North Korea is trying to avoid food shortages by ordering more people to leave their regular jobs and spend 30 days (May 15- June 15) helping out with planting the rice crop. This year it includes university students. If you have the money, you can bribe your way out of this chore. About a third of the students manage to pay the bribe. That is annoying enough but then about a third of the students who go to the farms get out of about half the work because they are those who work as informers for the government. Nationwide about ten percent of the population work as informers for the police or secret police. This is a common practice in all police states, especially those based on the Russian (communist) model. The extent of this system became public after 1989 when so many communist governments in Europe (including Russia) collapsed and people were free to talk about this. Many of these former subjects of communist government were surprised to find out how extensive the informant networks were. In key areas, like the military, police and universities, there were a lot more informers especially those whose main job was to keep an eye on other informers. Being an informer brings with it many economic, career and other benefits. The downside is the students sent to work (up to 14 hours a day for a month) on the farms quickly noted who the informers were because they did not work much (if at all) but made sure non-informers did. Since university students are the leaders of the next generation the government must have been quite desperate to send the students to the farms.
For non-students the bribes are not only expensive (up to $100 per person) but for the many who cannot afford them it means losing a month’s income from the non-government jobs more and more North Koreas now use to survive. The government knows policies like this are unpopular and has ordered fewer public punishments of those who disobey. This includes no more public executions (usually by firing squad) for major non-political crimes (like murder). The executions still take place, just not where anyone can see it.
The forced labor has been part of life in North Korea from the beginning. But now northerners are also being taxed in a more conventional sense but without regard to ability-to-pay. Like most communist police states, there was never a system for individuals and enterprises to pay taxes. Instead the centrally controlled economy would “allocate” a portion of national income for various uses and people were paid with small amounts of cash plus allocations of food, housing and other goods as well as favors. But now more and more North Koreans are surviving in the legalized market economy and the government has not accepted the need for income or sales taxes. Instead they have periodic mandatory “voluntary donations” by all people in a province, city or smaller area to pay for whatever the government declares must be built or repaired. Those who cannot pay must show up and contribute labor. For those dependent on a market economy job, it means weeks or months of lost income. The government does little to help those who cannot obtain enough food, fuel or shelter because of this. While the more affluent government officials and market economy entrepreneurs can afford the bribes (which enable government officials to prosper and eat well) the majority of North Koreans cannot and the secret police report growing unrest among these people who now compare the government to the oppressive feudal rulers of the past. The communist promised to eliminate that sort of oppression but now it is returning, at least as far as the growing number of victims are concerned.
Managing The Chinese Threat
Few North Korean officials have any illusions about the ability of their country to survive if China halted all trade. The UN sanctions do not prohibit imports of essentials, like food and these continue. Because of the legal market economy in North Korea that means food is still available all the time but at higher (market) prices. The government refuses to do what China has done and let the market economy legally spread to larger enterprises (like manufacturing or farming and mining). That means the government can no longer pay workers in food as it was able to do since the 1950s because of food and other aid coming in from Russia (mostly) and China. Most of that disappeared after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. For the growing number of North Koreans who have seen how the Chinese economy works they know that if China cut all trade with North Korea the shortages, especially of food, in North Korea would have catastrophic consequences within weeks or months. Chinese know this and during the first week of June senior Chinese and North Korean officials met to try and improve diplomatic and economic relations between the two countries. This involves the essential role China plays in keeping North Korea alive. This year North Korea got a very visible and painful reminder of that in March when China began enforcing all the UN trade sanctions against North Korea. Now China promises more pain if North Korean rulers do not become more cooperative.
The impact of China enforcing the sanctions was immediately felt by North Korean industry, especially factories producing military goods (like ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons). North Korea is desperate and North Korean leaders are willing to do almost anything to mend relations with China. “Almost” may not be enough unless North Korea agrees to adopt a market economy to the extent that China has. China, however, is willing to be more flexible on that if North Korea will cooperate in other ways. At the June meetings North Korean officials were told, privately, that all would be well if North Korea got rid of its nuclear weapons and its nuclear weapons development program. South Korea found out about this because China asked for help from the south in the form of agreeing to “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” South Korea could easily develop nukes but has been dissuaded from doing so by American assurances that U.S. nuclear weapons were defending South Korea and that all the neighbors (especially North Korea, China and Russia) knew this. Although American tactical nukes (for use by missiles, artillery and bombers) have been illegally (according to the 1953 ceasefire agreement that ended the Korean War) stored in South Korea since the late 1950s, these are mostly gone now.
North Korea has not yet officially responded to this Chines proposal. Meanwhile Chinese enforcement of the sanctions is being felt by everyone in North Korea because China has long been the only source of key metals and components for their missiles and nukes as well as many non-military products. North Korea now finds it cannot bribe Chinese border guard to let contraband in mainly because North Korea is so unpopular in China that Chinese border guards are instead searching North Korean trucks and railroad cars with greater intensity. In part that’s because if contraband is found the legal cargo and vehicle can be seized as well. That earns the guards a bonus.
