I haven’t yet had time to read Nat Kretchun’s new report on the circulation of samizdat inside North Korea, but Reuters, The 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.
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.
With all the news out of North Korea recently, I’ve been saving up links to news reports about the floods in the northeastern provinces until I had a moment to put some thoughts together. According to a U.N. aid coordinator’s assessment, the floods killed 138 people, damaged 30,000 houses, and made 69,000 people homeless.
North Korea claims that these are the worst floods since World War II, and some news reports have obligingly reprinted that claim. But OFK has a long memory, and in its vast archives, I found that after floods in 2007, the government claimed that hundreds of people were dead or missing and that 300,000 were homeless. Going by North Korean government statistics alone — something no responsible journalist should ever do without careful fact-checking and prominent disclaimers — these are not even the worst floods in North Korea this decade.
There are, of course, other reasons to be skeptical of Pyongyang’s claims. In 2007, the Korean Central News Agency gave the Associated Press a photograph of knee-deep flood waters in Pyongyang. AP later withdrew the photo when it was revealed to have been a rather obvious photoshop job, altered to make the waters look deeper than they really were. This incident, Pyongyang’s long history of manipulating aid assessments, and its infiltration of U.N. organizations with intelligence agents show that Pyongyang has a motive and a willingness to deceive the world, to get sympathy, money, rations for hungry border guards, or even insurance payouts.
These incidents and many others demonstrate the importance of doing thorough assessments of humanitarian needs, and of rigorous monitoring of the distribution of aid to prevent Pyongyang from diverting and misusing it. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic that U.N. needs assessments this time will do any better than U.N. nutrition surveys have. After all, the areas affected by the floods include at least one prison camp, Camp 12, at Cheongo-ri. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has already published satellite imagery of flood damage to the prison.
The U.N.’s map of the affected areas also includes Camp 25 in Chongjin, the former Camp 22 in Hoeryong, and Camp 16 in Hwasong. Not only would Pyongyang never allow foreign aid workers near those places to do assessments, I doubt U.N. agencies would even have the courage to ask to go there. But why are the humanitarian needs of prisoners, including political prisoners, less deserving than those of anyone else? Ordinarily, humanitarian agencies insist on the non-discriminatory distribution of aid and adhere to the principle of “no access, no aid.” But in another case of North Korean exceptionalism, the has U.N. allowed North Korea to make itself an exception to those principles.
Worse, the state’s botched response is exacerbating the problem. It is prioritizing security over recovery by jamming cell phones and making it difficult to communicate, an essential function during a disaster response. It has deployed large numbers of untrained soldiers and citizens to perform recovery work, but the workers have burdened already scarce supplies of food and shelter. Food prices in the affected area have doubled, and some soldiers have looted private homes.
Then, more than a week after the floods, Kim Jong-un made the decision to carry out a nuclear test, which is the clearest possible statement of the priority he assigns to helping the survivors. In theory, a dictator’s decisions should not be held against his subjects, but Kim Jong-un certainly knew that in practice, the test would contribute to already severe donor fatigue just when his people would be in desperate need of international aid.
Kim Jong-un has made several public appearances to celebrate the nuclear test, but has not gone to the flood-affected areas to command response efforts or console survivors. There are reports of widespread anger by North Koreans, who can certainly see this, too.
Kudos to Kim Jong Un for putting his time & resources into the major flooding problem in North Korea’s northeast. https://t.co/tcPPB3aaJ8
In this light, Seoul’s hesitation to throw money at Pyongyang is somewhat understandable. As I tend to repeat because it can’t be repeated enough, the North Korean people are poor, buttheirgovernmentisn’t. Kim Jong-un has more than enough cash on hand to buy food, tents, medicine, blue tarps, and building materials from just over the border in China, or to import them into the nearby ports of Chongjin and Rason. I see zero evidence that Pyongyang is doing that, but if you do, by all means, post a link in the comments. Yet some people have let themselves be conditioned into the belief that the needs of North Korea’s people are everyone’s responsibility but that of His Supreme Corpulency himself.
“We have to ask ourselves if now is the appropriate time – considering Pyongyang’s two-faced attitude – to make such movement (for aid).”
The Seoul government, the ruling Saenuri Party, and right-leaning media have largely avoided responding to voices urging Seoul’s involvement in alleviating the worst effects of North Korea’s flood, NK News previously reported.
This position has been heavily criticized by scholars and former policymakers, particularly from the Sunshine era, including Dr. Kim Yeon-chul, who was one of the observers of the Six-Party Talks in 2005.
“A hungry child knows no politics,” wrote Kim on his website, quoting the former U.S. President Reagan’s speech from 1984. “Will we ever learn…to sympathize about the other human beings? ” he added. [NK News]
In addition to its casualty toll, the U.N., probably citing North Korean government figures, claims that nearly 400 North Koreans are missing. Some of them are probably dead. Others may be alive but lost amid the chaos. Still others may have slipped across the border into China, taking advantage of the fact that the floods washed away border fences and border posts, drowned some border guards, and generally broke down command and control in the region. This appeal from Liberty in North Korea certainly suggests so.
