Korea: The Fading Storm Corps

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November 3, 2020: North Korea, desperate to seal the Chinese border, has been sending thousands of their special operations troops to the border because all other types of troops and secret police detachments have failed. Most of the 200,000 North Korean special operations troops belong to the 11 th Storm Corps. Most of the special operations troops are light infantry that train intensively to master one special skill. There are twelve light infantry brigades, three sniper brigades, three airborne brigades and a marine brigade. The most elite units are the 25 reconnaissance battalions, most of them trained to sneak through the DMZ and make surprise attacks early in a war.

As Kim Jong Un ordered more and more Strom Corps troops troops to the Chinese border this year, it became painfully obvious that these units were not as special as described. Years of less food and less time for intensive training became apparent on the Chinese border where Storm Corps patrols were often sloppy and there were obvious discipline problems. In the last decade, even the special operations troops have lost much of their specialness. Only about 20 percent of these troops retain their “special” skill levels. That does not exempt them from the electricity shortages and the knowledge that the rest of the military, and most North Koreans in general are in worse shape.

The decline has been going on for some time. In 2010 the government began providing special food bonuses for their secret police and special operations troops. The latter force has been increased from 120,000 to 200,000 since 2004, These elite troops have to be well fed, and kept loyal, to be effective. The rest of the military began getting less food from government supplies and were ordered to spend more time farming or being rented out to commercial firms. Foreign food donors noted that the hungriest North Koreans were not getting a lot of the food aid sent. Much of it was diverted to the military or sold to raise cash for the government. The donors understood that the North Korean government, as a communist police state, would look after its own interests first and make sure the security forces were fed first. That was one of the reasons less free food aid was offered to North Korea.

The young (about 30 then) Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 and by 2016 he understood that the “starve the many to fatten the few” strategy was a rational response to an unpleasant reality. Kim Jong Un saw the situation with fresh eyes and it was obvious that conventional North Korean forces were now no match for the South Korean army, even though North Korea had 50 percent more troops. South Korea had been upgrading its forces since the 1990s, often with modern weapons now built in South Korea and increasingly exported. In contrast the North Korean economy and military budget had been in decline since the early 1990s when over four decades of Russian subsidies of cash, food and cheap military equipment ended. Leaders during the 1990s through 2010 refused to fully appreciate the degree to which the situation had changed. Kim Jong Un did and he began making obvious and long overdue, changes Nukes and special operations forces were all North Korea could pay for and these weapons would not win a war, but they would make it easier to extort free food and other aid from neighbors. So far this is not working but Kim Jong Un apparently sees no other choice. By 2020 the special operations force was facing more and more cuts and only the missile and nuclear units and development programs are well cared for.

Border Benefits

Putting more troops on the Chinese border has not stopped smuggling or the unauthorized movement of people into or out of North Korea. What has changed is that the border guards are demanding more money to look the other way. The Chinese border has long been seen as a place where an enterprising soldier or secret policemen (sent to keep the soldiers honest) could get rich. There were risks. If you were caught and could not afford the bribe required to go free, you were ruined, if not soon dead. There were many examples of border security personnel who had dared and become quite wealthy. Away from the border this encouraged the regular police to shake down legitimate traders in the growing number of legal markets. As poverty grows in North Korea, so does corruption. The government has been using new (and expensive) cell phone eavesdropping equipment since September. This was supposed to catch more people illegally communicating with the outside world using Chinese cell phones on the border. More people were identified but most escaped punishment by paying large bribes. Those who could not pay were prosecuted, to keep the senior leaders content and believing that all these border control efforts were working as planned. These efforts and the greed of border guards has put many smugglers and market merchants out of business. The corrupt security personnel are not concerned about this, only how much cash they grab before the economy and government collapse.

The average North Korean sees all these bribes as another form of government taxation. While somewhat true, the government gets very little of the bribe money and keeps coming up with new schemes to raise cash, but finds itself outmaneuvered by an increasingly wary and resourceful, in the face of government greed and deceit, population. A recent example was the government abandoning their effort to sell government bonds to North Koreans for foreign currency. Introduced earlier in 2020, the government abandoned the effort after four months because no one was buying. Bond income was needed for priority projects that require a lot of expensive imports, some of them made even more expensive because smugglers have to be paid to make it happen. Despite all the economic problems spending remains high for missile and nuclear weapons and this has produced a severe shortage of foreign currency for essential legal imports, like food. This led to the government once more offering government bonds that can only be purchased using foreign currency. The government wanted its legal entrepreneurs (the donju) to buy these bombs. The donju quietly declined.

