North Korean “expression of regret” for the two South Korean soldiers wounded by North Korean mines as a rare North Korean admission of error and an apology. To North Koreans this was unprecedented. Worse, most North Koreans saw it as an acceptable outcome especially since it was accompanied by a lifting of the “emergency restrictions” that prohibited movement and was interfering with farming and what little of the economy still functioned.
North Korea tried to deny that it had backed off in the recent confrontation with South Korea but North Korean intelligence (local informants, electronic intelligence, interrogation of the recently arrested) made it clear to their bosses that most North Koreans saw the August 24
Near the DMZ residents and families of soldiers (officers) are talking about how at the height of the confrontation with South Korea (August 20th) the troops were ordered to make no moves that would provoke the south. This was a relief to the troops and their families (who were ordered into bomb shelters as part of the performance) as it meant that the government had no intention of starting a war over this. Some troops, especially those who believed the government propaganda (about how North Korea was superior to the south in every way) were dismayed. But a growing number of North Koreans know their country, and its military, are a mess and war with South Korea would not end well for the north.
There was more unpleasant news from North Korean intelligence. People were talking about why leader Kim Jong Un had agreed to go to China for the September 3rd parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (according to the Chinese Communist Party) and did not show up. The visit was cancelled without explanation. At the end of August Chinese rumors of what happened reached North Korea and rapidly spread. It appears that Kim Jong Un expected to be standing next to Chinese leader Xi on the reviewing stand but was told this was not going to happen. Kim Jong Un took this as an insult and cancelled his visit. China told him this was disrespectful and there would be repercussions. That apparently led to China telling North Korea they were on their own during the August confrontation with South Korea and that forced North Korea to back down. North Korea denies there was any dispute with China over where anyone would stand during the parade but North Koreans believed the “petulant Kim Jong Un” version and Kim Jong Un is not happy about that, especially since the South Korean president attended. China has made it clear that it considers South Korea, now a major trading partner, the more important part of Korea.
At the same time the government kept increasing efforts to prevent people from leaving the country via the Chinese border. This is being done by increasing patrols along the Chinese frontier, which is usually marked by rivers large and small. The problem is that people use these rivers for watering animals, washing clothes and bathing in the warm weather. Most of that is now forbidden except during a few hours a day and under guard. The police and soldiers on the border now have orders to immediately shoot to kill if they see anyone near the border at other times. Military and civilian officials along the border fear that shooting locals near the border, especially those who are not fleeing, will lead to widespread unrest. There have been a growing number of incidents where groups of angry civilians turn on police, who usually back off. Because of this many border guards are simply demanding bribes to look the other way as people get close to the rivers during forbidden times. These additional bribe demands also makes North Koreans angry but not as angry as getting shot at.
In the north the government may be cracking down on illegal border crossers (escapees and smugglers) but internally the police are not bothering the growing number of “economic criminals” who are providing all manner of essential things. One of these is banking services (loans in Chinese or American currency) to state owned businesses that can no longer get needed operating funds from state banks. These loan sharks will also lend to individuals who have collateral (property or equipment). This means members of the new merchant class or state officials who can risk goods under their control disappearing (to repay a loan). Apparently a growing number of senior officials are becoming aware of basic economics and understand that with no access to any capital even state owned enterprises will collapse leaving even more unemployed, hungry and unhappy people. At the same time the people who run the country see the rapidly growing market economy as a source of income. The government had allowed these markets to develop since 2000 to stave off starvation, economic collapse and rebellion. But the government had no legal way to raise taxes (and admit this illegal stuff is going on) from this economic activity (aside from bribes many officials extracted). Informal taxation techniques are developing, Meanwhile there are fewer senior officials who are true-believers in communism and thus resentful of this free-market activity. Crackdowns on the market entrepreneurs always backfires so the government is learning to live with the monster they have created. Millions of North Koreans have now experienced the benefits of a market economy, and the inability of their own government to supply basic needs. Now even some of the senior leadership find themselves dependent on the illegal market activities. An example of this is the growth of black market medical care. There have always been special (modern and effective) hospitals for senior officials but the decades of economic problems have caused this system to shrink the list of people eligible to use it. Thus senior officials with money (usually obtained illegally) and needing specialized care (and unable to go to China) can now rely on the growing black market system using retired doctors and nurses and imported equipment and supplies. This system first developed to serve the growing number of quasi-legal market entrepreneurs but soon found customers among the senior bureaucracy.