Friends, North Korea is recovering from severe flooding caused by Typhoon Lionrock. Buildings and homes have been destroyed and thousands of people have been displaced. This has caused an increase in people fleeing across the border into China.
In the last few days, there have been an unprecedented number of requests for rescues from North Koreans who have just crossed the border, but we can’t keep up with this increased demand. This situation needs our immediate response. Our partners are on the ground and ready to go. You can help us, right now, provide critical assistance to individuals who have escaped in the midst of this disaster. [LiNK]
If these new refugees are counted as missing and presumed dead, so much the better for their families, who will be spared collective punishments and shake-downs by the security forces. Eventually, they might even receive remittances from China or South Korea to help get them through the long, cold winter to come.
For the regime, the loss of control of the northeastern border comes amid growing indiscipline among the border guard force, and just as it had begun to reassert control with inspections and restrictions on the soldiers’ movements.
As is so often the case, the North Korean people suffer, and their government does more to exacerbate their suffering than to ameliorate it. In other societies, botched disaster responses have political consequences. But in a place where there is no internet, no telephones, and no other means by which the people can share their grievances or organize to protest them, the regime will probably be able to isolate and suppress their anger.
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.
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.
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 rareroccasions, 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.
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 homesand 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
~ ~ ~
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.
It has been three months since 12 young women and a man defected from that North Korean restaurant in Ningpo, China, and since 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait staged a mass protest against their minders. I’d begun to wonder if the regime had cauterized the wounded cohesion of the very people it needs most desperately to pay its bills and seal its borders, but the drops of fresh blood on the floor tell another story. Let’s begin with the most painful — and potentially, lethal — loss.
Anchor: A general who was in charge of managing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s overseas slush funds is said to be in China after escaping from his country, and is seeking political asylum with two other North Koreans in a country other than South Korea. A source said that the three were separated from a diplomat from Pyongyang, who is seeking his own defection to another country. [….]
Report: It has been made known that a general escaped from North Korea and is seeking political asylum in a country other than South Korea. A source in China, who works in collaboration with Seoul government officials, on Thursday revealed the recent defection of the general, a diplomat and two others.The source said that the North Korean military officer was in charge of managing Kim Jong-un’s slush funds in Southeast Asia. [KBS Radio]
The general was on a business trip in China meeting with three other North Koreans when he and two others parted ways with the third, a diplomat, and slipped away and sought asylum in “a country other than South Korea.” The diplomat is reportedly still in China, making his own plans to defect. Why not South Korea? In a word, “Minbyun,” but that topic deserves its own post.
Also, ineradicable historical ignominy.
KBS notes that this is the first known defection of a North Korean general. Indeed, by my reckoning, it would be the highest-ranking defection from North Korea since Hwang Jang-yop defected in 1997. KBS had no further information about the two North Koreans who defected with the general, or about the position held by the diplomat.
The source said that the four North Koreans decided to leave their country due to their dissatisfaction with the Kim Jong-un regime and pessimistic views about the future of the country. [KBS Radio]
So. One of the men who knows the most about Kim Jong-un’s finances — and presumably, its sanctions evasion strategy — secretly despised His Porcine Majesty and is convinced that his regime has no future. As we speak, the CIA or another friendly intelligence agency may be debriefing him, filling Excel spreadsheets and databases with bank names and account numbers, copying all the numbers in his cell phone, and imaging his laptop. All of that information will be cross-checked against the intelligence windfalls we presumably collected from the Reconnaissance General Bureau colonel who defected last year; from Yun Tae-hyong of Daesong Bank, who defected in Russia in 2014; and from North Korean diplomat Kim Chol-song, who was last seen earlier this month at Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg with his family, as they boarded a flight to Minsk and points west.
When asked why they don’t block all of His Supreme Corpulency’s slush funds, Treasury officials have answered that since the great training exercise for North Korean money launderers known as Banco Delta Asia (thank you, Chris Hill) the North Koreans have diversified and hidden their funds, and there are no equally vulnerable “nodes” that can be blocked anymore. These defections may well remove that excuse, and because of new compliance rules imposed by Treasury and the EU, banks may hesitate to move those North Korean funds again. If properly exploited, that intelligence would send His Corpulency schussing down a steep slope to bankruptcy.
[As all the peace studies grad students know, sanctions never work.]
And in other North Korea defection news, three North Korean workers in Malta reportedly defected to South Korea last summer.
In response to the Yonhap report, the Ministry of Unification said it is true that there were North Koreans who defected from Malta to South Korea last year but there were no North Korean defectors from the island in 2016. “We cannot provide any further details on North Korean defectors as we are responsible for their security here,” a unification ministry official said asking not to be named. [Yonhap]
God forbid Minbyun’s “human rights” lawyers should demand the right to interrogate them in open court, too.
Also defecting this week was one of North Korea’s top math students, who slipped away from his minders in Hong Kong and into the local South Korean consulate.
An article from the Ming Pao newspaper claimed the defector is 18, and was participating in a recent International Mathematics Olympiad held in Hong Kong from July 6 – 16.
“We can’t verify that. Please understand the South Korean government can’t release information regarding defectors for their own safety and possible diplomatic disputes that might occur with the concerned party,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said during a Thursday briefing.
