In North Korea, the government is giving special preference to larger families in provinces with severe food shortages. This measure will reduce starvation deaths if food shortages get worse in some rural areas. The government has also ordered senior officials to temporary duty in the worst-hit provinces. These well-off capital bureaucrats are supposed to show that the central government cares as they ensure that new measures to alleviate the food and energy shortages are addressed correctly. This often backfires because most of these officials are not accustomed to roughing it in the hinterlands for months at a time. Instead of doing what they were sent to do, they spend a lot of time ensuring that their own living conditions are as close to Pyongyang levels as possible. Provincial towns don’t have a wide array of high-end shops, so the deprived officials spend most of their time and energy on maintaining their Pyongyang level standard of living. That means obtaining the best housing available along with electrical generators and fuel for it. To make matters worse the discomforted Pyongyang officials take advantage of the fact that they are sent on this special mission without their families. So when an attractive local girl is spotted, she gets an offer she can’t refuse and moves in with the senior official sent to inspire the suffering rural population. In one case it was the adultery that got one of these officials in trouble. The wife found out, did a little investigating and submitted a detailed complaint to Party officials. In this case, the Party decided to make an example and the wayward official lost his job, and most of the amenities he had long enjoyed in Pyongyang. This the hungry provincials found inspiring.
Life in Pyongyang is much better than the rest of the country. Nationwide “luxury living” is measured by how close it comes to life in Pyongyang. For provincial housing that means a regular supply of electricity, even if it means generators in an apartment complex and plenty of fuel to keep the power on during the frequent blackouts in most of the country. That means new luxury housing, often high-rise residential buildings where the donju (free market entrepreneurs) and well-bribed officials buy expensive apartments with accessories (like the generators) that Pyongyang apartment buildings don’t need. This new middle class, where there was no middle class before, has created all manner of privately owned businesses that help the wealthy maintain Pyongyang level lifestyles in the provinces. This includes transportation companies with fleets of new Chinese trucks to get the goodies to the provincial outposts of affluence. The central government tolerates all this because they are now dependent on the donju to keep the economy going. The donju also pays a lot of fees, taxes (“contributions”) and bribes to the government. Remove the donju and all the services they provide and all levels of North Korean society would feel the loss, and not be happy about it. Meanwhile, the donju introduce more and more previously unavailable goods and services to North Korea. This includes affordable coffee. Until the donju came along coffee was rare and expensive. It still is in some parts of the country. But where the donju can use their free-market magic, coffee is widely and affordably available. The favorite place to enjoy coffee is at the new coffee cafes. One might fear that these coffee shops would be, as they were when they first appeared in Europe centuries ago, places where radical and even forbidden subjects could be discussed. Not so much of a problem because this is North Korea and the secret police like coffee as well and their bribe income makes regular enjoyment of coffee affordable. Plus you might overhear some career-enhancing conversation. The secret police have become more tolerant of their personnel taking bribes, especially if that leads to foiling spies, especially spies with any connection to South Korea. However, for any secret police found to have taken a bribe from someone connected with South Korea, the repercussions are severe and losing your job is one of the milder punishments.
The secret police have been told that finding “spies” is now a high priority mission. So conversations in coffee shops can be very useful. The government is most concerned about gossip and “chatter” getting out of North Korea on a regular basis and informing the rest of the world what is really going on. The government has been trying harder to stem this flow of bad or just interesting data to China and the rest of the world. There is a lesser problem with news of the outside world getting in.
Sometimes this flow of bad news isn’t about smugglers making some cash, but North Koreans having their revenge against the government. Such was the case when word got out that North Korea was still mining and processing uranium. The problem here was that many soldiers sent to work at the mining and refining facility were forcibly kept at the mine after their army service was up. This enraged the families of those soldiers who knew that anyone who spent too much time working with uranium had long-term health problems. The government wanted to limit the number of soldiers sent to this unpopular assignment by literally sacrificing a smaller number of soldiers. The families vigorously circulated their complaints, despite police warning them not to. As a result data brokers got most of the details and smuggled it all out.
