North Korea has been devoting more time, money and resources to finding and arresting those using foreign, usually Chinese, cell phones because another side effect of 18 months of economic lockdown is the growth of violent crime in urban areas, even Pyongyang. The government does not release crime statistics but if people continue to obtain and use foreign cell phones, or hacked North Korean phones, the news gets out inside North Korea and to the rest of the world. There has been a growing incidence of crime in general, especially robbery and burglary, often accompanied by violence if the theft is challenged. In some towns and rural areas there have been incidences of vigilante groups forming to protect themselves and neighbors. This is more common in areas where the police are often the criminals and too busy taking care of themselves to deal with robbery and burglary. The farmers, despite several years of poor harvests, have more incentive to guard their crops and harvested food from the growing number of thieves and the decline in government efforts to deal with the problem. This resistance now applies to marauding soldiers. For over a decade, civilians living near military bases suffered growing theft by soldiers from nearby bases. In some areas the “foraging” became so bad that civilians abandoned their farms and businesses for somewhere experiencing less of this theft. Since 2020 the government has been moving more soldiers to the Chinese border and was unable to supply these larger border forces with enough fuel, food and housing. Even though some of these troops were from elite infantry units, they began stealing from the locals. Despite this growing crime rate, the government pays the most attention to those who import and distribute videos of foreign, especially South Korean TV and movies. More of these ”thought criminals” are being caught and their severe punishments, often public execution or exile of their families to poor rural areas, are given a lot of publicity. It’s not just viewing this video that is a crime, singing K-Pop (South Korean pop music) in public or, even worse, emulating the dance moves that K-Pop groups use in videos is forbidden. There is a legal form of K-Pop in North Korea and that’s because Kim Jong Un is a big fan and allowed the formation of North Korean K-Pop groups. He claimed that K-Pop was a North Korean invention. North Korean K-Pop groups were good but were not free to create or perform any songs they wanted. Most North Korean K-Pop songs had a political theme and could not compete with South Korean K-Pop. A few of the North Korean K-Pop songs that were apolitical became hits in South Korea, where North Korean K-Pop groups were recognized for their talent but ideological lyrics were unpopular north and south. The current crackdown on South Korean culture specifically goes after the “decadent” K-Pop hits that are often sung by young North Koreans. This is not because they want to make a political statement, but because the southern stuff is better. This is something Kim Jong Un will not tolerate.
Another embarrassing trend is the number of soldiers who have died from covid19, rather than illnesses with similar symptoms. North Korea has little covid19 testing capability and the military has put any soldier with a high fever, shortness of breath and so on into the same “special isolation facilities” at military hospitals. Until recently nearly all those deaths in the isolation wards of military hospitals were not considered covid19 related. Then someone did an “excess deaths” analysis, comparing recent military deaths to the averages for past years. This is the simplest and most efficient way to determine the surplus deaths attributable to a current pandemic disease. Not only were there thousand of deaths that were caused by covid but a similar comparative study of soldiers visibly ill who survived was also much larger. Many of the troops and career officers had already figured this out because they remembered how many troops got sick or died in past years and what was happening now was unprecedented.
A Marshal You Can Trust
Kim Jong Un has quietly promoted vice marshal Pak Jong Chon to a senior civilian post in the government. Pak was demoted from senior marshal rank three months ago because of a scandal involving distribution of military food reserves that one of his deputies was directly responsible for. In East Asia it is customary for the superior of the guilty officer to also be punished. In this case he lost the senior marshal promotion he had received a year earlier as a bonus for continued good work. Pak did lose his job as Chief of Staff (commander of the military) but was quietly shifted to a more powerful civilian job.
Pak has been one of the younger fast-track military and government officials Kim has been seeking and promoting since he took power a decade ago. Pak was a very competent artillery officer who impressed Kim with his ability to explain the way artillery works, plus North Korea’s current and future capabilities in that area. Pak first did this before Kim Jong Un took power, when Kim was a university student and Pak an officer instructor for courses on artillery. When Kim assumed power in 2011 he remembered Pak.
Pak received his initial promotion of vice marshal for successfully developing new ballistic missiles. It was probably on the advice of Pak that Kim allowed the new cruise missile to be developed and successfully tested three weeks ago, along with the new railroad car launched missiles. Pak is now a very senior government official who no longer commands military forces. But he does know how things work, or don’t, in the military and that’s a skill Kim Jong Un values highly. When Kim Jong Un took over from his recently deceased father in 2001, Pak was one of the young officers Kim turned to for advice. Kim soon began removing elderly generals and replacing them with younger, more capable ones.
