Most of those in North Korean labor camps were caught watching smuggled videos of South Korean movies and TV shows. Despite the harsh punishment for so many North Koreans, this has not reduced the number of people watching this forbidden video material. Many of those watching videos are the children of senior officials. Some of those are caught and sent to labor camps. In the past, this would disgrace the entire family and result in demotions or worse for the parents. That is no longer the case because the viewing of forbidden videos is so common and persistent despite efforts to catch and arrest those doing it. In August 2022 the government introduced a new, more severe, anti-video law that went into more detail about haw pervasive this crime had become and how damaging it was to the loyalty of North Korean citizens and damaging to their morale.
The 2022 law followed 2021 efforts to ensure even upper class North Koreans would be punished for these thought crimes. At the same time North Koreans were growing more outspoken with their criticism of the government and defying harsh new laws and continuing to obtain, view and distribute South Korean movies and TV videos. This was the beginning of large-scale sentences to labor camps. The growing number of arrests has the labor camps holding 20,000 more prisoners. The camps are more hellish than ever with less food and heat during the four months a year of cold weather. In the past this has meant a higher death rate among prisoners. The government wants to avoid that because so many of the new prisoners are children of the “cadres” (ruling class) families.
North Korea was founded in the late 1940s with the implementation of a caste system 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.
The children of the higher-class families can afford more food and luxuries like electronic devices to view forbidden content stored on 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 in North Korea is considered treason. The distribution groups will duplicate videos on USBs or MicroSDs and sell these for up to $12 each or an equivalent amount in Chinese or North Korean currency. While many of the distributors are crafty lower-class types, many of the buyers are children of the cadres. The police offer lenient punishment for the growing number of cadre kids they catch viewing forbidden videos if they will reveal who they got the forbidden material from. The distributors respond by developing more furtive operations. Some of the cadre kids have become duplicators and distributors and are easier to catch. Lower class distributors are often executed but so far, the cadre class distributors have been spared that, although longer sentences in labor camps can be a death sentence for a cadre kid not accustomed to surviving on little food and a hostile atmosphere. The government is very upset at the growing lawlessness and defiance by the children of cadre.
The second most common crime is the use of illegal drugs like methamphetamine (meth), ecstasy and marijuana. Meth is often prescribed for medical purposes and is easy to obtain illegally, especially in the capital.
While life goes on as usual in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, rapid decline is more obvious in the rest of the country. 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 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 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’s 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.
Over the last few years, shortages of food, fuel and electricity have been more common in areas outside the capital. Several years of crop failures and a lack of foreign aid have led to widespread food shortages for state employees, especially the families of officers. The central government has sought to deal with this by making the provincial governments responsible for supplying food to soldiers and officers (and their families) in areas where there were shortages. In 2022, responding to complaints of food shortages by troops guarding the border, the central government ordered provincial authorities to ensure that troops guarding the Chinese border in their province received adequate food. This included families of officers, who live with their husbands. Shifting food supply responsibilities to provincial authorities didn’t make it any easier to obtain the needed food. There are shortages throughout the country and no surpluses available. Someone will go hungry in these provinces to ensure the troops are fed. Reducing food supplies to officer’s families, especially along the border, merely encourages more officers to get involved in corruption, usually taking bribes from smugglers, so they can buy additional food locally. Corruption in the military has been increasing for years but leader Kim Jong Un believes that the execution of several ambitious generals in the past, and promoting younger officers to replace them, has made the senior military leadership loyal despite the growing number of disasters caused by Kim Jong Un.
The most recent unpopular move by Kim Jong Un is presenting his ten-year old daughter as his heir. Kim Jong Un married in 2009 and three children were born (2010, 2013 and 2017). The oldest is a boy, who is apparently not considered suitable as an heir. Instead, the middle child, a ten year old girl, is being prepared for the job. This alarmed many senior officials, but then so did the designation of Kim Yo Jong, his younger sister as a possible successor. Over the last decade she has been promoted frequently to more senior and responsible positions. In 2021 Kim Yo Jong was put in charge of diplomatic national security affairs and appointed to the State Affairs Commission, a group that includes her older brother and is often consulted by Kim Jong Un for advice on how to proceed with key decisions. These promotions were seen as confirmation that Kim Yo Jong was the chosen successor. Kim Yo Jong stepped up when her brother underwent heart surgery in early 2020 and was out of action for several months. Kim Yo Jong was decisive and suitably vicious in the Kim tradition. During that period, she received several promotions and was portrayed as a senior official who was making a lot of decisions. Now she has more promotions and a better relationship with China.
