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.

2 Comments

  1. This article addresses something I’ve wondering about for a long time: what prevents North Korean society from failing entirely.

    There have been so many stories over the years about the North Korean military being malnourished, overworked, corrupt, poorly equipped, poorly trained, and so forth that I wondered why they don’t collapse entirely. But Phase 3 above explains why this doesn’t happen: Pyongyang has the power to return things to some level of functionality, and knows to enforce it before things go too far.

  2. Another interesting tidbit is that these defectors were able to get their hands on both weapons (and presumably) ammunition, something I thought was normally controlled in the KPA precisely to minimize the risk of soldiers doing things like this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *