The Norks

Is North Korea about to collapse?

That is the question Don Surber asks in this post last week. He is looking at the recent defections of soldiers and civilians. We have at least one soldier, an elite soldier no less, who simply walked across the border unmolested. Maybe this happens from time to time, but the impression from news reports is that the Norks guard that border ferociously. The Norks have special units that do nothing but roam the border looking for anyone trying to flee. Here is a recent video of them shooting a guy trying to escape.

Surber is looking at these recent incidents where North Koreans have managed to escapade unmolested and compares it to the last days of the Soviet empire. There is also the fact that the one soldier was from an elite unit. That seems unusual. There was also the solider that escaped and was found to be infested with parasites, suggesting the regime is struggling to care for even the soldiers that protects it. The Kim regime can only survive if it has the absolute loyalty of the military, so they have to make sure they are fed.

I think we can also wonder if the recent Chinese cooperation may be another signal that all is not well in the hermit kingdom. It is reasonable to assume that the Chinese know the most of any outsiders about what is going on inside the country. The assumption in the West is that they were willing to prop up the Norks, in order to avoid dealing with the collapse. Maybe they have decided that Kim’s days are numbered, no matter what they do, so they are now looking to turn the inevitable into an opportunity.

American military intelligence probably knows a great deal about what is happening inside North Korea, but it is tightly held information. As a result, the public defense experts have no idea what is happening. Trump’s dramatic ramp up of pressure is reminiscent of what we did with the Russians in the 1980’s. Reagan’s great insight, and it was truly his insight, was that the Russians simply could not compete with the West, if we got our act together economically. That proved to be correct. The Russians were spent as an empire.

Maybe that is what Trump is sensing. A generation ago, standard operating procedure in the US was to try and negotiate with the Russians. It was done on the assumption that the Soviets were strong. Reagan’s insight was that they were weak, so he abandoned appeasement. Trump seems to be going down the same path with the Norks. He has said that negotiations are a waste of time. That would explain the build up of assets in the region, along with the moves to cut off the North’s access to hard currency.

It is all speculation, but we can tease out some things from what we do know about the Norks. Countries have a finite amount of resources. Some portion are used for the necessities of maintaining society. Some portion are used for defense. Some other portion is used by the ruling class to maintain their positions. Similarly, the ruling class will use some portion of their available capital to expand their position, both internally and externally. A country is not a closed system, but about 90% of its resources are internal.

It is assumed that the Norks have a lot of human capital, relative to rogue regimes in the Arab world. This is based on the unspoken assumption that Asians are smart, while Arabs are dumb. The Norks have split the atom and developed respectable missile technology, which is more than Saddam was able to do and more than the Persians have mustered to this point. The Norks have also shown themselves to be very resourceful in gaining access to the global arms market and the global drug trade. The Kim regime is clever.

That said, we know that most of the population is living with barely enough to eat and the bare minimum of health care. So much so that the North Koreans are shorter than the South Koreans. We know from Western history, that as nutrition improved in the West, Europeans got taller. People also got smarter. The Flynn Effect is most likely a result of nutrition and health care. The Norks are probably experiencing a reverse of this, where starvation and poor sanitation are lowering the average IQ of the population.

Then there is the math of every extraction regime. North Korea is closer to a feudal society than a modern country. Every level of society sees the excess from its labor siphoned off by the layer above it. This not only stifles productivity and innovation, but it also encourages corruption at all levels. This was the experience in the Soviet Union, where trust in institutions fell to zero. That was the joke among Soviet workers. The government would pretend to pay the workers and the workers pretended to work.

The point here is that the sum of human capital in North Korea is probably an order of magnitude less than many assume. They have a large enough smart fraction to build crude nuclear bombs and launch some long range missiles into the sea. They do not have enough of a smart fraction to do that, feed their people and provide the basics of health care. Throw in the fact that Kim may have been forced to kill off many of the regime’s best people in order to solidify control, and North Korea could be very weak right now.

