Archive for NK Military

Latest defection of armed North Korean soldiers points to erosion in morale and discipline.

In the eleven years I’ve been writing OFK, I’ve observed a cycle in North Korea’s border security.

- In Phase One, the lure of capitalism coopts and corrupts the men (and they are mostly men) who guard the borders. Most, but not all, of the corruption is financial, but it is also chemical and sensual.

- In Phase Two, the corrupt practices gain acceptance. The norms of accepted illegality change the de facto rules of border security, the rules of the markets they supply, and the rules of the society supplied by the markets.

- In Phase Three, Pyongyang reacts to reverse Phases One and Two. It transfers the guard force to other locations en masse and replaces it with units that report to a different command structure.

- In Phase Four, a population without sources of food, money, and consumer goods it had come to depend on perseveres until it can’t. The hungriest, the bravest, the greediest, and the most desperate slowly shift the paradigm back to Phase One again.

I saw this pattern repeat itself several times during the life of this site, until Kim Jong Un came to power, and when Phase Three came on with a brutality and efficiency unlike anything in North Korea’s recent history. But the greater the repression, the greater the desperation to break its hold. It does not surprise me, then, that we’re starting to see unprecedented things like border guards deprived of bribes turning to violent cross-border banditry instead.

Last year, the Chinese media reported that a modest wave of cross-border crime by armed North Korean soldiers had driven residents out of border villages, and caused the Chinese government to mobilize a civilian militia force. North Korea fired a general who was deemed responsible for the lawlessness. But the indiscipline and lawlessness continues:

Two armed North Korean border patrol guards from Sinuiju in North Hamkyung Province reportedly escaped the country and crossed over into China’s Dandong on Tuesday, Daily NK has learned. Of the two, one was captured on Thursday by Chinese public security officials, while the other is still on the run, according to local sources.

Upon discovery of the incident, North Korea’s military authorities immediately alerted Chinese authorities in the border city of Dandong, leading to a large-scale manhunt on the same day and the plastering of posters featuring the soldiers’ images around heavily trafficked areas of Dandong. Going AWOL, particularly while armed, is considered an offense of great magnitude in both North Korea and China. 

Three days into the search, one of the soldiers was arrested in a small rural village near Dandong. “A North Korean solider carrying a gun was apprehended in quiet village near Dandong Singu District,” a source based in the border city told Daily NK. “At the time, there were large numbers of public security officials and soldiers on the streets.”

He added, “The solider held a woman hostage shortly before he was captured, creating a standoff with security officials. But in the end he was subdued.” [Daily NK]

The Daily NK even has a photo of a wanted poster for one of the soldiers. Later, it obtained this picture one of the soldiers’ arrests. If you believe in prayer, pray that this young man’s short, unhappy life ends as painlessly as possible.

soldier

[Daily NK]

One day, these guys will learn to leave the civilians alone and to shoot back at the ChiCom police instead. It’s not as if they have anything to lose by doing so.

Has discipline collapsed so badly in the North Korean military? After all, these are, in a very important way, front-line troops. If sealing the border with China is important to His Porcine Majesty as I think it is, these should be North Korea’s most disciplined and best-paid soldiers.

“Rigorous verification of loyalty to the state is carried out when selecting border patrol guards, so to have lower-ranking soldiers go AWOL with their weapons signals just how poor their discipline has become,” an ex-military North Korean defector told Daily NK. “It likely means rations were not being handed out properly or that they defected due to conflicts with senior soldiers.”

The source, however, explained that many other factors may have contributed to their decision to escape. “The younger generation has been exposed a lot to [illegal according to North Korean penal code] South Korean or foreign movies, so there is a strong desire to leave the country.

For more on the influence of South Korean culture in North Korean barracks, see this report.

In a lot of cases, they end up traversing the border not to defect, but rather from an inability to subdue the desire to cross over and set foot in Chinese territory,” he said, pointing out that the incident reveals further cracks in North Korea’s perennial attempts to promulgate its “superior system” to residents, who are increasingly unwilling to believe in it. [Daily NK]

There have also been desertion and fragging incidents along the DMZ, although not nearly as many. When one understands that North Korean officers sometimes rape their own men, that kind of behavior becomes understandable.

This sort of conduct, by the way, isn’t completely unprecedented. There was another wave of border guard defections in 2007.

North Korea’s lawless, undisciplined troops certainly don’t see Chinese civilians as the easiest targets, just the fattest ones. North Korean troops also prey on North Korean civilians.

A recent incident has acutely highlighted the high-handed behavior, namely violence under the pretense of inspections, of officials with the Chosun People’s Army [KPA] Defense Security Command [DSC]–an unceasing source of rage among residents.

