To prevent war, talk to North Korea’s soldiers about rice, peace & freedom (updated: it happened again)

When the U.S. Army wants to breach a minefield, it deploys a Mine-Clearing Line Charge to blast a path through it with 1,750 pounds of C-4. The procedure looks like this:

Obviously, the North Koreans know this, so they can’t possibly think that planting a few more anti-personnel mines along the DMZ — right where U.S. and ROK forces will be watching and marking them — will do anything to stop an invasion that isn’t coming. I’m mildly surprised, by the way, to learn that this is the “first time North Korea was seen planting mines in Panmunjom since the inter-Korean armistice agreement in July 1953.” The mining even drew condemnation from the U.N. Command because “thousands of visitors — often school-aged children — take part in tours to the DMZ.”

Which brings us to the accelerating dissolution of the North Korean army‘s morale and discipline. If national defense doesn’t explain why North Korea is planting these mines, the speculation that North Korea is planting the mines “to block potential defection by its own soldiers” makes sense, especially given what’s been happening along North Korea’s border with China lately.

deserter

[2015: North Korean deserter in Chinese custody after his arrest]

Starting in 2014, and with escalating frequency, North Korean border guards have been crossing over into China. In some cases, they’ve dropped their weapons and fled. In others, they’ve carried their weapons across the border to rob or murder Chinese civilians. Last month, five of them got into a shoot-out with Chinese police, and at least one other soldier dropped his weapon and slipped away.

This week, New Focus reported that “on the early morning of the 17th of August, two officers stationed in Hyesan, Yanggang Province, left their guard posts, carrying weapons, and crossed the Amnok river.” After a brief exchange of fire with Chinese soldiers, the two were captured and sent back. If they’re still alive, they won’t be for long.

deserters

In the 12-year history of this blog, I’ve never seen so many reports of fratricide and desertion as I’ve seen over the last year. That isn’t because information is flowing out of North Korea more freely than it has in years past. Nor am I the only one to have noticed this new trend.

Border guards have fled North Korea before, of course, yet the regime survived. The largest such incident I’m aware of actually took place in February 2007, when a platoon of about 20 border guards deserted into China en masse, after coming under suspicion for smuggling. On rarer occasions, soldiers have also defected over the DMZ into South Korea. (This week, three North Koreans defected in a fishing boat off the coast of Incheon, and the ROK Navy rescued a 27-year-old North Korean man floating on a piece of styrofoam, off Yeonpyeong Island. Whether any of them were deserters or draft-dodgers remains to be seen.)

These reports aren’t just an embarrassment; they’re a threat to Pyongyang’s control over the movement of people, goods, and information across its borders. With the recent surge in high-level defections, Pyongyang has tried to further increase border security. Obviously, it can’t keep the prisoners in if the wardens keep running away. It’s bad enough that this is happening along the northern border. Were this to start happening along the DMZ, the scale of the embarrassment to the regime would increase at least ten-fold — hence, the mines.

The other interesting point I take from these reports is that the North Korean military’s control over its weapons and ammunition is not as effective as I’d been led to believe. I can foresee the rise of a domestic black market in stolen weapons and ammunition. 

wanted

[2015: a Chinese wanted poster for a North Korean army deserter]

So what has changed? Although it’s possible that sanctions have disrupted the regime’s finances, pay, and rations, I’m more inclined to suspect corruption, mismanagement, and the broader breakdown of loyalty and cohesion in North Korean society. Hwang Pyong-so isn’t dealing with corruption in the military’s commissary system effectively, which means that malnutrition has worsened in the ranks. 

I wonder if reports that China has shipped more food aid to North Korea are related to this. Historically, Chinese aid has come without monitoring conditions, which made it more susceptible to diversion to the military. Indeed, North Korea’s markets have become efficient and resilient enough that soldiers probably have even less to eat than most civilians (other people in state institutions, including orphanages, are probably suffering, too). The military’s poor food situation may also explain why the regime is confiscating so much food in South Hwanghae that farmers there are afraid they’ll starve.

North Korean soldiers have been malnourished for years, of course, but in the past, they could at least survive and even save up some money for civilian life by taking bribes from smugglers. But now, Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown has eliminated even that option for most of them. Even NCOs are finding it harder to get away with smuggling. Of course, rank still has its privileges for a few.

“Recently, high-ranking cadres from the State Security Department have been secretly trading narcotics with Chinese mafia,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK in a telephone conversation. “This is not to secure ‘loyalty funds’[for the leadership]; it’s purely about accumulating personal wealth.”

For example, the source added, cadres recently purchased 8 kg worth of crystal methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth, in an inland region of North Korea before moving it over the border. “They bought the drugs for 9,000 RMB per kilogram and sold it to contacts in China for 14,000 RMB per kilogram,” the source said, describing how a single transaction yielded approximately 40,000 RMB (48 million KPW) in profits. [Daily NK]

Instead, more soldiers are turning to violent crime. We probably don’t hear about most of those cases, because the victims are North Koreans. They’re farmers and villagers whose homes and crops are pillaged, and women who are raped with impunity (the soldiers themselves are often raped with impunity, too). More recently, soldiers have turned to straight-up highway robbery.

Beset by malnutrition and impoverishment, a growing number of North Korean soldiers are resorting to violence and other criminal acts against civilians to obtain money and other valuables.

