North Korean nuclear test shook things up but not ways North Korea wanted. North Korea claimed the test was of a fusion (H-Bomb) nuclear weapon. In fact it was a fission (A-bomb) detonation because it was too small an explosion for a fusion device and none of the air samples captured showed any evidence of a fusion explosion. Fission and fusion bombs leave behind distinctly different atmospheric evidence even when the test is underground. Some gases vent into the atmosphere and winds carry the telltale evidence outside of North Korea where the air can be captured and analyzed.
The January 6
North Korea declared the test was an H-bomb not in a futile attempt to deceive foreign scientists and their instruments but to make North Koreans feel better. Months of cold weather accompanied by energy and food shortages have left most North Koreans in a bad mood. Just as the tell-tale particles floated out of North Korea and revealed the truth so have numerous eye witness accounts of how most North Koreans reacted. In short, North Koreans were not impressed and many (if not most) did not believe it was an H-bomb. Cold and hunger has caught the attention of most North Koreans and it was noted that this H-bomb will not supply warmth or alleviate hunger. Naturally the secret police noted this ingratitude and reported it up the line. The leadership was dismayed and now hope that an upcoming ICBM test (disguised as a satellite launch) will have a positive impact on the national morale. It won’t because the secret police also report that people openly mock government efforts to deceive them, in large part because there have been so many lies and failed scams since the 1990s. The younger (born or grew up during great famine of the 1990s) generation are openly contemptuous of the government. The neighbors are not impressed either. The fake H-Bomb test was condemned by the United States, Russia, China, South Korea and just about everyone else.
China and Russia both agree that North Korea having nukes is a bad thing but China is more concerned about this than Russia or anyone else. While China refused to back the strict UN sanctions on North Korea that the United States was calling for the Chinese have been increasing forceful in their criticism of North Korean behavior. This includes more public criticism, via state controlled media, of the North Korean leadership. Another weapon is trade with North Korea which declined 15 percent in 2015 and China is openly telling North Korea that continued work on its nuclear and ballistic weapons program means North Korea can no longer depend on support from China if North Korea gets involved in a war. To emphasize that point China quietly increase cargo checks and border security on the North Korean border with an emphasis on stopping the North Korean smuggling that is normally tolerated. North Korea may be able to ignore Chinese criticism but they cannot ignore the special kinds of pain China can inflict. But there are limits.
China could cut off all trade, which would cause a major economic crisis in North Korea. While that trade only amounts to about five billion dollars a year, it is over 70 percent of North Korean foreign trade. There has also been a reduction in trade between China and South Korea. But that trade is more than a hundred times larger than the North Korea-China trade and the drop is all economic (the stalled Chinese economy). This is much less of a problem in the south than in the north where the reduction in Chinese trade is a matter of life or death for many. An even bigger problem is that China has not shipped any petroleum products to North Korea for two years. There has been some smuggling, but China has been the major source of oil for North Korea since the 1990s this cutoff has been a big problem. Officially the North Koreans have not backed off because of these Chinese moves. Unofficially there have been a lot of secret negotiations going on between North Korea and China. Both countries know that they need each other and want to reach some sort of deal.
Meanwhile American military commanders in the Pacific have gone on record that the United States considers North Korea, not China, the biggest military threat in the region. China considers the United States a more immediate threat than North Korea which, no matter what it does, is still very dependent on Chinese aid and assistance. China prefers a pro-Chinese dictator in North Korea, not an anti-Chinese anything else and the North Koreans know this.
