There has been a significant increase in North Korean soldiers deserting to China since July, or maybe even earlier. Chinese intelligence analysts noted that all the dozen or so deserters showed signs of malnutrition. None of them weighed more than 50 kg (110 pounds) or was taller than 157cm (five foot two inches). The few taken alive indicated poor discipline and food shortages in their units. Despite lifelong exposure to lots of propaganda about how great North Korea is the border guards could see better fed and more affluent Chinese across the river. This included the Chinese border guards who seemed to have better uniforms and equipment as well as being heavier and taller. The starvation among North Korean troops, especially among the border guards, is more widespread this year because food normally allocated to the military is now going to senior officials who are using it for their own families and supporters or even selling it in the free markets. Productive farmers have noted that more of their crops are being taken by the government “for general distribution” but malnutrition is growing, especially among the military. All North Korean men have to serve at least six years in the military and farm families hear from their sons about the nationwide food shortages.
North Korea alerts China whenever another of their soldiers appears to have fled to China. This is especially important if the soldier is in uniform and armed. Other than that North Korea has nothing more to say to China about such incidents nor about the sudden increase in desertions. Often the soldiers are in uniform but unarmed. During the warm weather they can escape across the rivers that define most of the border. Once notified China promptly alerts police and civilians in the area because these deserters often attack and rob Chinese living in rural border areas. The Chinese government now offers rewards of up to $3,000 for citizens who provide information leading to the capture of these North Korean deserters. Most Chinese on the border appreciate this and throughout China North Korea is seen as more of a threat and embarrassment than an ally.
Since at least 2008 North Korea has been trying to do something about the growing number of North Korean soldiers who are deserting and fleeing to China. There are always some troops who desert and just disappear inside North Korea. But more of these deserters are being found in China or, worse, showing up in South Korea. Those who make it to South Korea report that the troops are now increasing hungry, and senior officers and NCOs are stockpiling food and attempting to move their families to China. These officers and NCOs are particularly angry at the crack down on smuggling, which was a major source of income for the people in charge of border security.
The worst desertion incidents are the ones where the deserters take firearms with them and rely on robbery to survive. This is especially bad if they do this while still wearing their North Korean uniforms. Both China and North Korea have increased their border security but the number of people, armed or not, trying to get out of North Korea increases faster and the escapees are more desperate and resourceful. China has also formed a civilian militia along the North Korean border to watch and promptly alert border troops if anything suspicious is seen.
North Korea is visibly obsessed with reducing the number of people escaping to China. More police are being assigned to watch a growing list of “potential defectors”. The government analyzed the characteristics of those who had recently left and created a profile which they used to compile the list. The government has also made it known that those who do their patriotic duty and inform on those planning to defect will receive more substantial rewards. It has become more expensive and difficult to get out and fewer are succeeding because of the increased government obstacles. But people are still leaving.
Internet Or Die
Desperate to replace the lost foreign income (because of China enforcing UN sanctions) the North Korean government has given thousands of North Koreans involved in foreign trade a special Internet link with their Chinese counterparts. This is done via a new North Korean created smart phone app called Sae Byeol (New Star). This is a chat service that allows a specific North Korean to communicate with a list of specific Chinese contacts and do all the things a chat app does (text, exchange files). Sae Byeol users and use is monitored and misbehavior is severely punished. Sae Byeol has apparently worked and made it easier for North Korean traders and business managers to do more business with China despite the sanctions. Not enough new business to replace all that was lost but every little bit helps.
The Military Balance
Since early 2015 South Korea has not detected North Korean UAVs coming south and crossing the DMZ (the demilitarized border). The reason for this seeming absence may have been revealed in a June documentary shown on North Korean TV. One brief scene described senior leaders observing a mid-2013 test flight of a new, much smaller, North Korean UAV. This one was about a meter (39 inches) long and a vidcam could be seen in its nose. This appeared to be something between the U.S. Raven (.92 meters long, 2 kg, 90 minutes endurance, range 10 kilometers) and Puma (1.4 meters long, 5.9 kg, 120 minutes endurance, range 15 kilometers). The new North Korean UAV could have endurance of about 90 minutes with GPS guidance allowing it to fly automatically across the four kilometer wide DMZ and up to ten kilometers into South Korea and return. A UAV that small, flying low and at night (using a night vision camera or vidcam) would be almost impossible to detect because UAVs this size use electric motors and make little noise. Now South Korea is seeking ways to spot these tiny UAVs on a regular basis, especially at night. South Korea has he cash and electronic resources to get this done quickly as they have done similar things before. This is one South Korean capability that North Korea fears more than any other.
