N. Korea, dissent & desertions: as internal control tightens, border control degrades

I haven’t yet had time to read Nat Kretchun’s new report on the circulation of samizdat inside North Korea, but ReutersThe Washington Post, and Sokeel Park helpfully summarize its bleak findings: Kim Jong-un is not a Swiss-educated reformer, is not bringing Glasnost to North Korea, has turned Koryolink into a tool for hunting down dissent and dissenters, and is slowly winning the war to restore thought control. (Still unanswered is whether Syracuse University’s “engagement” program that taught Pyongyang how to do digital watermarking also helped it perfect its digital censorship.) North Koreans believe it has become more dangerous to watch foreign dramas under His Porcine Majesty’s rule. The only small bright spot is that DVDs and USBs with forbidden content continue to circulate. It will be difficult (if not impossible) to re-indoctrinate generations of disillusioned North Koreans, but highly possible for the state to isolate and repress them.

Still, it’s a profound testament to the power of hope that people would risk a slow death in a prison camp for a rare glimpse at a life worth living, and unfortunate that our own efforts to leverage that power are still in their infancy. South Korea, which knows the power of hallyu, is mulling ways to help spread information into North Korea, but again finds its efforts hobbled by the left-wing, anti-anti-North Korean politicians. One simple and powerful first step would be to extend the range of existing South Korean cell networks. A seemingly unrelated report suggests a second strategy, by highlighting the greatest vulnerability in Kim Jong-un’s control over his own population — low morale and indiscipline among the border guard force. Yes, it happened again:

The North Korean soldiers deserted their posts along the border area with China and illegally entered Changbai County in the country’s northeastern province of Jilin on Tuesday, according to the source.

“Chinese authorities notified residents to be on alert and immediately report their location if they are observed,” the source added. [Yonhap]

Although the Yonhap report doesn’t specifically say that the soldiers deserted, the fact that Chinese police are still looking for them strongly suggests that. Incidents like his have risen sharply since 2014. I’ve compiled reports about other defections, fraggings, desertions, and cross-border crimes by border guards here, and reports of similar disciplinary breakdowns within the North Korean military as a whole here (there’s plenty to read at those links if you’re interested in researching that topic further). This isn’t even the first such incident this year. In January, a border guard shot and killed seven of his comrades. Yonhap mentions just a few of those incidents in its report.

In July 2016, five runaway North Korean soldiers broke into residents’ houses in the county and committed robbery. Chinese police arrested two although two policemen suffered gunshot wounds in the process.

In December 2014, a North Korean army deserter killed four Chinese citizens in a robbery attempt in the Chinese border city of Helong, while an year earlier, a North Korean defector in his 20s killed an elderly Chinese couple in the Chinese border city of Yanji and stole 20,000 yuan (US$2,900). The North Korean defector was caught by Chinese authorities after fleeing to Beijing.

“Since the 2000s, worsening food shortages seems to be pushing North Korean soldiers into deserting their posts,” another source said. “North Korea seems to be suffering from more food shortages since massive flooding hit the country’s northeastern region in late August.” [Yonhap]

The immediate cause of all of these incidents is the fact that the soldiers aren’t being fed or paid properly. Look further behind that, and you find that the soldiers and non-commissioned officers had come to rely on bribes from smugglers to supplement their pay. Kim Jong-un’s crackdown on refugee flows, cell phones, and smuggling has forced the soldiers to rely on a commissary system that’s corrupt, inefficient, and incapable of providing for them.

So how, exactly, does this suggest a strategy? Because North Korea’s domestic economy is so barren, the Ministry of State Security and Reconnaissance General Bureau fund themselves with foreign trading companies and businesses. The same is almost certainly true of other internal security forces, including the border guard force. Targeting those funding sources with sanctions, money laundering prosecutions, forfeitures, and asset freezes would further strain the commissary system, morale, and discipline, and deny those forces the funds to buy materials, parts, and equipment like cell phone trackers. That, in turn, would widen the cracks in Pyongyang’s control over the borders and help smugglers get more DVDs, USBs, radios, cell phones, and human beings across the border.

As I’ve often argued, samizdat will not seriously threaten Kim Jong-un’s control over North Korea until North Koreans have some means of organizing with each other digitally. As I’ve also argued, those means are probably no more than a few years away if we leverage the experiments of Google, Facebook, or other innovative technologies. These strategies aren’t mutually exclusive; indeed, they can be mutually complementary. It isn’t a question of sanctions or information operations or diplomacy. It takes more than a tuba to perform a symphony. It’s all of those instruments playing at once, as long as they play the same music.

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