South Korea went farther than just protesting the nuclear test. On the 7th South Korea resumed using large loudspeaker systems to play South Korean pop music and uncensored news across the DMZ and deep into North Korea. This is done via eleven loudspeaker systems that were installed on the DMZ in 2010 but were not turned on until August 2015. That annoyed the north so much that they made concessions and negotiated a deal to shut the loudspeakers down again a month later. This time North Korea has only protested and used their own loudspeaker system to try and drown out the South Korean music and news. That had limited success because the North Korean equipment is weaker. The northern broadcasts features praise for North Korean leaders and the superior lifestyle of the north. The southern broadcasts can be heard as far as 10 kilometers in the day and over 20 kilometers at night. The southerners turn on their loudspeakers for two t0 six hours a day and at random times. These broadcasts had gone on for decades until, by mutual agreement, they were halted in 2004. The North Korea attacks in 2010 led South Korea to install new, more powerful, speaker systems in response. These new speaker systems are more powerful than anything the north has been able to install and the broadcasts, especially at night, are having an impact. So much so that a nationwide propaganda campaign (requiring people to come to mandatory meetings where local officials lecture them for hours on the dangers of the messages from the loudspeakers). These meetings have backfired because many North Koreans had not heard about the South Korean loudspeakers being turned on again or what the news they were broadcasting was. So now many more North Koreans are seeking to find out what the loudspeakers are blasting into the north. Many of the North Korean troops and civilians who hear the music and news broadcasts like it. Kim Jong Un himself likes the K-Pop music so much that he ordered the creation of two all-girl pop bands and called K-Pop 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 or the news when the loudspeakers come on.
Another North Korean response to the loudspeakers coming back on was particularly odd. On January 12th North Korea began launching thousands of helium filled balloons carrying propaganda leaflets rigged to fall on South Korea via a timer and release device. In the weeks following these balloons were regularly released when the winds were blowing south. Several hundred thousand leaflets reached the south and where they were received with some amusement. But then it was noted that a growing number of the balloons were carrying lightweight garbage (cigarette butts, used issues and toilet paper) instead. It is unclear if these payloads were authorized or not.
One achievement the North Korean government does not boast about is the effectiveness of new security measures on the Chinese border to cut down on smuggling, cell phone calls to China and fleeing the country. The most effective measures are too expensive to use all along the border but are useful to drive the smugglers and cell phone users to other areas for a while. These new saturation tactics use border guards, police and local volunteers (who are rewarded for catching anyone misbehaving) that create a multilayer screen that people headed for the border are finding impenetrable, especially at night. There are more searches of individuals (looking for illegal Chinese cell phones or other contraband), especially at legal crossing points where people with permission to visit China are thoroughly searched. As an added incentive those doing the searching get to keep some of the forbidden valuables they find.
New technology has made it easier to detect those trying to make illegal foreign calls via a Chinese cell phone tower that are 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. 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. It takes very expensive bribes to get free from these cell phone police.
North Korea expected the recent nuclear test would bring with it threats of additional economic sanctions, especially from China. In response the North Korean government has become more open about support of the free market. This in itself is a big change that began during the 1990s when post-Cold War Russia eliminated the economic aid that had been keeping North Korea alive since World War II. As a result North Korea could no longer afford to supply the people with essentials and was forced to allow the private economy to develop and eventually flourish as people did whatever they could to survive. From then on the government, seeing no other option, gradually legalized the free markets and now has created an institution that is becoming more powerful than the state itself. Entrepreneurs are using all the foreign cash to take over government owned businesses and hire the loyalty of the security services. New laws make it easier for private businesses to hire people. At this point North Korea cannot afford to destroy the free markets as that would be a form of suicide for the rulers. China has long urged North Korea to do this as it what the Chinese communists did to survive in the 1980s and it worked well. Thus in the face of more sanctions the North Korean government is calling on its new “donju” (entrepreneurs) to concentrate on finding ways to make North Korean versions of the many foreign (especially South Korean) consumer products that are so popular in the north (where they are very illegal.) The donju have been successful at this where the government has usually failed and the government is now openly encouraging the donju to keep at it.
The most recent (2015) international study found North Korea one of the two (along with Somalia) most corrupt nations in the world. Corruption in this Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The two most corrupt nations have a rating of 8 (North Korea and Somalia) and the least corrupt is 91 (Denmark). A look at this index each year adds an element of reality to official government pronouncements. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. In East Asia is by far the most corrupt nation in the region.
