North Korea is again running one of its big extortion campaigns against the rest of the world. This is the biggest and boldest yet, with threats of nuclear weapon armed missiles being fired at Japan and other enemies. All this media theater has more impact the farther you get from North Korea. In the two Koreas it is pretty much business as usual. The planting season has begun in the north and that has ended the token military mobilizations (used as a media event to scare the foreigners). Most troops are now doing what they normally do this time of year, help with growing food. North Korea desperately needs this food, especially since reforms (incentives for farmers) in the last year appear to have worked and increased production a bit. That’s remarkable considering the growing fuel, fertilizer, and other shortages farmers have to deal with. The weather has been bad in many parts of the country for the last two years and there has been a noticeable increase in starvation related deaths and illness. Scaring foreigners does not help much if you are very hungry.
The implicit message in all the North Korean threats is that if someone offers some free food and fuel the aggressive messages would disappear. No one has stepped up and China has apparently quietly threatened cuts in aid if North Korea doesn’t quiet down. As these campaigns go, they usually end abruptly with the northerners declaring some kind of victory and that’s it. While it would be nice if all this theater produced some free stuff from fearful foreigners, Kim Jong Un could win inside North Korea without getting a payoff from the foreigners because he has shown his henchmen that the new boss can work the foreign media even more adroitly than daddy or grandpa.
China is angry at all this North Korean theater. The current barrage of threats from North Korea is upsetting Chinese trading partners and is bad for business. North Korean actions have caused a massive amount of international media speculation and FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). While this is not much of a problem for China, which strictly controls its own media, it forces politicians in nations with a free press to respond to their anxious voters. This can lead to decisions that are not favorable for China. The most unfavorable such decision would be for Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Both could do so quickly and would complicate Chinese foreign policy.
Currently, Chinese diplomacy is backed up by the fact that China has nukes and that limits how far other nations can go in threatening China. That works both ways, and China tries to maintain reasonably good relations with South Korea and Japan because both nations are trading partners and tension and threats are bad for business. China may be a communist police state but the leadership remains in power only because they keep the economy growing. The neighbors know this and have not felt compelled to go through the political, economic, and diplomatic hassle of building their own nuclear weapons capability. But the current hysteria could force Japan and South Korea to go nuclear. China would lose a diplomatic edge and there would be an increase in the risk of someone actually using nukes.
China does not like to publicly criticize an ally and has been low-key in its public comments to North Korea over the current unpleasantness. But China has other ways to send a nastygram to the Boy General (one of the official nicknames for Kim Jong Un). China has ordered its Internet media operatives to say what they think about the Boy General. As a result, popular Chinese Internet personalities are saying what the government prefers not to say (that Kim Jong Un is a fat little dork, asshole, maniac, or whatever). Chinese Internet commentators are often local celebrities who are allowed to spout on their website or microblog (the tightly controlled Chinese version of Twitter) as long as they do not say anything the government censors do not approve of. The Chinese people understand how this works and know which blog posts are crap and which are sincere. The jabs at the Boy General are largely sincere, with the posters saying what a lot of Chinese think about North Korea.
Yet China is unwilling, or unable, to actually replace Kim Jong Un. Since the Cold War (and Russian subsidies that kept the economy afloat) ended in 1991, China has picked up some of the slack. China has become unhappy with the incompetent leadership in North Korea, as the Kim dynasty refuses to undergo the kind of economic reform that has kept the Chinese Communists comfortably in power.
Staging a coup in North Korea has always been a possibility but the paranoid (for good reason in this case) North Korea leadership has made it difficult for China to recruit enough North Korean officials to make this feasible. That said, the potential is still there and China could still go this route.
Many North Koreans believe that the Chinese will take over if it appears that the North Korean government is about to fall apart. The Chinese plan to install pro-Chinese North Koreans as head of a new "North Korean" government and institute the kind of economic reforms they have been urging North Korea to undertake for over a decade. The Chinese do not want North Korea to merge with South Korea, nor do they want North Korea to collapse (and send millions of starving refugees into northern China). China and South Korea both want North Korea to stay independent and harmless.
Thus, China is willing to unofficially annex North Korea, knowing that the South Koreans would go along with this as long as the fiction of North Korean independence was maintained. South Korea won't admit this but most South Koreans know that absorbing North Korea would put a big dent in South Korean living standards. That is more unpopular than any other outcome. While all Koreans would like a united Korea, far fewer are willing to pay the price.
The North Korean government has ordered a crackdown on the use of USB memory sticks to bring in Chinese and South Korean movies and TV shows. Many North Korean families have inexpensive Chinese DVD players (which are still legal) that have a USB port. Police have been ordered to go door-to-door to find homes with these DVD players and disable the USB capabilities. After that is done a sticker is placed over the USB port indicating that the change has been made. Police are making a lot of money selling the stickers without altering the USB port.
