The North Korean capital has always been a showcase, with services and amenities unavailable in most of the country. That is still true but now the capital is acquiring problems that have long been absent in the capital but common in the rest of the country. In some parts of the city, people are getting sick from drinking tap water. This is the result of the city water treatment system lacking essential supplies and regular maintenance. The water distribution system is also showing its age. Most of it was built or rebuilt after the 1950-53 Korean War the construction was often hurried and shoddy. So now the water pipes in the ground and inside buildings are “creating” dirty water because of the frequent periods with no electricity to move water through the distribution system and into multi-story buildings. The stalled water allows debris to settle and then come out of the tap or toilets when the power returns. The air pollution problem in the capital is so bad that the pollution-related deaths in North Korea are about ten times what they are in South Korea and double the rate in China.
Similar problems are causing many factories on the outskirts to emit more air and water pollution because old equipment is not being replaced or even properly maintained. The city hospitals have always been well supplied and maintained showcases. Not so much anymore. All hospitals in the capital still look great on the outside, but inside many of them are beginning to feel like most hospitals outside the capital. That is, they are lacking supplies, especially those needed to keep the place clean and sanitary. Fewer hospitals in the capital are safe to spend more than a few hours in. The government is no longer cracking down on people buying and using Chinese medicines rather than locally made items. The Chinese medical supplies are more reliable and less likely to make you sick instead of better.
Air quality has been declining in the capital since 2012 but there is not enough money to deal with the problems. Same with medical care, even though the government periodically issues descriptions of new programs that will improve medical care nationwide. It never happens. For most North Koreans there is no more government-supported medical care or even reliable local production of medicine and medical supplies. If you get sick you must have cash to use the semi-legal and improvised private medical care. The availability of the private care system varies throughout the country. In the poorest parts of the country, improvised medical care is all you can hope for.
Among the many items less available in North Korea, because of the sanctions, is foreign currency. Over the last five years, more and more businesses and consumers in North Korea have preferred to use U.S. dollars or Chinese yuan for all transactions. The North Korean currency is increasingly avoided because the government keeps printing more of the won than the economy can handle. This creates inflation and even domestic markets prefer to sell goods for dollars or yuan. Currently, one dollar costs 8,000 won while one yuan costs 1,200 won. These exchange rates have been pretty stable. In late 2017 one yuan cost 1,400 won and one dollar cost 8,500. Three years earlier it was 1,300 won for one yuan and 8,200 won per dollar. The yuan is preferred by many customers at markets because it is easier to get your change in yuan because many get yuan in small bill denominations across the border. The use of dollars at markets is technically restricted and usually reserved for major purchases. Since 2018 there has been less foreign trade and less opportunity to get more foreign currency into the country. North Koreans are being forced to use the North Korean won, which is still shunned because of government manipulation.
Even government officials now realize, because of recent experience, that just printing more won provides only the illusion of economic improvement and actually does longer-term economic damage. So officials have adopted free-market attitudes. For example, the current recession has reduced activity at the legal markets. That means fewer merchants paying market stall fees to local officials. Such fee income has grown enormously over the last decade and currently totals about $50 million a year nationwide. Officials have noted that some of the larger officials will move their operations to another town or province if business prospects appear better. Officials noted that if they lowered stall fees to reflect less market activity more merchants would continue operating and that attracted more shoppers.
Neutering The News
North Korea keeps putting more resources into reducing the flow of information back and forth across the Chinese border. This includes admitting that the MSS (secret police) and border guards are making a lot of money. Now the MSS are expected to levy fines (payable in Chinese yuan) on some of those they catch making cell phone calls via China. This deal had an incentive built in as some of the fine income goes towards buying more effective cell phone eavesdropping equipment. The MSS now collect data on what the illegal calls are about and what portion of the calls are a “danger to the state.” Those would be calls that included information about politics, military affairs, economic conditions or anything currently considered “top secret.” That could be anything depending on the whims of Supreme Leader Kim. People who live, or frequently visit, the Chinese “cell tower zone” along the border have quickly learned of the new rules and price list. Those discussing forbidden items have to be more careful. This involves using WhatsApp, one of the few Western messaging apps you can use in China. WhatsApp is encrypted and it is easy to quickly erase messages just sent or received as well as WhatsApp itself. If MSS catches you with WhatsApp on your phone you are in trouble and, at the very least, paying a fine and a bribe. The sensitive stuff the MSS is meant to stop is getting through via WhatsApp, along with more mundane crimes like arranging people smuggling and the transfer of cash from North Koreans who got out to kin still in North Korea.