Meanwhile South Korea also has access to foreign high-tech. In mid-2016 South Korea began receiving the first of eight of its older P-3s that had been upgraded to the current P-3C standard. This upgrade was ordered in 2013 and that led to disagreements with the United States over what type of tech could be used for the upgrade. The United States was reluctant to allow the export of a key electronic warfare components for new weapons or upgrades. This was especially true with gear that detects and classifies radar signals or interprets acoustic signals from sonar. The U.S. believed that these items (or parts of them) might be stolen (by China and a number of other usual suspects) and thus degrade the effectiveness of the technology for the United States. For example, P-3Cs operated by the U.S. Navy and some of the most trusted allies use the AN/USQ-78B acoustic processor system. South Korea was forced to use a non-military one that is largely open source software (Vpx ENhanced Open architecture, Multi-static, or VENOM). Many other P-3 operators who cannot get the AN/USQ-78B use VENOM instead. According to users, the P-3Cs with VENOM seem as effective as those with the AN/USQ-78B. South Korea also used local electronics firms to improve their version of VENOM. Now South Korea, long an electronics powerhouse, can sell that to other P-3C users. In more recent cases the U.S. relents and lets South Korea have the best tech. This happened recently when South Korea wanted an American GPS receiver that could resist North Korean jamming. The U.S. was reluctant to let South Korea have it for its new cruise missiles but relented in part of the growing North Korean threats.
Increased South Korean weapons purchases are important mainly because South Korea can afford it and North Korea cannot. The reasons are simple. In 2015 South Korea had the 11th largest economy in the world, with a GDP of $1,378 billion. North Korean GDP is estimated at $30-40 billion, creating a per capita income of up to $1,800. South Korea has a per capita income of e $27,000. The enormous economic gap between the two Koreas is the result of over half a century of communist economic mismanagement in the north. For decades the North Korean government strived to keep their population ignorant of the higher economic growth rate in the south. In the last decade that effort has failed and few North Koreans believe that the north is better off. This was the official view the North Korean government maintained until recently. These days the North Korean government tends to consider economic comparisons with South Korea a forbidden topic, at least as far as public discussion goes. Most North Koreans know the truth and are largely unsure what to do with that knowledge.
The Phantom Nukes
North Korea has made more nuke threats recently and now says it will use its nukes, really it will. North Korea is not happy that its threats are often dismissed by foreigners. So this time North Korea is trying harder. In 2013 North Korea threatened to resume producing plutonium but did not do so. Now North Korea says it has resumed plutonium production and also developed smaller and more effective nuclear weapons designs. North Korea also claims that it can hit targets in the United States with nuclear warheads and can do it on shorter notice than before. It’s difficult to tell what is fact and what is fiction here because so many North Korean claims turn out to be false. North Korea did conduct another (number four) nuclear test in January, but claimed it was a fusion (H-bomb) test when it clearly was not. In early 2013 North Korea conducted its third nuclear weapons test. That one appeared to be seven kilotons and a complete detonation. The second test was a five kiloton weapon in 2009 and the first one was in 2006. Western intelligence believed that the original North Korean nuclear weapon design was flawed, as the first test was only a fraction of what it should have been (less than a kiloton equivalent in high explosives), and is called in the trade, a "fizzle." The second test was a complete detonation and apparently a much modified version of the original design. Thus North Korea needed more tests to perfect their bomb design and is still years away from a useful nuclear weapon even though the second bomb appeared to be more effective. The third test was considered overdue and that may have been because more time was spent designing and building a smaller device that could fit into a missile warhead. The 2016 test is still something of a mystery. U.S. intelligence agencies have collected air samples (as have most other neighboring countries) from the test which can tell much about the design of the bomb. The 2016 nuke appeared to be the same as the 2013 one.
China Strikes Back
Furious at South Korean refusals to halt efforts to increase its anti-missile defenses China has apparently loosened the UN sanctions on North Korea it began enforcing in March as part of an international effort to get North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. China can’t seem to get any Koreans to do as they are told. Then again, that describes the relationship between China and Korea for over a thousand years.