What Russia, China And North Korea Still Agree On
Because of the latest North Korean nuclear test and announced ballistic missile tests South Korea has sped up its efforts to obtain and put into service the American THAAD anti-missile system. China and Russia joined North Korea in opposing THAAD. South Korea wants THAAD for protection from North Korean missile attack. The Chinese would not come right out and say it but they object mainly because THAAD would also make South Korea less vulnerable to intimidation by Chinese ballistic missiles. South Korea openly refused to comply with the Chinese threats in 2015 and South Korean public opinion became even more enthusiastic about the high tech and very expensive (over $100 million per launcher and associated equipment) THAAD system. China sees South Korea more of an ally of the United States and a potential wartime foe than as an ally in attempts to keep North Korea from doing anything that would cause major economic and diplomatic problems (like starting a war). South Korea ignores the Chinese threat noting that China has done nothing to interfere with the profitable trade between the two countries. Russia opposes THAAD for the same reasons China does.
February 2, 2016: Two Chinese warplanes entered South Korean air space near Suyan Rock (also called Ieo Island or Ieodo). The Chinese pilots apparently soon noted their error and left before South Korean jets could arrive to challenge them. China later denied that the incident even happened and none of their aircraft violated anyone’s air space. Ieodo is actually a submerged (nearly five meters under water) rock in the East China Sea that is 150 kilometers from South Korea and 245 kilometers from China. In 1987, South Korea built a warning beacon on the rock, which is a navigation hazard to large ships. South Korea officially claimed Ieodo in 1951 and China officially challenged that claim in 1962. In 2006 the Chinese agreed not to challenge South Korean claims to Ieodo, which are supported by the international community. But in 2008 China renewed its challenge apparently as part of a more general campaign that included claims to all of the South China Sea and large chunks of India.
February 1, 2016: North Korea officially announced that it will launch an earth observation satellite sometime between February 8th and 25th. This is believed to actually be an ICBM test, as have two similar “satellite launches” since 2009.
January 29, 2016: Japanese media reported that the Japanese military had been ordered to destroy any North Korean ballistic missile that entered Japanese air space. In the past North Korea has fired long range ballistic missiles through Japanese air space in part because such a long-range missile test can hardly avoid violating some neighbor’s air space but also because North Korea believed that sort of thing would intimidate ancient enemy Japan. North Korea insists it is only putting satellites into orbit.
January 28, 2016: North Korea and Russia have agreed to speed up implementation of the extradition treaty they signed in November 2015. This makes 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.
Japan displayed, for the first time, its X-2 experimental stealth fighter. This aircraft is to make its first flight by the end of February so there was no point in trying to keep it hidden from public view anymore. Japan admits that it will take about a decade to get the X-2 into service, assuming all the technical and fiscal obstacles can be overcome. China and Russia are also trying to develop similar aircraft while the U.S. has already done so, several times, since the 1980s (when the F-117 appeared).
January 26, 2016: Japan announced that it is reinforcing its islands closest to China. This means another 20 F-15s will be based on Okinawa, one of the many islands that China has claims on.
January 22, 2016: the United States, South Korea and Japan have agreed to freely and quickly share intel on North Korea nuclear weapons development. Despite these new defense and intelligence cooperation agreements South Korea and Japan failed to reach any settlement about the Dokdo Islands. This islands are claimed by South Korea and Japan. While it is understood that the nations would never go to war over the dispute the political sensitivity (and centuries of ill-will) of the counterclaims makes settlement very difficult. Diplomats in both countries wish the situation would just go away, as it hinders cooperation, especially against Chinese and North Korean threats.
January 15, 2016: Japan is joining South Korea by also increasing the money it gives the U.S. each year to help pay for the American troops on its territory. The new annual payment will be $1.57 billion a year and this will be achieved via small increases each year until the end of the decade. In 2014 South Korea agreed to increase the amount it pays the United States each year to offset the costs of stationing American troops in South Korea. The new payment was $866 million, an increase of 5.8 percent over 2013.