Category Archives: NK Military

Is the North Korean military falling apart?

Last week, a 19 year-old North Korean army private fled “repeated physical abuse at the hands of his superiors” and “the realities of his impoverished country,” walked and rode for a week as a fugitive, crossed the heavily mined DMZ, and fell asleep next to a South Korean guard post.* Surely this young soldier knows that his family will now face terrible retribution for what he has done. We can even speculate that others have tried, and failed, at similar attempts that we’ve never heard about.

What conditions cause such desperation? How prevalent are they within the North Korean military? What can incidents like these tell us about morale and readiness in the North Korean armed forces? Finally, do incidents like this suggest different approaches for policymakers who seek to prevent war, and to make conditions inside North Korea less brutal for its people?

A careful review of open-source reports suggests a steady stream of defections and fratricides within the North Korean military, but that the largest-scale mutiny of which we know (since the 6th Corps mutiny in 1996) was at the brigade level:

  • June 2005: A 20 year-old private deserts his anti-aircraft unit and walks across the DMZ. A South Korean civilian finds him in the back of a truck, eating instant ramyeon noodles and ChocoPies.
  • February 2007: A platoon of approximately 20 border guards deserts, en masse, into China, after coming under suspicion for cross-border smuggling.
  • August 2010: In a possible attempt to defect, a North Korean pilot flies his MiG-21 to China, crashes, and is killed.

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  • April 2011: According to a Daily NK report, sourced to North Korean Intellectuals’ Solidarity, a brigade of starving soldiers, assigned to mine uranium, goes on strike and refuses to work until they are fed.
  • April 2012: Chinese and North Korean authorities launch a manhunt for two border guards, who shot and killed about half a dozen of their colleagues, then fled across the border. The men are later caught and sent back to North Korea.
  • October 2012: A soldier shoots his squad and platoon leaders to death and flees across the DMZ.
  • October 2012: Another solder walks across the DMZ and knocks (twice!) on the door of a ROK Army barracks. The incident causes several high-ranking ROK Army officers to face disciplinary action over the perceived lack of readiness. The report also references a third defection in September 2012.
  • March 2013: A border guard in Musan County, North Hamgyeong province, frags five company commanders (!) and attempts, unsuccessfully, to desert. The soldier is said to have been disgruntled because he was underfed and was caught stealing food.   
  • September-December 2014: A series of desperate North Korean border guards, denied the income that they would otherwise have earned by taking bribes from smugglers, deserts across the border into China, and robs and murders several civilians. Some Chinese flee the border villages. Chinese authorities respond by forming vigilante patrols and deploying troops to the border. This month, hypervigilant police shoot an unarmed, fleeing refugee.

Next, what conditions cause incidents like these? Many (but not all) of these accounts come from defector-run sources, such as the Daily NK, Open News, and New Focus, which likely share my view that the currents of human nature and history must eventually wash this regime away. It is likely that the reports contain some degree of selection bias. The regime itself has made independent verification of these accounts impossible, which compels us to look for patterns and consistent accounts before we credit them too strongly. But this secrecy also suggests that some adverse inferences about conditions in the North Korean military are justifiable.

First, the soldiers are hungry because the commissary system and their own officers are stealing their rations and reselling them on the markets. (For a more detailed explanation, see this article by Jonathan Corrado in The Daily NK.)

  • November 2005: Former army captain Kim Seung Min (who now heads Free North Korea Radio) tells The Daily NK that corrupt officers routinely steal and sell food, fuel, clothing, soap, and toothbrushes from the military commissary system, causing soldiers to go without.
  • July 2005: The Daily NK releases a clandestine video interview of a North Korean soldier who become so emaciated from eating grass that the army discharged him and sent him home to die.
  • June 2011: Footage smuggled out of North Korea shows starving North Korean soldiers.

Second, because the soldiers are hungry, they have turned to smuggling, or stealing from the civilian population, a sign of poor discipline and morale.