According to the report the student is still inside the South Korean compound, and is heavily guarded with armed anti-terrorist units from Hong Kong’s police forces. [NK News, JH Ahn]
Interestingly enough, the North Korean team placed sixth out of over 100 teams from around the world. Despite that impressive performance, KCNA hasn’t said a word about the team’s performance this year — for some reason — although it reported last year’s results the very next day. I’ve often said that one of the saddest things about the grand tragedy of North Korea is the loss of so much human potential there.
Also joining the flight from the Workers’ Paradise are five armed North Korean soldiers who had abandoned their posts for the more lucrative business of robbing Chinese civilians, when they got into a lips-versus-teeth gunfight with Chinese police, seriously wounding several of them. The Chinese captured two of the soldiers, but three others are still at large.
The source who lives near the Sino-China (sic) border region told Yonhap News Agency that the two were part of a group of five who illegally crossed the border near the North Korean city of Hyesan last Saturday and robbed people living in two rural villages at gunpoint.
They were holed up at a house in the Changbai Korean Autonomous County when Chinese border guard and police tried to apprehend them early Thursday. In the ensuing gun fight the culprits were arrested, although three others got away.
The Chinese national police then said that several Chinese security forces were injured in the process with two detectives receiving serious wounds requiring them to be evacuated to a hospital in Changchun.
“Chinese authorities are chasing the three runaways and telling people to be extra careful,” the source said.
He said Chinese authorities confirmed the robbers were armed with guns and had ammunition, and were North Korean military deserters. The provincial government and security forces imposed a curfew at night to protect citizens. [Yonhap]
This incident appears to be unrelated to another defection by a border guard, reported by the Daily NK last week, in a different sector of the border.
“The border patrol soldier, based in Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province, escaped across the Tumen River on Wednesday (July 20) at approximately 4 p.m.,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on July 22.
“The soldier is an unarmed male believed to be around 20 years old. He was spotted in Kaishantun, China–a town across the Tumen River from Onsong County, North Korea. China’s border patrol units were dispatched to the area after receiving a tip from a resident, but the soldier slipped away and his whereabouts are unknown.” [Daily NK]
If you’re wondering why a North Korean soldier would be desperate enough to do something so suicidal, read Rimjin-gang’s new report on the history of the North Korean military’s hunger problem, complete with clandestine photos of skeletal young soldiers begging passersby for food, or on their way to hospitals.
These reports are only the latest in a series of desertions, fraggings, and mutinies in the North Korean military that suggest that its discipline has come unglued, and is held together by nothing more than fear and food. Like the Ningpo and Kuwait incidents, group defections and mutinies tell us that disgruntled North Koreans are angry and desperate enough to share their views of the state and conspire against it.
In normal times, none of these things would be “in other news.” The times do not seem normal for North Korea anymore. What I’d give anything to know is whether these events mean that the regime can’t pay its bills and feed its soldiers anymore, and why. It wouldn’t be the first evidence of that kind we’ve seen in recent weeks. Surely this is the time when broadcasts to North Korea must send its soldiers the urgent message not to kill civilians, or each other. On this decision rests the future of all Koreans.
In Wednesday’s post, I wrote about Beyond Parallel’s imagery analysis pointing to a decline in cross-border trade between China and North Korea, along with the limitations of that analysis and its great potential if expanded and focused. But I also alluded to a broader policy concern about the error of equating trade volume with sanctions enforcement: that while China’s under-enforcement of sanctions has historically been the greatest impediment to our North Korea policy, sanctions over-enforcement is an equal danger. Recently, I’ve heard influential people — including recovering engagers, preaching with the zeal of converts — advocating what sounded like a total trade embargo. (To be clear, Beyond Parallel’s study did not advocate this.) This would be inhumane, misguided, and politically unsustainable. It would play right into the regime’s hands by validating its disinformation and strengthening the arguments of its apologists.
The greatest long-term danger to an effective multilateral sanctions enforcement strategy is a loss of political will by one or more key nations. Pyongyang’s overhead is lower than that of most states because it doesn’t provide for its people, so breaking even one key nation out of a multilateral coalition can allow Pyongyang to get by for a year or two while it cultivates its next divide-and-conquer ploy. In South Korea and Europe in particular, public support for strong enforcement is vulnerable to charges — almost always made of lies, half-truths, ignorance, and appeals to emotion — that sanctions harm only the ordinary people. (And in the case of, say, old-fashioned trade sanctions against Iraq, the charge was mostly true. Many people who still don’t understand financial sanctions and who don’t know they don’t understand are still stuck in this paradigm.)
To maintain political support for such a multilateral sanctions enforcement strategy long enough for that strategy to work, policymakers must answer those charges, because people who are either sympathetic to the regime or myopically focused on aiding a tiny minority of its people are certain to lodge it, and shallow thinkers in the press are certain to echo it.
Thus, policymakers need more than just a sanctions strategy. They need to understand how sanctions complement other tools within a broader policy, and how all of those tools combine to achieve a plausible outcome. And to sustain any of it, they need an information strategy for answering these predictable arguments.
First, they must keep pointing out exactly how many North Koreans Kim Jong-un could feed with what he has instead chosen to spend on nukes, missiles, weapons, yachts, palaces, ski resorts, armored limousines, flat screen TVs, and … I could go on.
