The denuclearization negotiations are deadlocked, but not stalemated, with North Korea admitting that its nuclear weapons program is more important than anything else. The U.S. refused the North Korean offer of “gradual denuclearization” because North Korea has made it clear by its past behavior that “gradual” means “we will get what we can from you and ultimately give you nothing.” North Korea insists they were misunderstood in the past but the “gradual” scam is well documented and has been successful numerous times. The North Korean strategy is now to survive the debilitating impact of the sanctions while assembling a coalition of allies that can force the Americans to back off and accept a “gradual” scam and learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. To pull this off North Korea has to persuade South Korea and/or China to pressure the United States to surrender. North Korea has some supporters for their cause in South Korea, China and even the United States. Russia, which is waging an undeclared war against the United States, is willing to help as long as it is not too risky. Russia has Cyber War and Information War capabilities that are useful in this area. There are factions in South Korea, China and the United States who see some benefit in North Korea winning this struggle with the United States. North Korea has no real allies, not unless you count Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and maybe one or two African dictatorships.
North Korea knows that the sanctions, and the current policies of their government, are making life difficult for most North Koreans. Hunger is more common rural areas (and some cities) and starvation deaths are occurring, if not always reported. This suffering has its greatest impact on South Korea but much less so in the United States and China.
As long as China does not abandon the American sanctions and allow rampant smuggling activities with North Korea, the North Koreans are facing catastrophic privation. This would not be unique. A massive economic collapse in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russian subsidies ended led to ten percent of North Koreans starving to death. China could have intervened but was not in a rush. China always saw North Korea as a Russian creation (which it was) and was still angry at Russia for persuading/coercing China to intervene in Korea when the 1950 Russian-ordered North Korean invasion of South Korea failed. Communist China was still in the midst of consolidating its victory and was really in no shape for another war, especially one against an official UN coalition led by the United States. China went in, lost half a million dead and much else besides and got little in the way of compensation from the Russians. The Chinese do not forget stuff like this.
China does not want a nuclear North Korea and the North Korean leader has apparently been told this several times and politely ignored their patron. So China has joined the sanction alliance, as have South Korea and the Americans. These three nations, with the help of some of their allies (like Japan) are actively going after the North Korean efforts to raise money and smuggle in essential items. This is a shadow war that involves a lot of Cyber War (hacking banking systems to steal money via the international bank transfer system). North Korea also has an extensive network of criminal organizations that will, for a fee, assist in procuring and smuggling needed goods. The best example of this is the program whereby small North Korean tankers transfer refined products at sea and then deliver it to North Korea. This is a war that, so far, North Korea is slowly losing and time is not on their side. The current American leader is up for reelection in 2020 and North Korea holds out some hope that a new president might be elected that is more amenable to surrender. China does not have elections and the current leader has lifetime tenure. The current Chinese leader is not pleased with North Korea. South Korea is a democracy but so far a majority of the voters are more afraid of a nuclear North Korea than they are of seeing another round of mass suffering and starvation up there. This struggle won’t go on forever because the North Korean economic and political (growing public anger and active resistance) situation is threatening the Kim dynasty hold on power. For the Kim family, this is a matter of victory or death, at least so far.
The current situation is more perilous because the last two Kim rulers of North Korea thought they could take advantage of China and get away with it. That eventually turned Chinese popular opinion against North Korea. Shortly thereafter Chinese leaders agreed with that popular opinion, especially when it became clear that North Korea was abusing Chinese hospitality (allowing North Korean intelligence and Cyber War operatives to work in China). The North Korean agents were doing things they were told they should not do. Same with the Cyber War hackers who, it turned out, would sometimes go after Chinese targets. There were a growing number of these incidents of misbehavior. Chinese and their leaders agreed that a lesson must be administered for this rude behavior.
When you are a small neighbor of China, the first rule of diplomacy is the little guy does not play China without eventually discovering that such bad behavior ultimately has disastrous consequences for the little guy. In this case, China also benefits from having the Americans, angry at being taken advantage of several times, willing to do most of the work required to discipline the ill-mannered North Korean leader.