If China cut all trade it would likely have to eventually deal with the resulting chaos and send in troops along with food supplies. But if North Korea has effective nuclear and chemical weapons aimed at China a total trade embargo could bring retaliation that would hurt China and get a Chinese response that would eliminate the North Korean government and much else besides. North Korean leaders apparently feel China will not risk that sort of chaos. China is trying to make North Korea understand that China has done this sort of thing before and will do it again if there is no other way to deal with the kind of threat North Korea is becoming. Historically China has employed surprise in such situations, applying force when it is not expected, sometimes even as negotiations were underway. China has been reinforcing its military and secret police forces along the North Korean border for several years now. Substantial Chinese forces could move across the border within hours, while supported by the hundreds of modern warplanes now based in the area. The Chinese navy regularly trains in the seas between China and North Korea. North Korean leaders try to appear unimpressed.
The June talks ended with no announcements of North Korea agreeing to get rid of its nukes or of China applying more trade restrictions. This usually means that North Korea has been given some time to figure how to comply with Chinese demands or come up with a convincing reason not to. For example one alternative solution would involve allowing Chinese to monitor the North Korean nukes at all times. What is certain is that China is running out of patience and North Korea is running out of options. Separately from the June talks China did announce that as part of their effort to comply with the UN sanctions a long list of dual-use materials and technologies could no longer be exported to North Korea. In addition China has cracked down on North Korean use of Chinese banks for money laundering. Russia had already done the same a month earlier.
Rather less publically China has curbed the activities of the hundreds of North Korean secret police agents working in northeast China to search for illegal migrants from North Korea. These plainclothes agents, who speak Chinese well enough to pass for Chinese, are supposed to report criminal activities (by Chinese or North Koreans) to Chinese officials but that does not always happen. China wants to remind North Korea that if these agents become a problem they will be banned (or worse). There have already been reports of North Korean agents caught when Chinese officials were arrested for corruption. This year China has been concentrating on prosecuting local officials who have taken bribes from North Korea to allow forbidden goods to get into North Korea. For several years the Chinese anti-corruption effort has been pretty intense and well-publicized but the corruption problem is so widespread that the government can select which areas to unleash investigators on. Both sides of the North Korean border has long been a hot spot for corruption. It was also one of those areas where the corruption was more of a benefit to Chinese than in other areas (where the victims were Chinese). That has changed and that also sends a message to North Korea. It is still possible to use bribes, but it is a lot more expensive and increasingly not an option.
More Embargo Woes
Illegal North Korean trade has long been a worldwide operation. The recent international crackdown has reached the most remote areas. For example in May 2016 Uganda agreed to join the rest of Africa and halt any trade or military ties with North Korea. This ends three decades of such activities between the two countries. Without international pressure Uganda would have continued buying military equipment and services from North Korea. As recently as 2014 North Korea sent a senior official to Uganda to discuss providing trainers for the Ugandan national police. North Korea offered low price and a good, if somewhat grisly, track record. In the 1980s North Korea sold Uganda weapons and security services. There were several other African nations who quietly did the same. All this is was part of the North Korean efforts to raise desperately needed foreign currency. Many African countries were particularly interested in the savage and effective police state security techniques that North Korea had developed and used itself. North Korea had long been known as the most effective police state in the world. North Korea was also willing to do business with anyone who could pay. Sometimes North Korea did business with rebels or private groups in need of some reliable (and willing to do anything) muscle. In 2000 North Korea sent military advisors to the Congo. The civil war raging there has attracted mercenaries from many nations, especially former communist ones. The North Korea mercs were respected as the most effective and unrestrained.
The Nuclear Guessing Game
No one outside of North Korea knows exactly how many usable nuclear weapons North Korea has. Even North Korea may not be sure. Based on the amount of nuclear material being produced, it is estimated that North Korea could have built up to twenty nuclear weapons by now. The big question is how many of them will actually work under combat conditions. For North Korea the biggest obstacle to having a useable nuclear weapon is a reliable warhead design. Testing such a design for ballistic missiles, without actually firing a live nuke into the ocean requires another bunch of tech (and high-performance computers) that North Korea does not have. The North Koreans have been resourceful about situations like this in the past and were apparently able to build some of the banned industrial items themselves. That did not take as long as earlier estimated. Illegally obtaining some key chemicals and high-tech electronics was also apparently done more quickly than anticipated. Before all this was realized in 2015 it was believed it would be another 5-10 years before they would have a working warhead for their missiles, or at least one compact and reliable enough to be dropped from an aircraft. It was discovered in 2015 that the North Korea weapons smuggling operation has again succeeded in obtaining forbidden tech. There is still no real proof North Korea has a working nuclear warhead that can survive use on a ballistic missile or even when dropped from an aircraft. If North Korea did have a working warhead that is bad news for China and Russia as well. Both these countries admit that North Korea is likely to use workable nukes to bully anyone who does not cooperate. This is the main reason China and Russia have been willing to go along with more sanctions against North Korea after years of not cooperating.