  • September 2009: North Korean soldiers are photographed in the act of smuggling across the Tumen River border.
  • May 2010:  Beginning in the famine years of the 1990s, border guards, including company-grade officers, went into the business of smuggling drugs across the Tumen River into China.
  • January 2011: According to a series of reports, North Korean soldiers, including members of elite units, are underfed, poorly clothed, freezing, deserting, and resorting to looting the civilian population to survive.
  • April 2011: The Daily NK reports that soldiers in front-line units are hungry and malnourished because of pilferage of food from multiple layers of the commissary system (see also here and here), and that more soldiers are deserting, stealing from markets, or burglarizing civilian homes because of hunger. The report interviews two separate defectors, who report that their battalion-size units, one in Kangwan-do, on the eastern DMZ front, and one in Pyongyang, had desertion rates of 5% and 10%. The defectors report that by this time, the punishment for a first-time desertion has been reduced to a criticism.
  • May 2015: Soldiers, posted in isolated areas and denied permission to marry or have girlfriends, frequently rape civilian women, some of whom carry DIY pepper spray to protect themselves. Military authorities do not investigate or punish the rapes, creating a culture of impunity.
  • June 2015: Another report tells of increased theft by border guards, directed against the civilian population.

Third, a significant number of soldiers are sick, and the military medical system doesn’t take care of them.

  • November 2005 (via Kim Seung Min): Military hospitals are short of medicines and vaccines, causing disease to spread among soldiers.
  • June 2015: Theft of medicine from military hospitals means that tuberculosis is widespread among soldiers. Because there is no medicine to treat the soldiers, they are put into isolation wards until they are sent home to die.

Fourth, hazing and abuse—even rape—of solders by their superiors are serious problems, leading to fratricides and suicides.

  • November 2005 (via Kim Seung Min): Morale is low; hazing, assaults, and suicides are widespread; and enlisted soldiers do not respect their officers. As of 1999, over 1,000 deserters were hiding out. According to the report, the punishment for desertion is a sentence to a labor camp or a severe, crippling beating.
  • June 2015: “Violence and brutality in North Korea’s armed forces have surged after Kim Jong Un came into power, with severe beatings of lower ranking soldiers becoming more commonplace, Daily NK has learned…. After Kim Jong Un assumed leadership, internal monitoring and surveillance have been ramped up to establish order over officers and lower ranking soldiers. However, this approach has led to young troops frequently escaping or going absent without leave, as they are ordered into submission without being provided with proper food supplies.” The report claims that “a lot of” low-ranking soldiers die from being beaten by their superiors. The report also claims that soldiers frequently fight over food, property, and work and that South Korean culture is a “growing influence” on North Korean soldiers in front-line units.

Fifth, corruption and morale problems are having a significant impact on military readiness.

  • April 2011: Via The Daily NK: “In the military unit supply depot, the depletion of supplies is so severe that explosives, fuses, medicines and medical supplies, wires, and fuel have run out.” It claims that during a 1999 naval skirmish, some patrol boats were unable to join the battle because they had no fuel.
  • October 2013: Two unexplained fires destroy a train carrying military uniforms and an arms factory.
  • November 2013: According to a South Korean think tank, “Corruption is rife in the North Korean army as sanctions eat into official perks for soldiers,” and that “officers have smuggled out sensitive files,” including “orders of the supreme command, wartime plans, and guidelines for electronic warfare,” to sell to “information traders” in China. Low-ranking soldiers pay bribes to their superiors to be assigned to guard the Chinese border, where they can earn money by smuggling, or taking bribes from smugglers. (More)
  • November 2013: A submarine chaser and a patrol boat collide off Wonsan, on the east coast, killing “scores” of sailors.
  • April 2015: The theft of fuel by military drivers and quartermasters is reported to be common. In the navy, sailors siphon fuel out of warships and replace it with (corrosive) sea water to foil inspectors.

Finally, there is some evidence—most of it very recent—that the mutual distrust and low morale reach from the lowest ranks to the very highest.

  • November 2008: The regime rations and controls ammunition strictly, which may explain why there aren’t more fratricide incidents. This means, however, that soldiers get little marksmanship training.
  • April 2015: The regime maintains tight control over every round of ammunition, in part to prevent fratricides.
  • May 2015: Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol is abruptly purged and executed. Afterward, The Daily NK reports that the regime has tightly restricted the movements of officials, and that “military and Party cadres in Pyongyang affiliated with Hyon are living in fear, not knowing whether they will fall victims as well.”
  • June 2015: The regime disbands an elite anti-aircraft unit, whose mission is to guard statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, after some of its 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns are found deployed along a highway traveled by Kim Jong Un.
  • June 2015: Yonhap reports that the regime is laying more land mines along the DMZ, to prevent its soldiers from fleeing. Reports trickling out of the North, mostly third-hand, seem to confirm that Kim Jong Un purged and replaced his Defense Minister, Hyon Yong-chol.
  • June 2015: Interviewed by The Washington Post, South Korean President Park Geun Hye says:

Since [he] took power 3 1 / 2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime….

Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee.

Some cautions are in order here. First, not all of these reports can be verified independently. Second, conditions from unit to unit are almost certainly as variable as the ethics of the men who lead them. Theft is probably tolerated much less among the Special Forces than in other units. Units that are effectively used as construction brigades are probably the least disciplined and cohesive. Note also that none of these reports originate from North Korea’s ballistic missile forces, which pose the greatest military threat to the South, and to U.S. Forces, Korea. This may be because those units are better led, or because they tend to be located in the interior, away from our prying eyes. It is telling, however, that many of these stories originate in either the border guard units along the northern border, or from the front-line army units posted near the DMZ. This suggests that the decay of the military’s values, culture, cohesion, and readiness are likely advanced and widespread.

This doesn’t mean that the North Korean army wouldn’t fight; after all, the reports suggest that morale and cohesion were already poor before the attacks of 2010. But morale problems in the North Korean military do suggest opportunities to prevent war and free more North Koreans–soldiers and civilians alike–from the grip of fear.

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The North Korean army’s rape problem, “Kangan” Province, and Gloria Steinem

It has been four whole days since I said I was done talking about Women Cross DMZ for a year. How foolish it was of me to write that. For one thing, I did not anticipate having this detailed history of Christine Ahn’s pro-North Korean views, which outdoes my own, to graf for you:

In late April, WomenCrossDMZ held a press conference in New York City. Ahn was not in attendance to respond to our question of why the group omits discussion of human rights. But Steinem was: she responded that this was a “bananas question … there are many sins on every side.” Ahn and Steinem’s co-organizer, theology professor Hyun-Kyung Chung, added that “when you go out on a first date, you don’t talk about all the bad things you did last summer.” Fair enough. Even Charles Manson has suitors. [Thor Halvorssen & Alex Gladstein, Foreign Policy]

For another, a horrible new report from New Focus International describes the “rape culture” that has developed among North Korean soldiers in Kangwon Province, or Kangwon-do, where soldiers rape civilian women so frequently that residents have taken to grimly calling it kangan-do. In Korean, kangan means rape:

The source explains, “Wherever you go in Kangwon Province, there are more soldiers than civilians. Because almost everyone you bump into is a soldier, you notice that as a major group they commit a lot of crimes. Mostly, the crimes are rape and sexual assault. In Kangwon Province, the soldiers move in large groups, and attacks have become so frequent that it isn’t even surprising to us anymore.

Even the police try to avoid them. This is because they try to contain the soldiers, but usually end up being humiliated. The soldiers in Kangwon Province are uncontrollable and virtually lawless. So the civilians of Kangwon Province have resorted to calling their hometown ‘Robbery Province’ or ‘Rape Province’.” [New Focus, Apr. 29, 2015]

The problem is impunity: the command and the security forces have made a decision not to prosecute rapes. This is same the impunity the U.N. Commission of Inquiry found, and which I quoted in my recent piece for The Weekly Standard. According to the report, witnesses reported that North Korean authorities don’t treat the rape of an adult woman as a crime at all.

Song Geum-bok, who escaped North Korea in March 2014, testifies: “There are army units everywhere in Kangwon Province. Eight of the ten people that pass you in the streets of Kangwon Province are soldiers. Put simply, there are more soldiers in this province than rocks. So naturally, when bad news circulates among the neighbourhood people, we presume that a soldier is involved in some way.

“The greatest victims of the soldiers are women. These youthful soldiers, who are in their prime both physically and sexually, are forced to serve in the army, and as time passes they become like uncontrollable wolves. When women become the target of a soldier, there is no stopping them. Soldiers usually loiter around dark places at night and jump on women passing by. Some women don’t even fight it – they just obediently adhere to the soldiers’ desires.

“Why? It’s because there is no use in fighting back. The women believe that by being compliant, they will at least be able to avoid suffering too many injuries.  [New Focus, Apr. 29, 2015]

If there are no prosecutions, there is no point in reporting rapes. North Korean women know how little their government values their safety, their health, their bodies. Imagine the circumstances of a low-songbun North Korean woman who becomes pregnant, or who is injured or infected with an STD, after she’s raped.

