This blog has closely followed reports of indiscipline within the North Korean military, resistance against the state, strategies for political subversion, and the breakdown of border control. Last week, another report of a mass shooting incident by a North Korean border guard reinforced my belief that morale and discipline within the border guard force are declining.
A young North Korean man conscripted to guard a customs post on his country’s border with China in (sic) under arrest for shooting dead seven platoon members who had angered him with bullying treatment, RFA’s Korean Service has learned.
After the shootings at dawn on Jan. 7 at Hyesan, a city in North Korea’s northern Yanggang province, the young conscript was arrested and taken to Pyongyang, sources familiar with the shooting told RFA. [….]
“The incident at the Hyesan customs office was caused by the frequent beatings suffered by the new conscripts at the hands of their superiors, and the one who committed the crime is a new conscript who graduated from high school last spring,” the source told RFA on Jan. 16. [Radio Free Asia]
In this case, it was hazing that caused the soldier to snap. In other cases, it was the lack of sufficient pay and rations that led soldiers to turn to crime or fratricide. Most of those reports point to endemic corruption as the cause of fratricides and defections. Officers and NCOs skim pay and rations and either keep them or sell them for a profit. I don’t attribute this to sanctions, as I see no direct evidence of that, but if sanctions were to disrupt the regime’s pay and rationing systems, I’d expect to see more incidents like this.
I have seen it suggested that this incident could not have happened because, according to Chinese media reports, North Korean soldiers along the border aren’t issued ammunition. But there are enough similar reports that we can reject that claim and instead categorize this report as plausible but unconfirmed. Let’s start with this incident from last July, in which a group of five armed North Korean soldiers crossed the border to rob Chinese civilians and got into a “gunfight” with Chinese police. Because a gunfight isn’t likely unless both sides have both weapons and ammunition, there is evidence that in at least some cases, North Korean soldiers along the northern border have both, and aren’t always using them as directed. More here.
In March of 2015, two armed North Korean border guards fled to China. At least one of them was captured. In that incident, the Dandong border guard station warned that the soldiers “are thought to be armed with guns and knives,” but the same report also said one of the soldiers was carrying “three blank magazines.”
Between September and December 2014, several desperate North Korean border guards, denied the income that they would otherwise have earned by taking bribes from smugglers, deserted across the border into China to rob and murder several civilians. A January 2015 Bloomberg report reports that in one of these incidents, “a North Korean soldier shot four residents of Nanping, a border village of about 300 in northeastern Jilin province. Around 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years, a senior local official said in an interview.” So serious was the concern about the chaos along the border that some Chinese fled their border villages, Chinese authorities formed vigilante patrols and deployed troops to the border, and North Korea fired the general in charge. (See also this and this.)
In March 2013, a border guard in Musan County, North Hamgyeong province, shot and killed five company commanders and attempted (unsuccessfully) to desert. The soldier was reportedly disgruntled because he was underfed and was caught stealing food. In April 2012, Chinese and North Korean authorities launched 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. Going back to 2010, North Korean border guards shot dead three Chinese citizens after crossing the border.
There’s also substantial evidence that soldiers along the DMZ have weapons and ammunition, and that they also periodically shoot their officers, defect, or both. A case in point would be a 2012 incident in which a soldier on guard duty at the DMZ shot and killed two officers and crossed into South Korea. I’ve cataloged most recent reports of that kind at this post.
~ ~ ~
It is obvious why these incidents are horrible. It is less obvious why they may be hopeful for those who want to avoid greater horrors — another Korean War, the continuation of North Korea’s status quo, or the loss of South Korea’s freedom and independence. As long-time readers know, I’ve long believed that North Korea’s dictators want nuclear weapons to extort South Korea into submission. They aren’t interested in bargaining their nukes away for any price, with the exception of regime survival itself. Recently, centrists like Richard Armitage, Richard Haass, and Winston Lord have also come to believe that the overthrow of the North Korean system is probably the only way to disarm Kim Jong-un. But even as calls for regime change grow, the debate about how to execute such a policy is headed nowhere good.
The most obvious idea, that of a conventional attack, cautiously pushed in this post, is the worst and most dangerous plan for Götterdämmerung. Any plan for a sudden overthrow of Kim Jong-un will trigger a “use it or lose it” mentality within the North Korean leadership and is likely to get hundreds of thousands of people killed on both sides of the DMZ. Such a plan is likely to consolidate, rather than fracture, the cohesiveness of the North Korean command system and make officers and soldiers more (not less) likely to obey orders to fire on Seoul and Uijongbu. Our current defenses are inadequate to protect against North Korea’s large volume of artillery and rockets. A conventional invasion would not only enmesh us in an occupation of a country deeply indoctrinated with xenophobia and anti-Americanism, it might draw us into a direct conflict with China or result in a de-facto redrawing of the DMZ, turning part of Korea into a Chinese puppet state or “autonomous zone.” The idea of a full-on preemptive strike is a terrible, catastrophically bad idea that should only be considered in response to (or to preempt) an imminent all-out North Korean attack, which is unlikely absent a miscalculation.
Rather, any regime change strategy must take extraordinary care to avoid cornering Kim Jong-un until such time as he distrusts the loyalty and will of his military to obey orders to fire on South Korean cities. At every stage, North Korea’s leaders must believe that there are better and less risky options than this, including negotiations.
Until then, we should redouble our efforts to break down the cohesion of the North Korean command structure by appealing to elites, commanders, and enlisted soldiers alike. We should engage with and empower North Korea’s urban and rural poor to help them build a political underground and a new civil society, independent of their government. We should reassure North Korean elites that they have a future in a reunified Korea. We should offer clemency to commanders, including those who may be guilty of serious crimes, who choose to disobey unlawful orders at the critical moment. We should propagate a simple message of “rice, peace, and freedom” to soldiers and civilians alike. And yes, we should be willing to talk to the North Korean government and explain our position, provided we give no concessions on “engagement” or sanctions until North Korea makes verifiable progress (and also, provided that we never sideline our allies in Seoul and Tokyo). Progress toward what, and how much? Fortunately, people who thought about those questions wrote them into the law, giving the President a degree of flexibility to judge Pyongyang’s sincerity.
Meanwhile, sanctions can help catalyze that process by targeting the accounts and trading companies that pay North Korea’s military and security forces, to hasten the breakdown of its command systems, and to erode those forces’ morale and cohesion.