Korea: Sullen Skinny Soldiers

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June 1, 2021: In North Korea the military has been ordered to establish special military hospitals to deal with the growing number of soldiers unfit for duty because of malnutrition. Food shortages have been worse the past few years and a lot more people are simply not getting enough to eat. Since the covid19 border closings in early 2020, the food shortages have become common in the military and even the national capital. The food shortages in the military have been so severe that many units have a growing number of troops who are emaciated and visibly too weak to carry out their duties. The government does not want these malnourished soldiers to die and the new hospitals are a short-term solution until cross-border trade is resumed and food can get in. The farmers are expected to have larger crops in 2021 because heavy rains and floods in 2020 put a lot more water in reservoirs.

Farmers need all the help they can get because the problems with hungry soldiers will get worse in 2020. For over a decade, civilians living near military bases suffered growing theft by soldiers from nearby bases. In some areas the “foraging” became so bad that civilians abandoned their farms and businesses for somewhere experiencing less of this theft. In 2020 the government moved more soldiers to the Chinese border and was unable to supply these border troops with enough fuel, food and housing. Even though some of these troops were from elite infantry units, they began stealing from the locals and openly complaining of hunger.

As always, the military has priority, which is why most foreign donors will no longer send food aid to North Korea because most of it is diverted to the military or markets where it is sold to provide the government with more cash for priority projects, like nukes, ballistic missiles, and electrified fences along the borders. The first of these new medical facilities were operational by mid-May.

Another way to deal with malnourished soldiers is to export more of them to serve as foreign workers. This is mainly in Russia, where labor for the timber and other local industries is in short supply. These foreign workers eat better and enjoy better housing than back home. North Korea taxes the wages of these foreign workers heavily. Even with at least 80 percent going to North Korea, what the North Korean workers receive is much more than they could make back home. Most North Korean soldiers are conscripts who are paid a fraction of what civilians make. As foreign workers North Korea can take 95 percent of what the North Korea soldiers earn in Russia and still leaves them in better shape than inside North Korea.

Catastrophe And The Great Cull

North Korea has suffered more covid19-related damage than any other nation in East Asia. For 18 months much of the economy has been shut down, as has foreign trade. The already anemic economy is believed to have shrunk nearly nine percent in 2020 and is not expected to recover enough in 2021 to do more than halt the slide. China, and especially South Korea were much more effective in handling the virus and avoiding major economic damage. South Korean GDP growth will be at least six percent in 2021. South Korea suffered much less than other industrialized nations, seeing its GDP shrink only one percent. This is one of but several reasons for North Korea turning the distribution of South Korean media (video on USB or even smaller media) into a capital offense, with at least one public execution so far. Those videos confirm that South Korea has a GDP that is 55 times larger than North Korea’s. Adjusted for population, South Korea has 25 times more GDP per capita. To make matters worse North Korea spends about a third of GDP on defense compared to about three percent for South Korea. The big difference between the two Koreas was that in the south the government was accountable to the people and in the north, it was just the opposite.

The economic situation in the north is made worse by the enormous portion of the budget devoted to the military and the effort to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them. So far North Korea has developed crude nuclear bombs but has no reliable way to deliver them. The nuclear and missile programs continue to consume over ten percent of the GDP.