Kim Yo Jong is also more involved with negotiations regarding nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and economic sanctions. There is much more for Kim Yo Jong to do and more of those problems are showing up in the capital, which is no longer isolated from all the miseries common in the rest of the country. Kim Jong Un is still the supreme leader, even when he was incapacitated for several months during 2020. The only thing holding North Korea together is the dictatorial power of the Kim dynasty and, as long as Kim Jong Un lives, his sister can only borrow some of that power some of the time. Doing otherwise could be fatal for the younger sister. She has apparently assured everyone that she would be a loyal and able heir to a dynasty that is fading fast. Putting a ten year old child in competition with her aunt to be the next ruler in the Kim dynasty is bizarre even by North Korean standards. Kim Jong Un has been an unsuccessful ruler according to most North Koreans. Kim Jong Un has produced lots of ballistic missiles and a few nuclear weapons. Meanwhile the country goes hungry, and so do a growing number of soldiers. Even the capital is feeling the decline in resources, but much less so than the rest of the country.
March 20, 2023: Over the weekend, North Korea conducted a number of drills and missile launches that were described as practice for a nuclear counterattack against aggression by enemies including South Korea, Japan and the United States. China was not mentioned but was implied because China has cut aid to North Korea in response to mismanagement by Kim Jong Un.
March 15, 2023: North Korea carried out the third test launch (since 2022) of the new Hwasong-17 (or HS-17) ICBM. This missile can also be used as a SLV (satellite launch vehicle)’ North Korea is serious about putting satellites into orbit, but these will be military communications or surveillance models. North Korea has created a new bureaucracy for this and put one of its rocket scientists in charge. The HS-17 is an improved version of the Hwasong-15 that was first tested in 2017. The HS-17 is physically larger than HS-15 and both are similar to the American Cold War era Atlas, which was one of the last U.S. liquid-fueled ICBMs. Atlas was retired as an ICBM in 1965 and most of the missiles were converted to SLVs. North Korea said their new HS-17 could reach all of the United States and that is true if it has a guidance system capable of handling that. The HS-15 apparently did not have an adequate guidance system as well as a number of other problems that were fixed in the HS-17.
The HS-17 tests were also aimed at the newly elected South Korean president Yoon, who is expected to be more aggressive in opposing and actively disrupting the North Korea missile and nuclear programs. That means more pressure on China and more cooperation with traditional enemy Japan. Yoon was not impressed, nor were many North Koreans. Testing is expensive and North Korea cannot afford to carry out the tests as frequently as China, the United States or South Korea, which is now developing longer range missiles to deal with North Korea, or Chinese aggression. In response to this North Korea has changed its usual response to failures. There are no longer extensive investigations of the technical staff and dismissal of a few of them. Kim Jong Un realized that North Korea did not have an abundance of rocket scientists and engineers and halted the practice of criticizing the senior specialists and this time he praised them even if a test was a failure. There will still be an investigation but it will concentrate on manufacturing, which Russia had a lot of problems with despite its abundance of world-class rocket scientists. If manufacturing problems are because of design defects, the situation will be discussed with the well paid and treated experts who will be encouraged, not threatened, to make it work.
March 14, 2023: North Korea launched two more short-range ballistic missiles from its east coast. The day before two cruise missiles from a submarine. This is something new and North Korea does not have many subs equipped to do this. North Korea has launched about a dozen missiles so far in 2023. In 1995 they launched 95 missiles. In 2022 more North Koreans openly remarked that they would have more food if there were fewer missiles. Such “traitorous” remarks could bring quick punishment but didn’t because the chatter of people in the provinces matters little to those in the capital. No other country in the world launches so many missiles for “testing”. The real reason for so many launches is intimidation and, to a lesser extent, to launch older missiles before they deteriorate to the point where they can’t be used. South Korea and Japan have increased their defense spending and South Korea announced it will develop nuclear weapons to be used with their recently introduced cruise and ballistic missiles that can reach any target in North Korea. The North Korean intimidation effort has failed and led the intended victims to resist. This is a serious problem for North Korea, which has a much smaller economy than South Korea. To put that into perspective, the per-capita (national income per person) income in South Korea is more than twenty times what it is in North Korea.
