While North Korea is officially still seeking to work out a deal that would result in the dismantling of their nuclear weapons program, most North Koreans and many foreign observers don’t believe this will happen. The main reason for that negative attitude is that since the Cold War ended, along with regular and substantial foreign aid from Russia, in 1991 the North Korean leaders have been successful in promising much and delivering little in an effort to obtain foreign aid to replace what the Russians long supplied. The hustle was not successful in replacing enough of the Russian aid to avoid a deadly (over a million dead) famine and the collapse of the economy. Despite that North Korea diverted enormous resources to developing nukes and now North Korea is a nuclear power that is starving. Despite the privation, most North Koreans take the nukes as a plus. One thing North Korea has done that South Korea and Japan have not is create nuclear weapons. There are no other achievements worth mentioning (certainly not the mass starvation, labor camps and an oppressive police state). One thing North Korea has become very good at is extorting foreign aid by promising to reform but demanding large quantities of aid first. Then North Korea reneges, finding some way to blame their benefactor and waits for another opportunity to do it again. While many in the West and South Korea are willing to go along with another cycle of this scam the majority have noticed the pattern and are opposed to aid without verifiable denuclearization first. Kim Jong Un is doing his best to avoid that. Saying he will do it is easy but actually following though would be difficult and unprecedented. Kim Jong Un sees an opportunity in exploiting the new Cold War Russia and China are waging against the West by offering to cooperate with this northern neighbors in return for assistance in beating the sanctions and scaring some freebies out of South Korea and the West.
There are other reasons for the northern neighbors to help North Korea. China has a growing problem with the Americans waging a trade war (because of decades of economic scams). Russia is withering away because of corruption, low oil prices and sanctions (for attacking its neighbors). China has also triggered a regional arms race and the formation of a large anti-China coalition because of aggressive Chinese territorial claims. Anything North Korea can do to distract the Americans would be useful for China and Russia.
Even though China has also complied with imposing many (but not all) of the sanctions North Koreans still believe China is an ally. That’s because China still allows smugglers to operate. North Koreans know the Chinese can shut down smuggling if they want to and have done so in the past so the fact that China is willing to cooperate with North Korea in evading the sanctions is seen as a positive thing. Then again, China is the only powerful and prosperous friend North Korea has. Russia tries but really is too broke and weak to be much help. North Korea also believes that China is willing to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea as long as North Korea is stable and not in danger of falling apart and leaving the expensive cleanup to China. South Korea is a democracy and most of the voters are not willing to provide billions of aid in return for vague assurances that denuclearization will happen eventually, maybe.
Although North Korea is willing to talk about getting rid of its nukes and other unsavory (and often illegal) activities, actually doing anything is another matter. The UN monitors sanctions compliance and issues regular reports. As of mid-2018 North Korea is still exporting weapons (rockets, small arms and ammo are showing up in Yemen, Libya and Syria). With the help of Russian and Chines partners, North Korea is exporting its coal and importing oil. North Korea is also exporting more drugs like opium, heroin and methamphetamine (“meth”). These drugs have long been manufactured by the North Korean government for export to obtain foreign currency. The United States is organizing an international anti-smuggling patrol to counter North Korean smuggling at sea, particularly oil. The new joint patrol effort will include ships, satellites and aircraft from the U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, South Korea and France.
North Korea has also been caught selling software illegally by establishing companies in China and Russia that pretend to be local but are actually staffed and run by North Koreans. These two companies quietly offer semi-legal or obviously illegal software services as well and advertise on social media. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on these firms and their key personnel (who are largely North Korean).
Any disarmament deal (involving nukes, ballistic missiles, chemical weapons and so on) would (according to the American demands) require verification. That would be done by foreign inspectors. In North Korea, there is the general belief that the Kim government would never allow treaty inspectors to check wherever they wished to validate compliance to a disarmament deal. Russian officials, who know how extensive, and well, the verification procedures used late in the cold war by Russia and the United States worked, doubt North Korea would put up with that sort of thing. Russians who have met with Kim or his close advisors do not believe there is any chance North Korea will give up its nukes. Yet the Russians also agree that the bold new tactics the Americans are using has the North Koreans worried. The U.S. is no longer seen as a pushover and easy to deceive. The Americans want verifiable disarmament (getting rid of nukes and ballistic missiles that can deliver them) or else (more sanctions and more enforcement). The North Koreans believe the Americans won’t be able to keep this up and feel they can get away with delaying decisions about denuclearization until the Americans have a new government that is willing to do things the old way.