We came across an interesting anecdote dealing with the consequences of rapes committed by North Korean soldiers. North Korean exile Kim Yoon-seok tells us, “There was an incident where a soldier raped a woman at gunpoint. Obviously, he was never caught. As the father’s identity was unknown, the child that was born nine months later did not have a surname. The woman named the child Cho In-gun (the first letters of Chosun inmin-gun or ‘Korean People’s Army’. It is as if the baby was named ‘KPA’). The story spread like wildfire. That name, Cho In-gun, it is now used to mock the bastard children of the North Korean army.” [New Focus, 2013]

According to that same report, STDs are common in the North Korean military. For North Korea’s lower classes, there’s little or no medical care to be found. In North Korea, a poor woman has no one but herself. That’s why some women are learning to fight back:

A homegrown version of pepper spray has become the latest item carried by female merchants in North Korea, namely to combat sexual harassment and theft. For others, however, it plays an increasingly integral part in the perpetual struggle they face in trying to get by on a daily basis.

In most of the world, pepper spray, also known as oleoresin capsicum or OC, is derived from the same chemical that gives chili peppers their heat–but at much higher concentrations. North Korea’s version of pepper spray forgoes any complex chemical processes; in fact, instead of a spray, North Korea’s deterrent consists of pulverized chili peppers tucked into an easily accessible sack, which residents have coined the “chili powder bomb.”

“Women in Chongjin, Hamheung, Pyeongseong, and other cities are carrying around ‘chili powder bombs’ for protection,” a source from Hamkyung North Province told Daily NK on the 28th. “Women merchants as well as travelers are using bags of ground chili pepper as a means of self-protection.” [Daily NK]

North Korean soldiers often have long enlistments, and are not allowed to marry. Those who might already be married or have girlfriends seldom get leave. This doesn’t excuse anything, but it must be seen as another factor contributing to the problem that these young men are denied the option of love, marriage, and family until some of their best years are behind them.

In every station, prostitutes can be seen waiting for military customers. Working alongside security guards, private homes loaned out by their occupants are used as temporary brothels.

According to exile Kim Yoon-seok, “Women have to make a living too, and the best they have to offer is their bodies. Their primary source of income is the soldiers. As their sexual desires must be suppressed during military service, the young men are very bold and open about using prostitutes. The women receive food or cash for sleeping with them.”

To afford prostitutes, soldiers are said to raid civilian homes, from which they steal with impunity. Without even making an effort to hide themselves, they then make their way to stations or other red-light districts. [New Focus, 2013]

For years, guerrilla news services have reported that North Korean soldiers maraud nearby farms and homes to steal food and valuables. Sometimes, that violence even spills over the border, into China. Last year, Chinese media began to report that North Korean army deserters were robbing and murdering Chinese civilians. According to a new Chinese press report, three more deserters crossed into China and killed three more civilians, “a 55-year-old surnamed Chao, his 26-year-old daughter and a 67-year-old Sun.” When the victims of these attacks are Chinese, there is some chance that the crimes will be reported; there may even be a measure of accountability for the commanders. When the victims are North Korean, the state’s culture of secrecy and impunity almost assures that that won’t happen.

Would it be too much for Gloria Steinem to ask North Korea to investigate and prosecute the rapists in its ranks? After all, Steinem’s Feminist Majority has been outspoken on the subject of sexual assault in the U.S. armed forces. The organizer of Women Cross DMZ, Christine Ahn, has denounced “sexual violence by U.S. servicemen” in South Korea, even suggesting that it’s a greater threat to South Korea’s civilian population than North Korea’s nuclear weapons. (This is a hyperbolic falsehood, as I can testify from my four years as an Army prosecutor and defense counsel in Korea. If anything, the U.S. Army’s extreme sensitivity to bad publicity and political pressure causes it to overcharge alleged sexual assaults. Alleged assaults were overwhelmingly soldier-on-soldier; relatively few involved Korean victims.)

For purely demographic reasons, all militaries need to be concerned about sexual assaults, whether among soldiers, or against the civilian population. Every government’s command deserves to be judged by how it balances its responsibility to protect victims with how it protects the rights of the accused to a fair trial. Clearly, Pyongyang has made the decision that women’s bodies are not worth protecting from rapists. That’s a problem that any self-respecting feminist has a duty to speak out about. And if Steinem has the courage to call the North Koreans out on their own soil, she would earn our sincere respect for that. On her way from Pyongyang to the DMZ, Gloria Steinem should not bypass “Kangan” Province.

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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 continue:

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, but those guards didn’t attack or rob civilians.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 still politically popular — up to a point — although it’s not as popular as it was a decade ago. Still, 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,

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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