North Korea has been having growing loyalty problems for over a decade. In the last few years there have been more signs of disloyalty among the families from which senior officials are chosen. This is a small group, less than 5,000 people, and the actions and loyalty of this small group are the key to the survival of the North Korean government. This is seen as a very serious problem because of the caste system long employed to control the population in what has turned into one of the largest prison camps on the planet. When North Korea was founded in the late 1940s a caste system was created as a way to maintain the survival of the new communist government. The newly established secret police and communist party reported on everyone making it possible to create an official list of every family assigned to one of 51 social classes. Most (29) of these classes were composed of people considered either hostile to the government or leaning that way. These new lower classes included business people, the most successful farmers, professionals and the usual suspects. Most of the population belong to these 29 social classes, and these North Koreans are getting increasingly hostile to a government that seems to do nothing but create one disaster after another. These lower caste families retained their talent and despite decades of imprisonment or execution of any lower caste North Koreans who showed any sign of disloyalty, the survivors learned to hide their true feelings and forget nothing. Now most North Koreans are hungry, including many conscripts in the military. The secret police are stealing whatever they can get their hands on and the senior officials are planning their escape routes. The highest caste people, who have long come to regard themselves (quite accurately) as a hereditary aristocracy are growing more corrupt and fearful. Many of these high caste families do have talented people, but a lot of those selected for the top castes were chosen because they were loyal communists and willing to be brutal and do whatever they were told. Not the entrepreneurial type at all, which is why they are so wary of all these newly rich lower caste business people (the “donju”). There are rumors that many donju families will be offered a big boost in caste status if they can prove their loyalty, or simply pay a large enough bribe. Meanwhile higher caste families fear a major downgrade if any of their kin run afoul of the police or, worst of all, flee the country. There have been changes in family caste status before, but never on such a large scale as has occurred in the last few years and many suspect the aftereffects of the virus will feature even more culls in the ruling class.

May 28, 2021: North Korea has been running a new propaganda campaign honoring orphans who have volunteered to work in coal mines, a job many adults avoid. There were photos and videos of masked (covisd19) orphans living in what appeared to be well kept buildings, as well as photos of the same masked children in work clothes outside a mine shaft. The masks made it easier to conceal revealing expressions younger kids have not learned how to hide, yet. All this was seen as the north responding to years of accusations about orphans being used as slave labor and insisting the orphans volunteer for these jobs, which often include unpopular and dangerous jobs like mining. This is an old problem. Since at least 2013 police have been seizing more and more homeless children and putting them into guarded farms or factories. In effect the kids were being sent to labor camps the government now insists were orphanages. Until a few years ago the children were confined until they turned 18. While in the camps they were fed and forced to work but since 2018 orphans have been seen again on the street, begging, foraging or stealing to survive. This was happening in neighborhoods where police rarely operated, usually poor areas with few opportunities for bribes. The street kids were visibly thin and said there was less and less to eat at their government facilities because staff were stealing more and more of the food budget and some kids were literally starving to death. The security at these places wasn’t as heavy as at regular prisons and labor camps so the more enterprising kids have been able to escape and quickly learn the new rules cops use for picking up suspected orphans.

Since 2015 a lot more children in North Korea have become homeless, if not actual orphans. Many impoverished North Korean parents have, in effect, been selling their children into slavery. The government is allowing orphans to be subject to slavery-like conditions, not just for their childhood but into their adult lives as well. This sort of thing is very unpopular in rural areas where poverty is often worse.

For nearly a decade the government has regarded the growing number of homeless kids as a problem and tried several ways to get them out of sight. Initially police were ordered to pick up homeless children seen begging or just running wild in areas where foreign visitors could see them. Local officials were responsible for putting the kids into state-run orphanages. Because of the growing shortages, especially food, fuel and clothes for growing kids, the government soon discovered it didn’t have the resources to take care of all these homeless kids adequately. As a result, the older kids risked punishment by organizing escapes because they saw their survival prospects better on the streets. The camp administrators turned the escapes into an opportunity by not reporting it and continuing to receive the same quantity of supplies. The surplus could be sold on the black market. The younger children were easier to control. Most of the kids were orphans because their parents died, sent to prison camps, or abandoned the children and moved to China or elsewhere in North Korea.

