The current economic crises in North Korea is often described as “almost as bad as the 1990s.” Back then the abrupt termination of Russian economic aid led to massive food shortages, sustained famine, and the death of about ten percent of the population. The severe malnutrition among many more youngsters had long-term effects. The extent of the malnutrition was noticed at the DMZ 18 years later as many North Korea conscripts showed up that were obviously shorter than North Koreans born before Russian aid was halted after 1991.
The current severe shortages are the result of government refusal to make the kind of free-market reforms China embraced in the early 1980s and had prospered from ever since. The economic differences between North Korea and China could be seen by North Koreans living along the Chinese border. Even before the Russian aid was cut in 1991, North Koreans noticed unusually rapid economic growth and increased prosperity in China. The living standard gap widened even more during the 1990s as North Korea descended into famine and economic collapse. For those living on the northern border, China now appeared to be an economic paradise and the Chinese seemed to be doing better than the Russians, who had their own economic recession after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. News of the even greater economic growth in South Korea took longer to reach the north because civilians were kept away from both sides of the southern border because that border was considered a war zone and officially referred to as the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone).
North Koreans are now more prepared for the current recession but North Korea is not. In the 1990s North Koreans were dependent on food distributed by the state. Except for the small “family gardens” farmers were allowed to cultivate, all other food produced was taken by the state and distributed. In the 1990s natural disasters and poorly managed state farms led to less food production. The lack of Russian economic aid eliminated food imports. Pride and deceit blocked acceptance of free foreign food aid. The government did not want to admit there was a famine and they would not allow food distribution to be monitored. In part that was because the government did not want the outside world to see how bad it was and also because the government was going to sell some of the food and some would be sent to the military, where the troops and military families were not starving but were hungry. Twenty years later there is a primitive market economy, operating next to a larger, and much less efficient, the state-owned portion of the economy. Food is always for sale but you have to pay.
People no longer depend on the state for anything. The 1990s meltdown destroyed the health care system, the transportation network and infrastructure in general as the state concentrated on making up for the lost Russian military aid by building more ballistic missiles and developing nuclear weapons. During the 1990s the secret police and a few key military units did not suffer, nor did the senior officials and their families. With the 21st century economic reform, which legalized market places and a growing degree of private enterprise, was forced on the government. There were no other alternatives. To gain more economic freedoms the new entrepreneurs (“donju”) resorted to bribes and found government employees, even senior ones and members of the secret police, willing to take them. That’s because the 1990s debacle made it clear to many North Koreans of all economic and social classes that the current government was much less effective economically and socially than the neighbors (China, Russia, South Korea and Japan).
News of the wealth disparities and better living standards everywhere in the region, except North Korea, began to seep in. By 2010 these disparities had become common knowledge in North Korea although many were still unaware of the details. At that point, it also became clear that the North Korean government was obsessed with the survival of the Kim dynasty that had run the country since its creation in 1946 by Russia. The welfare of the North Korean people was not a high priority and that attitude meant the government put more money and effort into nuclear weapons than the welfare of North Koreans. The old state-supported food distribution and medical care systems were gone. The fact that the rest of the world had imposed economic sanctions because of the nukes, and that this had caused an economic recession in North Korea was, according to the government, not the fault of the North Korean leaders. North Koreans were ordered to be more self-reliant and cope with the new “emergency period” that was compared to the 1990s crisis. The government pointed out that there was no mass starvation now, but there was a lot of hunger and malnutrition that was blamed on “foreign enemies”. The hunger was causing productivity problems on the farms, where malnourished farmers don’t have the energy for all the intense labor required during the planting season. The government has not been willing to procure additional food for this crucial problem. Likewise, the government has not been able to supply needed fertilizer and fuel for agricultural machinery. Some things cannot be controlled and one of them are forecasts that 2019 will be another dry (drought) year. News of this coming food shortage is slowly making its way throughout North Korea.