Home Security

As poverty increases in North Korea there are a growing number of desperate people out and about. This includes most soldiers, who appear thinner and angrier each year. The troops not only get less food, but less fuel to heat barracks. Civilians living near rural army bases are often abandoning their homes and farms to escape the rapacious troops. Commanders of these bases will not crack down because commanders get a share of the loot. Troops must not kill or injure civilians, as that will be punished. But burglary, car theft and shoplifting are risk free, unless the local police catch you. Then a bribe is expected, from the troops or their commander. Plundering the local civilians has become an accepted source of needed military supplies and for maintaining troops morale.

Civilian criminals are bolder and deadlier. There are a growing number of well-organized and disciplined criminal gangs. These groups will go after more valuable but well-guarded targets. Robbing homes of the wealthy or well-off (like donju) has become more common and in response more donju are living in neighborhoods full of other donju or government officials who can afford to create a security fund to pay for security guards. The guards are very well paid.

October 27, 2020: South Korea has done better with economic recovery this year than the north. Earlier in the year, when covid19 first hit, it was believed that South Korean GDP would shrink less than two percent in 2020 and there would be robust normal growth in 2021. By mid-2020 it the GDP decline appeared worse. But the rest of 2020 has seen GDP growth and the total GDP loss for 2020 will be about one percent. There will be enough GDP growth in 2021 to cover the 2020 damage. For about half of 2020 the South Korean economy was in recession and a 16.6 percent drop in exports during the second quarter was disturbing because exports are crucial to economic growth and export customers were not increasing orders. China recovered faster than expected and the U.S. is finishing the year with strong GDP growth. These are the major trade partners for South Korea.

North Korean economic problems are much worse and continue to multiply with covid19 adding to the sanctions related problems. North Korea is going through the worst economic crises since the famine years of the 1990s. GDP is expected to shrink by at least seven percent in 2020. What little cash available is going to food imports. In April North Korea brought in five times as much Russian grain as it did in April 2019. There is growing hunger in North Korea and it is visible. Chatter, video and photos still get out of the country and documents the growing lack of food. Foreign analysts estimate that at least 40 percent of North Koreans are going hungry. The government is trying to provide large scale deaths from starvation and so far, has succeeded.

October 21, 2020: Once more the North Korea has robbed a large number of their most productive subjects by suddenly banning the use of phone card minutes as an electronic form of money (“mobile money”). This concept has been an enormous benefit for the many people in Africa and Asia who don’t have access to a bank, or a bank they can trust. Most governments welcome the economic benefits of mobile money. Not so North Korea, which saw mobile money taking business (deposits) way from the notoriously corrupt state banks. Many North Koreans lost the equivalent of $100. Put in more practical terms, that much money can buy nearly 200 kg (400 pounds) of rice,

October 16, 2020: In North Korea (along the Chinese border) locals were ordered to attend lectures about the importance of not communicating with foreigners and revealing what is really going on in North Korea. The local officials delivering the lectures also pointed out that those caught violating this order have been severely punished. Left out of the lectures was the fact that many people are selling information to foreigners in order to survive. The sanctions and covid19 recession have caused a lot more privation than the government will admit. The Chinese information brokers have been paying more for information, even though more North Koreans are risking arrest and time in labor camp so they can buy food, fuel or medicine.

Since the 1990s Western intel organizations willing to pay can reliably verify details about many things in North Korea. Naturally a number of entrepreneurs in northeast China have made a business of this. Although often a sideline, it is apparently lucrative enough to survive crackdowns by China and North Korea. This “information broker network” can even take requests for specific information but it often takes a lot of time, and money, to get 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 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 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 and a new senior defector provides 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.