Second, they must emphasize their principled insistence that sanctions must only be targeted against the income sources the regime uses to buy all of these things instead of food. They must avoid unforced errors like this one at all costs. They should move quickly to identify and correct adverse and unwanted impacts from sanctions. Both the U.N. Security Council resolutions and U.S. sanctions law have provisions and general licenses for that purpose.
Third, they should point to what Pyongyang itself is doing, for the sake of its own internal control, to inhibit private agriculture, domestic market trading, and cross-border consumer-level trade. Those activities probably keep most North Koreans alive today. What almost no one is saying — and more people should be saying — is that Pyongyang’s sanctions against its own people are causing far more harm than international sanctions against Pyongyang itself. The latest example of that is this report that His Supreme Corpulency has ordered the planting of trees on private farm plots that probably grow a substantial portion of North Koreans’ food supply.
After Kim’s declaration, the government started to enforce laws against slash-and-burn farming all over North Korea. However, this is a matter of life and death for ordinary people. Consequently, last year, as long as trees were not cut down, in return for bribe, agriculture officials looked away if a person was cultivating short crops. Since then, the writer of this article confirmed that many farmers have given up slash-and-cut agriculture, though tree replantation is yet to take hold. [….]
“They wouldn’t allow us to go near our fields in the mountains. If we planted something, they’d pull it out of the ground. I recently planted potatoes, and they pulled them out. It was growing well…….” [Rimjin-gang]
Fourth, leaders should say more about how quickly and easily Pyongyang could end its quarter-century-long, man-made food crisis with a few bold policy decisions. For one thing, it could stop exporting so much of its food production for cash. This practice has even yielded some evidence that sanctions have actually improved North Korea’s food supply, by barring the exports of mushrooms, seafood, and other delicacies for cash, and forcing trading companies to shift from sanctioned trade to non-sanctioned trade in food. (My suggestion for the next round of U.N. sanctions? A ban on food exports.) North Korea could solve its short-term hunger problem in 30 days by halting food exports, and by choosing to import more food and less swag. Sanctions would do nothing to interfere with any of that. It could end its long-term hunger problem in less than a year with land reform that redistributes land to the tillers, and by ending the confiscation of private farms.
Finally, they should quietly pressure U.N. aid agencies to reassess well-meaning but flawed aid policies that haven’t addressed North Korea’s food crisis and may be prolonging it. Aid will never help more than a tiny percentage of North Korea’s population as long as the regime continues to inhibit aid workers’ access to the hungry. What North Korea needs is fundamental land reform and a change in its government’s priorities.
A strategy for enforcing sanctions, then, must be both coordinated and calibrated to hurt the right people and not the wrong ones. China’s role is obviously critical here. No one should want China to impose a blanket trade embargo on North Korea, because a blanket trade embargo will affect commerce that fills the markets and sustains the majority of North Koreans, and this will erode the political and diplomatic unity of a sanctions enforcement coalition. In the long-term, starving the North Korean people will discredit the use of sanctions to starve the regime.
On the contrary, it would be far better to open the taps on street-level jangmadang trade and hinder only the trade that exclusively funds the regime. Over time, the effect of this would be to deny the military and security forces a steady income and force them to turn to corruption to survive. This would catalyze more smuggling and more defections. It would mean more copies of “Descendants of the Sun” on sale in the markets. The good news is that the early signs suggest that since sanctions have taken effect, corruption has increased among the internal security forces and railroad police, and that the flow of refugees into South Korea has increased, although there still isn’t enough evidence to identify a pattern in these reports or assign a cause to them.
Still, these reports suggest how cutting the regime’s funds and blocking its accounts would preferentially impact the elites and break down their cohesion to the regime, starting with its financially critical overseas workers and trade agents, and progressing to those who maintain the system of internal security. It would force the regime to launch ever more mass mobilizations and confiscatory demands for “loyalty” payments that sap Kim Jong-un’s domestic political support among the poor.
Collectively and gradually, these trends would accelerate an ongoing shift in North Korea’s internal balance of power downward in North Korea’s songbun system, from generals to donju, from border guards to smugglers, from party members to non-members, from soldiers to sotoji farmers, from police to market traders, in every village, factory, and neighborhood. Only when Pyongyang realizes this will it realize that time is not on its side. And only when Pyongyang realizes that time is against it will diplomacy stand any chance of lasting success. If it doesn’t, and consequently drowns in the tide of history, that would be far from the worst possible outcome.
I’ve been a fan of the show for years, so it was an honor to be asked to come on to talk about North Korea on Wednesday night. By all means, listen to the entire program if you can, but my segment starts at the 11:40 mark:
Until 2011, the erosion of North Korea’s border control and the infiltration of foreign ideas may have been the only hopeful trends in a country where just about all of the news is bad. When Kim Jong-un came to power, however, he launched an all–outeffortto seal North Korea’s leaky border with China. Most of the evidence tells us that that effort has had considerable success. It cut the flow of refugees from North to South Korea in half, and (with the help of cell phone locators, reportedly imported from Germany) made it extremely risky to make cross-border phone calls. Those calls were one of North Koreans’ few fragile links to the outside world.