“Six armed soldiers with the DSC barged into the train (bound for Musan from Pyongyang) in Musan Station, North Hamkyung Province and suddenly began conducting luggage checks,” a source in the same province reported to Daily NK on March 24th. “They unleashed a torrent of violence, hitting civilians and ordinary soldiers in the process. “

He added, “If people were deemed uncooperative during the search, these officials would scream, ‘Why are you so slow? What’s your problem?’ while they kicked and hit these hapless people. A man in his 60s or 70s valiantly protested by saying, ‘You’re a military inspector! You should be handling only soldiers–why are you examining ordinary residents too?’ The guards responded by punching that poor old man so hard that he vomited blood.” [Daily NK]

But at least the story has a happy ending:

This behavior does not go entirely unpunished, however, at least for some offenders; resident-delivered justice often prevails–when officers previously affiliated with the DSC are discharged or enter military academies, they are frequently ostracized and/or undergo severe beatings at the hands of their former victims.

He asserted the recent train incident to be no exception, with those affected by the incident already saying, “Just wait until those DSC soldiers are discharged…we’ll break their legs as soon as they’re out of their uniforms.”

There comes a point when violent resistance to the state becomes morally and legally defensible, when the state leaves no non-violent means to survive, to better one’s life, or to demand change. When the legitimate government of your country and the United Nations behave like passive bystanders. When all non-violent options for a human being to claim the rights that belong to all human beings have been exhausted.

~   ~   ~

Update: And on a related note, North Korean parents are now bribing recruiters to get their kids assigned to units where they won’t starve to death:

With the March military draft season in full motion, mobilization officials in North Korea are said to be receiving bribes from conscripts in exchange for favorable postings, Daily NK has learned.

“When conscription begins, the mobilization units naturally start digging for bribes. The entire process is driven by it,” a source in Gangwon Province told Daily NK on Wednesday. “Party cadres receive bribes from the parents of draftees and then assign them to areas like the Pyongyang guard service, the general rear service department, military police, and border areas, where rations are regular and working conditions are relatively superior.” [Daily NK]

You’ll never guess which currency the recruiters prefer.

Meth prices inching up in North Korea

Rimjin-gang updates us on the meth trade in North Hamgyeong, in the extreme northeast of North Korea:

I would say that the buying and selling of these substances are far more active than ever before. The price for these products is increasing. A year ago it was 100 Chinese RMB (around 16 US dollars) for 1 gram. Since the beginning of this year it has increased to 100 RMB for 0.8 gram. A small sack of product, made for only 1 to 2 uses, is sold at 30,000 NK won (around 4 US dollars). [Rimjin-gang]

I wonder if this is tied to a shortage of precursor chemicals as a result of the border crackdown. Otherwise, I’d have suspected that the loss of access to Chinese markets would have driven the price down, not up.

The source also reports that “many” cops and soldiers use meth, too:

Partner: Yes. There are many. Sometimes they go and buy eoleum by themselves. If they don’t have money with them, they’ve been known to pawn something like a bicycle. Since those who carry out the crackdowns are involved in eoleum trafficking and some of them are also users, the authorities are not able to enforce controls.

Odd. I used to prosecute guys for using meth in the American Army, and I know how quickly this stuff can spread through a unit and wreck its efficiency. For the first few months, it actually makes people better at their jobs. Later, it causes them to miss formation, sleep on the job, and finally, it turns them psychotic.

It has occurred to me that a soldier with a meth problem and no more pay to spend would trade just about anything–including an RPG-7–for an eight ball.

Look for a Part 2 to Rimjin-gang’s report in the coming days.

N. Korea Perestroika watch: crackdown forces border guards to become robbers

Last week, China filed an official protest with North Korea over the December killing of four Chinese civilians by a rogue North Korean border guard who had turned to robbery. A Bloomberg reporter researches this further, in search of a pattern, and finds one:

A spate of murders by North Koreans inside China’s border is prompting some residents to abandon their homes, testing China’s ability to manage both the 1400-kilometre shared frontier and its relationship with the reclusive nation.

The violence reflects a growing desperation among soldiers, including border guards, since Kim Jong-un took over as supreme leader in Pyongyang three years ago. As well as seeking food, they are entering China to steal money.

“Bribes were one of the key sources of income for these guards to survive, but after Kim Jong-un came to power and tightened controls, it became difficult for them to take bribes, thus the criminal deviations,” said Kang Dong Wan, a professor of international relations at Busan’s Dong-a University in South Korea. [Bloomberg]

The reporter interviews “a senior local official,” who asked not to be identified, and who says that “[a]round 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years.” Before the December incident, in September, another North Korean soldier murdered three members of another family over 500 yuan, just under $100. The soldier was later caught.

The crime wave has caused some residents to leave the village. The official says that in the winter, when the Tumen River freezes over, “it is common for soldiers to enter the village to demand food.”

“Barbed wires separating China and North Korea are as good as non-existent, with some parts of the border river being so shallow that you only risk getting yourself wet from the knee down when you wade across it,” Dr Kang said. “The geographic extensiveness of the border also makes it very difficult to maintain a complete watch.” [….]

“Military units in fringe areas or with less influence also get less food,” Mr Kwon said. “This will get worse. It is estimated about 2 million North Koreans are still unable to feed themselves properly even though the days of them starving to death are over.”

Reaching back into the vast OFK archives, there is a long history of known incidents of North Korean border guards and soldiers either getting involved in smuggling, defecting, or even fragging their officers. For example, in 2010, I wrote this:

Border guards were no exception.  As cross-border trade became more lucrative, so did the acceptance of bribes to overlook it.  The corruption of the border guards became so brazen that they have been photographed while smuggling in broad daylight.  Even field-grade officers, and most strikingly, members of North Korea’s intelligence services, went into the smuggling business. [….]