Another seemingly impossible development would be dismantling the inefficient command (communist planned) economy North Korea keeps alive. China has been suggesting economic changes with increasing urgency for over a decade. But now it is happening without anyone ordering it to happen. By allowing some legal markets, and then a growing list of privately owned enterprises North Korea has made it possible for the government planners to issue less detailed (and less likely to fail miserably) economic plans. The government officials know that if their plans fail spectacularly enough the supreme leader will feel compelled to order punishment (often execution) of the officials responsible. With the assistance of the growing donju (entrepreneur) class government planners allow activities that are quasi-legal and largely protected (from government interference) if they succeed. This has allowed government officials to concentrate on more urgent matters, like figuring out effective ways to extract bribes from donju and put away enough cash to get themselves and their families out of the country. That last bit gets little official attention but is a major preoccupation with the secret police and senior leaders. Many North Koreans have picked up on these new developments and view being a donju as a more attractive career than the traditional goal of getting into college and becoming a government official.
The donju make themselves very useful, even coming up with joint ventures that can include government run businesses as partners. These deals are increasingly acceptable because the donju get things done, sometimes by bending the laws in ways few government officials would dare try. In effect, the donju are quietly and gradually implementing the reforms the Chinese have been urging. The Chinese, both government officials and entrepreneurs, understand and respect the donju who in turn rely on Chinese businesses to help them out with advice and guidance. Chinese business publications and books are popular with the Donju and more of these are being translated into Korean because of the growing market for that knowledge in North Korea. A lot of practical business advice and information is available on the Internet and North Korean secret police note that a lot more of the electronic media being smuggled in consists of technically legal stuff from Chinese websites devoted to business matters. The illegal stuff is similar information from South Korean websites. Chinese advice for entrepreneurs is OK, the same stuff from South Korea can get you killed. Despite that, because most smuggled media comes in on tiny and easy to conceal SD (and micro-SD) cards most of it gets through.
Some forms of South Korean information is considered militarily significant, like the amount of food South Korean soldiers get compared to their North Korean counterparts. The worsening food situation in North Korea has, over the last few years, been felt by most members of the military. This was becoming a major morale problem for North Korean troops stationed close to the South Korean border (DMZ or demilitarized zone). Most of the North Korean military is stationed within fifty kilometers of the DMZ and many units are right on the DMZ and regularly patrol it. They occasionally see South Korean soldiers and the southerners appeared better fed and larger. North Korean propagandists tried to dismiss this as a South Korean deception but a lot of that South Korean media getting smuggled into North Korea reached the soldiers on the DMZ. Worse, a growing number of soldiers have kin who escaped to South Korea. There is some communication (illegal phone calls and smuggled messages, often home videos from the south) that makes it clear the southerners eat better and those taller, well-fed South Korean soldiers are no deception but the norm. There have also been cases where northerners living near the DMZ have obtained South Korean cell phones and, for a fee, will allow North Korean soldiers to make calls to kin in South Korea, or anywhere else in the world because cell phone calls outside North Korea are so cheap and legal. So in North Korea, the government has ordered an increase in the quality and quantity of food for frontline (near the DMZ) North Korean soldiers. Also ordered was a more energetic crackdown on the illegal use of foreign cell phones on the Chinese and South Korean borders.
Despite the growing efforts to keep South Korean media out, North Korea has ordered its propaganda officials to ease up on criticism of South Korean president Moon, who is seen as making a serious effort to work out a peace deal with the north. Moon is also trying to persuade South Korean legislators to approve over $400 million worth of aid for North Korea that is meant to persuade the north to do something in return. South Korean politicians note that the north has done nothing so far except talk about what they might do under the right conditions. Southern politicians have seen this routine before and consider it a scam to obtain foreign aid in return for nothing.