In fact, the saber rattling may be an attempt to get South Korea and China to put pressure on the US, in order to get some food and medical relief. That has worked with past presidents. Clinton, Bush and Obama were all willing to cut a deal. Trump calling the bluff may be why the Nork solider was allowed to just walk across the border to the South. He is carrying antibodies for anthrax, suggesting he has been exposed to it. That could be intended to send a message that the Norks have it and will use it in a war.

It is impossible to know the true state of affairs in North Korea. One feature of all authoritarian regimes is a high degree of secrecy and deception. The same skills used to lie to the people, are used by the political factions inside the regime to lie to one another and to the outside world. The one thing low trust societies are good at producing is gifted liars. Still, the fundamental math of society strongly suggest the Norks are much weaker than they wish the world to know. That may explain the shift in US policy under Trump.

44 thoughts on “The Norks

  1. That was my first thought when the “elite” soldier turned out to be as healthy as your average famine refugee. Another interesting data point, the Kim regime has cracked down on celebration of all non-regime holidays (apparently NorKs were big on Mothers Day and the like). That has all the hallmarks of a regime in trouble. Would venture a guess that Kim is increasingly frustrated that his re-enactment of the “cargo cult” rituals of his father and grand-father are not bringing the ships and planes of goodies. But he really has no Plan B. Any solution has to acknowledge that the Chinese get to have a buffer state. But clearly nobody is quite sure how to deal with several million starving, Epsilon semi-moron dwarves. These aren’t the East Germans, who at least were educated and reasonably steeped in Western culture and economics. The one thing that Trump brings that Obama utterly lacked is a basic (almost animal level) sense of when and how his adversary is weak. And complete willingness to exploit that. That’s been his entire life. We’ll see what happens.

  2. I think it’s entirely possible that the guy acquired natural immunity to anthrax by exposure to tiny non-lethal doses in unsanitary rural conditions that we all know exist there. I’d be willing to bet that cattle die of anthrax on a regular basis in some areas there. Burn or bury a few of these and you get enough exposure to become immune.

    OTOH, I wouldn’t put it past the norks to figure this out and let the guy defect just to get us thinking that they have an advanced bioweapons program, which, who knows? maybe they have.

    One thing I haven’t seen is any discussion of what comes after Kim is deposed. Unification? China takes over? UN rape squads run the place?

    • I was going to include something about this possibility in the post, but I was running long. People assume anthrax only exists in Dr. Evil’s lab, but it occurs in nature. It’s most common in Africa, but it is not uncommon in Asia. It’s a safe bet that the Norks are not immunizing their livestock, if they have any left. That alone is not a big deal, but it opens up questions about the environmental conditions in the country. East Germany was a toxic waste dump during the Soviet era. You can only imagine the stuff the Norks are dumping into rivers and burying under ground.

  3. The US must contain and stabilize the Korean peninsula because of Japan. Should NK threaten the Japanese, and should the Japanese respond by re-militarizing, the Chinese would begin to growl seriously…along with all the other Asian nations who fear Japanese militarism. To prevent this set of dominoes going down, the US must restrain the Japanese by assuring them that the NK situation is under control. Is it?

  4. You get to the heart of a principle of warfare that doesn’t get talked about enough, probably because commanders are embarrassed by it. Underestimating an enemy’s strength (like the English did with the German faith in barbed wire) can cost you a ton of soldiers, but overestimating the enemy’s position can also cause you to prolong the war and get a lot of your own soldiers killed. The English were so impressed by German engineering in trenches that they assumed it carried over into other realms (like tunneling) and they proceeded to give the enemy too much credit. John Norton-Griffiths could have probably literally extended his “Berlin Tunnel” to Berlin if he were so inclined, because the blockades had so severely screwed the Germans. Kim’s a good poker player but not as good as Trump, and he’s got to be sweating.

  5. IMHO Trump’s new strategy towards NK is based on the very visible and obvious; that all the strategies used in the past – mostly based on trying to mollify those commie gangsters – has simply not worked.

    Of course, “experienced” State Dept morons and equally idiotic, mostly leftist politicians would merely attempt to continue giving the NK gangsters the benefit of the doubt (and oil and food and medicine, etc) to hope they come around and decide to join the human race and cease working on nukes.
    But as Neville Chamberlain found out, yielding and negotiating with tyrannical gangsters is a losing proposition. The lesson he learned was unlearned by the US State Dept and liberal progressives in 1946 if not earlier.

