Despite the covid19 lockdown and failing economy, cell phone use continues to grow in North Korea. Currently about 20 percent of the population owns a cell phone. This means over 70 percent of households have access to a cell phone. Several years ago, another incentive to own a cell phone appeared, software that would conceal use of the phone for storing and viewing forbidden (usually South Korean) video or audio files. Initially these apps were free and distributed among university students by those who developed them. The app developers found themselves high on the list of criminals sought by the police. This turned the app developers into folk heroes and that meant the police ran into a wall of silence when searching for these tech criminals. Few have been caught and demand for this grew so large that the app developers could charge for it. Currently, an incentive to buy a cell phone is the possibility of paying a higher (by at least 50 percent) price to use the phone more freely and with a lot fewer restrictions. Because of growing government efforts to eliminate these outlaw apps, the app developers had a lot more work and what started as a part time activity while a university student could become a lucrative, if potentially deadly, career. But that’s life in North Korea.
The North Korean economy is in free fall because of draconian covid19 lockdowns and mismanagement of covid19 treatments when new strains (faster spreading, less lethal) got in despite the efforts to keep it out. This was made worse by mismanagement of the economy. This is especially embarrassing in comparison to the South Korean economy, which 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. This “punishments will increase until morale improves” still doesn't work in the north. This is especially true when it comes to forced contributions of time and money to government projects. Noting the backlash from North Koreans in general and especially those provinces with the most problems, the central government ordered party officials to pay closer to public attitudes in areas they were in charge of. In many cases this order was not carried out as intended. The officials approached locals to make enquiries but often acted like they were feudal overlords dealing with local serfs.
Those Who Must Not Be Named
While the South Korea GDP continues to grow despite covid19 related problems, the north has experienced a nine percent GDP decline in 2020 and five percent in 2021. The shrinkage continues in 2022. Since 2020 North Korea has suffered persistent trade deficits (more exports than imports). In 2020 the deficit was $684 million and $549 in 2021. There will be another deficit in 2022 because internal lockdowns continue, although not as widely as last year. Nearly 60 percent of imports are petroleum products. Not enough other items, like fertilizer, are getting in, which increases the food shortages. Even imports of items for the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons have been reduced, but not eliminated. The state of the armed forces grows worse, mainly because of food shortages. Desertions are up as are the percentage of new conscripts physically unfit for service. The desertions include border guards, who are supposed to receive adequate food supplies but don’t and most of them are simply leaving their weapons behind and wading or swimming across the river into China.
Fewer imports of industrial raw materials means that more weapons systems (ships, aircraft, vehicles, artillery and unguided rockets) are unavailable because fuel or key replacement components are not available. The official government explanation for all this is “insufficient loyalty” by workers and managers was at fault. It’s a criminal offense to openly criticize senior leadership, especially supreme leader Kim Jong Un.
China is less reluctant to criticize mismanagement in North Korea, especially when it comes to dealing with covid19. Since 2021 covid19 has been spreading in China because new strains of the virus spread faster, although they are less lethal. Most Chinese are vaccinated, but the local vaccines are less effective than Western ones and leave more people vulnerable to new strains of covid19. Because of this, earlier this year some Chinese cities near the North Korean border suffered shutdowns to contain the virus. North Korea responded by ordering border guards to wear gas masks if they were working at border crossings close to infected Chinese cities. North Korea continued to insist it has no covid19 epidemic and refused offers of South Korean or Chinese covid19 vaccines. Senior officials have apparently received regular doses of the most effective Western vaccines and other treatments. Border guards complain that the masks are uncomfortable and make it difficult for others to understand what masked men are saying.
Meanwhile North Koreans continued dying of flu-like symptoms but were not tested for covid19 and the deaths simply attributed to flu. Many people who showed symptoms of influenza were sent to isolation centers for a few weeks before the survivors were released. Now North Korea admits that it does have a covid19 problem and is testing people more often or, as is the case in the capital, more frequently. China is keeping its borders with North Korea closed because of the perceived risk of reinfection by North Koreas visiting China. This cannot last long because China has many economic and political interests in North Korea so a testing and quarantine procedure for North Koreans crossing the border will be imposed.
July 27, 2022: Poland has ordered billions of dollars-worth of South Korean K2 tanks, K9 self-propelled 155mm howitzers and FA-50 jet trainers reconfigured for combat use. While the K2 and K9 purchase amounts to nearly a thousand vehicles (most built in Poland under license), only 48 FA-50s are being purchased.