In October 2012, a soldier fragged two officers and fled across the DMZ, to South Korea.

May of 2012, the Daily NK reported that two North Korean border guards shot roughly half a dozen of their colleagues, crossed the border, and went up to the hills to hide. The Chinese caught them and repatriated them back to North Korea.

In February 2007, a group of twenty North Korean border guards defected. Asahi TV later interviewed two of them.

Historically, when disciplinary infractions have embarrassed the regime, it has carried out mass transfers of the force, sometimes swapping border guard for regular army units, or flooding the zone with officers of the Ministry of Public Security or State Security Department.

The regime knows too well that banditry can beget mutiny.

Cougar Town, North Korea

Twenty years ago in North Korea’s outer provinces, heavy industry seized up. In short order, so did most of the beneficial functions of government, including the food distribution system. The state continued to do other things, of course, most of them mean or silly. In former industrial regions, it still enforced the primacy of men as breadwinners by forcing them to report each day to idled factories that couldn’t pay their wages. A consequence of this was that market-savvy wives supplanted their husbands as providers. And in the areas near North Korea’s northern border, there have been other consequences.

Because North Korea has no Third Amendment, local families are expected to house border guards in their homes. Often, the guards’ hostesses live (and even prosper) by dealing in wares smuggled from across the border. For the guards, that’s not a flaw; it’s a feature.

After being assigned to his border post, one of the first things that a soldier needs to do is find a host house. North Korean border guards may wield the authority to guard the border and crackdown on smugglers; but if they want to make money, they must have access to a host house that is located not too far from his checkpoint and whose owner specializes in smuggling.

“People who work as smugglers in border towns are generally from the younger generation. Bringing in smuggled goods and sending them to China is easier said than done. You have to be meticulous with sums and be quick and crafty, to avoid being caught in surveillance operations set up by State Security and People’s Security agents. It is not a job for older people,” said Ms. Yoon Seong-hee, who is from Hyesan in North Korea and settled in the South in May 2013. [New Focus International]

Because North Korea also has no Fourth Amendment, the state must have expected these young guards to police their host families. But some of these guards share feelings with their hostesses that they do not share with the state: loneliness, fear, greed, trust, and desire. That has incubated something extraordinary—symbiotic polyandry:

“Hosts, smugglers and border guards become like a family. Smugglers must connect with the locality’s border guards in order to send and receive goods over the border. They come to be in frequent contact, and become familiar with each other to the extent that border guards take naps in their smuggling host houses,” explained Ms. Yoon.

“Since these kinds of co-existence arrangements are prevalent, relationships between the border guards and women of their host houses sometimes lead to affairs. There have even been incidents of men launching official complaints to the relevant brigade or party cadres, but the tendency is to compromise on the matter quietly, for the sake of the children,” she continued.

“Border guards prefer married women for several reasons. When the women are more mature, they take better care of soldiers, in the manner they do with younger siblings. And the closer the relationship between the two, the more reliably the woman can be trusted to manage their money matters. Regardless of how much money border guards can make, if they meet a bad host, they can be easily defrauded,” said Ms. Yoon.

New Focus offers no estimate of the incidence of these alternative lifestyles, but reports that they can outlast the guards’ enlistments. The young men, once emancipated, become the kept men of their sugar mamas, and de facto family members. (Imagine the awkwardness of the conversations over dinner.) In a country without a G.I. Bill, these relationships can earn them enough cash to bribe their way into a university, or even party membership. For the women, their boy-toys bring give them affection, wealth, and even status:

According to Ms. Kim Hyun-kyung, a North Korean exile from Musan, “In the past, if there was an affair between an occupant of a host house and a border guard, people would point fingers and the woman could not go out with her head up high. However, things are very different now.”

“These days, a lot of soldiers posted to border guard units do not go back to their hometown upon being discharged. They may integrate into a family with married women whom they met during their border service, continue to make money through border exchanges, and secure entry to a local university with their earnings. This sort of thing would have been considered beyond the pale in the past. But nowadays, people may still criticize such people behind their back, but women who have younger men around in such a manner are actually considered to be capable and resourceful.”

“Before I fled, I knew several households in my own area where married women lived with border guards. Whatever the morality, those families make money, so they can live without causing much fuss. Even when scandalous rumours turn the town upside down initially, if they continue to live well, the criticisms soon disappear. But the older people say that the world is becoming more rotten and would still click their tongues in disapproval,” said Ms. Kim.

Someone could make a fine screenplay from this, if he could abstain from writing “turgid,” “supple,” or “quivered,” or allowing it to be produced in Japan. It has all the elements of a best-seller: sex (and it has been proven that this is the only element any book really needs), adultery, jealousy, love, crime, punishment, intrigue, “exotic” cultures (that word), and the subversion of the world’s most inscrutable (that word) society by history’s most irresistible forces. Not to mention, so much potential for violence.

