News that Kim Jong Nam, the older brother of Kim Jong Un was murdered in Malaysia on February 14
took about a week to get into North Korea and after a month had spread to most of the country. By mid-February the government ordered the arrest of anyone caught talking about the Kim Jong Nam death or the subsequent dispute with Malaysia. Or the fact that Japan supplied Malaysia with Kim Jong Nam’s fingerprints to legally confirm his identity. Japan obtained those fingerprints in 2001 when Kim Jong Nam was caught trying to enter Japan using a false passport so that he could visit the Japanese Disneyland. North Korea doesn’t want the Disneyland incident back in circulation.
There never seemed to be any doubt among North Koreas that Kim Jong Nam was killed by North Korean assassins. North Korea has regularly used commandos and secret agents to kill “enemies of North Korea” who were outside the country. Since the 1960s there have apparently been about ten such efforts, most of which succeeded. Failures have been more frequent of late, in part because South Korea has more intelligence and special operations resources. But this latest killing was directed more at China (a first) than South Korea or the West in general.
Ironically the news of the assassination leaked into North Korea via illegal Chinese cell phones and legal Chinese traders operating inside North Korea. Kim Jong Nam was more respected by Chinese (traders, officials and the population in general) than the younger Kim Jong Un. This was because for many years Kim Jong Nam was his father’s trusted representative in arranging illegal banking deals outside the country. The older brother was also more pro-Chinese while also seen as more “Korean” by most North Koreans (because Kim Jong Nams mother was born in North Korea while Kim Jong Un was born in Japan). In general Kim Jong Nam was more fun to be around and that was one reason why his father decided to make the younger brother his heir. But Kim Jong Il came to power in 1994, when the impact of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union (and the end of its vital economic aid) hit North Korea hard and nearly ten percent of the population died from starvation or hunger related diseases. Kim Jong Il left his heir a legacy of failure which is why neither of his sons were eager to succeed him. Kim Jong Nam, his wife and two children all have citizenship in Macau (a former European colony with similar status to nearby Hong Kong). There is also believed to be an ex-wife (and one child) living in northern China. Thus Kim Jong Nam was under the protection of China and killing him is a direct assault on China. This is very bad behavior and reflects poorly on Chinese leadership and how the increasingly troublesome former ally, North Korea, has been handled.
Meanwhile in North Korea the only official response to the news of Kim Jong Nam’s death was to announce that the 75th anniversary of Kim Jong Ils birth would be celebrated by a three day holiday. At the same time government media told North Koreans that North Korea was too dependent on China and that there would be less economic cooperation with China. Instead North Korea would rely more on itself. This attitude is nothing new. In the 1970s North Korea declared that it had developed its own unique form of communism called juche. This development was partly to extricate itself from the ideological battles going on between its two conventionally communist neighbors (China and the Soviet Union). Juche was described as a nationalistic form of communism (which in its pure form is very international). Juche stresses making North Korea economically self-sufficient and strong enough to defend itself from anyone. Juche still depends on a command economy, where the state owns all commercial enterprises, but uses all this for the benefit of Korea (north and, eventually, the south), not anyone else. Communist purists in China and Russia (the Soviet Union) protested but were overruled by their political bosses who saw this as a clever way for North Korea to disengage itself from the growing political tensions between China and the Soviet Union. While these two large neighbors have since become friendlier, juche continues to be the state religion of North Korea. Juche gives the government an excuse to legalize the growing market economy and encourage the new entrepreneurs to do whatever it takes to make North Korea economically strong. An example of that can be seen in how North Korea has already managed to get around the Chinese imposition of sanctions on the coal trade. Entrepreneurs on both sides of the border cooperated to continue exporting some North Korean coal to China. This involved the coal that was moved via ship to a Chinese ports. These ships have been recently seen continuing to unload North Korean coal but doing so with falsified trade documents stating that the coal was from somewhere else or not coal at all.
