Korea: Rooting For The Assassins


December 4, 2015: One of the less visible but telling changes in North Korea is the changing tastes in marriage partners. For decades a government official (especially secret policemen or diplomats) or military officer was the ideal candidate. Marriage brokers have long been used to help make matches and in the last few years tastes in spouses has shifted. Now the ideal candidate is from an entrepreneurial family or one that receives regular deliveries of hard currency smuggled in from family members who had illegally left North Korea. For decades such escapees were denounced as traitors. But as more of them got out (over 20,000 to South Korea since 2000 and even more to China) and prospered a robust smuggling networks developed to get remittances back to family in North Korea. These remittance families, especially those getting money from kin in South Korea, were obviously living better and the corruption in the bureaucracy had reached the point where these newly wealthy families were no longer harassed by the secret police of local officials. When families of officials want their kids to marry into these newly rich families you know there has been a fundamental shift in attitudes up north, despite what the Kim family and their inner circle want. Many government officials have seen where all these changes are going and are joining the entrepreneurial and illegal-migrant class themselves.

There are other signs that the government is surrendering to the power of the free markets. Despite decades of official price controls now even government officials tend to use free market prices for goods. There is an official (artificially low) price for everything in North Korea but few, often no, goods are available at the official price. If you need something you will have to pay the market price or do without. In practice officials have stopped trying to impose price controls on the free markets because that simply makes goods unavailable if the merchants cannot get the price they need to stay in business. While senior officials who are true believers in the communist style economy North Korea has always had protest this change they have not been able to stop it, even after several attempts. All of these efforts failed, often with disastrous effect.

Another government failure up north is censorship. The latest example of this is teenagers, especially those with senior officials for parents, have adopted a ten year old South Korean children’s song (The Three Bears) as a popular protest song. As misinterpreted by North Korea teenagers “The Three Bears mocks” the failed Kim dynasty (now in its third generation). This is unwelcome but not unexpected. North Korean secret police have always monitored the attitudes of the population and for over a decade they have been reporting a very disturbing phenomenon; the generation that grew up with access to South Korean culture (video and audio recordings) has less and less respect for the North Korean leadership. This has happened despite numerous efforts to provide children with additional “instruction” (mandatory pro-Kim propaganda classes). The kids shrugged off the lessons and the extensive secret police monitoring (Internet, phones) and informant network reported more and more disdain and contempt for the leadership among the next generation. This is a very disturbing development because it never happened before and appears incurable. The misuse of The Three Bears as a protest anthem is the worst example so far. It has gotten so bad that many kids are adopting (at least among themselves) a South Korean accent and have learned how to write in the South Korean style. This has been particularly alarming when some of these kids leave graffiti in public areas. This is another growing sign of disloyalty. The government knows that this lack of enthusiasm for the Kims makes it easier for foreign countries (especially China and South Korea) to recruit spies and persuade young North Koreans to illegally emigrate from their homeland. These bad attitudes could also lead to that which is never spoken about openly; revolution.

Another noticeable and aggravating (to most North Koreans) trend is the ability of the wealthier free market families to buy their way out of the various forced labor (helping with the harvest, special construction projects and so on) assignments the government regularly imposes. Before the free markets the only people exempted (aside from the ill or elderly) were senior officials. Then the government discovered they could make some extra money by allowing people to buy their way out. The fees were too expensive for most. Now these unpopular days or weeks of forced labor are even more resented and seen as a government punishment for not getting involved in the free markets or getting one of more families to China or South Korea so the family in North Korea can live better and buy their way out of the forced labor.

Another sign that there is less respect for the government in North Korea is the two months of persistent rumors that there is an active plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. This began when an airport (Wonsan International) visit by Kim Jong Un was cancelled at the last minute when a second security check found a quantity of explosives hidden in the ceiling. Naturally the secret police began a nationwide investigation which, with lesser intensity, continues. No official comments come from the government, which tends to keep the rumors flowing. What bothers the government about this is that many North Koreans are hoping that the assassins, not the investigators, succeed.

The persistent government efforts to shut down the use of Chinese cell phones on the Chinese border has collided with the growing use of North Korea cell phones (which can only make calls inside North Korea). Many Chinese cell phone users on the border do not want to reach China to do anything illegal (like get forbidden Chinese or South Korean songs or videos). Often it is just to speak with friends, family or, more frequently, business associates. Thus a growing number of these legal callers on the Chinese border are taking advantage of the fact that the growing number of North Korean cell phone towers increasingly makes it possible to use a North Korean cell phone on the Chinese side of the border to legally talk to someone on the North Korean side. Technically this is illegal, but the secret police are not looking for such users and the intelligence agencies (which monitor many calls in North Korea) will not be alarmed if the calls between China and North Korea do not mention the fact that one party is actually in China. North Korean intelligence agents operating in China confirmed that this was going on and it is unclear if the government is going to try to do something about it. The government is unlikely to restrict the use of North Korea cell phones because the sale of these phones, made it China, is extremely popular. The phones sell in North Korea for about five times what the government buys them for. Most of that profit, in hard currency, goes to the government.


