Revenge attacks demoralize North Korea’s security forces

Yesterday, Yonhap reported the possible purge of Won Tong-Yon, head of the United Front Department,* which handles North Korea’s propaganda. The report remains unconfirmed, but it would be consistent with reports that Kim Jong Un has put his 25 year-old sister, Kim Yo-Jong — known for her “eccentricity to the point of weirdness” — in charge of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. If so, Miss Kim may have a reason to consolidate control over her own fiefdom.

Won was said to have been a relative soft-liner, and Jang Song-Thaek was at the cutting edge of North Korea’s economic engagement with China, although Defense Minister Kim Yong-Chol was arguably a hard-liner. To the extent the purges show any ideological pattern, they do not suggest a softening of Kim Jong-Un’s style of governance.

Washington’s best North Korea scholars don’t agree on what the purges mean. Some say His Porcine Majesty has consolidated power and has confidence that he can purge whoever displeases him. Others say it indicates a lack of complete control. To others, it may yet convince the top cadres that serving Kim Jong-Un is a greater risk than plotting his Untergang. Judging by our next report, there is also growing doubt within the North Korean security forces. The Daily NK reports that more “safety agents, who act as police officers … are leaving their posts” to find safer and more lucrative work in the markets.

This comes as more agents are facing retaliation from angry residents who have fallen victim to their abuse of power during crackdowns and surveillance, Daily NK has learned.

“A lot of safety agents feel unsettled about the future, having been at the forefront of wielding abusive power against the public. So we’re seeing people quit their jobs,” a source in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “They say they’re worried about retaliation from residents who have fallen victim and are unable to conduct crackdowns as they would. More agents are looking for other jobs so they can make money,” she said.

Compared to the previous leadership, surveillance and control over residents has become more severe, leading to growing discontent and anger from the public, according to the source. This has challenged bad behavior from safety agents and contributed to their ‘early retirements’, she explained. 

Over the past few years, the country has seen a spike in attacks that were carried out by people seeking revenge against safety agents, the source said. “Just in the city of Chongjin, a few years ago, the head of a district safety office was clobbered in the back of the head, leading to immediate death,” she explained.

Security agents are no exception. A few years ago in the cities of Kimchaek and Hoeryong, security agents were stabbed to death, throwing the areas into turmoil. “According to investigations, the incidents were all based on personal grudges and revenge for other family members,” said the source. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK cites several specific examples of revenge attacks by angry North Korean citizens, including the stabbing deaths of security agents in Kimchaek and Hoeryong several years ago, and the recent beating death of a customs agent in Rajin.

In July, the Daily NK reported that a large brawl broke out between merchants and security agents in a market in Musan, and that a female rice trader, pushed to desperation by the extortionate demands of a Ministry of People’s Security agent, jumped off a building in protest. In 2012, it reported the revenge killings of “one official from the provincial NSA, one from the prosecutor’s office and two from the People’s Safety Agency” in Chongjin, during Kim Jong-Il’s mourning period. In 2010, it reported a wave of revenge attacks against the security forces following the Great Confiscation. 

In recent years, some in the security forces have become thugs and shake-down artists, targeting the families of refugees for a share of the remittances they receive from South Korea, or blackmailing “economic criminals” with threats of terms in labor camps.

As I’ve argued before, there’s probably much more resistance against the regime than most of us realize. This resistance remains fragmented, and is unlikely to threaten the regime’s survival until it coalesces around a political organization and a unifying, galvanizing ideology (most likely, cells of Christian believers operating underground churches, unions, news services, and humanitarian NGOs, who advocate unification with the South). A movement of this kind cannot form until North Koreans develop the means to communicate with each other, with some degree of security.

Still, last week’s report is the first I’ve read that these attacks had affected morale and retention in the security forces.

“Some safety agents say they can’t do this any longer. More of them are worried that although they might be up on a high horse now that situation may change at any point in the future,” the source reported. This is why, although it may be late in the game, some are choosing ‘safer’ options and seeking employment at trade companies, which are also more lucrative as well, she added.

Another source in the same North Hamkyung Province reported of similar sentiments shared among central and provincial administrative Party officials. Following the execution of key officials such as Jang Song Thaek and other high-ranking cadre members, officials are less ambitious about climbing up the ranks and more content with the status quo, he said. Being in higher ranking posts not only exposes them more to the leadership but also to the public.

“Safety agents these days talk about how in the mid ‘80s, when China first announced it would open up to reforms, people took revenge against malicious cadre,” he said. “They talk of some even being beaten to death,” the source added.

In my essay on “guerrilla engagement,” I posited that by sanctioning the regime and enabling the rise of the market economy, we could help effect a shift in North Korea’s economic and political balance of power, which would lure security agents out of the power structure and into accommodation with forces that were not necessarily loyal to the regime. I posited that as the people organized and gained strength from numbers, money, and organization, more security officials would refrain from repressive acts out of fear of retaliation or prosecution. This report suggests that such a dynamic may already be emerging.

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* For an insider’s view of how the UFD operates, read Jang Jin-Sung’s Dear Leader.

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