Another side effect of the entrepreneur (donju) class is that a growing number of donju are openly providing luxury goods for the North Korean upper class. This is seen mostly in the capital, where most of the senior officials and their families live. Although this helps keep the senior leadership and their families loyal it is causing less affluent (95 percent of the population) North Koreans to talk about the need for another communist revolution. This is reminiscent of what happened in the Soviet Union towards the end, where there were several jokes about members of ruling families discussing their continued high-living standards until the most elderly member of the family, who remembers why and how the original 1917 revolution broke out, asks “but what if the Reds (communists) come back?”
China continues warning the U.S. of a new arms race because of THAAD. South Korea wants THAAD for protection from North Korean missile attack and the United States notes that China has been spending heavily on weapons since the 1990s and has been forced to cut back because of economic problems. An arms race by is not likely. The Chinese never admit it but they object mainly because THAAD would also make South Korea less vulnerable to intimidation by Chinese ballistic missiles and encourages other Chinese neighbors (Japan, Taiwan, and so on) to do the same. South Korea openly refused to comply with the initial 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 efforts to keep North Korea from doing anything that would cause major economic and diplomatic problems (like starting a war using a few nukes). South Korea ignores the Chinese threats noting that China has backed (militarily and economically) Kim family rule since 1950 and is the one country in the world that could shut down the Kims quickly. China has been getting closer to doing just that. Popular opinion in China, despite government efforts to control it, has become increasingly hostile to North Korea and pro-South Korea. That is having an impact because now the Chinese government is openly pointing out to North Korea that even with nuclear armed ballistic missiles they would quickly lose any war with South Korea, the U.S. and Japan because all of them are linked by mutual defense treaties.
North Korea had already been told in 2014 that China would not come to the aid of the current North Korean government if the government collapses or starts a war. Since 2014 China has cracked down on North Korean use of China for illegal imports and exports. Nothing seems to work for China when it comes to North Korea (or South Korea for that matter). This is humiliating for the Chinese leaders and while the government does not discuss this, many Chinese do talk about this disrespect and the Chinese leaders pay attention to that. But what can China do about an increasingly troublesome and disrespectful North Korean leadership? North Korea’s traditional allies China and Russia, have found that, unlike in the past, they now have little sway over the North Korean government. The Russians can ignore all this but China cannot. To make matters worse China has found itself being publicly insulted by North Korea, something that was unknown before Kim Jong Un came to power. In response China began publicly criticizing things that were wrong in North Korea (mismanagement, nuclear weapons, criminality in general). China sent senior officials to North Korea in late 2015 to spell out the consequences of continued bad behavior in some detail. That did not fix the problem. As usual with North Korea this could get very interesting. Especially since China offered a carrot as well as a stick. Following the 2015 warning Chinese censors were ordered to suppress popular criticism of North Korea and to have state controlled media say nice things about Kim Jong Un for a while. Thus China offers North Korea a choice; cooperate and be rewarded or keep disrespecting their “elder brother” and suffer the consequences. North Korea has not cooperated and China is reluctant to deliver consequences (the removal of Kim Kong Un) that will work.
South Korea has another solution. Since 2015 South Korea has been adapting its military organization and strategy to deal with the rapidly changing situation in North Korea. For example South Korea has organized six special operations teams that are trained to attack and destroy key targets inside North Korea. This represents a major change in special operations in Korea because since the 1950s it was North Korea that was constantly sending commandos and spies into South Korea where not all of them were quickly caught or caught at all. At the same time until recently it has proved nearly impossible to get foreign agents into North Korea, which had been turned into the ultimate police state since its creation right after World War II. Since the 1990s the lack of Russian aid (which kept North Korea afloat since the 1950s) caused the North Korean military to gradually (and almost imperceptibly) fall apart. This accelerated because of growing economic problems and corruption, even spreading to the secret police and other security agencies. As a result South Korea considers North Korea vulnerable and is preparing to take advantage of that during the next military emergency. If nothing else it compels the North Koreans to spend a lot more on protecting their nuclear weapons. The latest revision of South Korean strategy specifically mentioned plans to go after North Korean nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and key leaders. Much of this will be done with the new strike aircraft (F-15Es) carrying stealthy cruise missiles and smart bombs. South Korea also has obtained more missiles that can hit the North Korean forces concentrated near the border (DMZ or Demilitarized Zone). But some of the attacks will use commandos.
