Korea: The Lifeboat In A Sea Of Pain

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June 24, 2022: North Korea ‘s continued covid19 lockdown is causing more starvation deaths in provinces with fewer local food resources along with poor railroad and highway links for the import and distribution of food. Young children are the most common victims. People outside the capital are openly complaining about how the capital continues to get most of the medical equipment and medicines needed to deal with covid19. The criticism extends to government announcements about the spread of covid19 and the success of government efforts to deal with it. The government has not ordered a crackdown on those who openly protest because that approach has become counterproductive. Government officials and security forces outside the capital agree with the protestors because even senior provincial officials and local security forces are suffering from the shortages. The national government recognizes that a violent crackdown would not only fail but cause more chaos and suffering outside the capital. The secret police are few in number outside the capital of Pyongyang and are present in the countryside mainly to give the most senior leaders an accurate assessment of local situations.

Pyongyang has experienced an unusually high number of illegal entries in the last year. This influx has increased even more this year because it is the best place to survive covid19 or starvation in North Korea now that border security is so much tighter and dangerous.

For over half a century Pyongyang has been the best place to live in North Korea. As a result, access and permanent residency is restricted. Pyongyang contains twelve percent of the population and a much higher proportion of and national wealth and income. The city became the capital because it was a major industrial center during the Japanese occupation (1910-45) and has remained an economic powerhouse. The city also contains the headquarters and many subsidiary components of all national organizations. This includes the secret police (Ministry of State Security or MSS).

Residence in the capital requires official permission, which is and that is difficult to get. Restricted access to the capital is also a security measure for the senior leadership as well as another obstacle foreign spies must deal with. Police are constantly tracking down and arresting those entering or living in the capital without permission. Legal residence in the capital is not freely granted, mainly because it is a much nicer place to live. There is more of everything, including more hours of electrical power and more economic opportunities for illegal residents. Although the food distributions are only for legal residents, many of those legal residents were helping to support illegal family and friends living in the capital. Since the end of regular food distributions there have been more illegal food markets in the capital and fewer new illegals trying to settle down. There are poor families in the capital and the government is providing some of them with additional food once it is verified that these households are not harboring illegals. This prevents visible signs of starvation but not hunger, which long-time residents have not experienced since the Great Famine of the 1990s. The government is trying to avoid that by getting more food to the capital markets. This will keep prices from rising as fast as in the rest of the country. Those nationwide food prices have fallen recently, reflecting increased food imports from China.

The Money Blockade

Strict border controls since 2020 the 2020 covid19 lockdown made it much more difficult, and expensive for North Koreans who got to South Korea or other Western nations to send money to families and associates still in North Korea. It can still be done, but the money brokers now charge fees that are much higher, often amounting to half the cash being sent. Those providing the money don’t complain because they stay in touch with what is happening in North Korea and know that a lot of money brokers have been put out of business by the increased border security. Those brokers still operational often tell their clients that it is impossible to get money to people in some parts of North Korea. This is a death sentence for many recipients who must use that cash to buy food and medicine, which are in short supply in many rural parts of North Korea.

Fear of covid19 virus spreading from China to North Korea has caused some extraordinary efforts to prevent anyone from crossing the Chinese border, especially coming in from China. The one hardest hit by this are the people smugglers and illegal traders, especially those who arrange for money from North Koreans in China or South Korea to be transferred to families in North Korea. This has become a big business, moving as much as $20 million a year. In 2018 enterprising donju proposed a new scheme to obtain hard currency and the government accepted. Donju noticed the government was willing to adopt a more pragmatic attitude towards “defectors” that have established themselves in China, South Korea and the West. The government has long known that defectors often send money back to families still in North Korea. This was accomplished via a network of smugglers who moved all sorts of forbidden goods in and out of North Korea. In 2018 the government began allowing these remittances to get into North Korea legally, in return for a 20 percent fee. The government also allowed reunions of defectors with their North Korean kin for a price (over $100,000). There are people who will pay that much, and the government sees this as an excellent source of foreign currency. Implementing this was possible because many donju ran the older system. Before this, Chinese brokers would, for a 20 percent fee, arrange to have a Chinese or North Korean merchant inside North Korea pay the remittance. Even then, you are not safe. If any local communist officials find out you are getting money this way, you can be arrested or, if you are lucky, hit up for a bribe. Nevertheless these “remittance families” were known, or suspected and many donju got their start with money from remittance families, many of whom were donju themselves.

The North Korean and Chinese money brokers were usually involved in other forms of smuggling things into and out of North Korea and the current crackdown on any illegal border traffic has been hard on these professional smugglers. It has gotten so serious that some North Korean border guards refuse to be bribed, something that is expected to pass along with the covid19 danger. Inside North Korea even donju with family ties to high ranking (in the government bureaucracy) families are subject to arrest and punishment for activities involving cross-border movement of any kind.