Bruce Bechtol and Gordon Chang on the John Batchelor Show

The North Korea part begins around the one-minute mark. Chang and Bechtol think North Korea is unstable, but they may know something I don’t. I agree that the turnover seems to have been high lately—and some of that can be sourced to North Korean sources, for whatever that’s worth—but I just don’t have confidence that we really know the facts. If it is true, however, turnover sounds more like a sign of instability than a sign of consolidation.

There’s also some good discussion about North Korea’s growing military threat.

S. Korea: No signs of tunnels under Seoul

Well, I assume that if the ROK Army saw any such signs, it would have followed them to the tunnels, right? (Actually, I’ve heard that it’s not so easy in practice.) Its reasons don’t quite persuade me, but a geologist’s opinion might.

I want to know who sold it to them

North Korea has a new submarine that, according to Joseph Bermudez, “will have greater range, patrol time and weapons capability than the existing KPN fleet of coastal submarines.” Please don’t try to tell me they built this thing from scratch. Someone broke U.N. sanctions to sell it to them.

Does North Korea have tunnels under Seoul?

Gen. Hahn Sung-Chu never believed North Korea could dig a tunnel that reached Seoul — until now.

Standing inside a basement of an apartment block in the heart of the capital, the former two-star general in the South Korean military says, “This is a kind of invasion, North Korean soldiers working underneath us.”

Hahn says residents had complained of underground vibrations, but the subway does not run beneath them. [CNN]

I’d be much more surprised if the North Koreans didn’t have tunnels under Seoul. Nor is this the most outlandish claim I’ve heard about the extent of those tunnels.

The remains of another North Korea UAV have been found near Baekryeong Island …

in the Yellow Sea, but it’s not clear from Yonhap’s report when the military thinks it crashed. This is the first report of North Korean UAV found in the South since April, when others were found in Paju and (again) Baekryeong.

Malnutrition and disillusionment take their toll on the North Korean military.

Rimjin-gang reports that the NKPA is finding that after a full generation of hunger and depressed birth rates, there are fewer young North Korean men who meet its physical standards, and many of those who do dodge the draft. I’d assume that draft-dodging in North Korea requires one to have the financial means to pay significant bribes, and if the possession of such financial means is still largely a function of songbun (hereditary political caste), then the disillusionment has entered the middle and upper-middle castes, too.

For those seeking more background on hunger in the North Korean military, see the links at the end of Rimjin-gang’s article.

Is N. Korea building a missile submarine?

”A missile launch tube on a North Korean submarine was observed recently by U.S. intelligence agencies and is raising new concerns about the missile and nuclear threat from the communist regime in Pyongyang, according to two defense officials familiar with reports of the development.” [Free Beacon]

That would complicate the interception of North Korean missiles immensely.

South Korea’s missile problem, and ours

For the last year, the South Korean government has been saying that it considers a North Korean attack a very real risk, and it has also said that if attacked, its retaliation will be swift and severe. Its President, Park Geun-Hye, recently expressed concern about a North Korean “misjudgment,” and touted the U.S.-ROK military alliance as the best deterrent against that. As recently as this week, she has been warning her army of the dangers of “complacency.

I don’t have access to the intelligence that President Park has, so I have no basis to either affirm or question her premise. Part of this is probably deterrent bluster, but I doubt Park would bluster without some basis. I’ve always thought President Park was a smart and shrewd politician. In South Korea, appeasement is popular enough that its name in the political lexicon predates even the Sunshine Policy — it’s known as the “Northern Wind.” Appeasement is not as popular as it was a decade ago, but it’s popular enough that I doubt that a politician as shrewd as Park would fabricate a threat that wouldn’t serve her political interests. (I’m sure others will disagree; so be it).

Today, I fear that the risk of a miscalculation that leads to war is greater than most North Korea watchers appreciate. Last month, Park told her top military commanders to return fire if attacked, without even waiting for her permission. What Park said next was not only slightly terrifying, it was also a perfect response to Secretary Kerry’s ill-advised comments about North Korea being “quiet,” especially because her comments preceded Kerry’s:

“There are also large concerns in the international community about (the North’s) preparations for a fourth nuclear test,” she said during the luncheon at the presidential office. “The gravity of the situation does not allow for the least bit of carelessness in maintaining our defense posture.” [….]

“I have complete faith in the judgment of our military,” Park said. “If there is any provocation, I expect all of you to respond strongly in the initial stages and punish (the North).” [Yonhap]

One cause of the recent rise in tensions is North Korea’s recent surge of tests of SCUDs, FROGs, and Nodongs — which we’ve known about for years — and of volleys of larger multiple-launch artillery rockets, which are a newer (and arguably, greater) threat. Thanks to The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale and other sources, we can identify some of these as 300-millimeter rockets of a new (to North Korea) type based either on a Russian design that can (in its native form) carry thermobaric weapons, or a Chinese or Pakistani variant that can probably carry chemical warheads. These weapons extend the range of North Korea’s artillery to cover all of Seoul, and most likely, Osan Air Base and the large Army post at Camp Humphreys, too.


[Indian Army 300-millimeter Smerch multiple-launch rockets.]