The government needs all the foreign currency it can get, and for all the wrong reasons. The growing wealth and standard of living of the new entrepreneurial class has forced the government to provide more material rewards for key personnel. As with most dictatorships, North Korea is controlled by a few percent of the population, who are kept happy with a much higher standard of living than other North Koreans, and a growing flow of gifts (mostly Western consumer goods) handed out (often personally) by Kim Jung Un. This is not a new problem but it is getting a lot worse and means that while the better off ruling families get even more goodies the poverty for most North Koreans gets worse. This problem has been increasingly visible since 2010. For example imports of luxury goods went from $272 million in 2008 to $584 million in 2011 and have more than doubled again since then. The rapid increase in such imports is another sign of how nervous the leadership is getting. The growing starvation and economic collapse in North Korea is hard to hide and even the people in charge fear for the worse. But a new car or flat screen TV can make you forget, for a while anyway. These luxury imports are one of the most important weapons used to maintain control of the threadbare millions in the north. Yes, men with guns, prison camps and relentless propaganda are the most obvious tools of control. But the most important element in all this is assuring the loyalty of those who wield the tools of control. That's what all the fancy Chinese consumer goods, foreign cars and flat screens are for.

China is making another effort to improve relations with North Korea, which continues to develop its nuclear weapons and refuses to follow instructions (“suggestions”) from its mighty neighbor. China has lots of incentives to offer. For example, North Korea is frequently discussed on the Chinese Internet and there does not appear to be much interference from the censors. The consensus is that North Korea is a mess and if the Kim government does not make some basic (as in economic) changes the society and government there will collapse. China is now offering to crack down on the trash talk if North Korea will cooperate with Big Brother China. The Chinese are not happy with the prospect of North Korea having more (and better quality) nuclear weapons. This could be disastrous for northeast China if North Korean nukes were used against the United States or any other country and there was nuclear retaliation. The Chinese government is thinking along the same lines as the average Chinese and applying more pressure to North Korea to shape up. Meanwhile trade between North Korea and China declined nearly 14 percent during the first six months of 2015 (compared to 2014). Part of this was due to the stalled Chinese economy but mostly it was all about Chinese anger at North Korean refusal to eliminate their nuclear weapons program. The new Chinese charm offensive offers help in this areas as well. Same with Chinese investment in North Korea, which has declined over 80 percent since 2013 (the last time the north conducted a nuclear test).

Something else China has to offer is proven government efforts to reduce corruption. China has been at this for several years and is showing results, at least in the Transparency International ranking of corruption in nations. In 2014 China moved up four places (to 100) in the rankings of 177 countries. In 2013 China moved up 20 places. Number one (Denmark) is the least corrupt and 175 (Somalia and North Korea in a tie) is the most. North Korea knows it has a big corruption problems and China is offering a workable solution.

Meanwhile North Korean work on nukes continues. Satellite photos showing continued construction of a North Korean tunnel of the type used for nuclear tests indicate that the actual test is not imminent. Construction of this tunnel has been underway since the last nuclear test in 2013. Once the new tunnel is done (soon, apparently) there could be another nuclear weapons test. In 2014 completion appeared to be a month or more away but then the effort slowed considerably. Work on the tunnel is seasonal and with the warm weather work accelerates and usually halts when it gets really cold. If this tunnel were used this would be the fourth nuclear test. The first three indicated a crude nuclear weapon design that still needs a lot of work. China does not want the test to happen but North Korea refuses to discuss the matter with their only ally.

December 3, 2015: Officials from South Korea, Japan and the United States met in the U.S. to continue developing their improved alliance. The U.S. has been trying to get South Korea and Japan to cooperate more closely but centuries of hostility between the two made that difficult. In the last year a closer alliance (to deal with mutual problems with China, Russia and North Korea) was finally achieved.

December 1, 2015: Russia and North Korea have worked out an agreement whereby Russia would build electric transmission towers to the North Korean border and sell North Korea major amounts of electricity. It will be several years before this electricity trade actually begins.

November 26, 2015: North Korea and Russia have signed an extradition treaty making it easier, and quicker, for each nation to get back fugitives. This is most useful for North Korea, because many North Koreans flee (illegally) to Russia while there is little such traffic from Russia to North Korea.

November 11, 2015: Despite the embargo North Korea managed to buy and smuggle in an armored Mercedes-Benz automobile. This one can stop heavy caliber machine-gun bullets and explosions. It can move at 100 kilometers an hour on flat tires and has a built in refrigerator.






Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close