October 15, 2020: A poll of Japanese and South Korean attitudes towards each other found that 71.6 percent of South Koreans did not regard Japan favorably and that has gotten worse recently because Korean (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 current bad ratings 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. The 2018 incident caused Korean dislike of Japanese to spike. In contrast 55.7 percent of Japanese did not regard South Korea favorably mainly because of South Korean attitudes towards Japan. This animosity if a considerable advantage for China and North Korea.

October 14, 2020: In northeast North Korea (South Hamgyong Province) hundreds of soldiers brought in to repair storm damage were told their scheduled discharge from the army would be delayed five months so they could complete their work on critical facilities that were heavily damaged. Of particular importance the Gomdok coal mining complex. This facility was heavily damaged by the September storms and floods and many of the soldiers sent to get the mines working again were veterans, with known capabilities that were essential for the Gomdok mine rehabilitation. Many of these troops were near the end of their ten years of conscript service and eager to get out of the military. The soldiers were told that the Gomdok mines were a vital economic resource and the soldiers working on repairs for a month had acquired expertise that would be lost if they were suddenly replaced by others.

The long South Hamgyong coastline took the full brunt of two recent (September 3 and 7) typhoons. Local officials were unprepared to deal with the massive injuries and destruction. Locals had been complaining that these officials, who are Workers Party members, are incompetent thieves who paid bribes to get their jobs and then demand bribes from locals. In response the national government conducted an investigation and confirmed the complaints. In a rare case of mass punishment of local officials, nearly a hundred of them were given official reprimands and about half were sentenced to spend weeks or months doing manual labor at the Gomdok mines. The official reprimand is a form of probation which, if violated, results in severe punishment, ranging from expulsion from the Workers Party to a long sentence in a labor camp or execution.

The Gomdok mines are difficult and dangerous to work in and so many miners have been killed, crippled or refused to work there that the government is considering assigning soldiers to the mines. It is not unusual for army units to have a lot of their troops assigned to non-military tasks much of the year. The special operations troops (about 20 percent of the military) are exempt and that means the combat divisions on the Chinese border and DMZ are often depleted of troops and essential training by this “special duty.”

October 10, 2020: In North Korea a major military parade in the capital featured an announcement that there was still not a single confirmed care of covid19 in North Korea. Yet at the time of this parade, where many thousands of marchers and spectators were packed close together for extended periods, the government revealed that it had identified 5,600 people suspected of having covid19 and quarantined them. The number of suspects increased sharply after the parade. Since early 2020 North Korea claims to have tested 10,462 for covid19 and no one had it. Unofficial reports from North Korea describe a growing number of people with covid19. Most of these are quarantined until they get well or die. Covid19 is never the official cause of death. The government continues to come up with more restrictions on anyone entering North Korea.

Since late August North Korean border guards have been enforcing stricter rules for any activity within two kilometers of the North Korean side of the border. Violators of these rules were to be shot on sight. Some border guards thought it prudent to keep people away from the other side of the border as well. This attitude was the result of fears that North Koreans returning or Chinese smugglers entering North Korea illegally would bring covid19 with them. There had already been a few such cases that were confirmed and it was believed others got in undetected. Chatter from the north (via cell phone calls to China) indicates that there have been thousands of people quarantined in eastern provinces, both those on the Chinese and South Korean borders (the DMZ). The provinces bordering China and South Korea have suffered covid19 deaths even through the government insists that has never happened in North Korea.

There is a covid19 problem which North Korea 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 it, 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 (similar to a very bad case of flu) and survive. In North Korea several years of inadequate food and medicine have left more of younger people vulnerable to a fatal case of covid19. Most of North Korea does not have access to covid19 tests and any deaths from covid19 are listed as something else. China and North Korea both note that North Korean border guards have become more aggressive and trigger-happy with anyone approaching from either side of the border. This is mostly for show as the North Korean borders have been closed for most of the year. Few people and little traffic are allowed in or out.

October 9, 2020: Iranian officials arrived in China for two days of discussions on how to implement the military aspects of the mew 25-year agreement with China. The agreement goes into force during November. Apparently, the military portion of the agreement will include China facilitating North Korea selling ballistic missile tech and some KN-17 IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles) missiles and mobile launchers to Iran. These missiles have a range of 5,000 kilometers and entered service in 2017. Iran will apparently pay in oil, which will be sent to China and then transferred to North Korea via the existing oil pipeline from China to North Korea.

 

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