Over the weekend, during the “so-called” Pope’s visit, North Korea fired five new missiles that, Read more

I’m sure the “so-called pope” meant no offense, but if KCNA hadn’t norksplained it for me …

I would not have seen it from this perspective: “We would like to ask the pope why he set about his south Korean trip the day when we are making latest tactical rocket test-fire according to our regular plan though there are a lot of days in the year.”

Of course, given His Porcine Majesty’s crowded launch schedule and the absence of forewarning, it’s not exactly easy for His Holiness to squeeze in a visit to Korea in between. Sounds like the rockets were more of that 300-millimeter type.

Insiders debate North Korea’s EMP capability

The simplest electro-magnetic pulse or EMP weapons are, put simply, nuclear weapons detonated at high altitude. A high-altitude nuclear blast would overload and destroy electrical circuits and infrastructure, and create blackouts over wide areas for extended periods of time. Imagine your life without the internet, telephone, electricity, or cars — in short, being part of a 21st Century population trying to sustain itself with Colonial Williamsburg technology — and you get the idea. Without the means to recover from that sort of attack quickly, a modern society can’t survive for long.

The Heritage Foundation has published this background paper on the EMP threat, which itself links to this study commissioned by Congress, which examines the threat in more detail. Although I’ve read some of the predictions about the potential consequences of an EMP strike that sound exaggerated, I do think EMP is a danger we should take seriously with respect to our defenses, and also, our capacity to recover our infrastructure after an EMP attack.

Last month, former CIA Director James Woolsey made some members of the House Armed Services Committee nervous when he warned, “There is now an increasing likelihood that rogue nations such as North Korea … will soon match Russia and China in that they will have the primary ingredients for an EMP attack.”

For South Korea, the EMP threat could be particularly dire. The ROK has one of the world’s highest population densities, and its defense is as dependent on technology as the rest of its society. I’m not surprised, then, that the South Korean military is denying that North Korea has EMP weapons … at least for now.

Meanwhile, another writer suggests that our own EMP weapons could help restore our failing military deterrence of North Korea.

One way to threaten preemption even without missiles is to further develop a non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon that could neutralize missiles on the launcher.  Because North Korea will soon develop road-mobile missiles capable of firing nuclear weapons, the further development of non-nuclear EMP systems capable of taking out, say, a 50-square-kilometer joint fire area, would also shift the cost-benefit calculus against North Korea. [Patrick Cronin, The Diplomat]

There is very little (but some) publicly available information about non-nuclear EMP weapons. According to Global Security, the U.S. military may even have used them against the Iraqi military in 1991.

The use of non-nuclear EMP doesn’t raise the same concerns about nuclear escalation and clouds of radionuclides drifting over, say, China. On the other hand, South Korea is almost certainly far more dependent on technology, and thus far more vulnerable to EMP warfare, than the North. The area south of the DMZ is heavily populated, whereas the area to the North is thinly populated and technologically backward. Whether a first use of EMP is really a good idea depends on unknowable facts, such as the imminence and scale of the threat we’d be preempting, the capability of the weapons, and the likelihood that North Korea could respond in kind.

For a more scaleable form of deterrence, I’m much more comfortable with this idea, myself.

While North and South Korea agreed some years ago to forego psychological warfare against each other, the North is a flagrant purveyor of vitriol and falsehood.  Surely the alliance can better saturate the North with uncomfortable facts—from pictures of Kim Jong-Un’s luxury houses side by side with North Korean gulags, to video lectures by North Korean refugees who have managed to escape the world’s most oppressive regime.

In fact, I don’t see any good arguments against doing these things in response to North Korea’s tests of SCUD, 300-millimeter rockets, or ICBM engines. If one of our goals is to slow the rate of North Korea’s progress toward acquiring an effective nuclear arsenal, wouldn’t it make sense to convince Kim Jong Un that that progress also carries risks, and that time isn’t on his side?

Test something louder, Dear Leader. John Kerry still can’t hear you.

With the world erupting in the greatest cascade of escalating conflicts since 1975 and President Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy at negative 21.2% — 11% lower than his overall (dis)approval rating — John Kerry eked out some time over the weekend to tempt fate with a dubious boast:

I just came back from China, where we are engaged with the Chinese in dealing with North Korea. And you will notice, since the visit last year, North Korea has been quieter. We haven’t done what we want to do yet with respect to the de-nuclearization. But we are working on that and moving forward. [John Kerry, Meet the Press, July 20, 2014]

If you’re in Seoul or certain parts of Washington, that clapping sound isn’t applause; it’s the smack of palms against foreheads. Kerry’s observation rubs a lamp that wiser men do not touch for fear of the genies they would rather not summon. One may as well compliment a politician’s moderate views during primary season, or announce one’s arrival in the cellblock by telling the gang leader that he seems a decent enough fellow. As if on cue, yesterday, North Korea threatened South Korea and the United States with “practical retaliatory actions of justice.”

As South Koreans are keenly aware, North Korea has not been quiet. Under the direct supervision of His Porcine Majesty, it has been testing SCUDs in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, along with massive barrages of artillery rockets. The U.S. and U.N. responses to this have been negligible.