July 20, 2022: Officials in three provinces recently tested their local water supplies and revealed the results. Most (nearly 90 percent) of the samples showed the presence of contamination that would cause illness among those consuming this supposedly treated water. A growing number of water treatment facilities have been quietly shutting down water treatment plants more frequently because of the lack of imported chemicals required for the treatment that eliminates pollutants. This led to an increase in locals getting sick or even dying. The national government blamed these careless citizens or local government officials. In some provinces officials order everyone to boil water before using it for drinking or cooking. This is difficult in some communities where there is a shortage of wood or other fuels for heating, cooking and heat during cold weather.
July 17, 2022: In the capital (Pyongyang) the secret police arrested a local man and 30 of his associates who have been running call-girl prostitution networks in the capital and five other major cities. The call-girls were mainly college and older high school students who could earn a thousand dollars a year for taking some short (a few days) vacations to high-end resorts or private estates to entertain wealthy (from bribes) government officials or donju (legal entrepreneurs). The arrests included seizure of business records and over $300,000 in dollars and other foreign currencies. Prostitution is a growing problem in North Korea but it was shocking to see that a high-end and discrete operation was flourishing in the capital.
Since 2016 a growing number of North Korean women have been operating openly as prostitutes, usually near border areas where there are more foreigners. These women get $20 or more per customer but get to keep less than 20 percent of that because the rest goes to bribes (for police) and “fees” to various middlemen (or women) who supervise it all. It is not surprising that these young (from late teens to 30s) women will also offer to sell drugs (usually meth) to customers. Many of these prostitutes are married and some have children but no money to keep the kids fed and healthy.
There is more discreet prostitution in the capital as well, sometimes including daughters of prominent family seeking some extra money and adventure. Aside from the way prostitution ruins the official North Korean image of itself, as sincere, hard-working and righteous socialists, the presence of prostitution also makes North Korean officials more vulnerable to bribery if they deal with prostitutes and are secretly recorded on video. This is a favorite technique of North Korean intelligence and they do not like to be on the other side of this.
July 15, 2022: The annual Monsoon rains were heavier than usual and the subsequent flooding of the Yalu River dividing North Korea and China caused some of the six meter (20 foot) high border barriers to be lost. Although these border barriers were ordered installed by the central government, local governments are responsible for maintaining them. These local governments have to conscript or tax locals to make the repairs. This causes more anger among the locals. Local farmers were angry that the government was less concerned about the damage done to rice paddies and other farmland by those same floods.
July 2, 2022: North Korea ordered all those with registered (legal) cell phones and PCs to bring their devices to government offices in charge of device security to have their devices checked for up-to-date system software and the presence of any unauthorized software or data. Leniency would be shown to those who admitted to having unauthorized software on their devices and revealed who they got it from. These inspections must be done before the end of August.
June 30, 2022: The Philippines ordered six OPVs (Offshore Patrol Vessels) from South Korea. This came after a competition involving proposals from Australia, Turkey and several other nations. The South Korean entry was the export version of the new HDP-1500 OPV. The export version is customizable but the basic features are an 81 meter (260 foot), 1,700-ton ship with a top speed of 38 kilometers an hour and endurance of 28 days. There are accommodations for 51 personnel, including the 41 crew. Standard armament consists of a 76mm cannon and four CIWS (Close In Weapons Systems) for missile defense and other threats within a few thousand meters of the ship. There is a landing pad and hangar for a helicopter. Under the helipad there is space for additional weapons or equipment in four cargo spaces. The HDP-1500 can be equipped with anti-ship missiles or to hunt and attack submarines as well for mine-clearing. South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are all building more warships for their own use or export. China sees these three nations as a key component, along with American naval forces in the West Pacific of a naval coalition that China cannot ignore or easily deal with. South Korea is also building ballistic missiles to counter those of North Korea but these missiles can also hit Chinese targets in wartime.
June 29, 2022: North Korea reported that they had recorded 4.8 million covid19 infections since April. This energetic effort to test for covid19 by declaring anyone with a high fever as a potential covid19 case. This effort had an impact with reported “high fever) infections decreasing as more cases were detected and the infected person isolated until the fever (and presumably the virus) was gone from their system. Currently only 204 covid19 cases are being treated and recently there was a day with no cases reported.
June 25, 2022: The United States is offering rewards of up to $10 million for information on members of North Korea hacking groups including Andariel, APT38, BlueNoroff, Guardians of Peace, Kimsuky, Lazarus Group and other to be named when their activities are discovered. This increases to $20 million in rewards for information of North Korean hackers.