Losing tight control over information distribution has caused growing problems for the government. Cell phones allow gossip or factual items that reflect badly on the government to spread quickly. For example, one thing the police and secret police like to keep secret are the many instances where police, under pressure to find who was guilty of some public embarrassment like anti-government graffiti, arrest an innocent, torture him to death trying to get a confession and then declare the dead man guilty and the case closed. Later they discover that someone else was arrested and confessed and was able to prove he was guilty. That sort of thing has long been covered up, even though the families of the guilty are also punished and continue to suffer even when the police know their kin was actually innocent. These “errors” are more frequently being leaked or accidentally revealed and once that happens the new travels far, wide and fast. The police already have a bad reputation and make it a lot worse because so many police are demanding bribes and often show fear of the many civilians they long terrorized. Information about police being beaten or even murdered by civilians also spreads fast. The government tries to tap cell phone calls there are too many cell phone users now who have learned, from Chinese, how to use code words. Chinese cell phone users began doing this back in the 1990s and the government has never been able to eradicate the irksome (to censors) practice.
Some forbidden knowledge has been declared legal and encouraged. Such is the case with Chinese agricultural innovations that revolutionized Chinese agriculture in the 1980s. China has long urged North Korea to adopt these practices or at least run a test. North Korea finally did. What the Chinese innovation did was give farmers complete control of small plots (a thousand or so square meters/quarter acre) and note the different yields from these “private plots” compared to land farmed under control of the collective farm management. The North Koreans found that the Chinese were right. Farmers worked harder and more effectively on their private plots and now the government has proof that the Chinese advice on how to solve the rural poverty/food shortage problem actually works. It is not a sure thing that the government will expand this program widely and quickly. Too many local bureaucrats will be hurt, as in unemployed or revealed as corrupt and incompetent. That would add to the growing problems with low-level officials who are feeling the effects of the food shortages and economic recession. That has to be balanced against the fact that news of how successful these reforms were has spread all over the country and other farmers are clamoring for the same beneficial changes to their lives and agricultural production.
In the provinces hungry and poorly housed (little electricity or heat) soldiers have become more of a menace to farmers, other civilians and even other soldiers found near a base. The soldiers have become more aggressive plundering crops, especially the private plots farm families maintain to grow items for their own use. The private plots often contain choice edibles and the homesick soldiers know it. Groups of soldiers will also ambush and rob individuals, even fellow soldiers, traveling on a little-used road. Some of these highway muggings backfire. This was the case when a group of foraging soldiers spotted a lone soldier on the road. He was attacked with the intent of stealing any cash he had. The soldier had no money but was an armed courtier carrying classified documents to a nearby base. When the attackers discovered this they tore up the secret documents, tossed the gun away and left the beaten and dazed (and now missing several teeth) courier on the road. This caused an uproar at the highest levels. The six guilty soldiers were tracked down and face severe punishment. From now on the couriers will travel in pairs and both will be armed with weapons loaded and ready to fire. No such help for local farmers who are increasingly abandoning farmland near military bases because all the food thefts make it impossible for farmers to survive. The government knows of this problem but there is no other way to get more food to soldiers, so the foraging (“living off the land and local population”) is tolerated. Because of that some soldiers plunder more energetically and sell some of their food to other soldiers and end up with quite a nest egg when they are discharged.
In many farming areas, high school students are forced to help out with the harvests. This is arduous and dirty work that most urban students dislike. Moreover, the living conditions while at the farms is primitive and meals are meager and primitive compared to what the kids get at home. In many schools, a solution has been found. Wealthier parents are encouraged to pay large bribes (“fees”) to exempt their kids and the money collected is spent on making sure the children doing the farm work are better fed. Many of the students come from poor families so they, and their parents, aren’t angry at the bribery. The exemptions are limited because each school is given a quota of “volunteers” based on the number of enrolled students and if too few show up at the farm there could be an embarrassing (or worse) investigation.
October 14, 2019: South Korea revealed that it had quietly passed on to Japan correct information on the North Korea October 2nd missile launch towards Japan. Only one missile was launched but Japanese sensors misinterpreted how the first stage of the missile separated and fell into North Korea coastal waters. The Japanese thought two missiles were fired and that one had failed. South Korea showed how their sensors were more accurate in detecting what actually happened. Japan has a real problem here because they have failed to accurately detect several North Korean missile launches in the last few months. This South Korean gesture was one of many South Korea and, to a lesser extent Japan, are making to repair the diplomatic damage done because of a dispute over World War II reparations. This dispute escalated until in August South Korea announced it was pulling out of GSOMIA (General Security Of Military Information Agreement). This was seen as a win for North Korea and China. All this was big news in East Asia but made hardly a ripple in Western news outlets. The event in question was South Korea pulling out of the 2016 GSOMIA it had with Japan and the United States. The GSOMIA enabled all three nations to quickly share highly classified information each had on North Korean military activities. Given that the information often involved North Korean use of ballistic missiles and developments in their missile and nuclear weapons program, GSOMIA made it easier for the three allies to quickly analyze, interpret and act on the unique information each gathers in North Korea military developments.