South Korea has revealed more and more about the targets in the north and it now includes the senior leadership, even if they are in their fortified and, until recently, carefully hidden refuges. Letting that information go public is another blow to the morale of the North Korean leadership and the special operations troops that now guard them.
March 13, 2017: The U.S. Army is sending a company (12 UAVS) of its MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAVs to South Korea and will station them there permanently. The MQ-1C, which is based on the MQ-1 Predator, weighs 1.5 tons, carries 135.4 kg (300 pounds) of sensors internally, and up to 227.3 kg (500 pounds) of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours, a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour and can carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator) or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles. The U.S. Army currently has about a hundred MQ-1Cs and has had them in Afghanistan since 2011 (two years after it entered service) and now Iraq as well.
March 11, 2017: In Malaysia local media report that North Korea has offered to exchange nine Malaysians detained (prevented from leaving) North Korea for the two North Koreans Malaysia has arrested as suspects in the murder of Kim Jong Nam. Malaysia also wants to arrest two North Koreans who fled the country shortly after the murder. Two North Korea diplomats are believed involved in the murder plot and one of them is hiding out in the North Korean embassy (along with a North Korean airlines official who is also a suspect). When North Korea banned the eleven Malaysians in North Korea from leaving Malaysia responded by barring the 300 or so North Koreans in Malaysia from leaving. This could get ugly because North Korea is desperate to avoid a trial in Malaysia that would present detailed proof that North Korea carried out the murder of Kim Jong Nam. The Malaysians are not inclined to cooperate and are furious at North Korea for their recent actions in and against Malaysia.
March 10, 2017: South Korea has, for the first time, officially removed from office its president via impeachment. Today the Constitutional Court approved the impeachment vote by the legislature. This impeachment was a popular move because president Park had been found guilty of corruption, something she pledged to fight against while campaigning for office. The impeachment just adds to a pile of ironies coming from the Park family. In 2012 South Korea elected its first female president; Park Geun Hye. Her father, an army general, staged a coup in 1961. While this was unpopular with many South Koreans, general Park Chung Hee introduced reforms that got the economic boom going. Fifty years later South Korea is one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. General Park was assassinated by an aide in 1979 and eight years later democracy returned. The new president Park was a conservative, like her male predecessor and was expected to continue dealing with North Korea as a potential foe, not a wayward brother in need of endless handouts. That policy, called the Sunshine Policy, lasted from 1998 to 2008 and was considered a failure. Since 2008 the South Korean government has been stricter towards North Korea and demanded honesty and fair dealing. The North Koreans have not changed and still threaten to invade South Korea. News that 60 year old Park Geun Hye had won the 2012 South Korean presidential election spread quickly through North Korea and what amazed most northerners was that a woman, and the daughter of a disgraced dictator at that, could become leader of South Korea. Now the amazement continues.
March 9, 2017: North Korea allowed two of the eleven Malaysians in North Korea to leave. These two are UN officials working on the UN food aid program in North Korea. Apparently the UN quietly mentioned to North Korea that abuse of its aid officials usually results in aid being halted. Since few other countries or organizations will supply food aid to North Korea, an exception was made for these two Malaysians. The other nine Malaysians, four diplomats and their families, are in the Malaysian embassy.
March 8, 2017: China openly asked North Korea to stop its nuclear and ballistic missile tests and implied that if North Korea complied China would persuade the United States and South Korea to halt their military preparations to deal with a North Korean attack. North Korea was apparently not impressed.
March 7, 2017: The United States revealed that it had delivered the first THAAD components to South Korea. The THAAD battery may be operational in the next month or so. China, Russia and North Korea immediately protested and made threats, like they always do when it comes to a neighbor defending themselves.