The MSS is repeatedly told that Kim Jong Un is mainly concerned about foreigners being informed about what is going on in North Korea. There is a good reason for that attitude because there is mostly bad news to report about life inside Kim’s kingdom. There is also scary news Kim wants to be kept out of North Korea. This has to do with the negotiations to lift the sanctions. This involves, according to the outsiders, North Korea getting rid of the nukes and allowing foreigners to verify that. The Kim version is that the Americans are insisting that the nukes be discarded with no guarantee of sanctions lifted. The Kim version of the denuclearization negotiations is more difficult to sustain if contrary news from the outside gets in. The MSS operatives don’t really care because the border duty is a lucrative gig and gives a secret policeman the opportunity to make a lot of money with which to establish an “escape fund” for when getting out is the highest priority. After all, while on border duty you hear so many things about what is actually going on in North Korea. Scary stuff.
The Worker Army
The North Korean military has about a million personnel, most of them young men conscripted to serve six to ten years. These troops are not full-time soldiers. Many spend most of their time as laborers on farms or construction projects. Before the sanctions cause the current recession, some divisions rented out troops to local companies to work in factories or construction projects. Senior commanders noted that many troops were acting more like civilians than soldiers, often mixing civilian and military clothing when working outside their bases. Some of these bad habits were showing up on bases. So orders went out that when working off base soldiers must be in uniform at all times and carrying their unloaded weapons with them. When groups of soldiers were sent outside the base for extended periods they often took tents and other gear with them and set up camps near the worksite. These camps must now meet military standards including camouflage and placement to avoid enemy air or artillery attack. A lot of this is extra work for the troops, who already suffer more food and fuel shortages. What little pay conscripts receive is in won, which continues to lose its value in the markets. On the plus side, there is less military training, especially in the cold weather. One reason for that is the lack of medical resources to treat a lot of troops suffering from frostbite and other cold-weather maladies. There are already enough problems with the poorly (if at all) heated barracks.
Troop commanders have other problems. The current recession has shut down a lot of factories and construction projects. That means less cash for commanders, who received a portion of any money paid to rent troops. The economic slowdown is so severe that even some weapons and ammunition plants have halted operations. Work on maintaining railroads or paved roads is less frequent because tools and materials are lacking. This means that train service, for passengers or cargo, is less reliable to unavailable if major repairs have been delayed.
Making An Example
Corruption among local officials, border guard and the secret police has been difficult to ignore and senior officials are having a difficult time coming up with solutions. In desperation, the government is trying some scare tactics. This consists of punishing some corrupt officials. Not with a long prison sentence or execution, but with short-term humiliation (and brief imprisonment). Even children of senior officials are being punished, or at least a select few. University students who have suddenly become even more affluent (than their parents already are) are targets for investigation and prosecution. If nothing else it teaches these rich kids the lifesaving value of discretion. Secret police are another matter, and some of those caught being corrupt are quietly (except to other secret police personnel) executed or simply “disappear.” These punishments slow down the spread of corrupt practices but have not stopped it.
Worse Than Sanctions
While the sanctions have a lot to do with the current economic recession in North Korea the key reason for factories, businesses and agricultural activities shutting down is the growing shortage of electricity. This is largely due to decades of deferred maintenance on power plants as well as the power distribution system. The decision to not build new power plants, except for those needed to support nuclear weapons or ballistic missile projects, left North Korea vulnerable to massive power shortages. Now the shortages are here and growing thanks to another drought. The lack of rainfall means the hydroelectric power is reduced and for many economic enterprises, no power means no work and no production. Portable generators cannot fill the gap, especially with the higher cost of smuggled fuel. North Korean leaders blame the sanctions for every problem but the MSS “chatter reports” indicate most North Koreans realize that the real cause is.
Big Brother Is Bothered
China has turned against North Korea because the mess the Northern leaders have made of their country and how that threatens to overflow into northeast China. South Korea is much less at risk because of the heavily guarded DMZ. North Koreans seeking to reach South Korea know that the quickest route is north, via China. The DMZ is a deathtrap for “defectors.”