Although North Korea recently (and without publicity) executed three people caught watching recorded South Korean TV shows on their cell phones, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is a big fan of South Korean pop music. Such music if officially banned in North Korea and the main reason for the recent confrontation with South Korea was the southerners using large loudspeaker systems to play South Korean pop music across the DMZ. Many of the North Korean troops and civilians who hear it like it. Kim Jong Un likes it so much that he ordered the creation of two all-girl pop bands and calls then a North Korean invention. No one believes that because all-boy and all-girl pop groups are a specialty in South Korea and have achieved worldwide fame. Say whatever you want, but you can’t stop the music.
American Internet security officials believe that North Korea has not launched any hacker attacks on American corporations since the late 2014 attack on Sony (over a movie, “The Interview”). The U.S. said it would respond to this attack but nothing was ever announced. Meanwhile North Korean Internet hacking resources seemed to be diverted to an effort to keep an outlaw (illegal) Internet based gambling site in North Korea (or somewhere safe from shutdown efforts) functioning. One such operation was recently discovered by South Korean Internet security experts and shut down. North Korea needs cash more than it needs revenge against American companies and the Internet is a good source of money.
September 8, 2015: After over a year of refusing to cooperate North Korea agreed to more family reunions. This does not mean North Korea will actually follow through. In 2014 and 2013 North Korea cancelled reunions between members of families who had been divided during the 1950-53 war. These reunions were halted in 2010 because of southern anger at extortionate demands (for food, fuel and much more) by the north. The north had promised to be reasonable in how much food and fuel aid it would demand from the south to make another round of reunions happen but soon reneged. This cancellation was seen as another northern ploy to obtain more freebies. The south protested but did not offer more aid. So now the north is seeking to get whatever it can. This is humiliating for the north, especially after the recent unprecedented retreat in a confrontation with the south. Nevertheless the economic situation up there is very bad and getting worse.
September 7, 2015: UN (IAEA) nuclear weapons inspectors believe North Korea is working on producing more nuclear weapons. North Korea carried out nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 and has not allowed IAEA inspectors in since 2009.
September 4, 2015: South Korea revealed that it detected North Korean UAVs (China made D-4, a 140 kg aircraft with a 28 kg payload) crossing the DMZ between 22 and 24 August. Jet fighters and attack helicopters were sent up to intercept. Since similar incidents last year South Korea has deployed radars to the DMZ that can detect small, low flying UAVs. South Korea did not reveal if it intercepted these UAVs.
September 3, 2015: In honor of the 70th anniversary of North Korean independence (from Japan) several thousand prisoners were released from labor (“reeducation”) camps. No political prisoners were released, only those with three years or less left for economic or violent crimes. No amnesty for those speaking out against the government or trying to leave the country without permission. Those selected for early release are usually those who have been most helpful to the prison staff, or arranged for a bribe to be paid.
September 2, 2015: North Korea officially denied that its recent “expression of regret” for two South Korean soldiers wounded by North Korean mines was not an apology. This comes too late because by now even more North Koreans know about it and consider it an apology. The north also condemned the continuing joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises. This is the sort of training the north can no longer afford.
August 31, 2015: A senior American defense official openly declared that North Korea has no chance of winning any future war with South Korea.
August 29, 2015: North Korean leader replaced some more of his senior military leaders. This has been going on since Kim assumed power in 2011 and was seen as an effort to get younger and more dynamic military leaders in place. Kim is desperate to reverse the decline of his armed forces but with a crumbling economy and little foreign aid (mainly from China, which threatens to cut aid if the north defies China again) prospects are not good.