North Korea has a leadership problem because it is still unclear who is in charge. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has appeared in public only five times since his heart surgery in April. None of those appearances have been confirmed and photos and videos of them do not contain confirmation of the date taken. Meanwhile his younger (31-year-old) sister Kim Yo Jong has received several promotions and is portrayed as a senior official who is making a lot of decisions. There is much to do and more of those problems are showing up in the capital, which is no longer isolated from all the miseries common in the rest of the country. For reasons yet unknown Kim Yo Jong not been seen in public since late July. It is rumored that her brother is in a coma. Maybe some of the time because someone is making decisions and it appears to be mostly Kim Yo Jong. She may be staying out of sight to avoid angering her brother. Kim Jong Un is still the supreme leader even if he is incapacitated most of the time. In his waking moments he can issue orders that must be obeyed. The only thing holding North Korea together is this dictatorial power, and as long as Kim Jong Un lives, his sister can only borrow some of that power some of the time. Doing otherwise could be fatal for the younger sister.
Other Ways To Die In The North
North Korea is suffering major food shortages, mainly because of several natural disasters. These were made worse by shortages of fuel and other supplies to help repair the damage to agricultural areas. The border with China was closed again, blocking food imports. North Korea still has a covid19 problem they won’t acknowledge. The key problem is that the national health system cannot handle a lot of serious cases. Even in the capital, where the best medical facilities are, there are inadequate resources to handle a lot of elderly senior officials needing treatment for the virus. These officials are depending on the development of a covid19 vaccine. Without in a lot of them will die. Normally healthy people of any age either repel the virus or have it without knowing it. Others will suffer the symptoms (like a very bad case of flu) and survive. Months of inadequate food have left more of these younger people more vulnerable to a fatal case of covid19.
Comparative Covid19 Coping
Compared to China and North Korea, South Korea has suffered a much lower death rate for people infected. China admits to a death rate of three per million people while South Korea has a well-documented rate of six per million people. China claims only 59 cases per million people while South Korea has 394 per million. During the first two months of 2020 China seemed to accurately report cases and deaths and that trend indicated an infection and death rate two or three times that of South Korea. But after February China suddenly reported a sharp decline in cases and dead. This was contradicted by many reports from people living in China. Such reporting was declared a crime and there is now much less of it.
China claims that there was no longer any covid19 danger in China. Unofficial reports getting past Chinese censors and out to the rest of the world indicate that covid19 is still infecting and killing people in China, and people are resisting government offers to pretend that the covid19 epidemic has passed. Similar situation in North Korea where the government insists there has never been a covid19 epidemic, just a few isolated cases that were quickly taken care of. North Korea provides no data on covid19 infections and deaths,
North Korea does have one advantage in restricting the spread of covid19; poor transportation networks. Government mismanagement of the economy have left the roads and railroads in such poor shape and it is difficult to travel anywhere. So covid19 could not spread much from the few active entry points on the Chinese border and a few ports. Even with that there were some large outbreaks along the Chinese border and in some military units.
In contrast South Korea has an excellent health system. South Korea has been able to cope and has already contained the virus, with the number of new cases declining and fewer deaths. Despite this superior performance, North Korea will not accept any South Korean help in this matter because the official word in the north is that the government kept the virus out. In most of the country that is true. But along the still porous Chinese border it is no secret with the locals that covid19 got into their part of North Korea. People living near the Chinese border increasingly ignore government propaganda and take their own precautions to avoid the disease. While the military has a rudimentary health system for their personnel and some resources to deal with covid19 infections, modern health care is only available to the most senior officials both military and non-military officials. These officials also have access to the outside world and what is really going on with covid19 in other countries.
North Korea is going through the covid19 epidemic the old-fashioned way and that is not unusual for the north, where people are perplexed by all the fuss. After all the North Korean government took no precautions during SARS (2003) and MERS (2015) virus outbreaks. What is different about covid19 is that it spreads more easily and quickly. Not to the extent that it could be described as an “exterminating disease”. Only a few percent of those infected die and these are mainly the very old or already very sick. In North Korea you have to add a fourth vulnerable group; the malnourished. Food shortages have been worse the past few years and a lot more people are simply not getting enough to eat. There are also more homeless children and adults in urban areas and they tend to be in poor health.
