This screen-grab image taken from North Korean broadcaster KCTV in 2019 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watching the launch of a ballistic missile at an unknown location. Photo: AFP / KCTV

“Win or lose, let’s have a war,” says the headline. “Residents Desperate for Sanctions Relief Support Regime’s Recent Missile Launches to Pressure US.”

That jumped out at me as, thinking of the Korean peninsula’s Russia-Ukraine parallel – two culturally and linguistically similar countries, one of which with its free and democratic ways is driving the authoritarian leader next door nuts – I was catching up with reporting by the respected Osaka-based Asia Press/Rimjingang.

I had heard North Koreans expressing that level of desperation, but not since the mid-1990s when the country was littered with the bodies of the hundreds of thousands who died during the great famine.

Defectors I interviewed back then told me that people were hoping that if the country went to war they could eat their war-reserve rice – and maybe they’d win the war and sit down for a victory feast dining on the enemy’s rice.

North Korea has experienced war during the lifetime of quite a few oldsters who are still around to testify to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that 1950-53 with its millions of deaths was horrible.

I figured that things on the ground now must be awful indeed if AsiaPress – which advertises that it “contacts its reporting partners in North Korea through smuggled Chinese mobile phones” – had been able to find multiple residents willing to say they can’t go on so let’s throw the dice and go to war.

Sure enough, here are a couple more of the outlet’s recent headlines:

  • “Gap Between Capital and Countryside Grows as Kim Jong-un Regime Blatantly Abandons Rural Areas”
  • “Minus 30 Degrees Celsius! Residents Live With Neighbors to Save on Heating as Coal is Rationed to Workplaces”

“So what?” experienced Pyongyang watchers might ask. Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s third-generation leader, wouldn’t decide on questions of war and peace on the basis of his subjects’ mood.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides field guidance to Farm No. 1116 under KPA Unit 810, in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang September 13, 2016. Photo: KCNA

And, anyhow, the current economic crunch is entirely Kim’s doing: He insists on threatening South Korea, Japan and the United States with nuclear annihilation, keeps testing weapons to back up his threats – and, as a result, his country is tightly squeezed by international and bilateral sanctions.

Furthermore, because he knew his public health apparatus was pitifully inadequate, he cut off trade with his only serious trading partner, China, at the outset of the Covid pandemic. Avoiding the passage of goods was his eccentric way of keeping germs out.

(Most medical authorities say the infection is mainly passed directly by humans, not so much via inanimate objects.)

Good points, but I continued reading AsiaPress’s recent offerings and came upon an analysis quoting North Korean defector and former North Korean spy Oh So-won (pseudonym): “Why does Kim Jong-un keep launching missiles? Exploring the Truth and Objectives.”

Several things Oh believes to be true grabbed my attention:

  • “North Korean experts in South Korea had predicted that Kim Jong Il would not take any provocative action to increase military tensions between North and South Korea ahead of the presidential election in March, as it would be detrimental to left-wing presidential candidates who are more likely to be more lenient towards North Korea. The assumption that it would not be in Kim Jong Il’s interest to have a conservative government in South Korea was a logical one – but it turned out to be wrong.”
  • “At the general meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held at the end of 2021, a decision was made to complete the development of hypersonic missiles and ‘mass produce’ them for field deployment in 2022. However, successful testing and mass production for actual deployment are entirely different matters.”
  • “Looking at the missile launch tests that North Korea has been conducting over the past few years, the key words ‘surprise attack’ and ‘irregularity’ come to mind. These include shortening the launch preparation time and improving the launch maneuverability and irregular flight capability of the missiles.”
  • “So, will the new weapons, such as hypersonic missiles that have been tested repeatedly, be ready for field deployment immediately? In my opinion, it will not be easy. In addition to financial difficulties and power shortages, there are other unique reasons for this.”
  • “Development of weapons is completed at the National Defense Academy of Sciences, before the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces submits a deployment plan to the Second Economic Commission, which is in charge of munitions production. After the committee reviews the project and offers the budget and production plan to the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party for approval, mass production begins to create the ‘national standard product.'”
  • “As for the development of advanced weapon prototypes … above all, it was essential to secure stable electrical power…. Although there are priority power transmission measures for the military-industrial sector, the quality (frequency) is the problem. Precision machinery is sensitive to fluctuations in the frequency of electricity, and if the frequency becomes unstable even slightly, it will stop…. In my opinion, the fundamental improvement of the conditions that allow for mass production has not yet been made.”
  • “In other words, the actual deployment of weapons in North Korea is not proceeding as planned. Repeated delays and the eventual scaling back of deployment, and the deployment of a significant number of dummy weapons are common occurrences. In North Korea, many projects are unsustainable, with their completion eventually left in limbo.”

Whew. So does that mean that those of us who live in targeted countries are off the hook and can relax? Not quite, if we credit Oh’s instincts. In the past few days, we have learned some things about Vladimir Putin’s unpredictability and lust for conquest.

This picture taken on March 21, 2020 and released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 22, 2020, shows a demonstration fire of tactical guided weapons at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Photo: KCNA VIA KNS / AFP / Stringer

Oh – writing just before the Ukraine mess heated up – advises watching out in that regard for Kim Jong Un (reminder: Kim had his uncle and his half-brother killed), who knows how to scare his underlings into performing:

I have seen subordinates at work whispering that the official in charge will be unlucky if he upsets the leader in the process. Since the beginning of the era of the temperamental Kim Jong-un, there has been a growing tendency to avoid being selected for high-ranking official positions where the probability of getting the wrong end of the stick is high.

It is common knowledge that it takes time for any product to go from development to market, but if we overestimate the time left before North Korea’s weapons become a full-fledged threat, we will be badly stung.

The United States is mainly responsible for taking a lax view of the current situation in North Korea. North Korea’s weapons development has sped up beyond what it was in the past. It is necessary to fundamentally rethink our strategy to see whether the threat can be controlled solely through this defensive arms development race.

And on that ominous note …

An Asia correspondent and editor since 1977, Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.