In South Korea voting began for a new president, to replace the one removed from office in March. That was when the South Korean Constitutional Court approved the recent 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. Northerners are having a hard comprehending all this. Especially the fact that former president Park has since been arrested and is being prosecuted for corruption. Actual voting day is the 9
but for the first time early voting is allowed, to accommodate those who might be unable to vote on the 9
(like many members of the security forces preparing to another threat of war from North Korea.) Some 15 percent of voters are expected to vote before the 9
and the overall turnout may be a record. The new president will take power before the end of the month. The current showdown with North Korea may be over by then but maybe not because North Korea wants to test the new president early to see if the new government will be more willing to give in to North Korean demands.
The Non-Nuclear Nuclear Option
One the decision a new president has to make is how much South Korea will cooperate with imposing new sanctions on North Korea. The sanctions imposed so far have hurt North Korea and crippled their armed forces. Yet the Kim dynasty is still in power. But North Korea is increasingly vulnerable to sanctions that reduce access to imports essential for nukes, missiles and other military efforts. The United States, South Korea and even the UN have managed to obtain details of how North Korea partially overcomes many sanctions and that indicated what additional sanctions would do the most damage, especially to North Korea military and government officials directly involved with forbidden programs (nukes, missiles and evading sanctions.) Any new sanctions will only work if China (and to a lesser extent Russia) cooperates. Russia appears ready to follow the Chinese lead in this area.
North Korea is now extremely vulnerable to China halting all oil exports. China is the only source of petroleum for North Korea and China has already cut the tonnage over the last year but is reluctant to halt all shipments. In response to that North Korea has, for years, been converting thousands of trucks to run on coal gas. This sort of thing was popular in Japan and Germany during World War II because of oil shortages but largely disappeared after 1945. In North Korea these coal powered trucks are an increasingly common sight for the same reason. But coal gas is half as efficient as petroleum fuels, and vehicles using it are slower, have less range and require more maintenance. Thus coal gas is not suitable for most military vehicles or combat operations. The sluggish and smoky coal powered trucks remind North Korean that their war is not over yet. Even though China now prosecutes and punishes some businesses that take bribes to help North Korea evade sanctions there are a few sanctions, like no oil at all, that would be much more difficult to evade. If North Korea persisted the next step would a ban on North Korea commercial and military aircraft using foreign airports. Same with North Korean ships. Rail and road traffic into North Korea can be monitored because it can only enter via a few Chinese and Russian border crossings.
Finally there is the possibility of doing fatal damage to North Koreas illegal banking network. The U.S. has been successful at hunting down and punishing major banks and financial institutions that help North Korea move cash to fuel the illegal trade and this would be more effective if China cooperated. But North Korea has access to many financial institutions in China that are protected by powerful local officials. With the backing of the Chinese government the banking sanctions could then be more thorough and be extended to hundreds of individuals (most of them North Koreans) who make the illegal banking network work.
Another North Korean export that could be banned is slave labor. Most of what North Korean workers overseas are paid is taken by an unofficial agent of the North Korean government and then the cash is transported back to North Korea. These legal North Korean migrant workers 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.
If North Korea cannot afford to import luxuries and consumer goods for the few percent of families that run the police state there will be greater opportunities for China to quietly offer Kim subordinates a lucrative way out. This is right out of the ancient Chinese playbook for dealing with troublesome neighbors.