Conditions in the north had deteriorated to the point that the extended family system often failed to provide a safety net. There were often no kin to take in abandoned or orphaned children. With no home these children, many ten and under just hit the streets and became a source of criminal activity and, more embarrassing for the government, defectors who got to China and committed a lot of crimes or worse yet, told the truth about life in North Korea. Some North Korean officials wanted to just quietly kill these “worthless children” but senior officials knew that could be a public-relations disaster and officially forbid it. In North Korean secret police often make people just disappear but if it is done on a large scale, mistakes are likely to be made and the truth revealed. Homeless kids are sent to guarded slave labor camps where, unless they show themselves as extremely loyal to the state, they are likely to spend the rest of their lives as virtual slaves. Those who are persistently troublesome are disciplined, often lethally. Eventually more survivors of these camps get to tell their stories and confirm what were once only rumors.

May 27, 2021: China and other neighbors of North Korea see the current economic and political crisis in North Korea as an opportunity to get North Korea to drop its nuclear and ballistic missile program in return for more aid, especially food, medicine and help in rebuilding infrastructure. China always seemed to feel that North Korean leaders would eventually do what they have always vowed not to do and drop the nukes in return for economic aid. North Korea always felt they could withstand any economic pressure but North Korea never expected anything like covid19. Currently the nuclear and missile programs are on hold. Not exactly shut down but not moving forward until the anemic North Korean economy can afford it. If North Korea does not accept such a plan, and allow foreign monitors to confirm compliance, China still has their Plan B. This is a Chinese invasion, at the request of high-caste North Korea officials seeking to save North Korea at any cost. North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and his clan are aware of this threat because Chinese leaders have already used the threat of Plan B if Kim did not modify some of his self-destructive behavior. Kim is depending on improved water and climate conditions for a good crop in 2021 and a new American government that might be persuaded to help out and prevent Plan B or more chaos in North Korea.

May 25, 2021: Despite rumors to the contrary, use of the cross-border railroad to move goods into North Korea has still not happened. North Korea hinted at resuming freight train service earlier in the year bit it hasn’t happened yet and there is no indication of when it will. What freight that has arrived in North Korea from China or Russia was moved by boat.

May 21, 2021: The American and South Korean leaders met in the United States and the American leader agreed to lift all the remaining restrictions on the range of ballistic missiles that South Korea could develop and build as well as the size of their non-nuclear warheads. This enables South Korea to proceed with plans to develop missiles with ranges of up to 5,000 kilometers, providing South Korea with something to confront the similar Chinese missiles that have long been aimed at South Korea. The only restriction left is the one against South Korea developing nuclear weapons. These restrictions are an artifact of the Korean War (1950-53). In 2953 the f ighting ended with an armistice, which is still in force. A permanent peace treaty would involve recognition by the UN and elimination of the outlaw status North Korea achieved by invading South Korea in 1950 and triggering a UN sponsored effort to push the North Koreans out. The U.S. troops are in South Korea as the last remnant of the multi-national force that fought the war. The armistice gave the UN/U.S. authority to restrict South Korean weapons development, to prevent an arms race with North Korea.

The restrictions were popular in South Korea until about a decade ago, when increased North Korean violence against the south resulted in a major shift of South Korean public opinion against North Korea and calls for lifting restrictions on what weapons South Korea could have. This has led to a lot of new South Korean weapons. In 2017 South Korea revealed a successful test of a locally made solid fuel ballistic missile with a range of 800 kilometers. This enabled South Korea to hit targets anywhere in North Korea with weapons (ballistic missiles) that North Korea is not equipped to stop. In 2015 South Korea did the same with a ballistic missile with a range of 500 kilometers tested. The 2015 test ended decades of most restrictions on South Korean ballistic missile development for weapons to be used against North Korea. T he United States began lifting these range restrict ions in 2012 . South Korea tried for over a decade to develop warmer relations with North Korea and all efforts failed. The 2010 North Korea attacks , using artillery against a South Koreas offshore island and a torpedo to s i nk a South Korean warship changed a lot of attitudes in South Korea, and the United States. North Korea was considered an incorrigible threat and U.S. agreed to South Korea being free to try whatever new weapons and tactics it believed would work. This included lifting all restrictions on what types of weapons South Korea could import.

North Korea responded with accusations that South Korea was now the aggressor and North Korea was only defending itself. South Koreans rejected that and a lot of other lies North Korea had been trying to hide behinds since 1950 when the invaded South Korea in “self-defense.”

May 13, 2021: In northeast North Korea (North Hamgyong Province) two soldiers brought in to build the new electrified fence along the Chinese border were killed when they walked into a minefield as they were moving, at night, towards the Tumen River to wash their uniforms and underwear. These military engineers had arrived in the area a week earlier to help speed construction of the electrified border fence, which is about two kilometers from the river that forms the actual border. This is considered a high priority project and the troops worked from dawn to dusk with no free time to wash their clothing. Two soldiers decided to sneak out of camp after dark and go to the river to wash their filthy uniforms. The newly arrived engineers had not been warned about the recently (late 2020) planted minefields between the fence and the river. At least two soldiers were injured while planting those mines. So far this year there have been two incidents where soldiers moved into a minefield and were killed or injured. In March two border guards in the same area, chasing suspected smugglers, ran into a minefield at night and were wounded. After this latest incident commanders newly arrived at the border were now told to ensure their troops knew of the minefield danger and to restrict movement of any soldiers near the minefields without an escort who knew where the unmarked minefields were. The families of the two dead soldiers were told their sons died in combat, an official lie that provides the families with some financial relief.

The minefields and electrified fences are to cover most of the Chinese border. The construction is concentrated in North Pyongan, Yanggang, North Hamgyong and Chagang Provinces. The new border barriers are about 40 percent complete in all but Chagang Province. Some five thousand additional troops have been sent to the border to expedite the work.

May 3, 2021: In southeast North Korea (Kangwon Province) a local man, an official at a state farm, was publicly executed four days after he was arrested for selling and possessing foreign media (videos and music). The executed man was caught because of a change, earlier this year, in how the government treats those distributing or selling USB drives filled with videos of South Korea's entertainment and news shows. The new policy absolves anyone who confesses to this activity before they are caught, and identifies who they obtained material or information from and how they carry out these illegal activities. Such confessions result in full forgiveness, with the informants noted as “loyal” for his role in identifying other dealers in these forbidden videos. This new policy sought to deal with several problems. First, the nationwide network of official snitches, a feature of local life since the communists took over in 1945 has declined in effectiveness over the last decade as more people could afford to pay larger bribes to police or informers who had detected their illegal behavior. The recent execution and sending the man’s wife and children off to a labor camp was accompanied by public praise of the local informer who noted suspicious behavior (distributing forbidden media) and reported what she knew or suspected to the police. All this happened in a province adjacent to the DMZ, which serves as the border with South Korea. Although the DMZ is heavily guarded, small items like USB drives or even smaller MicroSD devices which are the same as the removable SIM cards found in most cell phones come across the border via small balloons. South Koreans, often North Koreans who escaped and made it to South Korea, often organize demonstrations on their side of the DMZ and release helium balloons carrying messages of support for North Koreans along with USB or MicroSD devices crammed with recent South Korean entertainment and news video. MicroSD cards are cheap (a few dollars for a Chinese or South Korean card that carries at least 32 gigabytes of data). Normally these tiny cards are used for smuggling South Korean movies and TV shows. Possessing one of these balloons, and their cargo in North Korea is considered treason. For the average North Korean, finding one of these balloons is considered a lifesaver. There are illegal brokers and distributors of South Korean media who will pay the equivalent of a year’s income to anyone who has found one of these balloons carrying new videos. The distribution groups will duplicate the new videos on USBs or MicroSDs and sell these for up to $12 each or an equivalent amount in Chinese or North Korean currency. Execution is normally reserved for traitors but now treason includes distributors of South Korean movies who will not identify those they work with. Such stubbornness must be discouraged at all costs.

April 29, 2021: Britain confirmed that at some point during its carrier task force deployment in the western Pacific and South China Sea it expects naval forces from the UAE, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Israel, India, Oman and South Korea, to participate in exercises with the task force.

 

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