March 13, 2023: For North Korea, the Ukraine War is a useful opportunity. Because Russia is trying to fight a war it can’t afford, some improvisations are required. Importing munitions from North Korea is only possible if Russia pays for it. This is being done on a barter basis because sanctions have blocked Russia’s access to its foreign hard currency assets. North Korea needs food and fuel. Russia has a 17-kilometer border with North Korea and there is a railroad connection. The munitions can be moved to Russia via the Trans-Siberian railroad, which food and fuel for North Korea is delivered by rail to avoid interference (interception) by warships of nations sanctioning Russia.
March 12, 2023: In North Korea, the secret police have developed a new way to make money. They have the names and locations of families of defectors and where the defectors ended up as well as how they are going financially. Nearly all of these North Korea expatriates regularly send money to their families via remittance brokers in China and North Korea. Receiving money from their “traitorous” expatriates is a crime in North Korea but for the secret police it is an opportunity because now more and more families reviving cash from kin in South Korea or the United States are losing that money to North Korean secret police.
March 8, 2023: In North Korea police have been ordered to arrest and punish those who engage in theft caused by lack of food and violence against the government for the shortages. This is a risky move.
March 4, 2023: North Korea is increasing the number of people selected to work in China and Russia. North Korea has long recruited people to work in Russia and China, where they are better fed and housed than in North Korea and paid well. The North Korean government keeps most of the wages but enough is passed on to worker’s families to make foreign work tolerable to families. Similar arrangements are made with Chinese firms. Currently, demand is higher because covid19 restrictions are easing in China and Russia needs cheap labor to work in Russian controlled Ukrainian territory.
March 1, 2023: In North Korea the winter training exercises were held despite the shortage of food and fuel for the troops. Commanders were ordered to reduce cold weather training for the most malnourished troops. Despite that there were more cases of frostbite and other cold-related illnesses during training. Food shortages in North Korea are not supposed to extend to army units but that happened anyway. This lowers troops morale and the ability of soldiers to operate out in the cold weather. Troops are not receiving enough fuel to heat their barracks and buildings used for classroom training. Efforts to get the troops more food included introduction of a rice tax, where all families donated some rice for the troops. Since most families have, or had or will have someone in the army, the rice donation program did bring in a useful amount of additional food for the troops.
February 27, 2023: While the economic sanctions on North Korea are largely enforced, China is prone to bend the rules, especially when Chinese interests are involved. One example of this is the revival of Chinese manufacturing (mainly of clothing and accessories) in North Korea plants. This employs North Koreans. China does not consider the export of the goods from these factories as sanctions evasion. That’s because the raw material (cloth, leather and so on) are trucked in from China and sent back to China as clothing. Since this is the same material recently brought in, sending it back to China is not violating sanctions.
February 19, 2023: North Korea backs Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. Other nations that support the Russian invasion have a lot in common with Russia as they tend to be aggressive and warlike dictatorships or those with ideological or economic reasons to back Russia. These supporters also include Belarus, Eritrea, India, Iran, Mali, Myanmar, Nicaragua, China and Syria. All these supporters agree that the West is a problem for them and Russia. Even before the 2022 invasion, Russia insisted that its operations in Ukraine were part of an effort to defend Russia from growing NATO efforts to destroy Russia.
February 15, 2023: The growing Chinese fleet and aggressive operations around Taiwan and in the South China Sea have the Americans worried about their ability to sustain a war with China in the West Pacific. For over a decade the U.S. Navy has been fighting a losing battle to obtain enough cargo and fuel ships to support a major military operation in the Pacific against China. During World War II the U.S. Pacific Fleet consisted of 250,000 personnel and 200 warships plus even more supply vessels keeping the combat ships in action. Currently the entire U.S. fleet consists of 340,000 personnel and 300 warships with over half in the Pacific. The Chinese fleet has 240 warships and 200,000 personnel, all of them in the Pacific. Only the presence of the South Korean and Japanese fleets, and naval bases American ships have access to, even things up. What is still missing is sufficient American supply and support ships to support major military operations in the Pacific against the Chinese. South Korea brings another asset to the coalition opposing China’ shipbuilding capabilities. The main rival for Chinese shipbuilders is South Korea. China only recently displaced South Korea as the largest shipbuilder in the world in all categories. There are several ways to measure shipbuilder output. South Korea was once the champion in most of them. Japan was once in first place but now must settle for third place. South Korea and China have been close competitors for first place since 2012 while Japan remains firmly in third place.