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: Several desperate North Korean border guards, denied the income that they would otherwise have earned by taking bribes from smugglers, desert across the border into China, and rob and murder 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. When soldiers are ordered into battle, they usually obey orders, at least initially, unless they are mentally and emotionally prepared to disobey. What these reports tell us is that the soldiers have lost faith in their leaders, and that they are ready to be led in different and more peaceful directions. But first, we must prepare them.

First, information operations should target low-ranking North Korean soldiers with a message of peace–that war between the Koreas would be fratricidal and destructive to both Koreas. South Korean culture can play an important role here, in humanizing the potential victims of war. Soldiers should be told that theft, pilferage, and sabotage of military fuel, supplies, and other equipment helps to prevent war, and is an act of national patriotism. The highest ranking leaders, after all, are less likely to provoke a war if they know that their armed forces are neither ready nor willing to fight.

Second, reports of poor morale, discipline, and cohesion should be publicized, both internationally and internally, so that company-grade, field-grade, and flag officers will question their own sense of purpose, their confidence in their soldiers, and their confidence in other units. Top officials in the North Korean government have internet access; reports like these may dissuade them from joining in any attack against the South, particularly if they are told that they will be held accountable for the loss of civilian lives. The objective is to cause officers to waver or hesitate before following orders to use deadly force, until opposition to those orders has a chance to build momentum. If the officers come to believe rumors (whether true or not) that there are supplies of ammunition beyond the state’s control, they will fear for their own safety if they continue to mistreat their soldiers.

Finally, soldiers who fear for their lives, their health, their safety, and their survival shouldn’t have to walk through minefields to find refuge. Eventually, guerrilla engagement advances sufficiently, it can create a network of shelters inside North Korea, where deserters can receive forged identity documents, regular meals, medical treatment, education, religious services (should they choose them) and humane treatment, in exchange for useful labor in guerrilla NGO-run farms and factories. The methods used to recruit these soldiers need not differ substantially from the methods used to recruit them into smuggling networks, and often into close (even intimate) relationships with smugglers, today. Indeed, many North Korean soldiers in border regions already live in civilian homes; the next steps aren’t hard to imagine. Some of these deserters could be re-formed into security services to protect markets, trade, and the local population from the predations of soldiers. If there is a sudden and unexpected descent into anarchy, those units may prove invaluable in the restoration of order.

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* A previous version of this post said, “Given the geography, this soldier must have come from one of North Korea’s front-line units, whose members are usually selected for their reliably loyal family backgrounds.” Commenter Yang (thank you) points to a Korean-language story that the soldier’s unit was in Hamheung, which is at a considerable distance from the DMZ.

7 Comments

  1. Given the nature of regimes like the North Korean, there may still be cases where they pretend to be “the Resistance” and arrest anyone they contact who does not immediately turn them in.

    That’s going to be a tough job for the first teams who try it…

  2. The Yonhap News article dated June 15 forgot to mention that someone had spotted that Hyon was edited out of a KCTV documentary that was run this month.

  3. Pingback: Symposium | ????

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