April 14, 2013: Chinese leaders told visiting American senior officials that the two countries will cooperate to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program. There was no mention of exactly what China would do, but the implication is that the Chinese would do more to get North Korea to behave and they would do some of it in cooperation with the United States. This could be a big help to American intelligence because North Korea is the strictest police states on the planet.
Establishing an espionage network there has always been extremely difficult and apparently the Americans are highly dependent on South Korea, and now China, for better intel on what is going on inside North Korea. China has always had the best espionage network because China came to the aid of North Korea in 1950, after the North Korean invasion of South Korea backfired. Ever since then China has been a major trading partner and some Chinese were able to move about more freely than any other foreigners (even the Russians, who kept North Korea solvent until 1991). North Korea will occasionally crack down on Chinese inside North Korea (especially those engaged in illegal stuff) but has not kept Chinese out of the country. The Chinese government regularly questions Chinese who have been in North Korea and has gathered an enormous quantity of data on what is going on. South Korea, by virtue of the steady stream of North Korea refugees (25,000 since 1953, most of them in the last decade) reaching South Korea and the ability to communicate with the several hundred thousand North Korean refugees living in northeast China, has also compiled a lot of useful stuff. The U.S. has access to the South Korean network, but China has not been so accommodating. If that has changed, the Americans are now in a better position to cope with whatever new insanity the North Korean might create.
One question U.S. intel experts would like to answer is the degree to which Russian (and Chinese) missile and nuclear weapons experts have, or still are, aiding North Korea. Both countries have contributed to North Korea weapons development programs. All Chinese assistance had to be approved by the Chinese government. Same deal with Russia, until the 1990s. At that point, with the Soviet Union gone, along with 80 percent of Soviet era defense spending, a lot of Russian weapons experts were unemployed and willing to sell state secrets if the payoff was large enough. As a result of this, North Korea is known to have received quite a bit of help in ballistic missile design (this could be seen in the details of North Korea missiles developed in the last decade). What help they got on nuclear weapons is less clear. The three North Korean weapons tests conducted so far indicate a crude design. This would appear to mean North Korea had to develop the design largely by themselves. A separate question is whether Russia supplied technical help on adapting a nuclear weapon to handle the physical and electronic stresses of being launched by a ballistic missile. This is no trivial task and problems with warhead design continue to plague the existing nuclear powers. It would appear that the North Koreans have not yet “weaponized” their nuclear device design to work in a missile (or even an aircraft bomb). But the possibility of illicitly obtained Russian tech is a possibility until evidence to the contrary is found. The same with technical assistance from Pakistan, which was helped by China to develop its nuclear warhead equipped missiles.
North Korea is threatening to fire some of its long range ballistic missiles. South Korea, Japan, and the United States all say they will attempt to shoot down any such missiles.
April 12, 2013: The North Korean government announced that government provided food rations would return to normal this September. Few North Koreans believed this. A growing number of North Koreans get their food from the legal (or quasi-legal) markets, where prices rise and fall according to supply and demand. The government rations are given out on holidays and in times of scarcity. But these rations have been cut steadily over the last two decades because of growing food shortages. And all through that period the government has promised that it would make it all better, real soon.
April 11, 2013: Kim Jong Un has now been the official leader of North Korea for one year, and what a year it has been. Early on Kim spoke of dealing with the hunger problem (just mentioning it was a big step forward) and the tense relations between the two Koreas. But the reality is that Kim’s rule has been harsher than his fathers (who died in December 2011). Kim Jong Un has also been harder on foreigners, including China. This appears to indicate an attempt to silence critics in the military by showing everyone that, while Kim Jong Un may look like a fat little rich kid, he is actually made of sterner stuff and very much the badass dictator. Then again, this may all be the work of his aunt and her devious husband. Both are recognized as advisors of the Boy General and often give orders in his name.
April 10, 2013: Chinese tour operators have been ordered (by the Chinese government) to halt, for the moment, sending groups of Chinese tourists into North Korea. The Chinese government denied that it had issued such an order, but that’s normal. There is apparently some fear that the North Korean government might whip up some anti-Chinese sentiment (historically, China has often had a hostile relationship with the Koreans). However, some cities were declared “safe” and tourism will continue. The tourism brings in badly needed foreign currency and provides good jobs for some North Koreans.
April 8, 2013: The Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea was ordered shut down, putting over 50,000 North Korean out of work. The complex was created in 2004 as a place for South Korean firms to establish factories, using North Korean workers. Workers make about $60 a month, which is higher than most other jobs available. People are willing to pay bribes of up to $200 to get jobs at Kaesong. Not just for the higher pay but for the ability to buy or steal products made there and sell them on the local black market. So far, the North Korean government has not made a serious effort to curb the corruption at Kaesong. Apparently too many people are making too much money there. It is assumed that the shutdown will be temporary, as the complex is too important as a source of foreign currency to eliminate completely.
April 5, 2013: North Korea warned foreign diplomats that the government could no longer guarantee their safety and that they, and other foreigners, should leave. The diplomats all stayed, as they, along with everyone else in North Korea, realizes that all these warlike pronouncements are more theater than threat.