Yet despite Kim Jong-un’s best efforts, the border isn’t completely sealed. After years of decline, the number of refugees arriving in the South is inching up again. North Koreans were still able to find out about the recent group defection of 13 restaurant workers from China — news that the state must have been very eager to suppress — using illegal cell phones.
NK News reports that some younger North Koreans are now sharing “multimedia files, with content often influenced distinctly from Japanese and South Korean culture,” over their government-controlled Koryolink phones. This is, of course, a risky proposition over a monitored network, but in time, marginally subversive content has the potential to overwhelm the state’s capacity to monitor and censor it. Here, I find myself agreeing with Andrei Lankov:
“The horizontal connections” provided by the growing cellphone network should be welcomed, Dr. Andrei Lankov, a long-time North Korea watcher told NK News on Monday.
“The massive arrival of cellphones provide North Koreans with many opportunities to interact
with their peers, often living far away.
“It is new, since for generations North Korean society has been compartmentalized, with people having little communications outside their work unit and neighbourhood,” he added.
The greater danger to the regime, however, is that North Koreans have apparently found a way to evade both the regime’s cell phone detectors and the monitored state-run networks, by using hard-to-trace messenger apps like on their Chinese cell phones.
North Korean users of foreign messenger applications such as Kakao Talk, Line, and WeChat will be arrested on the spot on suspicion of espionage, according to a new order handed down from the authorities. Sources inside the country interpret the move as Kim Jong Un’s aggressive reaction to the capability of Chinese cellphones to facilitate the import and export of information into the isolated country.
As recently reported by Daily NK, the North Korean authorities have ramped up efforts to label Chinese cellphone users as traitors and pursuing strict punishments against them. To this end, North Korean authorities doubled down on the use of signal detectors to trace illicit international calls and zero in on the location of foreign phone users.
However, the messenger apps allow users to circumvent detection by this equipment, prompting the regime to respond with new threats specifically targeting users of these communication applications. [Daily NK]
I’m not a technology expert, but I’d guess that’s because text messages transmit only a small amount of data in an instant — too little time for detection equipment to zero in on the location. The regime has responded by ordering the immediate arrest and harsh punishment of anyone caught using a messenger app.
“Offenders who are apprehended will be processed according to the discretion of the arresting agency– i.e. the State Security Department or the Ministry of People’s Security. Those taken in will be charged with espionage associating with the enemy and dispatched to a political prison camp.”[….]
“These days, Line and Kakao Talk are explicitly mentioned in lectures [routinely delivered to residents by the authorities]. That’s how serious the crackdown has become,” a separate source in Ryanggang Province said.
The regime has been worried about Kakao Talk since 2014, which is also when I first read reports of its use to evade regime censorship. Jieun Baek has written about its evolution into a guerrilla banking system for North Koreans. By late 2015, North Korean refugees in the South were already using it to send messages and money to their families back home and set up clandestine hawaladars inside North Korea. Kakao Talk has also won a license from the South Korean authorities to operate as an online bank.
The obvious limitation of these apps is that Chinese cell phones have limited range — just a few miles inside North Korea. But if the signal range problem can be solved, messenger apps could give North Koreans the ability to spread news and make payments from city to city and province to province. I can foresee a dynamic under which these apps could play a significant role in shifting North Korea’s internal balance of power. Apps like these could help North Korea’s poor become richer and better fed, even as a heavily sanctioned regime’s security forces increasingly turn to corruption to feed their own families.
A month after the President signed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act and two weeks after the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2270, enough information has emerged from North Korea to allow for a preliminary assessment of how the sanctions are affecting those they are meant to target, and those they are meant to spare.
Sanctions have begun to hit their intended targets. The Daily NK reports that the donju, the well-connected traders who help finance Pyongyang’s priorities through trade with China, initially refused to believe (or plan for) the possibility that China would cooperate with sanctions or cut off the coal trade.
Donju are the fulcrum of North Korea’s coal industry, their massive dollar investments propping up foreign-currency earning enterprises tasked with production and export of a product providing North Korea with much-needed cash from a resource-strapped China.
Now, they’re panicking. Those who are “connected to the export of minerals are reeling after hearing that trucks bound for export have been stopped at the customs office in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province.”
“On news that coal exports have come to a halt, donju, the chief actors in the country’s coal distribution industry, have stopped investing,” a source from South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on Tuesday. “Some had been thinking of completely giving up their coal handling and storage facilities, but with the new rumors surfacing about exports resuming in a few months, they’re now mulling over whether to reinvest. [Daily NK]
The regime is worried that “a prolonged strangle on donju investment could eventually challenge the operation of the mines themselves, and by extension stymie a robust source of funds buttressing the leadership.” This could have long-term consequences for the regime’s financial stability. To maintain the confidence of the donju and keep their money flowing, the regime is spreading rumors that the mineral export ban won’t last for long.
At first, market traders also panicked about the sanctions, fearing that they could lose access to their Chinese sources of merchandise. Some citizens also reacted angrily, according to the Daily NK, saying, ‘‘Those cadres don’t care if us normal people starve,” and, “This is what happens when the authorities pursue useless things [nuclear weapons, missiles] and go around bragging about it.”