June 23, 2022: North Korea is reviving an anti-American national holiday that claims the United States invaded North Korea in 1950 to start the Korean War. The rest of the world knows that North Korea, following orders from Russia, carried out the invasion on June 25th, after the last American troops had left South Korea. Russia believed the Americans would not return to defend South Korea and Korea would be unified as a communist state dependent on Russian support. North Korea halted the June 25 commemoration of this myth in 2017 as part of an effort to get some foreign aid out of North Korea and the United States. This was the usual scam used by North Korea and they were disappointed when they realized it didn’t work anymore. Reviving the annual celebration of this North Korean historical fiction will show some results because North Koreans who openly disagree with the official version of who invaded who are sent to a labor camp, or worse.

June 21, 2022: A South Korean built SLV (Satellite launch vehicle) rocket put a South Korean built satellite in orbit for the first time. This makes South Korea the seventh nation to do this with locally built SLVs and satellites. The satellite put into orbit increases the accuracy and reliability of GPS location data used by aircraft. This is particularly important for South Korea because North Korea has tested GPS jammers near the border that disrupt GPS service for aircraft. So South Korea did something about it, which improves flight safety near North Korea and annoys North Korean military planners.

It took South Korea less than a decade to design and build this technology. In 2017 South Korea conducted a successful test of a locally made solid fuel ballistic missile with a range of 800 kilometers. This enables South Korea to hit targets anywhere in North Korea with weapons (ballistic missiles) that North Korea is not equipped to stop. This came 18 months after the announcement that a ballistic missile with a range of 500 kilometers was successfully tested. That test ended decades of restrictions on South Korean ballistic missile development. In 2012 the United States halted its efforts to restrict South Korean missile development. The South Koreans tried for over a decade to develop warmer relations with North Korea and all efforts failed. The 2010 North Korea attacks (using artillery and a torpedo that sank a warship) on South Korea changed a lot of attitudes in South Korea, and the United States. North Korea is still a big problem but since 2010 South Korea has been free to try whatever it thinks will work. Currently has over a hundred ballistic and cruise missiles aimed at North Korea This has unnerved North Korea, which still hasn’t built a functional SLV, instead using ballistic missiles designed to deliver warheads, not insert one or more satellites into a precise orbit. North Korea improvises a lot because it has to and that’s why North Korea is still trying to do what South Korea did today. North Korea tries to block news of South Korean successes from reaching North Koreas. That has proven impossible in the Internet Age but the news is delayed. South Korea media are aware of the audience in the north and often announce achievements like the successful satellite and SLV program as a “Korean” achievement. Over the past decade there have been more South Korean technology advances that are often described as Korean, deliberately leaving out North or South. This boosts morale among the “Koreans” in North Korea where the North Korean officials officially deny that such South Korean achievements exist. Since the 1950s the official North Korean attitude was that South Korea was the economically backward Korea run by South Korea officials who did what the United States demanded. The North Korean government has an increasingly difficult time dealing with their official propaganda version of South Korea and the actual South Korea that now has a GDP per capita that is more than twenty times that of the north. The GDP gap continues to widen, which is why North Koreans caught viewing recordings of South Korean media are sent to prison and those responsible for distributing these recordings are often executed.

June 17, 2022: North Korean trade with China, its major trading partner, dropped 80 percent in May because rail traffic between China and North Korea was halted in response to a major outbreak of covid19 in North Korea. Many North Koreans, including many senior officials, are calling for rail traffic to resume. The growing starvation deaths and unrest in North Korea is seen as justification for resuming trade with China.

June 15, 2022: In North Korea extensive inspections of army, air force and navy units have been taking place to determine the extent of shortages of trained personnel and needed supplies to keep the more advanced systems operational. These inspections are not done with punitive intent but in an effort to get commanders and troops to accurately describe the problems they are having keeping the high-tech gear operational. Many of the electronic and missile systems that are reported as operational aren’t because the government was demanding positive reports no matter what the real situation. Meanwhile food shortages had spread to the military and personnel were more concerned about survival, especially officers with families. Soldiers, normally a source of emergency agricultural, factory or even mining labor have been less frequently used because of weakness from lack of food.

June 10, 2022: North Korea announced that officials with experience negotiating with the Americans and South Koreans have taken over in the government departments that handled these negotiations in the past. Such negotiations were halted in 2019 because the Americans and South Koreans were no longer willing to provide aid unless North Korea agreed to outside monitors of how it was distributed. In the past North Korea used such trade negotiations to make it easier to smuggle in tech and components needed for their missile and nuclear weapons programs.