September 29, 2021: Apparently with the approval of China, Kim Jong Un promoted his younger (34-year-old) sister Kim Yo Jong, 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. This promotion is seen as confirmation that Kim Yo Jong is seen as the best successor to her brother. Kim Jong Un apparently has three children aged between 4 and 11. Because of that his able and trusted younger sister has been seen as a potential heir. 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.
In 2020 Kim Yo Jong received several promotions and is portrayed as a senior official who is making a lot of decisions. There is much 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 if 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.
North Korea also announced it was willing to revive the hotline between the two Koreas, which the north cut in early 2020. Two months ago South Korea revealed that it had been approached by North Korea officials about reviving the hotline. Various hotlines between the two Koreas have been around for fifty years but the north often shuts them down, or revives them as a negotiating tactic. Now North Korea wants to negotiate again and is bringing forth all it has to offer, which is less and less each year.
September 28, 2021: For the third time this month North Korea has tested a new missile, the Hwasong-8. This missile was specifically designed for nuclear warheads. That means the warhead can maneuver as it plunges at high speed towards the target and that makes it more difficult to intercept.
September 26, 2021: Britain released data on its investigation of fuel smuggling to North Korea by several foreign countries. This is nothing new but Britain obtained more information about how the foreign ships changed their identities to get past existing restrictions on smugglers.
September 25, 2021: North Korea offered to resume peace negotiations with South Korea, that would include officially ending the 1960-53 Korean War. North Korea said negotiations could start as soon as South Korea abandoned all the economic sanctions on North Korea. This approach has been tried many times in the past and always failed. North Korea gave no indication about how it would be different this time.
September 20, 2021: China has quietly introduced the use of mandatory permits for any legal exports to North Korea. The legal items are usually food, or medical supplies. Given the precarious financial situation in North Korea, the Chinese merchants demand as much as half the money in advance and the rest on delivery. Export laws mandate that Chinese exporters report what they sell to North Korea but many exporters have been slow in that reporting and the government made their point about mandatory reporting and permits when they blocked a shipment of 20,000 tons of rice from being transferred to the North Korea ship sent to carry the rice back to North Korea. China believed some exporters were allowing illegal items to be unofficially included in legal cargoes.
September 17, 2021: In North Korea the government has ordered provincial officials to implement stricter rules for providing families with young children (under five years old) with additional food, especially dairy products for the very young. The government wants more attention paid to the health and welfare of new mothers and their infants. The problem is not just a sharp decline in the birth rate over the last few years but more incidences of young children being abandoned and fewer couples planning to start families. Since about 2006 the North Korean annual birth rate has fallen below 2.1 ( children per woman, on average) and the decline visibly accelerated in the last year. Both Koreas are now faced with declining birth rates and the inability to reverse the problem. South Korea had this problem first, but for different reasons. In the north the birth rate fell below the replacement rate once before, in the 1990s when the end of Soviet subsidies after 1991 triggered years of unprecedented famine, starvation deaths and economic decline. The birth rate recovered in the late 1990s but that lasted for less than a decade. As a result Both Koreas now suffer shrinking populations because births are below replacement rate for over a decade. In the north the decline increased because of extreme poverty. The situation is much worse in South Korea where, by 2010, it had the lowest birth rate, 1.15, in the world and held that dubious achievement for two years in a row. This is because of growing affluence over the last half century. South Korea is now one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. At the current birth rate, the South Korean population is expected to stop growing in the 2020s, after reaching about 52 million, which is (about twice the population of the north. North Korea has not reduced the size of its military because of the shortage of new recruits. Instead, they have extended the time conscripts serve to as many as 12 years. This made military service even more unpopular. Morale and readiness have suffered.
September 15, 2021: North Korea tested two existing ballistic missiles but launched them from special railroad cars that elected the missile and fired the two missiles that travelled 800 kilometers before landing off the east coast.
South Korea tested a new ballistic missile today, one that was launched from the first of the one of their new 3,400-ton Dosan Anh Changho class submarine. The sub officially entered service a month ago and this missile test was planned some time ago. The Hyunmoo-2B ballistic missile has a range of 500 kilometers and is launched one of the six VLS tubes the new sub is equipped with.