Another forbidden topic is corruption, which is spiraling out of control. For example, the government has ignored the development of an informal medical care system since the 1990s, when the state supported system collapsed. Yet suddenly the police are arresting those who bring in medicines from China and sell them via pharmacies and other commercial outlets that have come to provide medical care where the government cannot. The secret police have become more obviously corrupt, especially those along the Chinese border charged with making sure the border guards enforced the laws. The secret police were soon corrupted up there and that rot has infected more and more levels of supervisors. It has reached the point where deputy directors of the secret police have to be sent to the border to assess the damage and try to convince subordinates to obey the laws they enforce.
The corruption has also been spreading in the educational system. Salaries too low to even buy enough food, and poor working conditions (little electricity or heat), are issues the government will not or cannot deal with. So teachers are quitting or, when the local education officials are bribable, keep their jobs, collect the salary but pay a bribe to their bosses so the teacher can spend most of their time working another job that pays better. Yet the corruption is debilitating to the government bureaucracy in general. Bribes are being demanded for everything and more North Koreans are finding it necessary to find ways to avoid interacting with the government whenever possible. That leads to a growing number of people with means (money or power) fleeing North Korea to do so. The government calls these migrants traitors, while North Koreans call them a good example of a solution that works. The government has always been prepared for an insurrection, but they are less effective in dealing with North Koreans who just sneak out of the country or remain and concentrate on not cooperating with the government. How does a police state suppress aggressive and resourceful apathy?
Forging A New Future
North Korea is encouraging people to adapt to the growing lack of electricity by returning to the 19th century (pre-electricity) practices to deal with shortages. That means the ancient tradition of local blacksmiths that, until the 19th century, used a forge to produce iron (and even steel) and make tools and replacement parts for some items. During cold weather, the forge also provided heat for the workers and some light during the long nights. This sort of thing takes “embracing the past” to a whole new level. It is also politically correct since the government backs its own unique form of communism called juche. This development of “the juche way” 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, since the late 1960s, 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. Thus the use of 19th century forges is very juche, especially since the sanctions have blocked coal and iron ore exports.
At the same time, there is a small segment (under ten percent) of the population that have money, food, cell phones and fun. Those last two items are a problem because they emulate the decadent behavior of South Koreans, along with Chinese, Russians, Japanese and just about everyone else in the region. It has always been a serious crime to smuggle in and share video entertainment from other countries, particularly South Korea. These videos do influence behavior in the north, including North Koreans making videos of wedding celebrations and less acceptable parties. These events often involve guests dancing and singing like South Koreans. Worst of all these North Koreans are obviously enjoying themselves while dancing in emulation of South Koreans. These videos are technically legal and are freely shared. To halt this dangerous practice the government has outlawed making and distributing such videos. This practice is deemed hostile to the somber socialist behavior the government demands of all loyal North Koreans.
The government is making extraordinary efforts to suppress news of the worsening nationwide economic recession. Since the late 1990s, when cell phones and other electronic media began showing up, the government has had to face a new reality. News of inconvenient events can be slowed down but can no longer be kept from the North Korean population for decades. The news seeps through the censorship and suppression efforts and is doing so quicker and quicker. The news is basically that the new market economy survives but is shrinking rapidly because of the sanctions. People have savings and assets to keep them from starvation for a while. For the government, the clock is ticking because once those reserves are gone it’s the 1990s all over again, but worse.
