North Korean NCO kills wife, daughter of his company commander (updated)

Via the Daily NK and Yonhap, we have yet another report of fratricidal violence, corruption, and indiscipline among North Korea’s border guards, except this time, the fratricidal intent was redirected at the mother and daughter of an army officer.

The incident occurred at the end of July in the Kanggu District of Hyesan City, where the sergeant major’s unit – the 25th Border Security Brigade – was stationed, a source from Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on August 7.

“In a brutal attack, the sergeant major strangled the company commander’s mother, and then drowned his daughter by stuffing her in a water tank,” he said. [….]

The sergeant major was attempting to murder the company commander, but when he arrived at his house, he wasn’t there, the source explained. “And so, in the end, the innocent family members became the targets of the sergeant major’s rage,” he lamented. [Daily NK]

Whatever your views about the North Korean regime, this is a horrific, indefensible crime. Other North Korean army defectors have reported mistreatment by their officers and NCOs, but there’s no evidence of that in this report. Instead, the motive for this murder was corruption — the North Korean army has no pension system, so the NCO was pilfering and selling the unit’s food and clothing to save enough money to live on after his impending discharge. The unit’s commander denounced the NCO for this at a criticism session in front of the soldiers who were the victims of this crime. The NCO went to the commander’s home to murder him to avenge this humiliation. The commander wasn’t home, but his mother and daughter were.

This report may help to shed light on why six soldiers (five armed and one unarmed) recently fled from their border guard units into China recently.

In mordern (sic) North Korea, sergeant majors and company commanders affiliated with border security forces usually have a very close relationship, coordinating with one another to earn cash by facilitating smuggling operations via China or dealing with the brokers that assist with defections [accepting cash to look the other way as the defectors flee].   

However, conflicts began to arise soon after Kim Jong Un rose to power and began blocking off defection and smuggling routes with increased surveillance and control. As the financial prospects of the border security forces began to wither away, growing distrust moved in to fill the vacuum. Likewise, the psychological pressures of this fearpolitik drove officers to more frequently report on one another’s ‘corrupt behaviors’ in an attempt to shield themselves from the worst of it.

Unlike most North Koreans, soldiers do not receive enough pay to access the markets to supplement their state rations. The usual method for this is smuggling.

But where Kim Jong-un’s crackdown on smuggling has been effective, it has forced underpaid soldiers, NCOs, and officers to find new ways to supplement their inadequate incomes, including by stealing from each other. Separately, Yonhap (citing the Daily NK) reports that soldiers receive just 70 grams of food per meal, not enough to sustain them. This has strained the cohesion among units’ leaders.

For many, the precipitous deterioration of a once amicable relationship is seen as a symptom of collisions and arguments at the top. Some suggest that the sergeant major was actually being punished for not sharing a large enough portion of the profits with the commander.

We also see the results in the skeletal condition of many of those soldiers, and now, in their desperate and violent attacks on each other, on Chinese civilians across the border, and on the local civilian population.

Not surprisingly, word of the incident circulated fast, accompanied by deprecating remarks about the military’s lack of discipline. “A lot of people mockingly point out that army members are supposed to be the guardians of the homeland, but instead, they have become a money earning operation that will do anything and everything to earn a buck,” said an separate source in Ryanggang Province.

This source concluded by describing the larger context. “Desertion rates are up. The rogue soldiers are causing social problems by becoming involved in robberies and homicides. As a result, public criticism is rising. When soldiers begin attacking innocent civilians, it’s clear that there is a problem.”

Yonhap, citing RFA, also reports separately on the rise in soldier-on-civilian crime in another North Korean province, North Hamgyeong.

An anonymous source told the media outlet a large number of residents in Chongjin are reporting damage caused by soldiers belonging to the 45th division located in the city. Locals argued that marauding soldiers are breaking into homes, farms and factories to steal anything of worth. The North Korean soldiers are often called “bandits,” according to the source.

Some other soldiers also steal food and vegetables from farmhouses as a means to supplement their meager food rations, according to the source. He said there have even been cases of soldiers robbing people on the roads and in vehicles. [Yonhap]

The Daily NK’s report isn’t corroborated by independent sources, but multiple reports suggest that border control has declined significantly since Kim Jong-un took power. We appear to be in the advanced stages of Phase Two in the cycle I described here. The rapid deterioration of morale and discipline along the border will soon force the regime to rotate new units in to maintain control. The alternative would be an accelerating collapse of discipline, the reversal of Kim Jong-un’s successes at sealing the border, and an increased flow of goods, information, and people across the borders. It is another reminder of why Kim Jong-un’s ability to control his borders and his military ultimately comes down to money. 

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Update: Then again, maybe there isn’t another unit that Kim Jong-un can rotate in. Word is apparently spreading among the ranks that malnutrition and undernourishment are rife throughout the military because Hwang Pyong-so isn’t controlling corruption and pilferage.

A North Korean resident in Jagang Province told RFA that he was shocked by the news that his son, who entered the army in March, was suffering from malnutrition.

He said the rations given to ordinary soldiers are so poor that most are in a serious state of undernourishment.

The North Korean informant said that since his son went to the army, he ate only boiled corn with a soup of salted wild greens.

Another military source in Ryanggang Province said in the units he knew, the military food supply is not so bad as to cause malnutrition, but added that troops are starving due to deep-rooted corruption and greed for private profits by officers.

More often than not, army commanders embezzle food and even kitchen oil from the military, forcing soldiers into extreme undernourishment, the source said.

According to the military source, the food situation these days has become worse under the current director of the general political bureau of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Hwang Pyong-so, who is said to be incompetent in the everyday aspects of military affairs, especially at food rationing.

In comparison, Hwang’s predecessor, Choe Ryong-hae, provided more supplies such as seafood, nutritional pills and hardtack, but these supplementary foods were stopped after Choe stepped down.

Since the inauguration of Hwang, who has been lax on dealing with corruption, soldiers have begun to complain about him, the media outlet claimed. [Yonhap]

That would explain the recent uptick in reports of disciplinary incidents and hunger.