Thus South Koreans were not too surprised when China accused the south of provoking the north into making recent ballistic missile “tests” as well as threatening the south with nuclear attack. North Korea insists all the nukes and ballistic missiles are to defend the north from attack by South Korea and the United States. Even China does not believe that, but stays quiet about it in order to placate its unruly neighbor and erstwhile ally. Unfortunately for Chinese and North Korean leaders most Chinese and North Koreans have figured out that the half century of “South Korea and the United States started the Korean War” propaganda was basically a lie. But Chinese and North Koreans have discovered so many lies since the 1990s that it’s difficult to get too upset about any one of them. Those living in North Korea and China understand that official lies must be respected. Thus China has suddenly agreed to supply North Korea with 500,000 tons of food aid and less restrictive sanctions, all to coerce South Korea into reducing its ability to intercept ballistic missiles.
August 17, 2016: South Korea revealed that Thae Yong Ho, a senior North Korean diplomat, had arrived in the south with his wife and two sons (age 19 and 26). Thae apparently defected in Britain a month ago. Thae was the number two man at the North Korean embassy in London. Thae is one of the most senior North Korean officials to defect and said he was fed up with the rule of the Kim dynasty, especially the current dictator Kim Jong Un. While Thae got his immediate family out any other kin still in North Korea face loss of all privileges. Added to that they are likely to end up in a prison camp and die there. Thae spent several weeks in Britain being debriefed by British intelligence and will now do the same in South Korea. North Korea has not yet responded to this latest defection. Such high-level defections are often described as “kidnappings” but North Koreans know otherwise as the families of the “kidnapping victims” tend to be punished severely and that is difficult to keep secret.
August 11, 2016: In response to the recent North Korean ballistic missile tests the United States sent some of its B-2 bombers to Guam, to participate in upcoming military exercises with South Korea. North Korea interpreted this as the United States preparing to make a nuclear attack on North Korea. This is not the first time the U.S. has sent B-2s to Korea. In early 2013, responding to North Korean threats two B-2 bombers flew to South Korea and participated in training exercises (by dropping smart bombs on an island off the coast). The U.S. has also sent B-52 bombers to South Korea and F-22 fighters as well.
August 7, 2016: South Korea continues to get threats from China about South Korea buying the American THAAD anti-missile system. Because of continued North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile development South Korea now plans to have THAAD operational in 2017. China, Russia and North Korea have long opposed THAAD. South Korea wants THAAD for protection from North Korean missile attack and always resisted Chinese objections, even when China hinted that failure to drop THAAD might result in less trade with China. That was a signal to South Korean voters to carefully consider the cost of defying China. That did not work and now China is backing off its criticism of North Korea in general as part of a continued effort to get the South Koreans to obey. China will 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 Korean voters understand that so all the threats are having less impact than China expected. South Korean public opinion polls show voters are even more enthusiastic about the high tech and very expensive (over $100 million per launcher and associated equipment) THAAD system now that North Korea continues launching ballistic missiles and preparing for more nuclear tests. China also sees this defiance as a sign that South Korea does not believe Chinese assurances that it has North Korea under control. This move also means that South Korea is not ready to abandon its alliance with the United States and instead accept the patronage and protection of China, the traditional local superpower. So far this year South Korea has ordered another 17 SM-2 Block IIIB naval anti-aircraft missiles for $3.8 million each. This includes tech support and storage/launching containers. The South Korean navy wanted to buy the new SM-6 but because of budget restrictions could not. The SM-2 Block IIIB is only capable of shooting down aircraft. South Korea has already bought Standard 2 (SM-2 Block IV) anti-missile missiles for its three Aegis destroyers. This version is effective against ballistic missile warheads that are about to hit their target. In one test, a SM-2 Block IV missile destroyed a warhead that was only 19 kilometers up. The more specialized (and twice as expensive) SM-3 missile can destroy a warhead that is more than 200 kilometers up. But the SM-3 is optimized for anti-missile work, while the SM-2 Block IV is good to use against both ballistic missiles and aircraft. South Korea has also purchased the anti-aircraft version (Block IIIB) of the SM-2 for their Aegis destroyers.
August 2, 2016: North Korea launched two Rodong ballistic missiles. One exploded shortly after launch but the other one travelled nearly a thousand kilometers and landed, illegally, in the Japanese EEZ (exclusive economic zone). The EEZ is anything within 380 kilometer of the coast. Nations can claim, via an international treaty, that EEZ areas are their coastal waters for economic and some military purposes. This includes fishing and potential underwater oil and gas fields. North Korea is believed to have as many as 300 Rodong missiles, with a range of a thousand kilometers or more. It is basically an enlarged version of the Russian SCUD design from the 1950s. Rodong is not very accurate (landing within a kilometer or so of its aiming point) but carries a one ton warhead. Rodong was developed in the 1980s for bombarding major urban areas using chemical or high-explosive warheads. Now North Korea could use a nuclear warhead.