All true, and actions by the regime may have been greater immediate causes of hardship. In the build-up to the party congress I prefer to call the Ides of May, the state has cracked down on street stalls, restricted the opening hours for markets, and mobilized people for forced labor (as always, exemptions can be had for a price). At first, some traders hoarded food, but the markets have been resilient, and food prices have stabilized:
“There had been concern we would see fewer goods in the market because of UN sanctions, but in reality, there hasn’t been much difference,” a source from North Pyongan Province told Daily NK in a telephone conversation on Sunday. [….]
Further confirming trends previously reported by Daily NK last week, an additional source in North Hamgyong Province reported yesterday that some people had stocked up food worried about sanctions from the UN, but that this hasn’t led to a violent gyration in prices. “Actually, in some regions, we’re seeing prices of certain products drop,” he noted. [Daily NK]
One of the more interesting effects of the sanctions is that in some ways, they’ve actually increased the supply of fuel and food. Prohibitions on coal exports have diverted more coal into the markets, so despite the cold weather in Korea, coal and firewood are cheap. Incredibly for a country that depends on international food aid and has a massive malnutrition problem, North Korea earns hard currency by exporting food, such as seafood and pine mushrooms. Recently, however, China has halted or sharply curtailed maritime traffic from North Korea, so state-controlled trading companies have dumped their wares on the markets, where ordinary North Koreans can buy them.
“These days items that were previously hard to find because they were earmarked for export are suddenly emerging at the markets,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “The price haven’t gone down enough yet, so you don’t see too many people actually buying them. But you do see flocks of curious people coming out to the markets to see all the delicacies for sale.”
She added, “High-end marine goods like roe, sea urchin eggs, hairy crab, and jumbo shrimp and produce like pine nuts, bracken, and salted pine mushrooms were once considered to be strictly for export, but now they’re easy to find. The number of such products, referred to as ‘sent back goods,’ at Sunam Market and other markets around Chongjin is growing by the day.”
Additional sources in both North and South Hwanghae Provinces reported the same developments in those regions. [….]
Unlike in the past, when they had to pick out the high-end fisheries goods only to hand over to state foreign-currency earning enterprises, now they can sell the entire load to wholesale merchants.
“People are getting their hopes up, saying they might be able to eat some of the highest quality fish for a cheap price, if the UN sanctions continue to carry weight until the summer,” she explained. “They’re actually welcoming the sanctions now saying that for average people they’re bringing good fortune since the number of goods they can get their hands on are continually on the rise.” [Daily NK]
Why would Chinese ports reject these shipments? As immoral as it may be for a hungry nation to export food, neither the U.S. nor U.N. sanctions prohibit food exports (although perhaps they should). One possible explanation is the fact that North Korea’s seafood trade is controlled by none other than the Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, which was just designated by the U.N. under UNSCR 2270.
The bureau owns dozens of ‘trade vessels’ that it uses for missions and also to secure capital. Along main ports near the West and East Sea, the bureau employs cargo ships like Chong Chon Gang that are tens of thousands of tons in size, or ‘trade vessels’ and ‘reefer ships’ such as Nam San 1, 2, Kum Gang San, Mu Bong 1, 2, Po Thong Gang 11, 12, Seung Ri, and Myong Song, which are 800 to 1,000 tons.
North Korea has given vessels like Po Thong Gang and Mu Bong a monopoly on king crabs, shrimp, and conch fishing. Therefore, they’re able to secure some 1,000 tons annually in marine goods and sell them to individual companies in Japan to buy the necessary reconnaissance equipment.
These bureau vessels also conceal their true origins and engage in trade as regular ships. Especially when they are subject to international sanctions and unable to make port entry, they use tactful tricks such as remaining in international waters, where Chongryon (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, an entity holding strong ties with Pyongyang) companies will come to their aid in trade.
The reconnaissance bureau operates the ‘Birobong Trading Company’ to earn foreign currency, and under this are needlework and garment factories, as well as marine stations for fishing. Also, it uses the Unit 96 equipment supply station in Pyongyang’s Sonkyo District to buy reconnaissance supplies from overseas and then transfer them to subordinate military installations who will then distribute the equipment to each associated military corps. [Daily NK]
Meanwhile, along the border with China, the source of most of the goods sold in the markets, the Daily NKreports that “[d]espite the sanctions that have already kicked in, products from China are still flowing into North Korea.” The Economist also reports that non-sanctioned trade continues to flow freely in both directions — and spins this as a failure of the sanctions. But neither U.S. nor U.N. sanctions attempt to impose a blanket trade embargo. Their objective is to target the currency reserves and income that sustain the regime — to starve it of cash without starving the ordinary people. That is an important distinction that some reporters don’t seem to understand.
The news bears careful watching, but so far, the sanctions show signs of constricting the cash flows that fund the regime, without starving the poor and underprivileged. As Yonhap quotes me today, much could still go wrong, and it’s much too early to declare victory.* The U.S. and U.N. member states have only begun to implement the sanctions. Effective enforcement will require more investigative resources, long months of rat-catching, and sustained political will. The U.S. and its allies must avoid unforced errors that cause adverse humanitarian impacts and deny the effort the political support it will need. There will be more provocations, tests, and war scares. Those things are the inevitable costs of belatedly confronting a problem, rather than applying palliatives to its symptoms. But thesignswe’veseensinceJanuary are the signs I’d expect to see at this stage if my theory was right.