China is also aware that for several years the North Korean secret police have been documenting and tracking a very disturbing trend; the generation born in the 1990s that grew up with access to South Korean culture (video and audio recordings) has less and less respect for the North Korean leadership. This has happened despite numerous efforts to provide children with additional “instruction” (mandatory pro-Kim propaganda classes). The kids shrug off the lessons and several different approaches were tried, without apparent success. The extensive secret police monitoring (Internet, phones, and informants) network reported more and more disdain and contempt for the leadership among the next generation. This is a very disturbing development because it never happened before and appears incurable and is getting worse each year. In short, the post-Cold War generation know the truth about the Great Famine of the 1990s and the growing poverty. This generation also has contempt (or even hatred, which is a capital offensive if expressed in public) for the Kim dynasty. It is this generation that is leaking embarrassing details about North Korea to foreigners and eagerly absorbing news of the outside world. The most alarming aspect of this is that many of the “infected” are a few years older and acquired the taste for South Korean culture in the late 1990s and now are often powerful officials in the government. This includes the military and secret police. While these fans of South Korean culture are mostly attracted to the TV shows, movies, pop music, clothing and styles in general the fear at the very top of the government is that the northern bureaucracy will see democracy as superior to the dynastic Kim dictatorship in the north. The northern government has run out of ideas on how to suppress these anti-government attitudes and that explains the rush to acquire nukes. That is supposed to make the Kim government immune. But many northern officials note what happened to the mighty Soviet Union and fear that the Kim’s are, unlike the Soviets, willing to use a nuke to make their point. China has reluctantly come to agree with this dismal assessment.
Meanwhile more secret police are getting rich while they can. Even the elite anti-corruption agents will take bribes, or at least some of them will. But the ordinary secret police take that into account when they demand a bribe. If they catch someone near the border using a Chinese phone (to call to a Chinese cell tower across the border) the size of the bribe depends on where the call is to. If it is to China you pay about $300 to walk away. But if the call is to South Korea or elsewhere in the West the price more than doubles. There is the risk that North Korea has regular access to data about who is calling from cell towers within range of North Korean border areas and that a specific phone and call (to the West) was made. That could get the attention of the few bribe-proof secret police still around. Or at least that’s how secret policemen doing cell phone patrol along the border tell their “customers.” Sometimes the reason is “I have to make my (arrest) quota” and there are not enough poor people (who cannot afford the bribe) to haul in. Whatever the case older secret police commanders note the morale of subordinates assigned to cell phone patrol has improved and that the reason probably has to do with money, not effective pro-government propaganda. North Koreans note the growing timidity of the secret police and security services in general. There less enthusiasm among those who are supposed to keep the population in line and the people notice it. What is most worrying is that the one thing most bribe takers are saving money for is enough cash to get themselves and their families out of the country. That takes a lot of money to do right (relatively safely and to reach South Korea).
In the north the government is still effective in a few areas. Raising money for public spectacles by demanding “voluntary donations” from everyone still works. It works because the increasingly corrupt (the demands for bribes) government officials have the power to send anyone to a labor camp. The government knows that as long as the local officials have opportunities to make money (via extortion and bribes) the Kim dynasty will endure. At least for the moment. The Kim’s do not appear to have noted that this scam eventually falls apart. But the Kims’ have the guns and that buys some time to build a convincing nuclear weapons capability so that wealthy neighbors can be extorted. That appears to be the plan.
Where Disrespect Is A Capital Offense
China is increasingly angry at North Korea for not showing sufficient respect to their only friend. China wants a stable communist dictatorship in North Korea, not a failed government that would send several million starving refugees fleeing across the border. China also does not want North Korea to collapse and get absorbed by South Korea. That would put a democracy on China's border and give many Chinese a view of how things might be much better with a different political system in China. Koreans in general have long been seen as "younger brothers" to China, and it's embarrassing if the younger brother outdoes his older sibling. South Korean democracy is played down in China (where it’s easy to dismiss any accomplishment by “foreigners”), but that would be difficult if a democratic, united, Korea were right on the border. Then the differences in government would be more obvious and subversive.
The Chinese have made it more obvious to the North Korean leadership that China will now do whatever it must if the current North Korean leadership fails to turn things around. China has recently sent 150,000 additional troops and other security personnel to the North Korean border to emphasize Chinese concern. While many of these are troops there for training (which the Chinese Army is doing a lot more of), other are to reinforce border security and most of those additional troops are showing up at the border so North Koreans can see them and draw their own conclusions. The latest escalation is accompanied by blunt suggestions in Chinese state controlled media that perhaps some Chinese military action inside North Korea might be more persuasive. More ominous is Chinese censors being told to allow more criticism of North Korea and especially the North Korean leadership. The average Chinese is far more hostile to North Korea than the Chinese government.