March 6, 2017: North Korea fired another four ballistic missiles off its east coast and said this was a test of using missiles to attack Japan, specifically American bases in Japan. These missiles travelled 1,000 kilometers and landed within 200 kilometers of Japanese territory. That was within the Japanese EEZ (exclusive economic zone). This had happened once before, in mid-2016 when North Korea fired three similar missiles towards Japan. 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 but not, generally, a destination for ballistic missiles. Left unsaid (at least by North Korea) was that these missiles were fired while a meeting of the senior Chinese leadership was going on. The Chinese leaders noticed and were not pleased. Adding to that displeasure was North Korea also (later in the day) ordered all Malaysians in North Korea be prevented from leaving the country in an attempt get Malaysia to stop investigating the death (apparently by North Korean assassins using nerve gas in a cream form) of the older brother of North Korean leader Kim Jing Un. Chinese were angry about this as well because the older brother (and his family) had received sanctuary in China.
March 2, 2017: UN investigators revealed that they had uncovered evidence that North Korea is continuing to smuggle weapons out of the country and do business despite the many economic sanctions placed against it. The report detailed the North Korean use of contacts in Africa and other areas with lax law enforcement to handle their clandestine smuggling and financial activities. Since early 2016 China has shut down a lot of those activities within China but the North Koreans were apparently quick to adapt.
March 1, 2017: In northeast China (Jilin province) police near the North Korean border were put on alert because of reports that six armed North Korean soldiers had deserted yesterday and crossed into China. There was a time, a few years ago, when China and North Korea kept incidents like this quiet. No longer, mainly because it is happening more frequently and China believes the North Koreans are losing control with desertions in their military and security services on the rise. The last such confirmed incidents of armed deserters were in July 2016 and December 2014 and the deserters committed crimes (robbery, assault and murder) before being found. There are often no announcements of these crimes in Chinese media but the Chinese diplomatic protests are usually big news outside of China and despite Chinese Internet censorship the details of these crimes spreads rapidly into North Korea and throughout China. Since at least 2008 North Korea has been trying to do something about the growing number of 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, and South Korea. 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 is forming a civilian militia along the North Korean border to watch the border and promptly alert border troops if anything suspicious is seen.
February 28, 2017: Kim Won Hong, the head of the North Korean secret police, was fired and five if his senior deputies were arrested for reporting false information to Kim Jong Un. These five were then executed, allegedly with a large caliber machine-gun. This investigation into secret police corruption continues and there have apparently been more arrests of senior officials, especially along the Chinese border, which was always a hotspot for corruption.
February 24, 2017: Russia generally follows Chinese policy regarding North Korea and to that end Russia is preparing to break diplomatic relations (and most trade agreements) with North Korea in light of the recent North Korean use of VX nerve gas to assassinate Kim Jong Nam. Russia, like China, was already angry about continuing North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile development. Russia also joined with China to try and halt South Korean plans to obtain and put into service the American THAAD anti-missile system.
February 22, 2017: North Korea has launched another propaganda campaign to deal with the growing drug addiction. The theme of this campaign was the spread of addiction to high schools. One high school was used as an example and it was revealed that about 16 percent of the students were using drugs and some of the girls had turned to prostitution to pay for their new habit. This is all about the market economy making it possible for more North Koreans to afford drugs. Although the North Korean government has long produced methamphetamines for export there is a growing problem with northerners obtaining meth and becoming addicted. This is a serious problem because most of the people with enough money to support a drug habit are from the small ruling class and the growing number of market entrepreneurs. The government has ordered the security forces to crack down on drug dealers. Peddling this stuff is very lucrative, as a gram of meth goes for over $250 on the street and it costs a lot less than that to get it from corrupt officials in the meth production operation. Addicts within the government are more prone to steal government assets, or even sell information to foreigners. Meth has become hugely popular in China and throughout East Asia. China wants to keep the North Korean and Burmese meth out and is having more success on the heavily guarded North Korean border. This means non-government North Korean meth producers have to find another market and some have put more meth into circulation within North Korea.