As anticipated 2016 was a record year for the number of North Koreans getting to South Korea. In 2016 1,414 North Koreans made it, which was 11 percent more than the 1,275 in 2015. That meant the number of North Koreans who made it to the south since 1953 reached 30,308. It was widely predicted that the 30,000 mark would be reached by the end of 2016. Most of those who have gotten out of the north to the south have done so since the late 1990s. The growing number of escapes was another side effect of the markets the North Korean government has forced to legalize since 2000. This greatly expanded the illegal black market that had been around for decades. It meant that many poor families suddenly had lots of money (by North Korean standards), which enabled them to hire people smugglers, buy boats or bribe border guards. For a long time most escapees stayed in northeast China but eventually the people smugglers established reliable, if expensive, escape routes to South Korea for the growing number of North Korean escapees who could afford it. China had long been a dangerous (for illegal Korean migrants) and less prosperous place than South Korea because China periodically cooperated with North Korea to identify, arrest and send back North Korean illegally in China. This was often a death sentence for those sent back.
Since 2014 China has eased up on its persecution of illegals from North Korea and in 2016 was openly allowing some of them to legally cross Chinese borders to reach South Korea via Southeast Asia. This trend so alarmed North Korea that Kim Jong Un recently began dismissing military personnel (including officers) if they had any family members who had defected. This was because it was suspected (but apparently unproven) that these soldiers might have heard from their defector kin about life in South Korea and passed that on. It was obvious to the government that a lot of news about North Korean defectors living (usually quite well) in South Korea was getting back to the north and the reason was the use of illegal cell phones and smugglers who got cash and sometimes thumb drives with video from the defectors or just South Korean movies and TV shows.
The defectors are becoming an increasingly dangerous threat for the North Korean government, something became obvious as more and more North Koreans reached the south where they could speak freely. Only about 500 North Koreans a year were reaching South Korea in the late 1980s. By the late 1990s, after the economic collapse up north and a famine that killed 5-10 percent of the population, the number began to rapidly increase. By 2009 it was nearly 3,000 a year. When Kim Jong Un took over he cracked down hard on this illegal migration and reduced it to about 1,200 a year in 2015. But that trend has apparently reversed. There was another change, now most of the North Koreans arriving in South Korea are women. In the late 1990s less than ten percent of those reaching South Korea were women. Since then this has grown to the point where 80 percent of the arrivals are women. There are several reasons for this. Women are more adaptable and have an easier time finding a spouse in South Korea. For the North Korean men, South Korean society is actually quite hostile. Moreover, men are more closely watched in North Korea. South Korea is scrambling to find solutions to all this, but as they discovered when they studied the experience of East and West Germany reuniting, the culture shock was a generational thing. Those who were teenagers and younger could easily adapt but the older ones, who had grown up in communist East Germany, never fully adapted to life in a free market democracy. Unfortunately for South Korea, most of the northern refugees are not kids, but adults who have been conditioned to live in a police state and have chronic difficultly adapting.
The Troops Are Freezing, Starving And Shrinking
In North Korea soldiers are becoming more open with their dissatisfaction with feeble, or non-existent, efforts to remedy their deteriorating living conditions. A major reason for the more visible signs to troop anger are media related. In the past year Chinese media went public with confirmation that recent North Korean military deserters looked quite different than their Chinese counterparts. The North Korea troops showed signs of malnutrition and few of them weighed more than 50 kg (110 pounds) or were taller than 157cm (five foot two inches). The average Chinese soldier or policeman is visibly larger (heavier and taller). The few deserters who got to explain what was going on indicated poor discipline and food shortages in their units. Despite lifelong exposure to lots of propaganda about how great life in North Korea is North Koreans living near the border, especially the troops who patrol it daily could see better fed and more affluent Chinese across the river. With more Chinese crossing the border on business, North Koreans could see up close that this was indeed the case. This included the Chinese military personnel who not only had better uniforms and equipment but were also heavier and taller than North Korean troops.
Foreigners were noting this as well and some could document the causes. Back in 2013 the UN revealed that its food aid effort in North Korea enabled UN officials to determine that at least a quarter of North Korean children were chronically hungry. Because of two decades of such shortages it had become easier to tell who belonged to the small ruling class in North Korea as they are noticeably taller than the majority who have grown up hungry. In the military the troops have noted that the senior officers, most of them the children of the small ruling class, were much taller than their troops. North Koreans in general have also noted that the government propaganda was unable to explain why South Korean soldiers are so much taller and heavier than North Korea troops. More cell phone photos and videos are circulating in North Korea making this size difference obvious. The popularity of South Korean video entertainment, which also includes stuff like documentaries and news shows, makes it clear the average South Korean was taller and heavier than the average northerner.