The increasing corruption among government officials has reached the point where the victims (most North Koreans with any cash) are becoming more reckless and public with their anger over the constant bribe requests from police and local officials. Until the last year growing anti-government anger and the visible dissent, it produced was still low level. No more. A growing number of North Koreans are becoming very public about how they feel. Anger and frustration about the growing shortages and corruption among local officials is the cause. The public anger, which police usually back away from rather than crack down hard and risk escalation, continues to be local but is more frequent and fearless. As yet there has been no organized opposition to the government. But the way these things work it is obvious that a revolution is in its early stages and these growing economic problems are fueling it. Police, soldiers and government officials are also feeling the shortages and attempting to solve that with the growing use of “fines” for the smallest infraction (real or imaginary). These fines are often imposed on people who are visibly thin from lack of food. That sort of “we have nothing to lose” anger has started revolutions. And when many of the hungry people are soldiers, and nearly all the male civilians are either former soldiers are soon to be conscripted, you have a very dangerous situation.
The angry and hungry people are largely present outside the cities. The capital, Pyongyang, was always better fed and regularly supplied with electricity. Tourists and most other foreign visitors are kept away from areas where the hunger and privation is most obvious. In some rural areas, the security forces are visibly afraid of the growing public anger. Despite the efforts to hide the problem, there are still Chinese who do business in rural areas and regularly chat with a wide variety of North Koreans. So they know and pass that on when they return to China. Same with North Koreans who travel to China on business. Despite being warned to not talk about such embarrassing information, enough of these visitors do provide a regular and reliable stream of accurate information about what is actually going on inside North Korea.
Since the 1990s Western intel organizations willing to pay can reliably verify details about many things in North Korea. Naturally, a number of Chinese entrepreneurs in northeast China have made a business of this. Although often a sideline, it is apparently lucrative enough to survive crackdowns by Chinese and North Korea officials. This “information broker network” can even take requests for specific information but it often takes a lot of time, and money, to responses out of North Korea. This is one reason why North Korea has been cracking down on people smugglers and information brokers moving people, data and other items back and forth across the China/North Korea border. So far the North Korean crackdown has caused smuggler fees and delivery times to go up. As with the ancient Great Wall of China, it does not stop unwelcome invaders, it just slows them down. Meanwhile, a senior defector can provide valuable updates on loyalty and effectiveness among the senior leadership in North Korea. This sort of information is crucial at a time like this, with growing signs of popular resistance to the Kim dictatorship and declining discipline among the few percent of North Koreans necessary to keep the Kim government going. The fact that more senior people are defecting is significant by itself. China has its own intel sources inside North Korea which are considered superior to what South Korea and the United States have. New senior defectors provide updates on what the Chinese situation is within North Korea. China will occasionally trade info with the Americans and South Koreans. After all, what goes on in North Korea is something of a mutual problem for the U.S., South Korea, China and Japan.
In early 2019 it became widely known that Jo Song Gil, the acting North Korean ambassador to Italy, was officially missing, along with his wife. The two of them disappeared in early November 2018. All Italian officials could say was that the couple had probably arranged asylum with a Western country and were now under the protection of that country. It turned out to be Italy. The Italian government was protecting Jo until he could move to the United States, where he had applied for asylum. Such defections are usually kept very secret until the high-level defector has been debriefed and his ultimate refuge arranged. The last North Korean diplomat defection was in 2016 when one in Britain did so. After that North Korea increased security measures to prevent such defections and life for North Korean diplomats became more difficult.
The new rules involved summoning most senior diplomats back to North Korea for “consultations.” This largely consists of more thorough investigations into their loyalty and that of their families. This is being done in secluded areas and the diplomats and their families are isolated until they have been cleared, which most of them appear to have. Not all of these diplomats have been sent back to their overseas posts yet. The investigations/interrogations began in early February and apparently take up to three months to complete. So a lot more results of these investigations should be known soon. It has been revealed that children of diplomats will no longer be allowed to accompany their parents overseas.