    An experienced BUSINESSMAN – whose skills were honed in the real world of hard knocks – knows when he/she has the winning hand, or at least knows when to change the boat’s tack.

    Tough to say however what will force pudgy rocket boy and his acolytes from power. He and his pals know that if they are forced from power, they will be facing a firing squad whose weaponry is composed of anti-aircraft guns aimed at the hand grenades strapped to their necks; if they are lucky.
    If not, they will be served up as Purina Dog Chow to a pack of hungry dogs.

    China has no incentive to get rid of rocket boy because NK is a massive irritant to the USA; a persistent hemorrhoid always near bursting. And China is always looking at the long term bigger picture – Taiwan, the S.China Sea, its historic enemy, Japan. NK can serve as a useful bargaining tool for China in dealing with the USA; an eye for an eye, a chopstick for a chopstick.

    Reagan, IMHO, knew and really believed that the Bolsheviks were evil killers (which they were to the tune of up to 50 MILLION exterminated) and he was in no way prepared to deal with these Russian speaking Hitlers (Stalin referred to his domestic terrorist chief, Beria, as “my Himmler.”).

    Reagan’s policy was in stark contrast to the “experienced” diplomats in the State Dept and throughout Europe (who had and still have a very soft spot for any leftists, irrespective of how many are exterminated) who believe, and still believe, that any leftist regime is inherently OK, but merely prone to “excesses,” (but hey, let’s imprison Pinochet as soon as he sets foot outside of Chile).

    As long as rocket boy, et. al., maintains the requisite level of terror, violence, and murder against the NK citizenry, he will maintain his power irrespective of the plight of the citizenry. After all, he has the guns. And all his accomplices also realize they will go down with him if he falters, so they to must do whatever it takes to hold onto power.
    They literally have a big, hungry tiger by the tail.

    NK’s gangsters also know that if they attack SK, Japan, the USA, etc., it is all over for them. Thus they will refrain from doing this. The purpose of their nuke program is to sell (for much needed revenue) their technology to,say, Iran, etc., and to use this technology to dissuade any nation – the USA really – from attacking them.
    Unlike the Nazis or Bolsheviks, rocket boy has no overriding pseudo-religious ideology (e.g. world communism, lebensraum, etc. ) that motivates him towards regional or world domination.
    His sole motivation is to maintain his personal life style, retain ownership of all of NK and live as did the Kings of Olde.
    That’s it.

    I am still bothered that South Korea – really an advanced, relatively wealthy Westernized/Asian nation – requires US troops to help protect them.
    Are we to believe they cannot protect themselves without the US taxpayer??

    Is the NK military so potent that the SK needs US troops there?

    I don’t get it.

  6. Perhaps all that needs to be done is to set up a couple dozen bakeries and fried chicken joints along the border in South Korea, then crank up production when the wind is in the right direction.

  7. Z Man;
    Wars result from at least one party misunderstanding the actual correlation of forces. That seems to be what’s going on here with the NORKS. We can only hope that Surber is right, but I fear it is wishful thinking.

    Here’s the case made that the NORKS think they have *us* in a bind instead of the other way around. It’s from the legendary-behind-the-scenes George Friedman who has been following the NK situation for many years:

    IIRC, it was Friedman who capsulated the prior long-term NORK strategy in a way that made sense. They strive to be perceived as ‘weak, unpredictable and crazy’. IOW, not a direct threat to any great or regional power (because weak) but best left alone none-the-less (because crazy and unpredictable). The anthrax-resistant soldier, if a deliberate plant, is typical of that method: ‘We’re just so crazy that we might unleash bio-war. Better back off. Oh, BTW, send money.’

    The problem now is that latest Kim has abrogated his ancestors’ long-term successful strategy by directly threatening the US. Why_? If Friedman’s right, I suspect he is miscalculating his power and prestige and thus creating a path to war.

    And why shouldn’t he miscalculate_? What’s another sanction to the NORKS_? They’ve been supposedly under sanctions for the last 20 + years. Plus they have been able to evade all the past ones. Are they supposed to take the US seriously now (This time we mean it, swearsies.)_?