All this was made worse this year when the government implied that when leader Kim Jong Un made his usual visits to units about to participate in Winter training exercises he would be accompanied by “gifts” of food and other needed items for the troops. That turned out to be partially true. But Kim only brought goodies for the senior officers and headquarters personnel. The troops were left with nothing but the sight of their commanders living it up while the other 90 percent of people in the unit got the same inadequate (especially for men spending a lot of time outside “training”) food and fuel supplies.
What also bothers the North Korea troops is that they spend more of their time farming (to feed themselves) and working in factories or construction (to pay for their housing and necessities like fuel) and this means they have less time for combat training. Another reason for low morale is the realization that these conscript troops are essentially slaves from age 17 until their late 20s and are now suffering from the growing food and fuel shortages that have long afflicted civilians only. It used to be the troops were at least guaranteed adequate supplies of food and fuel but now only officers get that. Those who qualify for university education can escape this and become officers. People with essential skills can get out early as an incentive to be productive, but there are few troops who qualify for this.
Morale gets especially bad each year as the months of cold weather arrive. Increased government media praise for the troops is no substitute for what the troops really want; more fuel (for heat), food and materials for repairing their decrepit barracks. For several years now Kim Jong Un has not delivered, even during his personal visits, on promises to take of these shortages. Many North Korean commanders know what troop attitudes are but have discovered that making too much of this, even if only via official reports documenting the declining morale and requesting additional food and fuel to deal with it. Officers who persist in reporting these problems are told to “be resourceful” and solve the problems themselves and shut up about it, or else.
The government is aware of the growing morale problem with the military and the population in general. Kim Jong Un blames a lot of this on the foreign media, especially South Korean, getting into North Korea and embarrassing video and photos of North Korean problems getting out. This explains the recent decision to ban public trials or executions. Anyone caught trying to record, especially on video, any of these now forbidden events will be punished severely, but in secret. Kim Jong Un, like his predecessors, blamed all these problems on foreigners. That no longer works because the government monopoly on information has been shattered since 2000 and the government can no longer ignore that, or the privation of the North Korean people.
Kim Jong Un has become more receptive to new ideas on how to deal with all this. Thus North Korean propaganda and secret police officials are advising him to halt the broadcasting of mass anti-government demonstrations in South Korea. There, the first woman president is being legally removed from office because of public anger at corruption among some friends and associates of the president. Putting videos of this on North Korean TV makes it legal for North Koreans to openly discuss the matter and they are doing so in dangerous ways. First, North Koreans are noting that South Koreans are able to freely assemble, in large numbers, in front of government buildings and to openly express their criticism of corruption and any other problems in the government. What makes this worse in the north is that there are still a lot of older North Koreans who remember broadcasts of similar large demonstrations in the 1980s, when a popular movement to end years of military rule were met with police violence at first before the generals decided to back off and let elected officials run the country. In 2016 South Koreans were still protesting corruption and misbehavior by senior officials but now police stay away as long as the demonstrations remained peaceful. That was shocking to most North Koreans, as was the fact that, despite the cold weather, the hundreds of thousands of South Korean demonstrators appeared much better (and warmly) dressed than the average North Korea and better fed as well.
Another recent government decision was better received. Kim Jong Un ordered, in early December, that the secret police cease searches of homes without a warrant. Obtaining a warrant is a minor hassle for the secret police but this new order was meant to reduce the incidence of secret police threatening to search an affluent looking home and making it clear that a cash bribe would make this go away. The warrants leave a paper trail of such activity and was well received by the growing number of entrepreneurs who are supplying a growing portion of vital foreign currency for the government.
Lost At Sea
For the second year in a row North Korean fishermen were forced to take increasingly fatal risks to meet higher goals set by the government. In the last few months as many as 300 North Korean fishermen were lost at sea. The outside world first became aware of this phenomena in late 2015. That’s when Japanese coast guard patrols found sixteen North Korean fishing boats drifting off the coast, most of them containing decomposing bodies. These were all coastal craft (about 12 meters/38 feet long) which cannot operate effectively on the high seas. At first it was unclear what was going on here. The most likely theory was that the boats were of fishermen who, desperate to fill new quotas, went out too far, ran out of fuel and were unable to call for rescue. These boats did not contain radio or GPS, were often poorly constructed, often had only a small outboard engine (which broke down or ran out of fuel) and appeared to have been drifting for weeks. The lack of such gear is common aboard North Korean fishing boats. The other theory was that these were defectors who underestimated how much fuel it would take to reach Japan or suffered engine failure. The truth soon became clear as reports eventually got out of North Korea detailing dozens of North Korea boats that had gone out in 2015 and not returned because they were going too far out to get more valuable catches (squid and sailfish). Apparently over 150 North Korean fishermen disappeared off the east coast in 2015. Making this worse, the North Korean government was doing nothing to alleviate this situation. People in east coast fishing towns and villages are getting angry about all this. In 2016 the government demanded more from the fishing villages and more fishermen died. Japan found more of these death boats off its west coast in 2016.