“The soldiers are attacking trucks on the Pyongyang-Wonsan and Pyongyang-Kaesong expressways. Groups of soldiers jump in front of the vehicles while brandishing rocks to get the driver to stop,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK August 17.

“Then they rob the passengers.”

When vehicles fail to slow down and attempt to pass through the threatening roadblock, factions of soldiers pummel them with rocks, shattering the glass and severely injuring everyone inside. In extreme cases, the source said, such attacks have been fatal. Some trucks have even veered off the road and tipped over as the drivers try to get away from the mobs.

Naturally, drivers are increasingly wary about braving the open road, not least because the state has done little to clamp down on the violence, opting to take the same approach it has to soldiers abandoning their posts, despite strict surveillance from defense security command officials, by choosing to ignore the crumbling order and discipline within the barracks.

This emboldens the soldiers to increase the frequency and severity of crimes against civilians. [Daily NK]

Not so long ago, the North Korean military was a highly professional force. Despite its hard conditions, the soldiers were well-fed, and military service was a highly desirable career. This month, RFA reported that the military is closing loopholes in the conscription rules to keep its numbers up.

mig 21 crash

[2010: The wreckage of a North Korean MiG-21 in China. The pilot, who was killed, may have attempted to defect.]

As long as I’ve written about North Korea, I’ve followed reports about the state of the North Korean military’s morale and discipline closely. This interest is a natural outgrowth of my own service on the other side of the Korean DMZ, as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. The JAG Corps’s function is to help commanders maintain the “good order and discipline of the service.” (Iin my own case, I spent most of my service defending soldiers accused of serious crimes.)

My interest is also a function of the deep impression on me from Bob Collins’s now-famous briefing about the phases of North Korean collapse, which I heard as a young officer shortly after I arrived in South Korea. Collins’s briefing is often read as a Hegelian dialectic, but over the years, I’ve watched North Korea progress and regress through those stages in both directions, with substantial variations between regions.

What I’ve observed over the years is that within certain commands, the quality of the soldiers’ food, medical care, and leadership will decline; morale will fall; and soldiers who can will turn to corruption to survive. When the rot comes to the attention of the general staff in Pyongyang, they’ll rotate the failing units out and replace them with fresh ones. Presumably, units that are rotated out of front-line service are retrained or assigned to construction duties. But given the long enlistments (ten years and more) that North Korean soldiers serve, there will be a point at which most North Korean soldiers will be exposed to this abysmal morale.

It’s anyone’s guess what the end-state of this erosive process will be, but I doubt it will alter history until an officer gives the order to fire without result. For now, it mostly means that much of the North Korean military, including many of its front-line units, would be useless in a real war. Of course, the enemy the North Korean army is most likely to fight is the North Korean army, or crowds of protestors. The outcome of that war — and whether a second Korean War follows it — would hinge almost entirely on psychological factors. That, in turn, will not happen until isolated grievances and incidents are magnetized by political consciousness. 

A century ago, the call of “brot und frieden” ended World War One. Pray that this century, a message of “rice, peace, and freedom” can prevent Korean War Two.

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Update: Look what I found in my Twitter feed after work today. Two armed North Korean soldiers slipped over the Chinese border, killed and butchered a donkey in some poor guy’s yard, “and fled into the night with the hunks of meat.” The Chinese border patrol, which ordinarily earns its pay hunting down defenseless women and kids — whom it sends back to die in the gulag — wasn’t amused:

The soldiers were chased off by a Chinese border patrol who opened fire. It is not known if any of the thieves were shot or killed during the incursion at the east end of the Great Wall of China in Liaoning province.

The raid took place in early August after the North Koreans crossed the Yalu river, which borders China, from Sinuiju city in North Phyongan province to steal food from Chinese homes near the Hushan Great Wall area, a popular tourist destination, according to sources close to the border patrol.

“(The incident) may mean the food shortage is severe even for soldiers, who supposedly have priority over supplies,” said another source.

In recent years, the food shortage crisis in North Korea is believed to have lessened. However, the source pointed out that some rural areas of North Korea are experiencing temporary food shortages, as they are forced to send eggs and meat to Pyongyang after a national campaign called “200-Day Battle” was initiated by the government from June this year. [Asahi Shimbun]

It’s unfortunate that Chinese civilians are now experiencing a small sample of the fear and pain their government has sown in North Korea for so long. For years, Beijing thought of North Korea as a problem for its enemies, so it enabled North Korea’s worst behavior. Now that its internal instability is spilling out of its borders, the Chinese general staff must be wondering whether another Syria is breaking out on their border.

The other dynamic that may be emerging is that middle-songbun North Koreans who rely on the state seem worse off than low-songbun North Koreans who rely on the markets, and who still have a stable food supply. Food confiscations seem to be intended to make sure the “wrong” people don’t starve. Judging by the results, it’s not going well.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent write-up as always. The KPA has been in qualitative free-fall for almost 30 years, even when only considering equipment, much less the clear collapse of morale and training standards.




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  2. This will create a very dangerous underworld for a united Korea, if and when unification takes place. I don’t know if South Korea’s national police force would be fully ready to handle it in the beginning. Currently in the south, there are very few drugs and really no gun crimes to speak of.




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