    But one thing we can count on: If NK follows the route of the USSR, its collapse will be a surprise to our intel community this time too.

  8. Trump’s stand on NoKo should have been US policy ever since the Chinese had something to lose from supporting them, which period of time is at least thirty years. Methods of doing things become ingrained and are then assumed to be right. The US one cent piece should have been put to sleep after we passed the point of three for a penny or at the very least when copper minting exceeded one cent in value. But no, the penny is littering my person no like the last hundred years of politics. So I thank the Donald for everything he does and forgive him for all he doesn’t do.

    • Were we going to leave base ten? How do you make change without a single units device?
      Best of luck weaning TheMasses off that particular belief system without bringing the whole works down. Boomers believe in Dan Rather, pensions and several dead presidents before all else

      • A penny in 1900 is the equivalent of a quarter today. Eliminate pennies, nickles, and dimes, or just make the dime the only unit of coin. It is at least appropriately small. Or, give space for USG to accomplish their true objective, which is to eliminate cash.

        • Japan did it with the Yen (worth about a penny today). There used to be 100 Sen to the Yen. Mexico just went about it by trading in many old Pesos into one new Peso now and again. Different ways to get to the same place. We seem to be following the Japanese model, so far.

          • Australia ditched the one and two-cent piece years ago. Everything rounds up or down to the nearest unit of 5.

  9. “closer to a feudal society … Every level of society sees the excess from its labor siphoned off by the layer above it.”

    “The one thing low trust societies are good at producing is gifted liars.”

    Zman is the most accurate observer of our time. Remarkable.

  10. Per-capita Nork GDP is less than $600 per year.

    Per-capita South Korea GDP is around $27,000 per year.

  11. The only refreshing thing about all this NK stuff is, Soros hasn’t been linked to it so far. Must be the only anti-West situation he’s not trying to finagle.

  12. “It’s impossible to know the true state of affairs in North Korea.”

    True that. Armchair generals will base their opinions on sources that have a vested interest in promoting a specific view. One that I’ve seen over the years is that the North Korean ruler is always “insane”. And yet, they’ve gotten a series of concessions from the West that shows they aren’t. I am continually reminded of the movie “The Mouse That Roared”. They wanted to lose a war to the West so the West would rebuild their economy. The Kims know they cannot win a war with the US. No country with a population of about 25 million, an area of 120, 540 sq. Km, a GDP of 40 billion, and one of the most poverty stricken non-African country in the world could. What we really need to concern ourselves with is what are our (((masters))) using NK to distract us from? Head fake left, go right.

    • AWM;
      Seems you’re approaching the situation from a Western point of view. It’s reasonably clear that the NORK leadership doesn’t *care* a whit about their people’s welfare much less having their economy rebuilt.

      They, and almost every authoritarian regime since the dawn of time cares deeply about their own, *personal* survival. And Kim’s inner circle would not survive losing a war. That’s because the next layer down would have to strike at the first chance lest they become the (dead) scapegoats. But yet those on top seem to be courting war. Why_?

      Also since the dawn of time authoritarian leaders, particularly later in a dynasty, are able to deceive themselves about their actual military capabilities and political support. This is particularly true if uttering an unflattering word to them is a death warrant, as seems the case in NK today.

      See my post below.

    • (((We)))’re using NK to distract you from the impending invasion by the Reptilian Space-Aliens that we serve. These Reptilian Space-Aliens of course serve Demons, who serve de-materialized higher-level (((us)))-Masters, who serve even higher-level Demons.

  13. The Chinese will not go to the mat for Kim , he is a liability on every level .
    The best course is ratchet up the pressure and wait , at some point something will pop.
    The big hard question is what will pop (military take over , Chinese take over, SK take over or pure chaos) and when will it pop.

  14. The North Korean people are indeed starving and destitute, so much so that even rioting is too much exertion for them. The oncoming winter will likely push this crisis to a breaking point soon. My guess is that senior members of the NK military are being offered incentives to end this. Now that China/Russia have acquiesced to the change, it’s only a matter of time. Kim takes the money and runs, or he gets a bullet to the head.