Time is also the enemy. North Korea has been able to stall another round of mass starvation but not eliminate the possibility. That would require the leadership to admit they have a problem and submit to verifiable monitoring of aid distribution and denuclearization. North Korea has insisted it would never do this. But time is not on their side and internal unrest has grown as does the general breakdown in order and “discipline.” That means options for North Korean leaders are shrinking. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not yet capable of scaring anyone into submission. The North Korean military, in general, is run down and suffering from two decades of neglect because of economic mismanagement and higher priority nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
China has witnessed all of this in more detail than any other country and that is why China is pressuring North Korea to be less of a nuisance. That request is more of a demand if North Korea wants to maintain any economic access with China at all. So the North Koreans go along with this, although in most cases what China is asking for North Korea is eager to provide. For example, as economic conditions worsen in North Korea more North Koreans, who are allowed to visit kin in China, often overstay their visas and, in effect, “defect.” China does not want illegal migrants from North Korea and insists that North Korea send secret police teams to China to hunt down, arrest and take back to North Korea illegals that China has identified. The North Korea police make some extra cash by taking back a suitcase or two full of Chinese consumer goods that will fetch a big profit in North Korea.
Russia is less concerned about the sanctions and tolerates all manner of schemes to evade the sanctions. One obvious measure is to issue student visas to North Korean workers who then attend “on the job” training at worksites throughout the Russian Far East. This is another source of foreign currency for North Korea because most of the pay these North Korean “students” receive goes to the North Korean government.
August 13, 2019: South Korea has sent a destroyer to participate in the Somali anti-piracy patrol, but it is believed this destroyer will be diverted to assist with the new Strait of Hormuz escort operation organized by the U.S. and Britain to protect tankers from Iranian aggression. South Korea gets most of its oil from the Persian Gulf.
August 12, 2019: North Korea has, since long-planned U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises began on the 5th, complained that such military training was a sign of bad faith and South Korean unwillingness to negotiate fairly with North Korea. This is an old complaint from North Korea and is more strident as the effectiveness of the North Korean non-nuclear military forces continues to decline because of food, fuel and other shortages. Some joint exercises by South Korea and the U.S. were halted to appease Kim but that is never enough. Halting some of this joint training is much less of a problem for South Korea and the U.S. because they continue command post exercises in which the staffs and commanders from each nation continue with simulated joint training. This is what the current exercises are, with the addition of some actual troop involvement. South Korean and American units can afford to continue training by themselves and that gives them a major advantage over North Korea which has neither the food, fuel, spare parts or anything else needed to enable its troops to train. North Korean troops face seasonal cold weather similar to Canada and Scandinavia but without much fuel or proper clothing to stay warm. Sickness and deaths among troops is increasing because of all these shortages. This is why North Korea depends so much on nukes and ballistic missiles. North Korean military planners have apparently concluded that the north is now vulnerable to an invasion by South Korean and American troops. North Korea forces are in no shape to halt such a move, much less launch a successful invasion of South Korea.
August 11, 2019: South Korea and Japan are once more feuding over past Japanese mistreatment of Koreans. This remains a problem, especially when it comes to cooperation in facing common threats from North Korea and China. Such cooperation is still very unpopular in South Korea because of continued anger over 40 years of brutal Japanese occupation early in the 20th century. The Japanese consider this self-destructive as it wallows in the past at the expense of dealing with current and future threats. Yet Japan continues to ignore the fact that it’s post-World War II policy (documented in decrypted Japanese diplomatic messages sent out right after the Japanese surrender in August 15, 1945) of claiming to be a victim in World War II and guilty only of trying to liberate all Asians from Western oppression, is the obstacle. That “Japan as victim” view was never very popular with Japan’s neighbors, who saw Japan as no better (and often a lot worse) than Western imperialists. To the countries of East Asia Japan compounds these historical sins by continuing to insist that Japan is innocent of any wrongdoing. This made it difficult to unite to deal with threats from North Korea and China, but eventually both Japanese and South Koreans agreed to cooperate to protect their common interests, at least most of the time.