April 8, 2019: In northern North Korea (Chagang Province), the new bridge between Jian in North Korea and Manpo in China has finally opened. The bridge was completed in 2016 but China delayed opening it because of the increased sanctions on North Korea. Now the bridge is opened, even though there is little traffic. This is a gesture to North Korea that will not help them economically but will remind them of how valuable good relations with China are. There are other problem bridges across the Yalu River. During late 2017 the main bridge (in northwest North Korea) connecting with the Chinese city of Dandong was closed temporarily for repairs. This Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge crosses the Yalu River and until recent sanctions carried about 70 percent of the North Korean imports and exports. The bridge was built by the Japanese and completed in 1943. It was heavily damaged a decade later during the Korean War and repairs were made. Since the 1980s repairs have been less frequent and thorough. A 2010 project to build a new bridge are stalled because of corruption and mismanagement, mainly by the North Koreans. In any event, Chinese exports to North Korea are down over 60 percent (compared to 2016) by 2017 and set to decline even more.
April 5, 2019: American and South Korean intel agencies agree that the work underway on North Korean missile launch facilities is mainly to provide something that could be traded away in future negotiations. There is no supporting work to provide new long-range missiles to launch and North Korea has used this “make something we can trade” before.
April 4, 2019: The ongoing crackdown on North Korean oil smuggling revealed that China has apparently stopped sending refined (into diesel and other fuels) oil to North Korea in 2017 and now North Korea has to smuggle in refined products while trying to refine the legal (per the sanctions) oil China still sells to North Korea.
April 2, 2019: With the official North Korean announcement that peace negotiations failed and no economic relief was in sight, the government closed many factories that had been officially open but increasingly crippled by lack of raw materials or components with which to produce anything. This included a number of “showcase” factories in and around the well fed and lit national capital.
March 31, 2019: North Koreans are being told that the recent (February 28) peace talks in Vietnam between North Korean and American leaders ended abruptly when the American told the North Koreas that the only acceptable deal was complete and verifiable denuclearization in return for the lifting of sanctions and sending foreign aid. This was not news to most North Koreans but now their government has made it official that North Korean policy puts nuclear weapons development before everything else. The government did not explain how the nukes are going to be used to solve the food, energy and many other shortages. Their portly leader Kim Jong Un obviously suffers no such shortages but, for the moment, he is the boss. And the boss doesn’t want you to leave. That explains the recent addition to the new border fence and barbed wire, Broken glass has been collected and scattered under the barbed wire to make it even more difficult (or a least more painful) to get across the border and escape.
March 30, 2019: In South Korea, a recent opinion poll showed that half of South Korean adults believed that the Americans would not get North Korea to surrender their nuclear weapons and allow it to be verified. Nearly 46 percent thought the Americans would eventually agree to a more customary gradual deal. The American leader insists that gradual deals are always used by North Korea to grab some goodies and never deliver. A month earlier only 38 percent believed the Americans would never get their “denuclearize and verify” demands met. These polls also reflect the South Korean tendency to play down North Korean bad behavior. After all, the northerners are fellow Koreans and are suffering. South Koreans also feel guilty because as they found out how much it would cost to rebuild the north if the country were reunited as a democracy, there was less enthusiasm for unification in the south. But there was a growth in guilt over it.
March 28, 2019: China has apparently completed the security upgrades to its 1,700 kilometer long border with North Korea. The entire border is now covered by a fence. North Korea responded by upgrading its border barriers and now all of the North Korean side is covered by some kind of barrier. One thing both China and North Korea installed along their border were video cameras. The entire border is now covered by two sets of vidcams. All this is more of a hassle for North Koreans than Chinese. That is because the Chinese can more easily get past the barrier to the river bank (to fish, swim, or whatever) than can their North Korean counterparts. The dual camera systems also make it more difficult for North Koreas to get out and for smugglers from both sides to operate.