  15. Hmmmmm. Can’t find a flaw in any of that, Z.

    I might be full of chit but – just spit balling here… could the build up be exactly what it looks like? America learned a few things from the war with Japan in WW2; when the Japs struck at Pearl Harbour, the media was filled with clot headed, buck toothed slant-eyed cartoon characters getting the stuffing beaten out of them by Popeye The Sailor. The average American was told that the Jap navy would be at the bottom of the sea by the end of the week, and that the homelands would fall in a month. Anyone with even an ounce of intellect today knows that Uncle Sam HAD to use nukes on Japan to get an unconditional surrender.

    Could Trump sense a clear and present threat from NK – and be deploying his forces against it? The world has been laughing at the fat kid with the bad hair cut – myself included – for ages now. Maybe it’s time to stop laughing…? I can’t see Trump deploying assets like that to face off against a straw man. Considering the intel he has on them… I am not so sure this is the last gasp of a dying rogue.

    • Last gasps are the most dangerous. We got very lucky with the Soviets. That’s why he’s stacked by the deck.

      • Older, slower, weaker me will no longer go toe-to-toe with Younger Stronger Faster.
        I’m going straight for my gun.
        That has to factor into how to handle the Norks. They may go straight to nukes, knowing they cannot compete or survive any other way.

      • That is probably my guess, now that you mention it LF. All I know is that if Trump and the Navy are taking that mutt seriously – we better had too!

  16. North Korea is a Potemkin village set up by the bank power. Like North Vietnam, USSR, Cuba, all made to ensure arms races and wars. No victor divides his country with the foe he has just defeated. These leaders have covert training and aid from tbe West.

    Who brought Jomo Kenyatta to London in the 1930s? Who kept him and paid for his university training? Who brought Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot to theSorbonne?

    Who gave Leon Trotsky $20 million in gold for his return to Russia after the Kerensky diktat? (all jews).

    Every political and social “issue” is an Establishment op to perpetuate friction and conflict. War is where the money is.

    • Men live to wield power, get rich, make changes, and be remembered, by their peers if not society at large. Unfortunately, all too many of them see the path to power, wealth, and noteriety by disrupting the lives and settled cultures of others.

      Many of the world’s problems are made by people who insist on peeing on every single fire hydrant and lamppost.

    • Nobody wants to acquire the shit-show that will be North Korea once it’s current government collapses. I’m sure the Chinese don’t want that huge bag of poo – and if South Korea ends up getting it and it becomes another East Germany / West Germany situation – the south Koreans are going to live to regret it IMHO.

      • The Chinese don’t want a western aligned Korea on their border and they do not want a collapsed north Korea. If north Korea destabilizes the Chinese will step in. They’ll install a better puppet this time.

        This isn’t east Germany west Germany or the Soviet union it’s as if Soviet Finland pretended to be independent.

    • Just how vilely deranged do you have to be to imagine that a “friendly solution” consists of starving and freezing the Korean people to death?

      Here’s a friendly solution.

      How about the 27,000 murderous American thugs fuck off home?

  17. The theory that we are trying to pressure NK into collapse is reasonable,
    It would be worth it just to see all of the warmongering neocons, who are just craving to send someone else’s kid off to die for no reason, try to pretend that’s all they were advocating to begin with.

    • The neocons are not hawkish on the Norks. Their obsession is with Russia (hoof beats) and the Middle East (Israel).

      • There’s plenty of people – maybe not technically neocons – who think we should be bombing, invading, nuking …..etc. – when it comes to the North Koreans. Everybody seems to think that the North Koreans and their leaders are completely batshit insane, but if you dig deep into the history what they have done (home spun missiles and nuclear weapons) – actually seems like a reasonable response based on the history.

        People in the US seem to think it’s perfectly normal to be obsessed with Nazis – but can’t seem to fathom that the North Koreans might still remember what happened to them during the Korean War. I’ve read some accounts that basically say the North was completely decimated and pretty much every town and city in the country was destroyed.

        The population of North Korea in 1950 was 9 million.

        Supposedly there were 1.5 million North Korean and Chinese casualties during the war.

