Since 1953 the four kilometer wide DMZ (demilitarized zone) has provided an impenetrable 250 kilometer barrier across the Korean peninsula. Now, for the first time, there are serious efforts by both Koreas to demilitarize the DMZ. This will include removing all the landmines in the DMZ and reconnecting roads and railroads that have been cut by the DMZ. The North Korean side of the DMZ has always been a “military zone” although the need for food has led to farming close to the DMZ. Then there are the landmines and the DMZ is so heavily patrolled on both sides that there has never been any smuggling to speak of. On the southern side, there was fifteen kilometer wide military buffer zone that excluded most civilian activity. In 2008 South Korea agreed that zone was could be reduced to ten kilometers, which allowed valuable (at least near Seoul) property to be developed. South Korea is willing to proceed on these DMZ issues even if North Korea is not making any real progress on denuclearization.
South Korea believes the North Korean economy is in such bad shape that the north risks economic and political collapse if they do not denuclearize. Unfortunately, Kim Jong Un appears capable of taking that chance which is why the Americans and many South Koreans argue against the Chinese and Russian suggestion that partial progress deserves partial economic aid. That does not work because that enables Kim to keep his dictatorship going longer and continue to hold onto his nukes while still pretending to negotiate.
Kim has some legitimate fears. He knows that Ukraine agreed, in 1994, to give up its nukes if the United States and Russia agreed to guarantee the integrity of Ukraine. Russia broke that deal in 2014 when they seized (and annexed) Crimea and is still trying to annex portions of eastern Ukraine. Then there is Libya, whose dictator Kaddafi gave up its chemical weapons and uncompleted nuclear program yet Western nations supported rebels with airstrikes during the 2011 revolution. Kaddafi was never guaranteed that sort of thing would not happen but Kim is seeking a guarantee that his dynasty will not be attacked. Kim also sees the American resumption of sanctions on Iran as unacceptable. The Americans see that as the price you pay for cheating and if Kim wants stuff he will have to keep his end of the bargain. Iran did not. No one in the West, especially the Americans, are willing to make “guaranteeing Kim family rule of North Korea” part of the denuclearization deal. The Americans are thinking of something like the South African denuclearization, which worked. That’s why most people are unaware of it. Good news is not news and not a major part of the historical record either.
North Korea is estimated to have anywhere from five to 60 nukes. The design of these nukes is primitive and it is uncertain if there is a workable design that will stand the rigors of use in a ballistic missile warhead. In short, the north has nukes but delivering them is still a problem. Kim seems willing to let North Koreans suffer a lot more to prolong negotiations in the hope of getting a deal that will allow North Korea to keep some nukes. Even if he is not officially allowed to have some nukes, Kim considers it a win if the final deal enables him to hide some nukes somewhere. The Americans are determined to avoid that scenario but Kim feels he can manipulate South Korea into allowing loose enough inspection rules to let Kim get away with it. Obtaining an effective deal won’t be half as interesting as what sort of process was required to achieve it.
Pain In The North
The first snows and freezing weather have arrived in North Korea. The harvest this year was less than last year. In some parts of the country, it was so bad that local officials demanded that farmers give up part of their private plots harvest to make up for the shortfalls. This causes more anger in the countryside. Bad news for farmers is even worse for North Korea as a whole. The economy is getting worse because of the sanctions. This is easier to measure because there is so much more free market activity in the country and that is easier to measure accurately. In addition to prices of staples in the free markets, there are also prices for apartments and houses. This has become big business because of the rise of the donju (entrepreneur) class. Free market housing prices are down and the decline has followed the imposition and enforcement of new sanctions. Housing prices have dropped a third or more since early 2018.
In some situations, prices have gone up. Bribes demanded from government officials have increased, especially what it costs to obtain membership in the WPK (Workers’ Party of Korea). Membership used to be given only to the most trustworthy and eager believers in the North Korean dictatorship. That still applies but the party doesn’t pay off as well as it used to and more things are for sale. That makes party membership more valuable in some parts of the country where bribery is a major activity for party officials. Bribes have become more difficult to obtain because North Koreans, in general, have less money.
In an effort to reduce police (including secret police) bribery, the government has ordered an end (or sharp reductions in) to punishment of those caught owning South Korean goods. Family members of party officials are responsible for much of the demand for South Korean goods and too many of these people were getting hassled by the police over the use of South Korean products. At the same time, the North Korean media makes a big deal out of leader Kim Jong Un meeting with his South Korean counterpart and this has made all things South Korean more politically acceptable even though the mere existence of the superior South Korean goods does not reflect well on North Korea.
The ongoing Chinese anti-corruption campaign hit the North Korean border in late September and North Korean customs and border security personnel cooperated. On the Chinese side border officials known to be corrupt were arrested and patrols on the river and along the shore were increased. Border police patrolled in pairs to make it less likely they could be bribed. With the Chinese side of the border locked down, it was not much of a sacrifice for the North Koreans to tighten security on their side. The Chinese were keeping score of North Koreans attempting to get across and past Chinese security and apparently threatened to interfere with government approved North Korean smuggling if North Korea did not demonstrate some real cooperation in locking down the border to smugglers. It is understood that the smuggling will eventually return but it will take months and the bribes will be higher. Currently, it is still possible to sneak stuff across the river but there are fewer opportunities and the risks of getting caught (and having to pay very high fines) are higher. As a practical matter that makes it uneconomical to smuggle the vast majority of things that are normally involved.