The problems North Korea is creating for China (refugees, corruption, the threat of war) are seen differently by the other nations North Korea threatens. Growing aggression from both China and North Korea has caused potential victims to sharply increase defense spending. Japan and South Korea have continued to hike their defense spending to record levels. For 2017 South Korean spending is going up four percent to $36 billion. In Japan it is a 2.3 percent boost which means $45 billion for 2017. This is the fifth year in a row Japanese defense spending increased and much of the additional money is going towards ballistic missile defenses and additional ships to patrol offshore areas that China is aggressively claiming. Unlike Taiwan and South Korea, which continued to be threatened by China and North Korea, Japanese defense spending declined after the Cold War ended in 1991. But in 2013 that changed and every budget since then has increased. By 2015 Japan had its highest ever defense budget ever ($42 billion). Most of the recent increases have been to buy new weapons and upgrade existing ones to improve defense again Chinese or North Korean attack. South Korean spending is putting more emphasis on missile defense.
January 1, 2017: In the north Kim Jong Un gave his usual New Year’s speech and did something unusual; he apologized for his failure to provide the better world his father and grandfather had promised. Kim Jong Un then said the nation was very close to having an operational nuclear armed ballistic missile that this would change everything. About the same time the U.S. government was announcing that all indications were that North Korea was any closer to having a usable nuke. Kim also made another unusual departure from past practice and mentioned political upheaval down south, where a popular uproar over corruption was forcing the South Korean leader out of power. Kim indicated that this demonstrated the superiority of the North Korean government without admitting that most North Koreans saw what was happening in the south and had come to quite the opposite conclusion. The secret police up north regularly report what the people actually think and apparently Kim Jong Un is trying to depict himself as one with the people. That will be a hard sell because it was also announced that the government had extended the traditional two day New Year holiday to three days. On the downside the government did not provide any additional “gifts”. Holidays like New Year used to be occasions when the government distributed additional food, alcohol and goodies to the entire population. Since the 1990s that sort of thing has eroded to practically nothing. In the meantime the growing donju (entrepreneur) class have been unofficially taking a third day off at New Years and providing their own goodies. Government officials have followed suit, especially those who have become affluent because of bribery and corruption in general.
In South Korea, off the east coast, a South Korean P-3CK maritime patrol aircraft accidentally dropped three anti-ship missiles, a torpedo and a depth charge into the water. It was apparently an accident when a member of the crew accidentally hit an emergency release switch. None of the weapons were armed and all sank. The incident occurred at 6 AM some 50 kilometers off the northeast coast in the Sea Of Japan. There was a fishing boat nearby but it was apparently unaware of the incident.
December 29, 2016: In the Persian Gulf the government of Oman ordered 300 North Korea workers to return home. Oman had become alarmed at the fact that most of what these North Korean workers were paid was taken by an unofficial agent of the North Korean government and then the cash was transported back to North Korea. The legal North Korea migrants are part of what amounts to a slave labor program that has become a major (up to $2 billion a year) source of foreign exchange for North Korea. The export of North Korean workers has gone from 60,000 men and women in 2014 to over 100,000 in 2016. The number of workers outside the country is nearly triple what it was before since Kim Jong Un took over in 2011. The government takes up to 90 percent of the wages these men and women earn outside the country (mainly in Russia and China) and holds the workers’ families hostage in case the worker does not return home when ordered. If someone does not come back, their families are sent to prison camps.