September 12, 2021: North Korea successfully tested its first cruise missile, one with a range of 1,500 kilometers and the ability to hit targets in Japan. Cruise missiles are not sanctioned by the UN, while North Korean ballistic missiles are. South Korea and Japan have been spending a lot of money on ABM (anti-ballistic missile systems) but little on cruise missile detection. South Korea has developed a growing number of detection systems for small UAVs that North Korea has been sending south for reconnaissance. As Iran has demonstrated, such UAVs equipped with explosives and sent on one-way pre-programmed missions can be very effective. North Korea mentioned Japan as a target because cruise missiles coming in low over water are the most difficult to detect. The North Korean cruise missiles look remarkably like the American Tomahawk, the first modern cruise missile that entered service in 1983 and has been continually updated. About 8,000 Tomahawks have been produced since introduction. Although Tomahawk is a simple design using widely available components, many nations have paid for the wreckage of Tomahawks to obtain details of its design, especially the guidance system, so they can produce clones. A new generation of cruise missiles are in the works that use a stealthier shape and electronic countermeasures to defeat detection. These double the $1.5 million cost of current designs. North Korea can build Tomahawk clones for less than $500,000 each. Meanwhile, neighboring South Korea is way ahead in cruise missile technology as well as defenses against them.
In Pyongyang, North Korea held a military parade to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the founding of North Korea. The parade began just after midnight and there were hundreds of thousands present to view the event. Nearly all of them, as well as the marchers, were wearing face masks and some of the contingents in the parade were wearing containment suits as well as face gear resembling gas masks. Thousands of marchers and observers were not masked, including Kim Jong Un. Since all the participants were from military organizations the government had issued strict rules for those attending and any suspected of having covid19 were not to participate. Staff at the Civil Defense University were not strict enough and several students who appeared to have colds were allowed to attend the parade. Several days later their “colds” turned out to be covid19. Those students were taken to a special hospital by ambulance crews dressed in containment suits and everyone at the Civil Defense University were quarantined at the campus for 15 days. Kim Jong Un and dozens of other senior officials observed the parade but their health was apparently not an issue for the medical personnel testing those who were near the parade participants who got ill. All those in the parade marched past Kim and his associates. This revived the rumor that Kim and senior members of the government had received covid19 vaccines, even though the government denies this.
One change that is not a rumor and is popular is the significant weight loss Kim Jong Un has undergone since late 2020. Back then Kim was estimated to weigh nearly 140 kg (320 pounds), which is way too much for a guy who is 172 cm (68 inches) tall. Carrying all that weight was apparently the main cause of the health problems Kim has been having over the last few years. This culminated in heart surgery in early 2020, which involved a team of Chinese heart specialists coming to North Korea to assist. The Chinese doctors were helpful and apparently blunt in telling Kim that he had to lose a lot of weight or die young. That was scary because covid19 was newly arrived and a disproportionate percentage of the dead were people in poor health. Kim Jong Un qualified. Kim finally acted to change his lifestyle. He was making very few public appearances because of the covid19 lockdown. A year later Kim was visibly thinner and healthier.
All that weight was also a political liability because nearly all North Koreans were much thinner. His weight loss efforts first became visible three months ago and today Kim was visibly slimmer and healthier than three months ago. This change is popular in North Korea and that is apparently Kim to keep losing weight because he is still overweight and has to lose as much more as he has already lost to no longer justify the fat jokes North Koreas have been sharing privately for years.
September 8, 2021: In mid-2021 South Korea revealed its 2022 military budget and one of the more interesting items was $2.56 billion for a South Korean C-RAM (Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar) system suitable for the very specific needs of South Korea. Obtaining such a system had been discussed in detail for several years and by 2020 there seemed to be a consensus that a C-RAM was essential to defend key civilian and military targets within long range artillery and rocket range of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) separating North and South Korea. South Korea had examined other C-RAM systems already in use by the United States. Germany and Israel. None met South Korea’s unique needs. Developing, testing, manufacturing, and deploying this South Korean C-RAM system is expected to take until 2035.
The South Korea capital, Seoul is only 40 kilometers from the DMZ and the Seoul metropolitan area is where much of South Korean economic growth took place in the last fifty years. South Korea is now among the top ten economies on the planet and the one with the second smallest (after Canada) population. The Seoul region contains half of South Korea’s population and about 40 percent of the economy (GDP). North Korea has, since the 1950s, stationed hundreds of long-range artillery and rockets that could reach Seoul. The quantity and quality of those weapons increased as Seoul became a more valuable target.