Six weeks of aggressive threats to start a war have come to nothing for North Korea. None of this bluster has produced any needed aid (as in free food or fuel) or offers to reduce the sanctions. No one shows any sign of giving in to this latest barrage of threats. This is a major disappointment for the northern leadership. For over half a century you could always get something useful if you ranted and threatened long enough. The north cannot risk making good on these threats and starting an actual war, as they would lose big. North Korean military planners were taught the “correlation of forces” by their Russian mentors and have calculated the growing strength of the south and the decline of the north. All those smart bombs and combat-proven new tech the south and their allies have would make a mess of the north. But maybe another nuclear or long-range missile test will help.
In the last few days North Korean troops have been seen building fortifications near border crossings. This is unusual because for decades it was assumed any war between north and south would begin with a North Korean invasion of the south. The new fortifications indicate that the north is recognizing the power balance shift and that it is more likely South Korean troops will be moving north if it comes to war.
South Korea has offered to negotiate with North Korea over the recently closed (by North Korea) Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea. This put over 50,000 North Koreans out of work and is costing the South Korean companies millions of dollars. The South Korean government has said it will provide help with these losses and wants to see what the North Koreans have to say about putting 50,000 of their own people out of good jobs and making future investment from South Korea less likely because of this nonsense. South Korean who work at the Kaesong Industrial Complex have long been a good source of intel on the north and apparently these sources indicate that it’s not just unemployed workers in Kaesong who are unhappy with their government’s antics. By asking for talks the south is indicating it wants to make it easy for the north to back down and get the Kaesong Industrial Complex and its employees working again.
The out-of-work Kaesong employees say their complaints about their government are not unique to the well-off (relatively speaking) workers at the special economic zone, but are common throughout the north. People are tired of all the propaganda, which is another tool the government uses to get everyone to ignore all the hungry, ill-housed and underemployed people up north. Its bad enough northerners have to hear it all the time, but many are ordered out to perform in public demonstrations of “popular anger at the enemy”. This is annoying and time consuming. It used to be you got a little food for attending these “voluntary” exercises, but the food situation has gotten so bad that the government reserves have been depleted. Everyone was reminded of this during the recent evacuation exercises, when city dwellers moved to rural dispersal sites as they would in wartime to avoid bombing attacks on the cities. The evacuees found that there was no food available for them and as a result the evacuation exercise fell apart as people simply walked away to find food. Only the senior leadership, most of who live in the cities, always has enough food. In the capital (Pyongyang) the government gave most residents several days of food in early April (to celebrate the birthday of founder Kim Il Sung). A few other cities got such distributions but most of the population did not, which only increases the resentment against those pampered government lackeys in the cities (especially the capital). In most of the country, hunger, or the threat of it, is a constant worry. Many of the North Korean soldiers the propaganda declares are “ready for war” are actually, and quite visibly, out helping plant the new crops (as they do every year).
The last six weeks have made it clear to the North Korean leadership that they have lost control of information. News of how the outside world is reacting to all the threats, and how those threats look to the rest of the world, is quickly getting to most North Koreans. The secret police (who monitor public attitudes) are reporting that people have a low opinion of their government and the current threats of war have not changed that. The secret police also point out that a lot of North Korean propaganda, especially the stuff insisting that North Koreans have it better than people of other countries (like China, South Korea and Japan) is considered a bad joke by most North Koreans, and a growing number of them are openly mocking the mandatory lectures and demonstrations they must attend. This is ominous, the fact that the people are losing their fear of retaliation. This is what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 when all the communist governments there collapsed in a few months. North Korean leaders studied that event carefully and concluded that they had their people under control, that the people still feared their leaders. The decline in fear is scary news indeed because North Korea is basically a police state and without lots of fear that sort of government does not work.
The north is buzzing with talk of the April 14th collapse of a large mosaic wall honoring Kim Il Sung in Musan. It was quickly deduced that the mosaic came down because someone had sold off some of the construction materials and the wall was not as strong as it was supposed to be. When a strong enough wind came along, the wall came down. This is the first time a monument to the two previous rulers of North Korea (Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il) was subject to obvious corruption. There are 35,000 statues and monuments like this in North Korea and these representations of the two deceased rulers are considered sacred. It is a big deal that these monuments are now considered fair game by corrupt officials. For true-believers in the North Korean leadership this is a shocking event. For most North Koreans it is kind of expected. The old value system, inculcated by decades of relentless Kim-worshipping propaganda, is collapsing. The government will take action over this.