June 1, 2022: North Korea announced a Satellite Research Center, which was established to combine military and civilian satellite research and construction. Until recently all North Korean satellite production and use was for military purposes. Now North Korea realizes that civilian resource monitoring satellites can be a big help in more efficiently managing agriculture. The new Research Center is largely propaganda because of sanctions and shortages but indicates a change in direction for some North Korean space efforts.

May 31, 2022: North Korean Information War specialists are trying to distract people from the recent failures of the government t0 halt a covid19 outbreak and spread a rumor that South Korea was behind the new covid19 cases in the north. The rumor failed because over a quarter million North Koreans have kin in South Korea, who frequently send aid to their North Korean relatives.

May 30, 2022: China was surprised at the failure of Russian forces to quickly conquer Ukraine and the fierce Ukrainian resistance that tore apart the invasion force. South Korea and Japan took notice. Taiwanese have been particularly encouraged by the success of the Ukrainians in developing a defense that worked against a delusional and overconfident invader. Not quite Finland in 1940 but close, and Ukraine is an updated version of the 1940 example. Taiwan wants to be the East Asian model for derailing invasions by larger neighbors.

Taiwan has good trading and diplomatic relations with many of the smaller nations near Russia that pioneered the concept of preparing for the worst and winning, not just surviving. This has become a common and successful strategy among small European states. Small East Asian nations like Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea have the same problem and are all studying the Ukrainian war intently for lessons they can use.

May 27, 2022: Since January Japan has completed a process that creates a strong military alliance with Australia. That raised questions of why doesn’t Japan have a similar close defense relationship with South Korea, which has a larger economy and population than Australia. South Korea also has much larger armed forces with modern equipment and ample budgets to keep the ships at sea, warplanes in the air and the ground troops involved in combat longer than the Japanese.

South Korea and Japan have many reasons to be allies, but have a difficult time making formal agreements to cooperate against North Korean or Chinese aggression. When pressed on this, South Korea points out that because of the widespread antipathy towards Japan for past events, the Japanese must do something dramatic to improve their popularity in South Korea. There have been many efforts to deal with this problem and none have done enough.

South Korean anger towards Japan can be traced back to when Korea was a brutally treated Japanese possession from 1910 to 1945. The four decades of Japanese occupation were very cruel. Think how bad the Nazi occupation of conquered countries was during World War II and realize that the Japanese occupation of Korea was much worse and for much longer. The Japanese don’t help with their post-World War II attitude that Japan was a victim because it was forced into World War II by evil Westerners and was only trying to help its neighbors by occupying them and treating them badly. Japanese have a hard time understanding how their victims don’t appreciate all that Japan tried to do for them. What the foreigners do remember is what the Japanese did to them, something the Japanese tend to downplay or deny outright.

It’s popular in Japan to believe that when they defeated Russia, after a brief war in 1905, they should have been accorded more respect by the West. The Japanese seemed to overlook that fact that most European countries had defeated Russia a one time or another. Even Sweden had done so, and later on even tiny Finland would as well. The problem here was that everyone but Japan saw Japan as a major bad guy during World War II.

As a result of the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War Japan got control over Korea in 1910, along with some German colonies a decade later for joining the allies during World War I. Japan expected more for its World War I support and these resentments led to increased aggression against China and, eventually, to attacking the United States and European possessions in East Asia in 1941. The United States liberated what is now South Korea while the Russians did the same in North Korea.

Officially, South Korea suggests that Japan cede to South Korea claims on Dokdo Island in order to improve relations. South Korea has long been willing to sacrifice good relations with Japan over the issue of who owns the uninhabited Dokdo (Takeshima to the Japanese) islands in the Sea of Japan (East Sea in Korean). Both countries have been sending more air naval reconnaissance missions to the islands, and the mass media in both countries have been jumping all over the tension. Japanese politicians would take an enormous domestic political hit if they managed to get the votes to give South Korea Dokdo. But it would make Japan popular enough in South Korea to get the long-desired (by defense officials in both countries) cooperation treaty. Australia, like the United States and other Western nations, get along with both Japan and South Korea. That means South Korea and Japan both oppose Russian, Chinese and North Korean threats but do so separately. Mass media and politicians in South Korea and Japan see this feud as an asset rather than a problem that must be solved at all costs. This is a unique situation and one, so far, that resists all efforts to resolve.

May 26, 2022: A UN effort to impose new sanctions on North Korea for continued missile tests and preparations for more nuclear weapons tests was blocked by Russia and China. Also blocked was a proposal to add a North Korean hacker group to a hacker blacklist because the group has been hacking banks worldwide and plundering depositor accounts. The cash is used to buy and smuggle in items North Korea cannot afford or banned from importing legally. Until now China and Russia supported sanctions on North Korea, especially because China and Russia border North Korea and China has already suffered radiation sickness and some deaths because of the last round of North Korean nuclear tests. Russia is more likely to do whatever China asks because China is the Russian lifeline since all the sanctions imposed on Russia for invading Ukraine.