~ ~ ~
* Errata: My reference to section 302 was incorrect. It’s actually section 304. Thanks to the encyclopedic mind of Professor Lee for catching this. Also, “His Corpulency” and “His Porcine Majesty” are registered trademarks of OneFreeKorea.
Twenty years of state-to-state engagement between North and South Korea have not lived up to Kim Dae-Jung’s promises. Pyongyang has taken Seoul’s money, nuked up, and periodically attacked South Korea for good measure. Rather than reforming, it has invested heavily in sealing its borders. Pyongyang sustains itself on foreign hard currency, even as it cuts off the flow of people, goods, and information to its underprivileged classes. It knows that if it fails to do this, members of those classes will achieve financial, material, and ideological independence from the state.
In their efforts to seal the borders, the North Korean security forces’ principal targets have been the Chinese cell phones whose signals can cross a few miles into North Korea, and which provide North Koreans with their last fragile link to the outside world. Today, there is a real danger that this link will be cut, and that the market-driven changes in North Korean society — changes driven by the people, despite the government’s attempts to suppress them — will cease.
Now, imagine if signals from South Korean cell providers began spreading across the DMZ into North Korea, with steadily expanding ranges. You saw how Pyongyang reacted to loudspeaker propaganda, which reached a few thousand conscripts at best. Imagine the subversive potential of North Koreans being able to call their relatives in the South directly, reading the Daily NK on smart phones, sending photographs or video of local disturbances to Wall Street Journal reporters, or downloading religious pamphlets from South Korean megachurches. Small beginnings like these could be profoundly transformational. If, eventually, North Koreans gain the ability to talk to each other, free of the state’s interference, these beginnings could become the foundations of a new civil society in North Korea. That could vastly mitigate the chaos and cost of reunification.
And yet, Seoul hesitates to allow this kind of people-to-people engagement, ostensibly because it is paralyzed by paranoia that North Korean spies would also use this network.
South Korean police expressed concerns over the national security implications of mobile phone conversations between North Korean defectors in the South and their relatives in the North.
A police official who spoke to South Korean press on the condition of anonymity said the security concerns call for the passage of a law at the National Assembly that could step up surveillance, South Korean outlet Financial News reported on Friday.
Many North Korean defectors who have resettled in the South keep in contact with their families, who are able to circumvent North Korea regulations through the use of Chinese mobile phones. One unidentified woman defector said she calls her family in the North 3 or 4 times a week, to confirm money transfers through a broker based in China. [….]
Police officials in Seoul are saying the conversations between family members can leak sensitive information that can pose a threat to South Korea’s national security, but amendments to Seoul’s Protection of Communications Secrets Act could reduce risks. [UPI]
It’s a silly, short-sighted paranoia that’s tantamount to refusing to treat a disease for fear of the treatment’s side effects. The answer to spies using the phones is called law enforcement. More broadly, if Seoul doesn’t want to deal with North Korean espionage and influence operations in perpetuity, it should open a second front in Kim Jong-Un’s information war, and start running a few information operations of its own.
One of the most important uses of inter-Korean phone links could be their use for money transfers. Plenty of families in the North rely on those remittances to survive, or to start small businesses that provide for their families. Seoul has been ambivalent about these remittances, too:
South Korea technically bans the transfers, but an official at Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, which handles North Korea policy, says that the government has little incentive to stop the remittances.
“They fall into a gray area,” said the official, requesting anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak about the policy on record. “We always say no money should be sent to North Korea in case it is diverted for military purposes. But in this case, we’re not talking about huge amounts. And it’s for humanitarian purposes. So long as that’s the case, we won’t pursue it.” [WaPo, Chico Harlan, Feb. 2012]
Seoul has even fretted that small-time remittances from North Korean refugees to their families back home might violate international sanctions. Which is an argument that takes a lot of chutzpah, if you contemplate the millions of dollars Seoul pours into Pyongyang through the Kaesong Industrial Park each year.
South-to-North remittances have always been risky and expensive. Remitters charge commissions as high as 30%. Today, with Kim Jong-Un’s information crackdown on illegal calls over the Chinese border, money transfers often require North Korean family members and remitters to risk their lives:
In May this year, a North Korean defector in her 40s took a call from an unknown number at her office in the South Korean capital Seoul.
It was from her brother, who she had not seen for more than a decade, calling illegally from North Korea after tracking her down.
He was speaking from a remote mountainside near the border with China, and was in dire need of money to help treat another sister’s late stage cancer, she said.
Accompanied by a Chinese broker, the brother had spent five hours climbing up the mountain, avoiding North Korean security and desperately searching for a signal on a Chinese mobile telephone. Contact with anyone in the South is punishable by death in North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated states. [Reuters, Ju-Min Park, July 2012]
Defectors objected strongly to a 2011 proposal by Seoul to require licenses for South-to-North remittances. Personally, I’m not sure that a licensing procedure is such a bad idea, if it’s administered efficiently. Licensing can help prevent South Koreans from sending money to government officials — and maybe even spy-handlers — while channeling legitimate remittances through the more honest and reliable remitters.