It is known that North Korean military tech, especially when it comes to really complex stuff like ballistic missiles and nukes, is crude and unreliable. So far this year four North Korean ballistic missile launches have failed. These failures are hard to hide and South Korea has collected and examined enough debris from North Korean missiles that were launched over open waters to confirm that the tech is crude and prone to failure. The North Korean nuclear tests could also be analyzed (from the small amount of nuclear material that escapes from underground tests and floats away to international air space) and that revealed that North Korea does not really have an effective nuke design yet.
The Southern Solution
South Korean military intelligence analysts believe that North Korea, despite spending about 90 percent less than South Korea on its armed forces, has turned itself into a very dangerous threat to South Korea. The north has done this by concentrating on a few offensive weapons and creating the capability to launch a devastating initial attack, but with not much to follow up with or defend North Korea with. The offensive threat comes from a few crude (so far) nuclear bombs, Cold War era chemical weapons and lots of artillery. North Korea could not win a war with this type of force, but because Seoul (the southern capital where half the population and a quarter of the GDP are) is so close to the border, North Korea has lots of targets within range of rockets and artillery. Sprawling Seoul is 40-50 kilometers from the North Korean border. The city alone is 600 square kilometers, and the suburbs are even larger. There are over 17,000 people per square kilometer (45,000 per square mile) in the city. The southerners know the north is desperate and heavily armed. What do you do? South Korea has responded by increasing its ability to rapidly halt or interfere with any rocket and artillery bombardment from the north. This would involve a lot of accurate South Korean artillery fire and smart bomb use in a short time. Many North Korean targets would be destroyed but the south has much more to lose, even if the northern attack is cut short. Moreover it is no secret what the plans of both Koreas are, but many of the details are kept out of sight and, as the old saying goes, “the devil is in the details.”
Meanwhile 2016 is the year where a lot of the new weapons and tech are arriving in South Korea. This is stuff South Korea ordered after the 2010 North Korean attacks. The new gear includes lots of new warships and aircraft. That means new helicopter gunships and ASW (anti-submarine warfare) helicopters. There is a lot of new tech, especially for monitoring what goes on in the north as well as dealing with North Korean submarines and ballistic missiles.
June 15, 2016: The UN believes that North Koreans, on average, are only getting 60 percent of the food they need. This is down 12 percent from 2015. These estimates come from satellite photos and reports from inside North Korea. Apparently 2016 will be one of the worst years for food production since 2010 with crops reduced by drought and general economic collapse. Over half the population has been going hungry (but not actually starving, yet) for several years. A dismal 2016 crop could lead to more starvation. North Korea could get more food aid but only if it allowed outside monitoring of distribution. This North Korea refuses to allow because that monitoring prevents the government from selling a portion of the aid on the open market (in North Korea or China.)
June 13, 2016: South Korean officials revealed that they had discovered (earlier this year) and stopped another major Internet based attack on South Korea by North Korean hackers. The proof, as in the past, was more of the text in the hacker software that could be traced back to North Korea. This hack was extensive and had been going on, largely undetected, since 2014. This campaign was largely against defense industry and government networks and over 40,000 documents have been identified as probably copied and sent to North Korea.
June 2, 2016: Japan announced that it had taken its anti-missile missile units off high alert because the government no longer believed another North Korean ballistic missile test was imminent. When the anti-missile forces are on alert they have permission to shoot down any North Korea ballistic missile that seems to ne headed for Japan. That includes North Korean tests of long range missiles that must pass over Japanese or Russian territory. Russia is a valued ally and refuses to allow tests to pass over. Japan was never asked and now threatens to shoot down such overflights no matter what retaliation threats North Korea makes.
May 27, 2016: Off the west coast a South Korean patrol boat fired warning shots (five 40mm autocannon shells) at a North Korean patrol boat and an unarmed fishing boat that had crossed the maritime boundary between the two countries. After a few minutes the North Korean boats turned around and crossed back into North Korean waters. For years North Korean fishing boats have attempted (and often succeeded) to poach in South Korean waters but since 2010 South Korea has been more aggressive in discouraging them. Meanwhile Chinese tolerance of Chinese fishing boats poaching in South Korean waters has become an issue. Since 2004 South Korea has seized or fined nearly 5,000 Chinese fishing boats caught working in South Korean waters. South Koreans are demanding that more forceful measures be taken to discourage this poaching.