December 24, 2016: China went public about the warnings recently issued Chinese firms that do business with North Korea that the latest round of sanctions must be observed. These international sanctions are in response to the North Korean nuclear test in September and the October ballistic missiles tests. In November China agreed to enforce a new set of economic sanctions. For several years China has applied more and more pressure on North Korea, usually quietly, by cracking down on trade, especially the movement of forbidden (by current sanctions) items. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner, buying over half of legal North Korean exports. In turn North Korea imports over $3 billion worth of food, medicine and other unsanctioned items from China. Nevertheless one reason for the new Chinese willingness to crack down on the illegal North Korean trading that had long been tolerated was discovery that North Korea had bribed a lot of Chinese officials and gone into partnership with a number of Chinese companies to illegally (even by Chinese rules) obtain key components for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The Chinese tried to keep the details of its crackdown secret but, as is often the case in the age of the Internet, this proved impossible. All this was complicated by the fact that the Chinese government has made a major public commitment to fighting domestic corruption and protecting China from foreign military threats. For decades Japan and the United States were identified as the principal foreign threats. But in the last few years the government has allowed growing public anger at North Korea to be openly discussed in Chinese media. These threats; to use nukes and ballistic missiles against China for not supplying North Korea with enough fuel, food, are considered too serious a threat to keep secret. This growing bad behavior and ingratitude from North Korea turned Chinese public opinion against North Korea, which had long been seen as an ally against the evil West and their South Korean and Japanese puppets. Until the latest North Korean nuclear and missile tests China was directing more anger at South Korean refusals to halt the expansion of their anti-missile defenses. China is still angry about that but is now more concerned with the North Korean threat. North Korea has remained defiant, continuing to test ballistic missiles that can reach all of China.
December 23, 2016: South Korea and Russian announced an agreement to work together to enforce sanctions on North Korea and that neither country would ever recognize North Korea as a legal (according to international agreements) nuclear weapons state.
December 17, 2016: China joined with other donor nations in openly condemning North Korea for diverting flood aid to military uses and trying to hide that from the world by placing strict travel controls on who can get into the disaster zone. In the past China would have ignored such corruption or criticized North Korean leaders privately. No more. Going public like this forced North Korea to pay attention, if only because China is usually the largest donor for major catastrophes like the record floods that hit border areas in late 2016. The damage was worse on the North Korean side and the aid effort less energetic and effective than in China. The North Koreans responded by sealing the area off and arresting anyone who tried to enter without authorization. This made it more difficult for cell phone photos and other evidence to get out but has not prevented new revelations of continued corruption. In addition to diverted food there was also diverted construction materials and poorly constructed replacement housing and other facilities. Some of these are unfit to use and a few are visibly collapsing. Many locals who lost their homes refuse to move into the newly built houses they are offered because some of these buildings seem on the verge of collapse. These new houses are offered free of charge, but the risk of death or injury is perceived as too great. The people in the disaster are visibly angry at the government putting a priority on appearances rather than the grim reality they are still enduring.
December 16, 2016: South Korea and Japan used their new intel sharing agreement for the first time, exchanging classified data each held on North Korean nuclear weapons development. This comes after South Korea and Japan signed an intelligence sharing agreement on November 23rd that mostly covers North Korean military matters but also includes aspects of military threats from China and Russia. China criticized this agreement, which has been in the works since 2012.
December 15, 2016: U.S. government analysts believe North Korea spends about 23 percent of GDP on the military. Meanwhile China spends two percent of GDP on defense, South Korea 2.6 percent, Japan 1.1 percent and the United States 4.3 percent. All these countries have much larger economies than North Korea. That North Korean percentage used to be higher but growing problems with the economy and tighter enforcement of international trade sanctions has cut defense spending up there. This explains why North Korea desperately needs operational nuclear weapons. Its conventional forces have been falling apart since 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and military and economic aid from Russia ceased. There was not enough money (even though as much as 30 percent of GDP went to the military) to maintain and upgrade the million man armed forces. Over the last few years the troops have been getting less food, something unheard of in the past. There is much less fuel for training, which leaves pilots and ship crews inexperienced and much less effective than their South Korean counterparts. Equipment is largely Cold War era stuff, much of it 30-40 years old. Thus the conventional military threat to South Korea (which has greatly modernized its forces in the last two decades) is going, going and now gone. Nuclear weapons restore the North Korean threat to its neighbors. This enables North Korea to demand free food, fuel and other aid. This makes it possible for the North Korea leadership to survive, because at the moment the population is becoming more unruly and hostile to their rulers. The U.S. analysts also estimated that 7.9 percent of the working age population in North Korea is in the military. That’s one of the highest percentages in the world.
December 12, 2016: South Korean officials revealed that there had indeed been another major North Korean penetration of government Internet networks in August. The government also admitted that the cause was failure of network security officials to adhere to the new (since 2014) security measures that had proved capable to making the networks safer from hackers. In other words, it wasn’t a technical failure but a human one. This was quite embarrassing because two months before the August attack 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.