There was a similar collapse of a lesser monument (honoring a lesser hero) in 2005, apparently due to poor design, not corruption. Still, those responsible for that collapse were punished. That will happen this time as well and there will be an official story that does not mention corruption. Since Kim Jong Un came to power he has had over 400 monuments built to honor his father and grandfather. Most of these have been mosaics and there will be inspections to find out if others were built by corrupt officials and are in danger of collapse. Omens like this must be avoided at all costs.
The current crisis (not enough food, fuel or hard currency) has led North Korea to put more pressure on its diplomats to come up with scams to raise cash. North Korean diplomats in Pakistan have, for example, made quite a business selling liquor in a country where sale of alcoholic beverages is very restricted and highly taxed. The North Koreans import name brand stuff and bring it in via diplomatic pouch and sell it freely to anyone who will pay (a price lower than the official price). This is a highly profitable arrangement and the Pakistani government eventually found out. The North Korean diplomats deny everything and keep selling the booze.
The U.S. has told North Korea that it will only resume food aid if the north will allow American officials to monitor the distribution. Food aid was halted in 2009 when North Korea expelled these observers. North Korea had been increasingly selling food aid to raise cash for imports (of weapons and luxury goods for the leadership). The north cannot do this with observers present and refuses to back off on this policy.
April 24, 2013: South Korea and China have established a hot line to handle any crisis in North Korea that would require action by the two countries (war or collapse of the government up there). Despite the huge cost of unification to South Koreans (who have only become affluent in the last 30 years) the idea of uniting Korea is still popular in South Korea. China has reservations about this and the South Korean have been trying to work out an understanding to get China to approve unification.
Such a deal is not unprecedented. In the 1950s Austria ended its post-World War II occupation and partition (into allies and Soviet zones) by promising the Russians that it would remain neutral forever (or, as it turned out, until the Soviet Union disappeared) if Soviet troops left. A similar deal is apparently attractive to the Chinese, or at least they are willing to quietly talk about it. South Korea is a major trading partner and any deal that solved the North Korean mess and got U.S. troops out of Korea appeals to many Chinese.
April 23, 2013: North Korea demanded that it receive official recognition as a country equipped with nuclear weapons. The U.S., and most of the rest of the world, dismissed that claim out of hand. As far as anyone can tell North Korean nuclear weapons are crude and, for all practical purposes have not completed development into real weapons. At the same time North Korea has denounced a treaty it signed in 2005 where it agreed to halt nuclear weapons development in return for economic aid. The North Koreans apparently never had any intention of abiding by that deal and now say they will never give up their nukes.
April 21, 2013: North Korea has appealed to Mongolia for food aid. Even before DNA analysis became possible Koreans knew they had links to Mongols and Turks and were quite proud of. The Korean language is related to those of Central Asia (the Ural-Altaic family of languages) not the Han family (Chinese, Tibetan and many others in East Asia). Subsequent DNA studies have confirmed these ethnic links and North Korea is hoping for a handout from Mongolia (which North Korea has long had good relations with).
Iran confirmed that it is in negotiations to sell North Korea oil. This may be just to grab some media attention but the North Koreans may also be looking for some potential alternative source if their only current oil supplier (China) cuts them off or reduces shipments. The Chinese are not happy with North Korea’s self-destructive policies, especially their nuclear and ballistic missile programs. This oil import deal would never be allowed (by the West) to go forward because the North Koreans are broke and the one thing they do have to sell is a workable atomic bomb design. That could pay for a lot of oil, if Iran could deliver it.
April 19, 2013: The U.S. reminded everyone (especially North Korea) that support for its ally South Korea includes the use, if necessary, of nuclear weapons.
April 18, 2013: North Korea said that it will even start negotiations to defuse tensions in Korea until the world lifted all the sanctions imposed on them. The rest of the world told North Korea that the sanctions won’t be lifted until the north stops its nuclear weapons development program.
April 17, 2013: South Korea has ordered 36 American AH-64 helicopter gunships
April 16, 2013: North Korea threatened to retaliate militarily against South Korea if the South Korean government did not ban anti-North Korean demonstrations in the south. This threat led to more anti-North Korea demonstrations and no reaction from South Korean officials.