For example, the South Koreans have the best HUMINT (human intelligence) as they have agents in northeastern China as well as a constant flow of North Koreans fleeing to the sanctuary in South Korea and bringing personal views on what is going on there. Several times a year South Korea receives higher-level North Korea refugees, who possess even more valuable information. South Korea also has a border with North Korea (the DMZ) and uses ground and airborne intel collecting gear to monitor what North Korea are up to. Japan has a growing array of powerful radars and other sensors monitoring North Korean long-range missiles tests, which are largely conducted from the east coast of North Korea and aimed towards, and sometimes over, Japan. The U.S. has an extensive array of specialized intelligence satellites that monitor North Korea. Japan has some similar satellites, but nothing as powerful as the American capabilities.
Until the GSOMIA was agreed to in 2016 the U.S. had to use a more time-consuming method of taking data on North Korea from all three nations and then getting South Korea and Japan to both take the Americans word for interpretations of data from all three nations. Also, the U.S. was required to not pass on South Korean or Japanese intel to another country (like South Korea or Japan) without permission. It took years of persistent and careful diplomacy to get South Korea and Japan to agree to join a three nation GSOMIA.
Now it was all gone and South Korea was accusing the Americans of siding with Japan. This is not the case but that’s how South Korean politics works when it comes to Japan and anyone who is an ally of Japan. What this is all about is Koreans (north and south) anger at the bad treatment they received from Japan during World War II and the four decades that Japan ruled Korea. In the case of the GSOMIA, the problem began in 2018 when the South Korean Supreme Court agreed with a South Korean lawsuit that Japan must pay more compensation for forced labor South Koreans were compelled to perform for Japan during World War II. Japan insists that earlier agreements have taken care of this but Japanese guilt is a perpetual grievance in South Korean politics and it keeps coming up again and again.
These disputes tend to escalate and that’s what happened big time and destroyed the GSOMIA. That was because Japan rejected the South Korean court decision and retaliated by halting exports of essential components for South Korean microchip manufacturers. That led to South Korea backing a boycott of Japanese goods in South Korea and when that did not persuade Japan to resume essential exports to South Korea, the next step was canceling GSOMIA and it isn’t over yet. Meanwhile, North Korea and China see it as a significant win because it shows how easily the U.S., South Korea and Japan alliance can come apart.
October 11, 2019: South Korea announced another reduction in military strength. This is largely in response to a lower birth rate and growing demands to end conscription. Current army strength is 464,000 and that will be reduced to 365,000 by 2022. The army is also reorganizing its units and reducing the number of divisions from 38 to 33. Both Koreas are now faced with declining birthrates and the inability to reverse the problem. South Korea had this problem first, but for different reasons. In the north, the birthrate has been below the replacement rate for over a decade and continues to decline because of extreme poverty. The situation is much worse in South Korea where, by 2010, it had the lowest birth rate (1.15 children per woman, on average) in the world and held that dubious achievement for two years in a row. This is because of growing affluence over the last half-century. South Korea is now one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. At the current birth rate, the South Korean population is expected to stop growing in the 2020s, after reaching about 52 million (about twice the population of the north). North Korea has not reduced the size of its military because of the shortage of new recruits. Instead, they have extended the time conscripts serve to as many as 12 years. This made military service even more unpopular. Morale and readiness have suffered.
October 5, 2019: North Korea has abruptly walked away from nuclear disarmament discussions taking place in Sweden. This was not surprising. The Americans say they will negotiate with North Korea, and China, as long as it takes to achieve denuclearization but only if there are no more nuclear tests. The economic sanctions will remain in force until a denuclearization deal is achieved. That means verification, something the north is very much against. North Korea is trying to get around that by persuading South Korea and/or China to press for the gradual lifting of sanctions as progress is made. The Americans are not eager to try that because in the past the North Koreans have extracted what benefits they could with that approach and then let negotiations collapse. China is willing to be flexible, but only if it is good for China; like putting pressure on the Americans about some other issue, like the current trade war and accusations of rampant Internet-based espionage. Meanwhile, China has been willing to see North Korea suffer from the sanctions that even China is now enforcing. With all that in mind a North Korean walkout is business as usual.