The American Negotiations
Apparently, leader Kim Jong Un was so confident that he was going to persuade his American counterpart to ease up on the sanctions during the
February 28 peace talks in Vietnam, that he had convinced himself and many North Koreans the Vietnam meeting was just a formality. It wasn’t and the Americans insisted on actual, verifiable progress on denuclearization before any sanctions would be lifted. Kim is accustomed to his fantasies becoming reality because that is how the Kim dynasty operates. Suddenly the Americans were not cooperating and Kim blamed everyone but himself. There were some executions and a lot of angry denunciations. Talks with Chinese and Russian leaders calmed Kim down and got him to accept some reality. Meanwhile, Kim had to deal with the other unexpected side effects of the failed February meeting. There were some serious, and largely secret, side effects that North Korea tried to conceal from its own people. There were apparently more high-level North Korean officials working overseas who quietly defected because the Vietnam talks failed. These defections often do not become public for months because the Western nations providing asylum want to quietly question the defector first to obtain any information that requires quick and sometimes covert response. That generally means new information on the North Korean smuggling and overseas fundraising operations. In 2019 the crackdowns on these have been more intense and effective. In response, North Korea has ordered crippling levels of surveillance for those running smuggling operations and for secret police officials working in China. These high-ranking North Korean defectors apparently felt that the peace negotiations to end the sanctions were not going anywhere. Kim was also forced to halt any work being done on new foreign trade facilities he expected would be back in business when the sanctions were lifted. Instead, the economic and political situation in North Korea has gotten a lot worse and those with the means to get out were getting nervous.
The Public Execution Culture
It is no secret that North Korea regularly conducts public executions of criminals or “enemies of the state” in order to “improve discipline”. A recent South Korean study of these executions, via interviews with over 600 recent arrivals from North Korea, provided lots of data that, once combined and organized, provided a clear, and more accurate, picture of how the north used public executions. There were over 300 of these public executions from 2015 to 2018. At least 19 of these executions involved ten or more people shot dead. The firing squad is the usual means of execution. Each execution was preceded by a public but brief, and mainly for show, “trial.” The charges were read and the defendant even had an advocate who gave the defendant's side of the story. The verdict was always guilty followed by the execution. But first, the police use metal detectors to ensure that none of the spectators are secretly carrying a camera or cellphone equipped with one. These executions are always held in open areas but accompanied by heavy police presence to deter pictures or even anti-government outbursts. The North Korean migrants also provided at least 25 locations where the bodies were disposed of. Bodies were rarely returned to families, as is the case in China (which uses single pistol bullets in the back of the head). China often holds executions in sports stadiums, where many criminals (often murderers, drug dealers and corrupt officials) are executed with their offenses read out beforehand.
June 11, 2019: Someone in the U.S. government appears to have leaked confirmation that Kim Jong Nam the older half-brother of Kim Jong Un had spoken to CIA personnel. It was no secret that he regularly spoke to Chinese intelligence, if only because while in China he was under the protection of the Chinese government. Kim Jong Nam frequently traveled to other countries in the region, like Malaysia and Singapore. There he had opportunities to speak freely with foreigners. Because of that m
any North Koreans were not surprised that in early 2017 the older brother was murdered in Malaysia. The murder weapon was droplets of VX nerve gas smeared on his face by an attractive Vietnamese woman in a scheme that was traced back to North Korean agents. North Koreans were amazed at the energetic efforts by the younger brother to suppress the details of this incident and get the body back to North Korea where it could be destroyed. Most North Koreans saw Kim Jong Nam as the tragic victim of a paranoid and vicious younger brother, who happens to be the hereditary ruler of North Korea. Kim Jong Un was apparently unsure how this would all work out. Kim Jong Nam and his family have been living in China since 2002 because his father lost faith in his ability to become the third Kim to rule North Korea. This break became official in 2003. Kim Jong Nam was seen as too independent-minded and undisciplined for the job. The Chinese quietly granted Kim Jong Nam sanctuary (and citizenship) and blocked any North Korean attempts to get him back or kill him while Kim Jong Nam was in China. But the Chinese did not block Kim Jong Nam from traveling outside China, at his own risk.
June 1, 2019:
The American Department of Defense chief and his Chinese counterpart met at a security conference in Singapore and the American quietly passed onto the Chinese defense chief a 32-page list of existing violations of North Korean sanctions carried out in the vicinity of China and accompanied by photos and other technical data. This was done quietly because the Americans want to discuss these matters without the usual posturing for the media. The Chinese were not expecting this “gift” and agreed to have their technical experts examine it carefully before China responded. It was over a week before this exchange became public knowledge.