Some of these deaths may be from other causes but even North Korea medical personnel, at least outside the capital, do not have the diagnostic equipment to confirm covid19 deaths. Officially there is a national health-care system but the reality is that only the capital and the military have any significant medical resources. The only place where you see a lot of people wearing face masks is the capital where only key security personnel and the most elite officials (the one percenters) were issued masks. Other people improvise. The government continues to take extraordinary measures to keep out foreigners who might have the virus.
August 28, 2020: North Korean trade (buying and selling) with China continues declining. In July the total trade was only $74 million. This was down 24 percent from June. This is caused by the continued border closures because of covid19. At its worst (March) trade was reduced to $19 million. Restrictions were gradually lifted and in June trade was almost $100 million but revived fear of virus infections led to tighter border control. Smuggling is also more difficult but still occurs.
One of the most painful trade shortages is imports of refined petroleum products. These come from China and Russia and during the first six months of 2020 were only 17,000 tons, half what came in during the first six months of 2019.
August 27, 2020:
In northeast North Korea (Ryanggang Province) two cities (Samjiyon and Hyesan) near the Chinese border were ordered locked down until a woman who recently crossed the border from China was found and arrested. The woman in question used smugglers to get her into China back in 2017. That did not work out well as smugglers often try to turn young women like this into prostitutes or unwilling wives for local men. The woman saw going back to North Korea as her best option. It is illegal border crossers like this woman who have brought covid19 into North Korea before. Earlier line crossers who were later caught were tested for the virus and if they had it, they were killed.
August 26, 2020: North Koreans were surprised to see state-controlled TV providing continuous coverage of the major typhoon that was approaching North Korea. While this kind of coverage is common in South Korea, and the rest of the world, it was never seen in North Korea before. This is not a unique incident. North Korean TV has been responding to the fact most North Koreans have viewed Chinese or South Korean television, often via a smuggled thumb drive or MicroSD card. Competitive pressures strike again.
August 25, 2020: In a rare move, North Korea ordered 500 personnel from the RGB
(Reconnaissance General Bureau) to perform guard duty around key facilities damaged during the recent typhoon. This is an unprecedented move because RGB personnel are trained to be spies. The RGB operates agents in South Korea and China. In 2015 the RGB got permission from China to send over a hundred additional agents into China. These men were trained to speak better Chinese and how to operate under cover in China. These RGB men were to seek out defectors in China, kidnap them and return them to North Korea where they go straight to a labor camp, possibly for life. This program was meant to make North Koreans less willing to flee the country. The RGB teams were told to concentrate on those defectors attempting to get to South Korea via South Korean embassies in places like Thailand. China tolerates RGB agents as long as they do not carry weapons or create much fuss. The RGB was formed in 2009 by combining several other intel agencies and that required a lot of effort to get reorganized and combined. RGB handles a lot of Cyber War operations and provides information for attacks on South Korea. Since the covid19 lockdowns RGB agents have not been able to travel to or return from China. The government also ordered all traffic from China or Russia halted in order to minimize covid19 getting into the country. There has been another outbreak in northeast China but the Chinese can handle that while North Korea cannot.
On the Chinese border efforts to eliminate border guards taking bribes now involves taking any suspect personnel off the border. Some are dismissed from the security forces, an unusual step for troops never caught doing anything illegal. This new policy has removed so many personnel from the border that thousands of elite infantry have been ordered from their bases in the interior, to the border. On the plus side, the border guards get more food and other supplies.
From the Chinese side of the border North Korean troops could be seen installing more barbed wire fences along portions of the border most often used by smugglers. Increased security has also been imposed on the South Korean border, even though that frontier is covered by the four-kilometer wide DMZ. Long believed nearly impossible to sneak across, DMZ security is not as tight as it used to be and North Korea fears a South Korean with covid19 might get in. Such fears have also led to much tighter security around the capital Pyongyang. These fears are real because in July a South Korean who was actually a North Korean that had been in South Korea for three years and got homesick returned without permission. He allegedly sneaked across the DMZ (the most heavily guarded border on the planet) and turned himself in to North Korean police on July 19th. South Korea investigated this incident and found it was real. The North Korean man was identified as a 24-year-old from Kaesong City (near the DMZ) who got to South Korea in 2017 but had problems adjusting to life in the south. The announcement of this “first case” was followed by additional travel restrictions in towns and cities near the South Korean border, starting with Kaesong City. North Korea says this man has covid19.