October 3, 2019: Russia is escalating its dispute with North Korea over rampant poaching by North Korea fishing boats in Russian waters. In the last few months, Russia has arrested nearly 300 North Korea fishermen and seized dozens of boats. In some cases, Russian coast guard patrol boats had to open fire on the North Korean boats to get them to surrender. Russia believes that the fishermen are doing the poaching under orders from their government. North Korea says no but Russia has obtained confessions from some of the prisoners. One of these prisoners has died while in custody and Russia insists this had nothing to do with the interrogations. What is going on here is typical North Korean behavior. North Koreans will try this stuff on China as well as North Korea who, as allies and supporters of North Korea, expect to be left alone.
October 2, 2019: In northeast North Korea there was another SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) test at Simpo shipyard using a submersible barge. The last one was in 2017. Both tests apparently tested the cold launch capability of the North Korean“Polaris” SLBM. Cold launch enables igniting the rocket motor after the missile is ejected from its launch tube with a gas charge. This is essential for SLBMs when launched while the sub is underwater. Simpo is also 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. At the time it was believed North Korea could have an operational SSB (carrying reliable missiles) by 2018 if they completed and successfully tested the new 2,000 ton SSB under construction as well as completed development of the SLBM. That did not happen but satellite photos show construction of that sub is still going on and the SLBM seems to be working.
September 20, 2019: Japan will spend a record $50 billion for defense in 2020. That’s an increase of six percent over 2019. This is the eighth year in a row that Japan has increased defense spending and it is all about North Korea and China. North Korea openly complains about how unfair and unfriendly these increases are but they are a direct result of the increasing threat from North Korea. Both Japan and South Korea have annual defense spending that is more than a third larger than the annual GDP of North Korea. That is one reason North Korea spends about a third of GDP on defense compared to 1.2 percent for Japan and less than three percent for South Korea.
The disparity in military manpower is also unusual. While North Korea has a million men (and some women) in its military, South Korea had 500,000 and Japan 247,000. While North Korea depends on a large number of poorly equipped troops, Japan depends a lot more on high-tech weapons, and lots of them, plus lots of training for its all-volunteer force.
North Korea spends a disproportionate amount of its defense budget on ballistic missiles and trying to perfect nuclear weapons. Since Japan is an island its army has only 150,000 troops. The navy and air force each have about 50,000 personnel and world-class ships, aircraft and other weapons. Most of the defense budget goes to equipping and maintaining these ships, aircraft and missile systems. The first line of defense is the fleet and air force. While the air force has 760 aircraft the navy has 346, in addition to 154 ships. The air force is usually the first responder when any potentially hostile ships or aircraft come near any of the islands. The navy has a lot of combat ships, all of modern design. These include 30 destroyers, six equipped with the Aegis air defense system that can also intercept ballistic missiles. Two more Aegis destroyers are on the way. There are also four “helicopter destroyers” that look like small aircraft carriers, which is what they actually are. The post-World War II Japanese constitution prohibits Japan from having aircraft carriers but the “helicopter destroyers” are being modified to use the vertical takeoff F-35B stealth fighter. Japan is making a big investment in these aircraft. In late 2018 Japan decided to order another 99 F-35 fighters. This will cost about $15 billion, spread over nearly a decade of annual defense budgets. Most of these will be the land-based F-35A model but as many as 40 will be F-35Bs, the version that can operate from carriers. Japan already has 42 F-35As on order to replace 73 elderly F-4E interceptors. The new F-35As on order are to replace a hundred older F-15J fighter-bombers. Another hundred more recently built F-15Js have been upgraded with digital communications and fire control gear that can cooperate with F-35s.
South Korea has a larger army than Japan because South Korea has to face the possibility of a land invasion by North Korea. South Korea also has a large and modern air force, including F-35s. Currently, South Korea is buying only about half as many F-35s as Japan. That is expected to change, especially since South Korea is also building DDH type chips that can operate F-35Bs.
North Korea considers all these F-35 purchases a hostile act and a direct threat. That about sums it up. In the event of a war, the U.S. plans to bring in over 200 more air force and navy F-35s. Even more hostility. South Korea is also building Aegis destroyers and more AIP powered submarines.
September 13, 2019: The United States imposed sanctions on any individuals working for three hacking groups (Lazarus Group, Bluenoroff, and Andariel) identified as working for North Korea and carrying out several hacking campaigns for the North Koreans. The sanctions make it easier to catch or at least punish, anyone found to be a member of these three groups. This approach has led to arrests and prosecutions and, at the very least, makes hackers uncomfortable.