Korea: Surviving The Myth

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October 2, 2015: October is an unpopular month in North Korea because it people are ordered to do more unpaid labor. First there are the preparations for the October 10th celebrations in honor of the creation of North Korea (Foundation Day) followed by helping with the harvest. On top of that it is also the start of the cold season, which has become more of an issue as fuel shortages have become worse over the last two decades. Foundation Day preparations has become a major problem of late since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011. He was angry to discover that the 35,000 statues and monuments of his father and grandfather, which are considered sacred, were not being properly maintained. This year is the 70 th anniversary and everything must be perfect. That will be difficult because construction and maintenance of these monuments had become less diligent because corrupt officials took bribes so that people could avoid the annual Kim family monuments maintenance duty. For true-believers in the North Korean leadership this was a shocking development. For most North Koreans it was kind of expected. The old value system, inculcated by decades of relentless Kim-worshipping propaganda has been collapsing. The crux of the problem here is that people are expected to contribute (for free) labor, materials and food (for the workers) for monuments being built or maintained in their area. There has growing resistance to these obligations and the secret police fear the resistance will eventually start turning violent. Now the security services are paying more attention to misbehavior during October, fearful that normally docile and obedient North Koreans will rebel, as similarly docile and obedient East Europeans did in 1989. That uprising was unexpected and is seen as the source of all North Korea’s current problems. Because of 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed two years later and with that ended over four decades of financial support for North Korea.

New technology has given North Koreans more to rebel against. Case in point is the increasing efforts to detect people living near the Chinese border from making illegal foreign calls via a Chinese cell phone tower that is within range. The government has been extending its use of cell phone signal jammers. These devices jam signals from non-North Korean cell phones. The jammers have a short range but the installation of the jammers, which began about 2012 will, in a few years, cover nearly all the Chinese border. In addition the secret police now have new portable cell phone signal detectors and agents in civilian clothes can now secretly visit an area and catch people calling China or, worse, downloading files containing South Korean music and TV shows. This is forbidden and punishable by execution or, if you are lucky, slow death in a labor camp. Three people were recently executed for having South Korean media on their cell phones. Despite this use of technology and death threats North Koreans continue to obtain and pass around South Korea media. The jammers and detectors will slow down the flow of forbidden data but not stop it.

The October crackdowns have had some unpleasant side effects, one of them being the growing corruption among security personnel. For example since early 2015 police have been ordered to shut down illegal markets, especially the ones quietly operating in alleys or little used streets. Police were warned that secret police will be covertly double checking to make sure police are not taking bribes to leave these small markets alone. Not being able to take bribes is not a disaster for the cops because they can still get away with stealing the goods the illegal vendors were offering. To the secret police this is not corruption but to the merchants and their disappointed customers it is just another form of government misbehavior. All this comes back to another growing problem; secret police who have become corrupted. Once almost unheard of now it is increasingly common. Unlike police and the military, the secret police taking bribes are raising money to get out of North Korea, not just improve their standard of living.

The markets are often the only source of food for many North Koreans, now that the government has stopped most of the controlled (by who and at what price) state distribution of food. The markets charge market prices and those prices are getting higher because less food is being grow in North Korea. Floods, droughts, fuel and fertilizer shortages all combine to keep most of the population hungry. Foreign donors are either not allowed to bring in food (especially if they insist on having their own staff distribute it) or are simply not willing to do so (in part because government officials often divert such food to local markets or sell it in China for hard currency). More and more of those escaping into China report that the main reason for risking their lives to get out was hunger. There is simply not enough food for everyone in North Korea and that situation is getting worse. Foreign aid groups estimate that the average amount of food available to North Koreans has declined about 20 percent since 2012.