At the moment the Chinese are concentrating on persuading North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program, which is seen as a threat to China as well as South Korea, Japan and the United States. The Chinese don't mind if the North Koreans extract a high price from South Korea, Japan and America for this, as long as the nukes are gone, and stay gone. Again, failure to comply may lead to more energetic action against Kim dynasty rule. China now openly threatens to cut off all oil exports. In response North Korea, for the first time, allowed and encouraged people to openly criticize China. North Korea leaders believe that China will not allow the North Korean government to fall. North Koreans are not so sure. For example, North Koreans who risk arrest for using cell phones near the Chinese border to call outside the country are now buying South Korea smart phones. These are a lot more expensive, but they give you access to messaging apps that are more difficult for the secret police to detect. In North Korea the growing number of wealthy entrepreneurs (donju) are respected even by the secret police because the donju always seem to know what is going to happen next. So if the donju are switching to South Korean cell phones that carries more weight than North Korean propaganda. Meanwhile the donju are slowly taking over the economy and the government seems helpless to stop it. Efforts to control the donju via threats have increasingly failed because the donju supply so many services that the ruling class depends on. Even the secret police and military are helpless because the donju are more and more the only legal (or semi-legal) source of goods the state can no longer afford to provide for all its key personnel. This includes medicine and minor luxuries like special foods for holidays or common (in China and South Korea) consumer goods that are considered luxuries in North Korea (like, literally, a decent kitchen sink). Thus the secret police rarely attempt to extort (via false accusations) cash, goods or favors from the donju.
The new threats from China resonate with Koreans. For thousands of years China has been the “big brother” in East Asia and all neighboring states are “little brothers” who must behave accordingly and not do anything to make big brother look bad. While North Korea likes to brag that it became blood brothers with China during the Korean War (1950-53) the truth of the matter is that the North Koreans have always resented the overbearing Chinese. This has been going on for over a thousand years and now the North Koreans have found ways to manipulate, humiliate and frustrate their unpopular big brother. You really have to be Korean to appreciate this and the Chinese would really like to find some way out of this mess.
For China the main threat from North Korea is also economic. China wants to avoid chaos in North Korea because that would be bad for the Chinese economy and increase the threat of conflict with even more dangerous opponents like Japan, South Korea and the United States. The most extreme (but acceptable) measures China could try include literally taking control of North Korea, something which China has done in the distant past as a last resort. Staging a coup in North Korea has always been a possibility but the paranoid (for good reason in this case) North Korean leadership has made it difficult for China to recruit enough North Korean officials to make this feasible. That said, the potential is still there and China could still go this route. Many North Koreans believe that the Chinese will just move in and take over if it appears that the North Korean government is about to fall apart or otherwise becoming too dangerous to China. The Chinese takeover plan apparently includes installing pro-Chinese North Koreans as head of a new "North Korean" government, and instituting the kind of economic reforms they have been urging the North Korean to undertake for over a decade. Fear of this sort of thing is apparently a major reason why Kim Jong Un had his older brother assassinated in February. The brother had frequently let it be known that he had no interest in running North Korea. China just wants a less self-destructive ruler in North Korea but there doesn’t appear to be any viable candidates.
South Korea has also been a troublesome younger brother but to a much lesser extent. Since early 2017 China has increased its economic pressure on South Korea to cancel deployment of THAAD anti-missile missiles. That did not work because the first THAAD battery became active in late April. China eagerly awaits the new South Korean president as the winner of the election is expected to be more willing to listen to the elder brother.
May 3, 2017: American and South Korean intel analysts believe North Korean air defenses are largely obsolete and vulnerable. Most of the North Korean air defenses are Cold War era systems but there is some newer stuff like the KN-06. This was believed to be a clone of the Chinese FT-2000 (which is a clone of the Russian S300). China may have quietly provided some data on KN-06 recently along with other intel on the capabilities of North Korean air defenses. Meanwhile South Korea has begun production of its new KM-SAM (Iron Hawk) surface-to-air missile systems. The first batteries would deploy in 2018. KM-SAM is what North Korea implied they had with KN-06 but KM-SAM is real and developed in South Korea.