Throughout North Korea travel outside your hometown has become more difficult because of the covid19 fears. You need official permission for long-range travel, even going from province to province.
August 24, 2020: In North Korea border guards have been ordered to shoot on sight any unauthorized (without a military escort) people found to be within a kilometer of the Chinese border. This mainly applies to rural portions of the border. There are many North Korean villages, towns and cities right on the border.
August 23, 2020: In North Korea the government began using military reserve food supplies for people in the capital. Every household in Pyongyang receives some free rice and corn each month, which has now become a matter of life and death for more and more North Koreans. While the rest of the country has been distributing local and military reserve food supplies since early in the year, capital residents stopped receiving any free food in March. Dipping into the military food reserves made it possible for Pyongyang residents to recently received three months of missing food allocations. That does not cover all the missed allocations but does solve the current hunger emergency. Pyongyang residents did not complain about the missing free food distribution because that might result in expulsion from the capital. Even with food shortages Pyongyang is the best place to live in North Korea.
The military food reserves have now been used nationwide to prevent starvation and that means there will soon be no military food reserve. These reserves, which also include fuel, ammo and other items, are meant the keep the troops going for 30 days or more in a major war, especially if enemy air power prevents movement of supplies. These military reserves are stored adjacent to major military units.
August 11, 2020: Off the west coast a North Korea patrol boat opened fire on Chinese fishing boats that were operating illegally in North Korean waters. Three Chinese were killed. This was unusual because the patrol boat crews usually get a bribe from the Chinese to ignore the poaching. The death of three Chinese may be retaliation for a July incident where Chinese fishing boats rammed a North Korean coast guard patrol boat. China believes North Korea was responsible for killing several Chinese fishermen in June. The bodies were never found but their empty boat, with lots of blood stains on it, was later found drifting. The root cause of the increase violence is the North Korean coast guard men demanding larger bribes because so many other sources of bribes were not available because of the covid19 restrictions.
August 9, 2020: In southwest North Korea (North Hwanghae Province) soldiers sent into help deal the aftermath of a recent typhoon seemed more interested in systematically looting the distressed areas. Soldiers used their trucks to transport salable items to black market dealers and even robbed locals individually. This kind of crime is nothing new. Many military bases are surrounded by abandoned farms and homes because civilians move rather than put up with the persistent plundering soldiers. The government has a hard time curbing this behavior because most military units are also suffering from food, fuel and electricity shortages. In response the troops do what soldiers have long done; live off the land. In this case it is the property of North Korean civilians living near their base.
August 3, 2020: In northern North Korea several liquified gas cylinders exploded in the city of Hyesan, which is on the river that marks the border with China. That meant there were plenty of photos and videos of the explosions, all taken from China and posted on the Internet. In North Korea the government tried to suppress news of the incident. That backfired as news of the incident slowly spread throughout North Korea. At first the government blamed the incident on the gas cylinders that were not government approved and had long been smuggled in from China to provide heating and cooking fuel the North Korean government could not provide. The gas cylinders were widely used by government officials outside
the capital Pyongyang (which always had a much higher standard of living than the rest of the country.) The explosion of one gas cylinder caused nearby cylinders to explode. Two weeks later the government admitted the incident occurred and apologized. Such apologies are rare and there are only about one every year or two. The apology included revealing that the injuries and damage was made worse by the firefighters delayed response. That was because some of their vehicles had no fuel. The local border guard commander was relieved and punished for tolerating all the smuggling (of gas cylinders and much else). The many other victims who had lost homes and businesses later complained that the compensation from the government was inadequate as was the apology. It was noted that the incompetent local officials who let it happen are still in charge.