At best, Kerry’s comment suggests poor coordination with one of our most important allies that still hasn’t been attacked this year. At worst, it suggests dangerously wishful and complacent thinking. It clearly means that Kerry neither knows nor cares much about North Korea. Such revelations cause unease among our allies, which is why the State Department had to “clarify” Kerry’s remarks yesterday:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is clearly concerned about North Korea’s provocative actions and did not mean to downplay the seriousness of the issue when he said Pyongyang is “quieter” than before, a government official said Monday.

“The secretary and we all have been very clear in condemning North Korea’s aggressive actions when they occur. We’ve talked recently about the ballistic missiles and how those were in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a regular press briefing.

“So I think the secretary has been very clear about our concern with North Korea’s activity,” she said in response to a question whether Kerry’s statement is a correct assessment of the situation. “He wasn’t trying to convey something different than we’ve conveyed in the past.” [Yonhap]

Concern, however, is no substitute for a coherence in matters of policy. Under Kerry’s tenure, the Obama Administration has shown a lack of seriousness about enforcing existing U.N. Security Council sanctions, even after North Korea was caught in flagrante delicto. It has imposed targeted financial sanctions on Zimbabwe, Russia, and Belarus — and grudgingly enforced tough financial sanctions against Iran — while its tepid trade sanctions against North Korea are stuck in the 1970s. Treasury has sanctioned and blocked the assets of the top leaders of these nations, but none of the top leaders of North Korea.

Our government has designated Burma and Iran to be primary money laundering concerns, a potentially devastating measure that is the financial industry’s equivalent of a sex offender registration, isolating them from a community where reputation means everything. It has made no such designation with respect to North Korea, the world’s most prolific state sponsor of money laundering, counterfeiting, drug dealing, and illegal proliferation.

Most unforgivably, it has offered no policy response whatsoever to a U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s finding that Kim Jong Un’s regime is committing crimes against humanity. Kerry is as deaf to the cries of the North Korean people as he is to roar of Kim Jong Un’s rockets. That is why North Korea continues to defy the Commission of Inquiry and all those who support its recommendations.

It’s as if this administration has no North Korea policy at all.

Meanwhile, as gravity of the threat from North Korea builds, President Park is so convinced that a North Korean provocation is imminent that she has directed her military commanders to return fire immediately if fired on by North Korea. This puts us one ill-advised temptation away from the miscalculation that could start Korean War II.

But perhaps, Koreans wonder, this isn’t what Kerry meant:

[C]ritics said [Kerry’s] assessment is far from reality. 

While characterizing the North as “quieter,” Kerry might have referred to the fact that the provocative nation has not carried out a nuclear test or a long-range rocket launch — the two main types of provocations Pyongyang has used to rattle the world.

Even without such major provocations, however, the North has continued to rattle its saber in recent months, firing a number of rockets, missiles and artillery rounds off its coast with some launches in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Last week, the council issued a statement condemning the North’s ballistic missile launches.  [Yonhap]

To claim success for Kim Jong Un’s failure to nuke off is to confuse coincidence with causation. There is no evidence that Kerry’s diplomacy has resulted in serious movement toward disarming North Korea. There is more evidence that the Obama Administration itself is moving away from denuclearization as an objective.

One could just as well claim that the House’s introduction last April of tough financial sanctions targeted at Kim Jong Un’s financial jugular may be deterring him from a nuclear test. Or, it could simply be that North Korea’s nuclear tests will conform to their previous interval of three to four years. A test of something louder would at least get the attention of everyone else in Washington who would otherwise forget that North Korea exists. One can hope that this time, Congress might just respond with more credible policy options than John Kerry has to offer.

U.S. should ask Mexico to search the M/V Mu Du Bong

Last week, I linked to a piece by investigative journalist Claudia Rosett (third item), noting the travels of the North Korean freighter Mu Du Bong from Cuba into points unknown in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, thanks to intrepid Miami Herald reporter Juan Tamayo, we learn that the Mu Du Bong has run aground in the Mexican Gulf Coast port of Tuxpan, not far from Veracruz. The ship is said to be empty, but there are a number of suspicious aspects of its behavior.

The 430-foot Mu Du Bong grounded Monday on a reef about seven miles from the Mexican port of Tuxpan, according to shipping industry officials. The job of pulling it off the reef will be complicated and take several days, they said.

The ship was empty and planning to pick up cargo in Tuxpan when it ran aground because its captain “lost his bearings,” according to a report by the Agence France Presse. Tuxpan is known as one of Mexico’s main sugar exporting ports.

Port administrators told El Nuevo Herald aid they did not know whether the Mu Du Bong was entering or leaving the port. An official at the Captain of the Port’s office said no one there was authorized to give information on the case. [Miami Herald]

Like the Chong Chon Gang, the North Korean ship that was caught carrying weapons from Cuba through the Panama Canal last year, the Mu Du Bong had its automatic location beacon switched off for several days, creating a potentially unsafe condition for other ships.

The Mu Du Bong crossed the Panama Canal into the Caribbean June 15. Its transponder signaled June 25 that it was near the port of Mariel, and on June 29-30 that it was in Havana, according to a Forbes magazine article Sunday that first reported its voyage.