It has also been noticed that North Korea recently replaced several senior military commanders with younger men known to be more amenable to peace with South Korea. Kim Jong Un has been eliminating hardliners from the military leadership since he took power in 2012 and the results appear to have been what Kim wanted. The older hardline commanders were constantly complaining about how the military was starved for resources and increasingly unable to launch a credible offensive against South Korea. Kim saw that has as an unlikely and, for North Korea, unaffordable goal. Kim showed his displeasure by replacing the older commanders with younger ones who saw the situation more like Kim Jong Un did. Message delivered and acknowledged. The remaining hardliners are much less of a threat and becoming more so with each new retirement.
September 18, 2018: The leaders of the two Koreas met personally for the third time as South Korean president Moon Jae In flew into the North Korean capital for three days of meetings. The two leaders promptly signed an agreement in which North Korea said it would dismantle a rocket engine testing site and would allow foreign inspectors to observe. Kim also said there would be no more ballistic missile testing. Kim also agreed to allow inspections of nuclear weapons facilities after the United States reciprocated. In other words, Kim wants the U.S. to pay a lot to take a peak and hear more assurances that there might be denuclearization someday, somehow. Kim also said he would visit the South Korean capital sometime in the future and discuss more ways the north can reform its economy (with some economic aid from the south).
What it comes down to is Kim wants to get paid because his people, especially his soldiers, are hungry and not looking forward to another four months of very cold weather, little fuel to keep warm with and not much electricity either. China is doing whatever it can to assist North Korea in getting some (or a lot) of financial assistance from South Korea and the United States. China does not provide large quantities of aid but will sell you stuff and even do it on credit if you have collateral.
The first two meeting between Kim and Moon took place on April and May at the “Peace Village” on the DMZ. This had long been the scene of fruitless negotiations over disagreements between the two Koreas. North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and the South Korean president agreed that the Korean peninsula should be free of all nuclear weapons. The two also agreed that there should be an official end to the Korean War, which has been suspended (by an armistice) since 1953. The two also agreed that there should be more meetings between them.
September 17, 2018: Russia denied it had been aiding North Korea to evade the sanctions and import oil (via transfers at sea from Russian tankers) and export coal. Russia has been seen importing North Korean coal and then shipping it to South Korea as Russian coal.
September 14, 2018: Someone in North Korea leaked the lecture notes used for gatherings of key Workers Party members during the second week of September. The lectures emphasized the importance of North Korea nuclear weapons and the leadership of Kim Jong Un who kept the nuclear program going. These lectures are how the government informs key party members what current policy is. So while Kim Jong Un is telling South Korea and the United States that denuclearization is a possibility he is telling his key followers that the nukes are the reason why, as the lecture notes put it, North Korea is a “nuclear superpower.” The key points in these mandatory but technically secret lectures are usually evident in the “chatter” (on the street and via illegal phone calls to people outside North Korea). In North Korea, the chatter has always been that the nuclear weapons would never be surrendered. American intel officials report that they are monitoring increasing North Korean efforts to conceal all aspects of their nuclear weapons program. This involves more than putting all the facilities underground but also taking elaborate measures to conceal the movement of material and people to and from these hidden facilities.
South Korean leaders repeated their belief that South Korea must continue increasing its military capabilities as long as North Korea keeps its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. South Korea has backed this up with more large orders for new military equipment. North Korean protests are seen as confirmation that the new gear is needed.
September 12, 2018: The U.S. has approved the sale of six P-8A submarine hunting aircraft and 64 PAC 3 anti-missile missiles to South Korea. Total value is $2.6 billion. At the same time, the U.S. also approved the sale of nine E-2D Advanced Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft to Japan. This will cost $3.1 billion. Both of these sales elicited an angry protest from North Korea, which has no access to such tech and couldn’t afford it if they did.
September 10, 2018: The U.S. revealed that when the leaders of the two Koreas met last April Kim Jong Un commented that that denuclearization could be accomplished in two years.