More secret police have been sent to the Chinese border in 2018 to further reduce the illegal use of cell phones to make calls outside the country. That is actually less of a problem than the fact that more and more of these secret police are being corrupted as a side effect of all the bribes border guards take. Now the secret police have come up with one of the most effective (safest) methods of getting a bribe on the border. This is especially important if you are a secret policeman working the border. It works like this. Civilians who want to make a phone call in safety and can afford the large bribe (up to a hundred dollars or more) can make their call via a secret police officer. But there is a catch. You make the call with the secret policeman standing next to you (“for your safety”) listening in for his own safety because he knows that certain subjects (defense-related, criticism of the government, and so on) are not allowed under any circumstances. That is because the North Koreans are not only using special electronic gear to quickly locate illegal cell phones but are also eavesdropping on some of the calls. He is there to ensure that no forbidden topics are discussed. The secret police also know of certain locations where the detection gear is less effective. The secret police have to be very careful because they know that the existence of this service is no secret. That’s because the brokers who arrange these expensive calls have to get the word out and that is picked up by the secret police informant system.
The government is not happy with this development because it shows how even the most trusted and capable secret police agents are willing to betray their oath (to protect the Kim dynasty at all costs) if the price is right. Meanwhile, the campaign against cell phone users is proceeding. Earlier in 2018, the secret police formed special units to work along the China border to seek out and punish any border guards who do not arrest (rather than demand higher bribes) from North Koreans who are using Chinese cell phones on the border to talk to the outside world. While most of these calls are business or family related, they tend to include gossip about life in North Korea. This is considered treason and the guilty must be found and severely punished (with a death sentence because it is considered treason). For civilians caught with illegal cell phones, the punishment (life in a labor camp) is imposed immediately without the formalities of a trial. The urgency of this task has been emphasized by a growing number of arrests and punishment of border guards who took bribes to let guilty cell phone users walk away. Some police get around this by arresting innocent people who have been caught before and torturing them for a confession. But for the moment a lot of bribe income is less available and security officials who were getting it are keeping their heads down. Another change is the appearance of younger secret police agents. Kim Jong Un has ordered that many of the older (over 50) agents be replaced with young men who recently graduated from colleges that select and train North Koreans to be trusted officials in the government. That usually meant starting at the bottom and working your way up over a decade or two. Now Kim has ordered a change and is providing opportunities for younger men to get into key secret police jobs earlier if they demonstrate their loyalty by catching corrupt police and secret police. This is an extension of a program that saw the most senior leaders replaced with younger men, especially in the military.
October 11, 2018: In South Korea, the government has decided to accurately depict the relative military power of the two Koreas in the annual government report on the subject. It had always been customary to assume that the North Korean military was superior (if only because it had more troops). But that superiority has gradually eroded since the 1990s and for more than a decade anyone outside Korea looking at the military balance would rank South Korea above North Korea. At this point, the South is clearly superior and has been for many years. There are concerns about how nuclear weapons are to be calculated. That should not be a problem because the United States has had nukes in South Korea since the late 1950s. In addition, American strategic nukes are available to protect (or retaliate for) South Korea.
October 10, 2018: In North Korea, today is a state holiday, to commemorate the founding of the ruling WPK (Workers’ Party of Korea). This year, for the first time, the government ordered there be no (or a lot less) celebratory activities. The party had a bad year, what with more sanctions, a poor harvest and more pressure from South Korea and the Americans to denuclearize Korea and even make some progress to unite the two Koreas. Most Koreans would like unification, especially if the WPK were not in charge. In response to the current economic crises, WPK leaders were told to stress self-sufficiency. That is hard to do when there is so little to work with and the party is demanding more “contributions” (taxes in the form of cash, goods or labor). The new training directive also called for more emphasis on loyalty to the party and following its directives. Also mentioned was the importance of nuclear weapons to protect the party and its rule in North Korea. Party leaders were told to put more emphasis on loyalty to the party because there has been less of that. These new training directives were marked “secret” but were leaked.
October 7, 2018: In North Korea Kim Jong Un used a new Rolls Royce Phantom automobile for transportation to a meeting with the American Secretary of State. At events like this, there are lots of foreigners and lots of pictures taken. The current Phantom model costs about half a million dollars and luxury car imports are one of the items banned by the current sanctions. That said it is not too difficult to smuggle such a car into North Korea. Someone from China could order one from the manufacturer and then drive it to North Korea and return to China by other means. For Kim arriving at this meeting in the Rolls sent a message, which was probably no accident. What Kim did not bring to the meeting was a willingness to provide the U.S. and South Korea a list of the nuclear weapons North Korea had. This was expected because it is obvious that Kim wants to get whatever he can while still holding on to some nuclear weapons. Kim has been told this is unacceptable and if he wants to get anything useful in return (food, fuel, economic aid or cash) he will have to make real progress on giving up the nukes.
October 1, 2018: Troops from both Koreas began removing landmines from the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom on the DMZ. This work will be completed in three weeks and is another of those goodwill gestures. If there is a peace deal all the landmines will have to be removed in the DMZ and that could take years.
September 28, 2018: South Korea has decided to buy the more effective SM-3 anti-missile missiles for their Aegis equipped destroyers. The SM-2, which the South Korean destroyers use have some anti-missile capability but the SM-3 is much more effective although it is not useful against aircraft.