March 24, 2019: In North Korea, the government ordered an investigation into the extent of bribery in determining which conscripts would serve in high-security facilities. This is considered a prime assignment because these troops are well taken care of and the work is not dangerous. But it was noticed that a growing number of new troops were not the most loyal and reliable (as the standards put it) but those with parents able to pay a large enough bribe to local officials who grade the recruits and thus determine what kind of military assignment they will receive.
March 23, 2019: North Korea announced a new rewards program for citizens who provide information about the misbehavior of others. This was mainly about North Koreans who use illegal foreign phones to contact people or web sites outside North Korea. Informers can get up to $7 per useful tip.
March 22, 2019: Commercial satellite photos have revealed a large number of ship or submarine components accumulating at the northeastern North Korea Sinpo shipyard. These components have arrived in the last few months. Back in mid-2018 aerial and satellite photos indicated that the Sinpo shipyard was experiencing some increased activity. Sinpo is where a North Korean SSB (diesel-electric submarine carrying ballistic missiles) is being built. This was confirmed in early 2015 when aerial photos clearly (despite a camouflage net) showed an SSB under construction. Based on what was known in 2015 it appeared that North Korea could have an operational SSB (carrying reliable missiles) by 2018 if they completed and successfully test the new 3,000 ton SSB under construction as well as complete development of the SLBM. But construction activity in Sinpo declined after 2016, apparently due to lack of resources. The current increase in activity indicates a major effort to complete the SSB soon.
March 21, 2019: North Korea and South Korea are engaging in low-level diplomatic combat because of the growing sanctions. North Korea recently pulled out of the joint liaison office. This was a mechanism that made it easier for the two Koreas to deal with border incidents. What North Korea is really angry about is the energetic effort being made against their oil smuggling operations. Japanese, American and NATO warships and aircraft are operating more patrols and this year have documented (with pictures) over a hundred incidents of North Korea tankers receiving oil at sea from Chinese tankers. The U.S. finds out who owns the Chinese tankers and imposes sanctions on the companies and individuals involved. This is embarrassing for China and often a major financial hit for the Chinese shipping firms.
March 15, 2019: The Free Joseon movement (until March 1 the CCD, or Cheollima Civil Defense group) admitted it was behind a February 22 raid on the North Korea embassy in Spain, which resulted in many documents and hard drives being taken. Free Joseon consists of Koreans living outside of North Korea who call for a free and united Korea and also seek to assist North Koreans trying to escape. Little is known about who the Free Joseon members are and the group has only been around for about two years. Free Joseon also took credit for a March 11 incident in Malaysia where Free Joseon wrote anti-North Korean government slogans on the outer wall of the North Korean embassy. North Korea later claimed that Free Joseon was created by the CIA and worked with the American FBI as well. Whatever the case Free Joseon personnel appear Korean and some are definitely North Korean. The February raid apparently obtained some useful documents, some of which were passed on to the Americans (who can do more with the documents than the Free Joseon crew). “Free Joseon” is the name these Korean activists want to call North Korea once it has been freed of the Kim dictatorship.
March 13, 2019: One very visible after effect of the failed U.S./North Korean peace talks in Vietnam was China ordering North Koreans visiting China on a visa to stay no longer than a week. These visitors could return to North Korea and apply for another visa, which they might or might not get and it would allow for another stay of no more than a week. This initially caused a notable increase in the number of North Koreas returning home and many North Korea businesses in China, especially restaurants and other public facilities, shut down. Many of the returning North Koreans came laden with Chinese goods they had recently purchased. These returnees appeared to believe that long-term visas would not be available for a long time. In response, North Korea has been sending more workers into China for short work visits. This is not as profitable for North Korea as longer work visits but the North Koreans take the hit and keep moving. Both China and Russia have sent most of their North Korean workers home but not banned them entirely. China and Russia revealed that in 2018 alone they had sent over 60 percent of the 80,000 North Korean workers they employed home rather than allow them to renew their contracts.