August 10, 2019: North Korea launched several short-range missiles from an east coast base and into the ocean. This was the fifth such test in the last month and the seventh this year. Many of these tests are of the new KN-23, a North Korean version of
the new Russian Iskander system. In February 2018 a North Korean parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the North Korean military was smaller than expected and only displayed one new missile system. This one was an SRBM (Short Range Ballistic Missile) that seemed similar to the Russian Iskander or South Korean Hyunmoo-2. The Iskander is an export item while the South Korean missile is not. South Korea developed a 180 kilometer range ballistic missile (Hyunmoo 1) and a 300 kilometer one (Hyunmoo 2) in the 1980s. Both are about 13 meters (40 feet) long and weigh 4-5 tons. Both of these were based on the design of the U.S. Nike-Hercules anti-aircraft missile, which South Korea used for many years. Recently it was announced there was now a longer range (500 kilometer) version; Hyunmoo 2C. North Korea hackers have stolen a lot of South Korean defense secrets in the last decade and that might have included details of the Hyunmoo 2. This is a missile North Korea is more likely to build than the more modern and complex Iskander. North Korea has recently boasted of developing GPS guided rockets with ranges of several hundred kilometers. Japan said it was not concerned about the new North Korean missiles because they did not have sufficient range to reach Japan. But the new North Korean missile, it was based on the Iskander, would also be more difficult for existing anti-missiles systems to stop because it has a shallow trajectory, meaning the missile stays close to the ground and is thus more difficult to spot in time for anti-missile systems to work.
Kim also announced the recent introduction of two GPS guided rocket systems. The MSS reports that most North Koreans are not impressed with the 2019 missile tests and new systems. North Koreans blame such missile development activity for contributing to the economic woes most North Koreans are experiencing. This attitude is reinforced with recent announcements that 103 military researchers are being rewarded for their outstanding weapons development work. These scientists have military ranks and the higher their ranks the more goodies they get. Currently, the only people getting free food from the government are senior government and military officials along with the MSS and weapons scientists. The military, in general, get some free food but are expected to grow most of what they need or “obtain” (steal) it from local sources. For years farmers have been abandoning cropland that is too close to a major military base.
August 7, 2019: The Philippines put a former South Korean Po Hang-class corvette into service as BRP Conrado Yap. The South Korean ship is equipped to hunt submarines and that restores a capability that the Philippines has lacked for years. The corvette was a gift to the Philippines to provide more capability to oppose Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
August 5, 2019: Britain announced that it would join with the U.S. to provide warships to escort shipping into and through the Persian Gulf. Earlier South Korea also agreed to contribute a destroyer to participate in the effort.
August 3, 2019: North Korea announced the development of a new type of ballistic missile but provided no details.
August 1, 2019: China has been increasing security measures along the North Korean border. This includes some very visible changes like the addition of more vidcams and fences. Border crossings involve more thorough searches and examination of documents. Patrols near areas used by smugglers or illegal migrants are more frequent and resistant to bribes. North Koreans cannot help but notice they are much less welcome in China these days.
July 28, 2019: North Korean exports to China fell to the lowest level ($13 million) in a year. North Korea received more refined products in June but not enough to cope with the widespread fuel shortages throughout the country.
July 26, 2019: North Korea released a Russian fishing boat and its 17 member crew (all Russian except for two South Koreas) that had been seized on the 17th for entering North Korean territorial waters. Russia denied the charge and threatened to halt economic cooperation with North Korea if the fishing boat and crew were not released. North Korea needs Russia more than the other way around but stunts like this are not unusual and leave those who do business with North Korea wondering why the North Koreans are so self-destructive.
July 23, 2019: Off the west coast of South Korea two Russian A-50 AWACS aircraft violated South Koreas’ ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) and flew in and out of the ADIZ twice before leaving. South Korea sent warplanes aloft to confront the intruder. South Korea complained to China and, as usual, was ignored. China had violated this ADIZ in February but now Chinese and Russian warplanes were holding joint exercises in the same area. In 2013 China announced a new ADIZ that overlapped South Korean, Philippine and Japanese air space. 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. Today this violation of South Korea territory resulted in jet fighters being sent to intercept and drive the Russian aircraft away. South Korea said their fighters fired several hundred cannon shells towards the A-50s to get their attention. The A-50s left South Korean air space and Russia later insisted that the A-50 pilots never saw the South Korean fighters or cannon fire. Japan also sent up jets but the South Korean aircraft got there first.
July 20, 2019: North Korea had begun exporting river sand to a Chinese trading firm that will sell the sand to construction firms. The export of the sand is forbidden by the UN sanctions but so far the Chinese government has not moved to punish the importer.