May 2, 2017: The United States confirmed that the first THAAD battery in South Korea was operational already. In the waters off Korea an American carrier group was joined by South Korea, Japanese and other warships for joint training. The Japanese contingent included one of its two Izumo class “destroyers” These 27,000 ton ships first entered service in 2015 and are officially for anti-submarine operations. The Izumos can carry up to 28 aircraft and are armed only with two 20mm Phalanx anti-missile cannon and launcher with sixteen ESSM missiles for anti-missile defense. The Izumos can also carry vertical takeoff jet fighters like the F-35B.
April 29, 2017: North Korea conducted another ballistic missile test (a KN-17) and it failed. This was the fourth consecutive failure since March. Not a good omen. Four is the unlucky number in East Asia (as “13” is in the West.) The KN-17 is a single stage SCUD type (liquid fuel) ballistic missile that is in development. It is used on a tracked mobile launcher and is rumored to have a warhead with a guidance system capable of hitting a large, moving ship (like an aircraft carrier) at sea. Chinese media (including official Communist Party outlets) mocked North Korea missile technology and noted that the last four North Korean missile tests were failures and that its longest range ballistic missiles (like the Musudan, which can reach American bases on Guam) has failed over 80 percent of its test launches.
April 26, 2017: South Korea revealed that it had completed installation of two THAAD anti-missile system launchers plus the missiles and the radar. Part of this THAAD battery is expected to be operational as soon as the American technicians complete tests.
April 25, 2017: China announced that coal imports from Russia were up nearly 20 percent (to 2.3 million tons). This is a level not seen since 2014 and is largely because China is now blocking North Korea coal imports. Russia is sending coal used to produce steel and China actually bets most of this anthracite coal from Australia, Mongolia and Indonesia. These three countries sent some 12 million tons of anthracite to China in March. Overall China cut imports from North Korea by 35 percent in March. But exports were not reduced.
April 24, 2017: In North Korea there was a nationwide collection of mandatory voluntary donations of food or personal items (combs, toothbrushes) from all families to be sent to local military bases. These donation efforts have become more insistent and, because about four percent of the population is in the military, reluctantly supported by most families. The government used to demand cash but was forced to stop this because it was common knowledge that most of the cash was stolen by government officials running the donation effort. Everyone knows how hard life has become for the troops. It has become so bad that North Korea troops 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.
In South Korea an American nuclear sub, the USS Michigan (SSGN 727) docked at Busan (Pusan) at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. This is a unique American sub; one of the four 16,000 ton SSGNs recently put into service. There four were originally Ohio class SSBNs (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines) that were converted to SSGNs by 2008. This process entailed converting two of the ballistic missile tubes for use as diver lockout chambers, able to accommodate up to nine men. Eight tubes were rebuilt to permit them to be used alternatively for stowing Naval special operations forces equipment, cruise missiles, UAVs or UUVs, or for other (classified) purposes. The remaining 14 tubes were converted to house up to seven Tomahawk cruise missiles. If the SOF (Special Operations Forces, usually SEALs) capable tubes are also used, each boat can carry up to 154 Tomahawks. In addition, the ballistic missile command and control systems and spaces were replaced by command and control facilities for SOF operations. Each boat can house a 66-man SOF team for relatively long periods, and up to 102 for shorter periods. In addition, each boat is fitted to carry either two "Dry Dock" shelters (storage bins for SOF gear or other equipment) or two midget submarines for SOF. The idea of a sub, armed with 154 highly accurate cruise missiles, and capable of rapidly traveling under water (ignoring weather, or observation) at a speed of over 1,200 kilometers a day, to a far off hot spot, had great appeal in the post-Cold War world. The ability to carry a large force of commandos as well was also appealing. The Ohio SSGNs can also carry a wide variety of electronic sensors and other data collecting gear. Thus in one sub you have your choice of hammer or scalpel or both. The arrival of this SSGN implies that the Americans could use over a hundred cruise missiles to attack North Korea as well as a SEAL teams to destroy or disrupt North Korean naval bases or perhaps go after Kim Kong Un himself. The U.S. Navy had no comment when asked about these options.