Despite all the problems most North Koreans have to deal with there is ample evidence that the youthful supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, is popular with most North Koreans. This is so for several reasons. For one thing Kim Jong Un looks like his grandfather, Kim Il Sung who founded (with Russian backing) North Korea in 1945 and ruled the country (with generous economic and military aid from Russia) until his death in 1994. Kim Il Sung died at the time the lack of Russian aid, which stopped when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, was first being felt. Thus Kim Il Sung is associated with the good old days and through the decades of Kim Il Sung’s rule he ran a propaganda campaign that emphasized why all good things came from Kim Il Sung. The grandson is as shrewd as his grandfather and continues the glorification of the Kim Dynasty. Kim Il Sung and his successors also took advantage of psychology and portrayed themselves as the champion of the people. The most visible actions they took to support this was the frequent execution of corrupt or incompetent officials and dispensing “bonuses” (cash or goods) on national holidays. Thus when Kim Jong Un had his own uncle (the husband of his father’s sister) executed for corruption, this boosted his popularity with most North Koreans. The people know that many officials they personally deal with are corrupt or incompetent and when the supreme leader jails or executes some of these officials this ancient psychology plays out as it always has. Kim Jong Un is also planning to hand out cash bonuses to nearly every adult North Korea to celebrate the 70th anniversary of North Korea. At the same time most North Koreans are increasingly hostile to the growing number of corrupt and ineffective officials (including police and the military) they encounter every day. In situations like this the “good emperor” is usually eventually overthrown and killed if he cannot improve the lives of his subjects. Myths will only keep the scam going for so long.

One of the trends that is undermining the myth is very visible this time of year (right after the harvest) when a lot of marriages traditionally take place and now showcase conspicuous displays of illegal wealth. Naturally the North Korean elite have long had elaborate and expensive weddings. For decades this extravagance was hidden away in the well-guarded estates outside the capital or similarly secure (from prying eyes) locations in the capital. But since the 1990s the government has been forced to allow a market economy to develop. Thus there is a new merchant class who also have extravagant weddings and do it semi-publically at the new hotels and large restaurants in the capital and other cities. Also using these facilities for weddings are lower ranking officials (who do not have guarded estates to hide their wealth in) who also use the public wedding venues. These officials have gotten rich via bribes and are much less admired than the new merchant families (who at least provide essential services.)

A growing number of government officials are quietly “disappearing” by getting into China or Russia, often with their immediate families and illegal wealth. This is considered treason in North Korea and punishable by death. These defectors report growing unease among the North Korean ruling class. The years of hunger and shortages, plus easier access to the outside world (especially China and Russia) make it clear that North Korea is not a paradise but the opposite, at least compared to other countries.  Chinese and Russian diplomats and intel agents in North Korea find that the easiest way to get useful information from North Korea officials is to provide help in getting the official and his family out. The North Korean government is aware of this problem and has made it more difficult for North Korean officials to cross the border for any reason. To make matters worse more officials are being arrested on suspicion of treason (trying to get out of the country, taking bribes, having a negative attitude and so on), which the secret police can do without asking permission from a court or senior official. These suspects often disappear into labor camps or an unmarked grave.

Traditional allies China and Russia, despite still providing some aid and other benefits (help in smuggling) are finding that they have little sway over the North Korean government. China has found itself being publicly insulted by North Korea, something that was unknown until recently but is now becoming common. In response China is publicly criticizing things that are wrong in North Korea (mismanagement, nuclear weapons, criminality in general). This sort of thing rarely ends well.

In response to all this South Korea recently confirmed that it is organizing six special operations teams that are being trained to attack and destroy key targets inside North Korea. Apparently the North Koreans had figured this out and there were a growing number of rumors in South Korea as well. This revelation represents a major change in special operations in Korea because since the 1950s it was North Korea constantly sending commandos and spies into South Korea where not all of them were quickly caught or caught at all. At the same time since 1945 it has proved nearly impossible to get foreign agents into North Korea, which had been turned into the ultimate police state after World War II. Since the 1990s the lack of Russian aid (which kept North Korea afloat since the 1950s) caused the North Korean military to gradually (and almost imperceptibly) fall apart. This was accelerated by growing and corruption, even within the secret police and other security agencies. As a result South Korea considers North Korea vulnerable and is preparing to take advantage of that during the next military emergency. If nothing else it causes the North Koreans to spend a lot more on protecting their nuclear weapons.

North Korea plans to launch another space satellite in October, as part of the celebration of the 70th anniversary (of North Korea) celebrations. Satellite and missile experts worldwide believe that this is a cover story (a lie). That’s because of a similar launch in December 2012 where North Korea used a similar rocket to put a malfunctioning satellite in orbit. That was soon found to be a cover for an ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) test. The rocket used could easily be reprogrammed to travel up to 10,000 kilometers and reach most of the United States while carrying a half ton warhead. South Korea recovered many components of the rocket (the first two stages fell back to earth in international waters) and engineers were able to study the pieces, as well as satellite photos of the rocket before launch. South Korean engineers found the construction of the missile components retrieved to be sloppy and there were some foreign components in the rocket. International sanctions do not allow for the North Korean launch and there have been more sanctions as a result of this scam. North Korea pitched the rocket launch to its people as a major achievement. But since most had little electricity or heat when the 2012 launch took place, morale did not improve much. Most North Koreans eventually found out that it was actually a forbidden ICBM test pretending to be a failed satellite launch. North Korea has made it clear that the threat of more sanctions will not have any effect if there is another such launch in 2015.