        I’m pretty sure that leaves a lasting mark on a nation’s psyche.

        Saw a video the other day with John Stockwell (formerly of the CIA back in the 1970s’) who was making a comment that it would not be surprising to find 3rd world countries trying to attain nuclear weapons as a way of keeping the US from screwing with them.

        This was being said long before the Norks ever actually got those weapons.

        • The NK keep the nukes “reasonable response” is absolutely correct, from their point of view. When Madame Hillary had Ghaddafi of Libya taken out, some few years after he gave up his nukes program, the lesson was not lost on anyone. Hillary’s move may go down as one of the most strategically and tactically insipid moves ever authorized and supported by any diplomatic corps.

          That’s what you get when you put an amateur in charge, a really stupid one.

          • I’m pretty sure the North Koreans thought that nukes were a good idea long before Ghaddafi was taken out.

            Libya was just a ” see I told you so ” moment for anybody in NK who was an advocate for nukes.

        • Correct. Nobody wants to consider that the US has 27,000 troops stationed along the DMZ, and that at the very least it makes the norks nervous. For example, we wouldn’t like it if Iran had 27,000 troops sitting along the southern border of Mexico.

          KJU has no choice but to rattle his saber, and present a position of strength. That’s probably the second chapter in The Complete Guide to Dictators Maintaining Power, chapter one being “Make them think you’re crazy and unpredictable”.

      • Compared to Russia and the ME that may be, but I see plenty of armchair strategy about removing Un, from the usual suspects.

  18. The key to Trump’s strategy is not that NK is weaker than it appears to be, but that China may be weaker than it appears to be. NK is a proxy regime for China to taunt the West. Most likely, the Korean missile technology was given to them by the Chinese, but indigenously constructed to hide the source.

    In any case, Trump is trying to divide the vested interests of China and NK, so that China will stop backing them up. A strong state would tell Trump to pound sand. That is not quite happening, though the signals from China (the public ones, at least) are all over the map, so far.

    If Trump has correctly calculated the strengths and weaknesses here, he will succeed as Reagan did with the USSR. But NK is not the key, China is. How strong and confident is China, really?

    • North Korea has been providing missile tech to Arab countries for decades. The scuds Saddam had came from the Norks. The Iranians have relied on the Norks for missile tech. The North Koreans bought Scud-Bs from Egypt, who acquired them from the Soviets in the 70’s. The Norks then reverse engineered them and developed the Hwasong variants and sold them in the Middle East. It’s unlikely that the Russians or Chinese sold them ballistic missile technology. Instead, the North Koreans probably stole it or bought it from the Pakistanis and developed it from there.

      The only reasons for China to support North Korea now are 1) pride and 2) refugees. They appear to be making a systematic and strategic separation from the Norks. State news is saying bad things about Kim, which is not an accident. What we don’t know is how well the Norks are policing their border with China. I read somewhere that about 50,000 North Koreans are now in China as refugees. Problem #2 may be unavoidable so solving Problem #1 lets China pull the plug on Kim.

      I agree that Trump’s main concern is China. He’s the first president since Nixon to have a clear sense of how the ChiComs operate. He may be looking at North Korea as a way to get concessions from the Chinese on trade issues. It’s hard to know. Trump’s style is to turn up the pressure and then see what happens. That may be all that he is doing now, turning up the pressure. The Chinese do seem to respect him, which has not be true of the previous three presidents.

      • Your missile technology path is more precise and much less conjectural than mine.

        I think China might be sending mixed signals, so far, because they simply don’t know how to respond to Trump. They are used to setting the rules of engagement and orchestrating the process in their relationships with the US, and they have no playbook for Trump’s moves.

        • When Reagan was sure to win his first term, I recall reading something about how every foreign service agency was busy looking down the road at his possible replacements. I forget the details, but what struck me is that Americans live in the moment, because we can afford to, but the rest of the world is always looking down the road, trying to plan for what our rulers will be doing next. The rest of the world cares a lot more about our ruling class’s shenanigans than we do.

          My guess is the world was just as shocked by the 2016 as our elites. China may be flat-footed, as they get a bead on Trump.

Comments are closed.