressure from many powerful member nations like China and Russia) when it came to the North Korean “labor camps.” But since the 1990s too many former inmates escaped North Korea and testified about what they went through. As a result the UN could no longer ignore the situation. This led to a formal investigation and documenting what went on, and apparently still goes on up there. Since the late 1990s the UN has become increasingly critical of conditions in North Korea but there was little the UN could do except publicize these problems. This bad publicity finally got to the point where North Korea decided to admit the camps existed and try to spin that news in their favor. In the latest case of the corrupt border guard the government is seeking to scare North Koreans.
July 18, 2015: Kim Yojong, the younger sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has been promoted to run the section of the Propaganda Department that handles glorification of the leader of the country (her older brother). Kim Yojong is married to a senior government official who worked in “Room 39”, the department that looks after the Kim family finances. In early 2014 the eccentric and free-spirited younger (27 year old) sister was apparently persuaded to shape up and brought into the inner circle as a media specialist supporting her brothers’ image. Little sister helped schedule appearances and looks after how her brother is presented in the media. This is a Kim family tradition, of putting close family into jobs that directly support the supreme leader. Most of Kim Jong Uns siblings have proved unworthy, unwilling or both in this department. Until recently Kim Yojong was considered a lost cause but she is apparently no longer considered suspect. Kim Jong Un needs all the allies he can get because he continues to fire, retire, imprison or execute senior officials considered suspect. Kim Yojong replaces an 89 year old man who was demoted to “advisor” rather than retired. This will provide Kim Yojong with an experienced mentor to teach her the basics of supreme leader glorification.
July 12, 2015:
South Korea prosecutors announced that an anti-corruption investigation begun in late 2014 had already led to the prosecution of 63 senior government people. Most were charged with procurement corruption, long a known problem in South Korea (and throughout East Asia) but until now only attacked piecemeal when a senior official was caught in some blatant act of bribery or theft. The 2014 investigation was different as it went after a long (and growing) list of officials that were suspected (because of tips or suspicious behavior) of corrupt acts. Among the 63 now being prosecuted are ten current or retired generals, a former vice minister and two retired heads of the navy. The procurement items involved include things like body armor, small arms and equipment for warships. News of these prosecutions is publicized by state-controlled media in the north with suggestions that his proved how decadent and unpleasant South Korea was compared to the north. These stories have the opposite effect because it shows that in the south the government pays attention to the people and prosecutes corrupt officials, especially senior ones. North Korea punishes corruption, but usually only at the lowest levels. South Korea ranks 43 out of 175 nations in an international corruption survey. North Korea does far worse, ranking 174 out of 175. China ranks 100 and Japan 15. Most of the least corrupt nations are in North America and Western Europe.