May 24, 2022: South Korea complained to China that once more Chinese military aircraft had violated South Koreas’ ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone). South Korea complained to Russia for similar violations off the north coast. This is all about a 2013 China decision to establish a new ADIZ that overlapped South Korean, Philippine and Japanese air space (and ADIZs). 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. After a decade this ADIZ dispute remains unresolved.

In South Korea the American president visited and assured the new South Korean that the U.S. remained ready to intervene militarily if North Korea attacks South Korea. The same pledge was made to Taiwan if China attacked. After the American president left the next day, North Korea test-fired another three ballistic missiles.

May 20, 2022: North Korea now claims it has detected over two million North Koreans with covid19, but less than a hundred deaths. Until a week ago North Korea insisted it had no covid19 epidemic and because of that refused offers of South Korean or Chinese covid19 vaccines. Senior North Korean officials have apparently received regular doses of the most effective Western vaccines and other treatments. Meanwhile North Koreans dying of flu-like symptoms were not tested for covid19 and the deaths simply attributed to flu. However, many people show symptoms of influenza and are sent to isolation centers for a few weeks before the survivors are released. North Koreans complained that being sent to isolation centers was too often a death sentence because people at those centers were more likely to die than those who recovered at home. The increase in arrests for corruption and anti-government behavior has meant more people in already overcrowded prison camps. It is difficult to isolate showing flu symptoms and there are more deaths from flu-like diseases in these camps. North Korea still refuses covid19 related aid from China, South Korea or the United States. Admitting the existence of covid19 was apparently made possible by the rapid spread of the new strain and far fewer fatalities. North Korea is not using widespread shutdowns as China does but warning the population and insisting that those capable of going to work do so. Going to isolation centers is no longer mandatory. North Korea did more harm than good since early 2020 as it closed its borders and instituted mandatory isolation at the province level. This caused major economic and food supply problems and the increase in deaths among the elderly or those with other conditions was attributed to the food and medical shortages.

May 23, 2022: North Korea noted the effectiveness of the new Starlink satellite-based Internet access network in Ukraine, where the Ukrainians had access and the invading Russians did not. North Korea also noted that the main function of Starlink is to provide cheaper, more powerful and globally available access to the Internet or any other communications network that can pay for the use of the Starlink network. That includes military users that are friendly to Starlink and not considered a threat. The threat nations include China, Russia and several smaller countries like Iran, North Korea and Cuba that are hostile to Internet access they cannot control. China estimates that Starlink is able to increase the speed and throughput of military communications over a hundred times what it is now.

Starlink is not the only multiple-satellite ISP (Internet Service Provider) system. There are similar efforts underway in several countries, including Russia and China. These efforts have fallen far behind Starlink in terms of numbers and capabilities. Starlink is unique in that it was the first to enter service and quickly proved it could do what it was designed to do. That included quickly adapting to the needs of military users. This was demonstrated in Ukraine where Starlink was activated over Ukraine and the first of thousands of free user kits (a small satellite dish and a special modem) delivered less than a week after the Russians invaded.

May 17, 2022: Chinese medicines for treating symptoms of influenza and covid19 and once more legally for sale in North Korea, at least in the capital. These same medicines have already been distributed to some soldiers and senior government officials who have caught influenza, which since 2020 has been a codeword for covid19. In the military, growing food shortages in the military have made the covid19 situation worse and now each battalion (about 800 troops) has been ordered to set aside a separate space in troops' living quarters to isolate those with flu/covid19 symptoms. The military will only admit that there have been more “influenza deaths” recently. Malnourished soldiers sent to work on construction sites are having more accidents, some of them fatal, because of hunger. There is no official admission that there are severe food shortages in some units and that record numbers of North Korean men are deserting the military or refusing to show up when they get their conscription notice. Military police have disappeared from the capital, where many were sent to look for and arrest North Koreans in the city without permission. North Koreans were also reminded that soldiers stationed at the Chinese border still have orders to open fire on anyone spotted in a restricted zone near the border. The troops are told to shoot to kill. Many of these border troops are also suffering from food shortages and have families who are suffering even more. Because of that they have been lax in firing on North Koreans headed for the border and some border guards join them. Other border guards will accept bribes to look the other way. Those bribes buy more food for troops and their families. More North Koreans are desperate to get out of the country and stay out.

May 12, 2022: North Korea declared a resumption of the strict nationwide lockdown because new strains of covid were spreading fast and it was no longer possible to call covid19 deaths the flu or anything but covid19. Since early 2020 the government insisted that covid19 had not spread to North Korea. The privation that developed in many rural areas led to a breakdown in discipline in those areas and the new lockdown faces opposition in many areas where hunger and starvation are getting worse.

 

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