April 22, 2017: In North Korea an American citizen of Korean ancestry was arrested as he was about to board a flight out of the country. The arrested man is an accounting expert who was teaching at a North Korean university. The U.S. warns its citizens to stay away from North Korea because in times of crises North Korea will arrest foreigners, especially Americans, and use them as hostages for blackmail. China has been quietly giving its citizens the same advice because this time the North Koreans are calling China the enemy as well.
April 19, 2017: Russia blacked a UN vote to censure North Korea for its latest ballistic missile test. China backed the measure, continuing its abandonment of voting with Russia to block UN measures hostile to North Korea.
April 16, 2017: China joined Russia is sending intelligence collecting ships to shadow the American carrier task force approaching Korea.
April 15, 2017: North Korea celebrated the 105th anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday. Since the founder died in 1994, just as the post-Cold War economic collapse was beginning to kill many North Koreans (from starvation) and the economy was collapsing, commemorating his passing has become a big deal. This year the parade in the capital was exceptionally large. But one thing was missing; an official delegation from China. That had never happened before and it convinced many people that the rumors of Chinese displeasure with the Kim government were indeed true. Most North Koreans also know that China was the only major ally they had left and source of key imports like food and oil.
April 13, 2017: China is openly offering North Korea a renewal of their mutual defense treaty if North Korea will drop its nuclear weapons program. China has quietly cancelled the decade’s long defense agreement over the last few months. North Korea did not respond to this new offer.
Japan has quietly issued instructions to citizens on how to respond to a warning of an imminent North Korean missile attack. The instructions pointed out that there would be as little as ten minutes warning and that citizens should immediately take cover, get their vehicles off the road and be prepared to follow any orders by security forces. Although Japan has a formidable anti-missile defense system they like to prepare for every contingency.
April 11, 2017: A Chinese daily newspaper (Global Times) known for being a state-controlled media outlet used to test new ideas published an item today pointing out that if North Korea does not abandon its nuclear weapons program (which is seen as a threat to China) then China will bomb the nuclear facilities and North Korea will have to live with that or suffer further military and economic consequences they cannot respond to (by attacking China). This article also warned the United States not to contemplate doing this, as North Korea was for neighboring China to deal with, not some distant superpower. Within hours the article was removed from the Global Times website, but many people had seen it and it still existed in Google cache. In other words, China was telling North Korea that stronger measures from China were now a possibility. At the same time the U.S. was making it clear that the kind of attack on Syria the U.S. recently carried out could be tried on North Korea. China agrees that it might come to that but they insist that the bombs or missiles be Chinese.
A Russian cruiser visited the South Korean port of Busan. This was the second such visit this year. The Russian navy has a rather more tense relationship with North Korea.
April 10, 2017: While North Korean ballistic missile tests have been consistently failing lately, the same cannot be said for South Korea, which recently conducted a successful test of a locally made ballistic missile with a range of 800 kilometers. The new missiles carries a half ton warhead and has no official name yet. This enables South Korea to hit targets anywhere in North Korea with weapons (ballistic missiles) that North Korea is not equipped to stop. A similar test in 2015 involved a ballistic missiles with a range of 500 kilometers what came to be known as the Hyunmoo 2C. That test ended decades of restrictions (at the behest of the United States) on South Korean ballistic missile development. South Korea has never released much information on how many of its ballistic or cruise missiles it has but has at times indicated that they are aimed at North Korean targets. These South Korea missiles can be launched from anywhere in South Korea and hit any area in North Korea. Apparently North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his various underground headquarters are prime targets. Unlike North Korea, which has chemical weapons and, eventually, nuclear bombs for its warheads, South Korea is restricted to conventional explosives. But even with this such missiles can do considerable damage to underground facilities and major above ground facilities.