For the next nine days its transponder fell silent, Forbes reported. It started working again on July 10, showing the ship was in Havana and then sailed north into the Gulf of Mexico, according to the magazine article.

One shipping industry official called the freighter built in 1983 “an ugly old rust bucket” and said photos of the ship’s deck show an odd mast surrounded by wires that could be some sort of jerry-rigged crane or an antenna. [….]

The Forbes report said shipping records show the two vessels share the same commercial agent, Ocean Maritime Management Company Ltd. U.N. experts who investigated the Chong Chon Gang incident said that company “played a key role in arranging the shipment of the concealed cargo of (Cuban) arms and related materiel.” [Miami Herald]

The Mu Du Bong’s shipping agent was Ocean Maritime Management, the same company that arranged for the voyage of the Chong Chon Gang.

Mu Du Bong

[Image source]

In other words, four months after a U.N. Panel of Experts report laid out conclusive evidence of OMM’s deliberate and premeditated violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions, the U.S. Treasury Department has not sanctioned OMM or any other entity under Executive Order 13551 over the Chong Chon Gang incident, or added it to the list of Specially Designated Nationals. Meanwhile, OMM is still acting as an agent for suspicious North Korean shipping traffic to Cuba.

Under a recent U.N. Security Council resolution, Mexican authorities have the legal authority to inspect the Mu Du Bong.

Moreover, in the effort to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to or from the Democratic People’s Republic or Korea or its nationals of any banned items, States are authorized to inspect all cargo within or transiting through their territory that has originated in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or that is destined for that country.  They are to deny permission to any aircraft to take off from, land in or overfly their territory, if they have reasonable grounds to believe the aircraft contains prohibited items. [UNSCR 2094]

I don’t know whether the U.S. government is currently pressing the Mexican government to assert that right, but a U.S. government with a genuine interest in enforcing U.N. Security Council sanctions would be pressing for an inspection of the Mu Du Bong.

A number of analysts quoted in various press reports doubted that the Mu Du Bong could be carrying weapons because its bills of lading list only civilian goods. But by the same faulty argumentum ad ignorantiam logic, North Korea has no concentration camps because it denies having them, and O.J. is still looking for the real killer. At page 92 of this U.N. Panel of Experts report, you can see the bills of lading for the Chong Chon Gang. They mention 210,000 bags of sugar, and nothing about MiGs or missile parts. The real answer is that we won’t know what the Mu Du Bong is carrying until the ship is inspected.

Update: I changed “press” to “ask” in the title of this post. Better to ask nicely the first time, and “press” only if asking nicely doesn’t work, right?

Update 2: More on this story via Reuters.

Why would North Korea fly a UAV over the Blue House? Why else?

Arirang News has video of one of the suspected North Korean UAVs (unmanned air vehicles — we didn’t say “drone” in the Army) that crashed on Baekryeong Island.

The Baekryeong UAV has a conventional high aspect ratio wing, for greater stability and longer range. According to this report and this one, its engine was made in Japan, and other components were from China. This suggests that if the UAV really did come from North Korea, it’s an indigenous design.

The other UAV, which crashed near Paju City, tells a more interesting story. Arirang and the Joongang Ilbo suggest that it was on its way back from scouting higher-profile targets:

Images found on the camera showed that the drone had followed a route from central Seoul through the Gupabal area in northeastern Seoul to Paju. It took photos of major landmarks in central Seoul, including the Blue House and Gyeongbok Palace, which are close to each other. [Joongang Ilbo]

That’s a round trip of 50 miles or more, but after all, a man once flew a model airplane across the Atlantic Ocean, so it’s certainly possible. The image resolution was reportedly poor, possibly due to excessive vibration.

Via a commenter, Josh Marshall publishes imagery of the Paju UAV’s very different design and very similar paint scheme. Like most giant-scale model airplanes, it is powered by a one-cylinder, probably two-stroke piston engine with a large muffler sticking out the side (it would still be very loud). Unlike the Baekryeong UAV, it has a low aspect ratio wing. Low aspect ratio wings have more induced drag (caused by wingtip vortices), so they have shorter ranges. Their main advantage is their low takeoff and landing speeds, which means they can be launched by hand or catapult, and recovered in a net. No airfield would be required. An off-the-shelf digital camera is mounted in the fuselage.

Although North Korea is the prime suspect, all of this technology is commercially available and could have been built by almost any curious person with a budget of $2,000. The greatest technological challenge in UAV design is finding a way to control it for ranges over five miles. This could be done by long-range radio signal over an unused frequency, with a satellite-boosted signal, or by using GPS to navigate it to pre-set waypoints.

Marshall sneers at the design of these UAVs, but they aren’t designed to look scary or carry heavy payloads. But what are they designed to do? Superficially, one might guess that they’re designed to gather clear images and coordinates of potential targets. In this case, however, the imagery was reportedly of low quality, and in any event, one can find the precise coordinates of the Blue House on Google Maps or Google Earth (a skill that North Korea hadn’t quite mastered in 2012, when it threatened to shell the offices of South Korean newspapers, while actually giving the coordinates of the Australian Embassy and other errant targets).