September 9, 2018: In the North Korean capital there was an enormous parade and elaborate events to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea. There were no ballistic missiles in the parade this year. President Xi of China had said he would visit the North Korean capital as a guest at the 70th anniversary events. The presence of Xi would have been s a big deal for Kim Jong Un and would have put Kim even more in debt to his powerful patron. But at the last minute Xi canceled and sent the number three man in China as a replacement. Kim still considered this a mark of respect because the man Xi sent was widely known in China and Koreas as a powerful and influential official. Besides Kim met with Xi three times this year, an unprecedented situation for relations between the two nations. Yet there is some tension between Kim and Xi because the North Korean leader has indicated that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons. China does not want that and continues to pressure Kim to disarm or at least restore stability and order to North Korea.
The events in the capital were recorded for broadcast on the 10th and release to foreign news outlets. Most of the 600 invited foreign guests were government officials and not journalists so it was easier to control what foreign journalists saw and recorded. The official video had to be carefully checked to ensure there were no “errors.”
For the rest of North Korea, the 9th was a normal workday. Farmers were particularly busy because the harvest this year was poor and months of cold weather are imminent. The only other unusual activity outside the capital was the extra security at the borders and around the thousands of monuments to the Kim dynasty found all over the country. This extra security was to discourage North Koreans from expressing what many really thought about the last 70 years. It was feared that more people would either try to flee the country or deface the monuments. Both illegal activities are occurring with increasing frequency. There is also been more crime of all sorts, some out of desperation (literally stealing to buy food) but the more clever criminals are targeting the donju (entrepreneurs), often by impersonating police or government officials in order to steal from these newly wealthy North Koreans.
September 6, 2018: For the first time the U.S. identified and indicted a North Korea hacker (Pak Jin Hyok) for participation in major hacking attacks. The most famous of these was the Sony Pictures extortion in 2014 and the WannaCry ransomware in 2017. There were others involving attacks on banks. Pak got sloppy with a gmail account and that led to tracking him down and identifying him and many details of how he did what he did. The U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Pak and a week later North Korea denied all the charges. South Korea and the United States have been tracking down North Korean hackers for over a decade. This has become easier as North Korea produces more of these hackers and puts more pressure on them to raise cash for the Kim dynasty.
A South Korea delegation returned from North Korea and reported that they were told by Kim Jong Un that he wanted to proceed with denuclearization.
September 5, 2018: China was accused of allowing increased trade with North Korea back in May. Satellite photos and ship tracking data showed over 30 North Korean cargo ships visiting a Chinese port in May and June and unloading coal. China would not comment but did accuse the United States of not following through with denuclearization talks with North Korea. Meanwhile, the U.S. is imposing sanctions on hundreds of Chinese, Russian and North Korean firms for violating the North Korean sanctions.
September 4, 2018: In South Korea, army commanders warned that preparations would have to be made do deal with the millions of landmines in the DMZ. Many of these are over sixty years old and many are in unknown locations. If the Koreas are unified opening the DMZ to the public will be a big deal but that will not be possible until all the landlines and unexploded shells, bombs and grenades are found and disposed of.
August 30, 2018: In Japan, the government issued a document detailing its military strategy and justification for increased defense spending over the last decade. The document pointed out that while North Korea was still a threat, long-term China was a larger threat. Unlike North Korea, whose economy and military are a mess, China has a robust and growing economy and armed forces that continue to modernize.
August 29, 2018: South Korea complained to China that another Chinese military aircraft had violated South Koreas’ ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) and remained in the ADIZ four hours before leaving. South Korea sent ten warplanes aloft to confront the intruder. This is the second such intrusion in a month. In 2013 China announced a new ADIZ that overlapped South Korean, Philippine and Japanese airspace. China demanded that any foreign military or commercial aircraft request permission before flying into this zone. South Korea and Japan protested while the United States quickly flew some B-52s into the disputed zone without asking for Chinese permission. China protested and the United States ignored them just as China ignores South Korean protests.
August 28, 2018: Russia and South Korea agreed to establish a hotline between South Korean and Russian air force commanders responsible for Pacific coast operations. This would make it easier to quickly resolve the growing number of incidents where Russian warplanes enter South Korean airspace (the ADIZ) without permission.