May 31, 2019: In Singapore, American, Japanese and South Korean experts on North Korea met to compare notes. When analyzing what is happening in North Korea there are few definitive answers but more often a range of interpretations. For example, there is no precise agreement on North Korean GPD, nuclear weapons, the impact of sanctions, reliability of the military or how North Korean leaders are responding to foreign and domestic problems. The Chinese are best able to assess what is going on in North Korea but they do not freely share what they know as the three nations at the Singapore conference. These three allies share what they have because each has different degrees of expertise and insight on North Korea. South Korea has access to a steady flow of migrants from North Korea and is constantly monitoring North Korea media. The Americans have greater technical (satellites, electronic monitoring) means and access to other intel agencies. Japan is somewhere in between and is particularly good at monitoring North Korean naval operations and capabilities. For example, there are different assessments of recent North Korean missile tests with some believing they were illegal ballistic missile tests and others believing that it was just a test of new rocket motor and guidance system technology. That’s an important difference because an illegal (according to current agreements) test calls for more sanctions and other retaliation.
Despite all that there are disagreements on how powerful and numerous North Korean nuclear weapons are, or the conventional capabilities of the North Korean armed forces, it is generally agreed that North Korean nukes work but are crude and not reliable. That assessment applies to the rest of the North Korean military. The North Korean economy is also seen as a mess by all but there are disagreements over details. All agree that the new American approach to sanctions (stronger and enforced more diligently) and negotiations (more personnel and responsive) are not only novel but are getting results. North Korea is hurting because of the current sanctions and North Korean leaders are willing to talk to their American and South Korean counterparts more than ever before. That means the meetings between American, Japanese and South Korean analysts are more intense and productive than in the past.
May 27, 2019: China revealed that it is joining Russia and North Korea by developing an operating system alternative (to the Windows OS) for its military PCs and, eventually, all government PCs. This would make Chinese PCs more difficult to hack. Russia and North Korea selected Linux variants but China is seeking to create something unique. China also wants to replace Western operating systems used in many industrial situations, including router software.
May 24, 2019: For North Korea, one class of imports is still legal; tourists. Most of these come from China and today the government decreed that tourists must pay in advance entrance fees for events in North Korea, even if they did not plan on attending them before they can get a visa. Because of the sanctions, North Korea is encouraging more foreigners, especially Chinese and South Koreans, to visit North Korea as tourists. Unlike the recent past, the tourists are now treated with more attention (to what the tourist wants) and care. Government officials who handle this are under pressure to produce maximum cash from the tourists and that means treating the tourists much better than in the past. This “the customer is always right” attitude has led to plans for using the huge (150,000 seats) stadium in the capital for mass acrobatic events involving up to 100,000 performers on the large field. These events were staged each year from 2007 to 2014. Now they are being revived, mainly for tourists and their foreign currency. Many Chinese and South Koreans are attracted to this as well as tourists from even farther away. Alas, not as many tourists as expected were interested in attending. The new visa rules are a very North Korean solution to that problem.
May 23, 2019: In South Korea, the first of two new Filipino frigates was launched. In late 2016 the Philippines ordered two 2,600 ton frigates for $169 million each. These two ships will be smaller versions of the South Korean FFX (Incheon class) frigate. The first Filipino one should be in service by 2020.
May 18, 2019: In North Korea, the government issued its official reaction to the failed February Vietnam meeting with the American leader and subsequent meetings with Chinese and Russian leaders. The government also announced that the visit to Vietnam was not primarily to meet the American president but to improve relations with Vietnam. Before the February meeting, the North Korean media was definitely describing the event as “the second U.S.-North Korea summit.” North Korea now accuses the Americans of being intimidated by North Korea nukes and China is intimidated by American threats during the current tariff war. The correct conclusion is that North Korea stands up to the American bully but China does not. The worldview is subject to change, just as the pre-Vietnam meeting one was.