North Korea is trying to develop a reliable ICBM that could deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States. Some intel analysts believe that the North Korean Taepodong (KN-08) ICBM is actually ready for service and can be launched from a large truck. This mobility makes it more difficult to find and destroy. The October test is needed to improve reliability because North Korea cannot afford to build a lot of these rockets for an attack on the United States so every one of them will count. The Taepodong has a range of 9,000 kilometers, meaning it can reach the west coast of the United States. While mobile the Taepodong is still a three stage liquid fueled rocket and that means days are needed to get one ready for launch. The North Koreans has long sought to develop an ICBM that can hit the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. In response to that the United States has already deployed an anti-missile system in Alaska specifically to stop any such North Korean attack. For the North Koreans to launch a successful attack they would need at least a dozen Taepodong missiles and be able to launch them simultaneously. If that happened, one or two might get through. But since the Taepodong is a liquid fueled missile, the lengthy launch preparations would alert the United States, who could then use ICBMs or bombers to destroy the Taepodongs before they were ready to go. Thus as a threat to the United States, the Taepodongs are a failure. But the next stage of ICBM development involves using solid fuel rockets, which can be launched without any warning. That is what North Korea is working towards as well as a reliable nuclear warhead design. Ally Iran has made considerable progress in developing large solid fuel rocket motors and that technology would be available to North Korea. Iran got this tech from Pakistan, who got it from China who got it from Russia which stole it from the United States. North Korea and Iran have cooperated in the past on weapons development and are believed to still be at it, in secret.

In September North Korea was seen moving at least six of their new high-speed patrol vessels south and basing them near the South Korea sea border. These new patrol boats, whose development began after 2000 and first appeared at sea in the last few years. They vary in size but few appear larger than 500 tons and ten may already be in service. These boats are characterized by stealthy design, high speed (up to 100 kilometers an hour or more) and light armament (autocannon, maybe a 76mm gun plus a few torpedoes or anti-ship missiles.) These new ships have been referred to as VSV (Very Slender Vessels) or the Nongo class.

September 17, 2015: Thailand signed a deal to purchase four South Korean T-50 jet trainers for about $28 million each. The T-50 can also operate as a ground attack aircraft. The four aircraft will be delivered by the end of 2017 and there is an option to buy twenty more. The T-50 will be used for advanced training of pilots for the Jas-39 and F-16 fighters used by the air force.

September 15, 2015: China sent North Korea congratulations on the anniversary of its founding. North Korea played down this message, which in East Asia is seen as disrespectful. This is apparently in reaction to North Korean dismay over a recent show of disrespect by China. This is all about why North Korean leader Kim Jong Un 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) but later decided not to 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 and was seated close to Xi. China has made it clear that it considers South Korea, now a major trading partner, the more important part of Korea. That relationships has a downside as China is the largest export customer for South Korea and the showdown of the Chinese economy over the last year has caused a recession in South Korea.

September 14, 2015: China ordered safety checks on all facilities handling nuclear materials. The military has a good safety record with nuclear material but nuclear power plants and the use of nuclear materials in medicine is another matter. The power reactor risk has long been recognized and in 2009 South Korea completed delivery of its first nuclear power reactor to China. This was part of an effort to get away from dangerous Russian designs that China had been using for decades. South Korean Doosan Heavy Industries had this 600 megawatt reactor on line by 2012. Firms like Doosan have been selling China power plant components for years, but this was the first sale of a complete nuclear power plant. Currently China has 21 reactors producing electricity, with another 28 planned or under construction. China has about fifty power, research and medical nuclear facilities in operation. Existing nuclear power plants only provide about two percent of electricity, and China wants to increase that in order to reduce pollution (80 percent of current electricity is produced by burning coal.) The goal is to have nuclear plants producing six percent of electricity by 2020. Meanwhile nuclear power produces 29 percent of South Korean electricity, 20 percent of the American electricity and 74 percent in France.

 

 

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