That leaves the real purpose unexplained. If a curious citizen or eccentric hobbyist built it, then “just for the hell of it” or “because it’s there” are perfectly good answers. If the North Koreans built it, the only purpose I can think of would be to show the South Koreans exactly what potential targets the North Koreans are interested in, just two months before the next bi-election.

North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.

There are a lot of places in North Korea that I’ve always wanted to see in high resolution. A UAV seems like a great way to get that imagery. Sometimes the North Koreans give me such interesting ideas.

~   ~   ~

Update: The Joongang Ilbo publishes two in-depth reports on this story, estimating that the UAV likely cost just under $10,000, reporting that it was GPS-guided, and also reporting that its imagery was of better quality than first reported.

A reader also wrote in to point out that North Korea has other, scarier-looking UAVs with actual scary warheads.

“The drone appeared to be a North Korean copy of a Raytheon MQM-107 Streaker target drone,” the report said. “North Korean press coverage of the event described the UAV as being capable of precision strikes by crashing into the target.”

Kim Jong Un purges the army

In North Korea, it’s 1937 all over again:

The North Korean military has refrained from conducting “joint exercises” due partly to poor fuel supplies, but mainly because “an effort to replace those linked to Jang Song Thaek in the military is ongoing,” according to sources from the country’s military officer corps.  “Joint exercises during the winter this year were not even planned,” a military source in northern Yanggang province told RFA’s Korean Service. “The brakes have likely been put on such exercises because of large-scale replacements in the officer corps.” [….]

The military source also said that officers at each military base with a rank lower than regiment commander and higher than battalion commander had been replaced in an apparent bid to weed out any of Jang’s links. New procedures have also been introduced to boost promotion prospects for younger officers in a move believed aimed at filling up positions as the military copes with the purge of those linked to Jang. [Radio Free Asia

The reports here aren’t completely consistent, but can be harmonized. The Daily NK reports that winter training exercises are ongoing, but they’re mostly long ruck marches in the cold, not mechanized exercises. Interestingly, Yonhap is also reporting that civilian fuel supplies have also been cut. I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that this is the result of shortages. It may well be that the regime is taking steps to prevent large movements of people and equipment.

Separately, the Daily NK is reporting more wide-scale purges and executions in army units across North Korea.

The source revealed in particular the case of “Unit 570,” which has undergone “Urakkai,” a Japanese word used in North Korea to mean complete and absolute change. The unit commander has been executed and all enlisted men either punished or transferred to other units, it is alleged. [Daily NK]

Apparently, the unit leader was associated with Jang. Its mission is “guerrilla warfare,” and its funding comes from cross-border business operations, suggesting that it’s a part of North Korea’s vaunted Special Forces:

“It’s not clear where the unit has gone, but it is now comprised of new soldiers from elsewhere. Not a lot is known about what happened,” he added. “The regime is no longer summoning Jang’s former accomplices to Pyongyang and punishing them there, preferring to quietly carry out its executions in the countryside.” 

“According to news trickling out of the unit, all senior officers were called in separately and harshly questioned during a mass rally that took place in Pyongyang late last year. They were taken into custody after the rally finished,” the source went on.

While the source said that other units are also under close scrutiny and face punishment following the Jang execution, Unit 570, which is based in Maengsan in northeast South Pyongan Province, is special in that it is a special operations force tasked with preparing for guerrilla warfare on the streets of Seoul in the event of a second Korean War.  For this reason, the unit receives more tools and equipment than many others.  

Remember this the next time someone tells you that the regime’s trade with China is necessarily an engine of reform. The whole argument is based on the flawed premise that the regime is Socialist, Communist, or otherwise philosophically opposed to making money.

The report notes that the V and VIII Corps are also being purged. The VIII Corps is responsible for defending a long stretch of the border between North Korea and China, and the V Corps is a front-line unit, posted along the DMZ. All of these are elite units that should have the best equipment, training, and morale. They are not the glorified construction companies whose soldiers so often go hungry.

Executing and “disappearing” officers from these elite sounds awfully dangerous. Stalin managed it, but Kim Jong Un isn’t Stalin, and even Stalin paid the price for his 1937 purge in 1940, when his army proved too inept and poorly led to defeat the Finns, thus encouraging Hitler to invade the U.S.S.R. a year later.

Meanwhile, the purge of civilian cadres also continues.

The official said that even employees from North Korean restaurants in China and other countries run by the administrative division of the Korean Workers’ Party, which Jang headed, were “investigated for at least a week before being released.” These purging efforts are expected to last until June, he said. Key figures around Jang, excluding his wife, are apparently being investigated and categorized across four levels. [Joongang Ilbo]

Some of those who remain in Pyongyang are supposedly so terrified that they’re flocking to fortune tellers. The Joongang Ilbo report also speculates that, contra reports that Jang’s relatives have been executed (Item 2), they may well have been sent to the camps. I don’t know the answer to that specific question, but I’ll have a bit more to say about that point later this week, and about how you can get involved in hunting for the evidence of it.