To ease the burden of the new red tape, Seoul might consider a new way to reduce the cost of a remittance, say, by allowing direct South-to-North transfers that don’t have to run through Chinese banks or Chinese cell phones:
Consortiums led by information technology service giants Kakao Corp. and KT Corp. won a preliminary license to launch South Korea’s first Internet-only bank Sunday, the financial regulator said, opening the new business market in the long-slumping banking industry. [Yonhap]
The online bank will start operation by next June, and will team up with KakaoTalk, which is already gaining popularity with North Koreans because of its anonymity and functionality with weak signals. North Koreans already use Kakao to arrange money transfers from South Korean banks to clandestine North Korean hawaladars.
The FSC said Kakao Bank has an innovative business plan with broader customer lists based on KakaoTalk, which has more than 34 million members.
Kakao is already running mobile payment tools such as KakaoPay and BankWalletKakao.
K-Bank is initiated by KT, the largest fixed-wire operator. Its partners involve No. 1 bank Woori Bank, leading IT solution provider Nautilus Hyosung Inc., GS Retail Co. and Hyundai Securities Co. [Yonhap]
For the last 20 years, South has poured $7 billion in no-questions-asked aid and favorable trade arrangements into Pyongyang’s coffers, blithely unaware of how Pyongyang was spending that money. As far as Seoul knows, Pyongyang used some of that money to nuke up. Yet in the name of “engagement” with Kim Jong-Il, Seoul took bold risks to draw North Korea into the global economy and gradually induce it to disarm and reform. It didn’t work, but the money still flows.
Today, however, Seoul is afraid to take a chance on the kind of people-to-people communications that are changing North Korea profoundly. If those communications become regular and safe, suddenly, they start to sound like the first steps in a plausible plan to keep the Sunshine Policy’s gauzy promises about engagement, change, reform, and reunification.
Our endlessly unrequited vigil for North Korean reform continues:
Hyeonseo Lee is also increasingly worried about her personal security since the July publication of the best-selling memoir about her escape from North Korea, “The Girl with Seven Names”.
Defectors living in South Korea contact relatives in the North through Chinese mobile phones that are smuggled across the border. They communicate through transmission towers on the Chinese side of the border.
It’s all arranged through brokers on the Chinese side, who also help smuggle money from the defectors to their relatives.
North Korea, however, has been cracking down on this lifeline, using phone signal detectors and interference devices, Lee said in an interview on the sidelines of the Ubud Writers and Readers festival. The signals can reveal the location of the speaker if the conversation lasts much longer than a minute.
Lee arranged for many of her family members to join her in exile after her own escape in 1998, but she still talks to an aunt there.
“Right now the signal is not so good. I can’t hear their voice clearly … And my aunt says after a minute, oh my god, we have to turn off the phone now we’re being monitored.”
The aunt was sent to a labour camp for a few months last year, accused of trying to escape. “She was reported by her best friend. That’s how this regime works,” Lee said. [Reuters, Bill Tarrant]
More about Lee here. This is exactly the kind of behavior a rational person should expect from North Korea. What’s inexplicable is that South Korea — which sends cash to Kim Jong-Un through Kaesong — also prevents North Korean refugees from remitting money back to their relatives.
Sending money across the border – or private communications of any kind with the North – is also illegal in South Korea.
The money from defectors goes into North Korea’s increasingly established rural markets, which sprouted up during the famine years when the state food distribution system broke down. The markets are thriving hot spots of commerce, where people can buy or barter for things, including smuggled Hollywood and South Korean movies.
Despite the occasional crackdown, the government has been unable to shut down the markets and now basically tolerates them, Lee said, despite the fact they have become the thin edge of the wedge for Western influences.
That is to say, Seoul continues to push direct economic engagement with Pyongyang years after the failure of that policy became objectively undeniable, and despite legitimate concerns about how Pyongyang is using that money, yet shuts down forms of economic engagement that could be feeding the hungry, catalyzing the growth of a market economy, subverting the state’s propaganda, and loosening the dependence of the people on the regime.
Yesterday, I questioned the premises of economic engagement with Pyongyang — that Pyongyang is socialist, that trade is capitalism, that capitalism inexorably erodes socialism, and that capitalism (least of all, state capitalism) is inherently liberal and peaceful. I argued that Pyongyang adopted state capitalism decades ago, and that it has grown steadily more menacing and repressive ever since. It feigns socialism to feed our false hopes of reform and arguments against sanctions, to tempt investors, to recruit apologists who embrace its socialist pretenses, and to justify the economic totalitarianism it uses to starve and isolate the vast majority of its subjects. Pyongyang doesn’t practice socialism; it imposes it on the underclasses. The underclasses are the only ones who can change that.
Sincere advocates of changing North Korea by engaging Pyongyang may accept that their best intentions didn’t work, yet still not lose heart. If they’re willing to rethink engagement in terms of engaging the people rather than the state, they’ll find more reason than ever to believe that change is in sight. For example, it now seems likely that within the next five years, anyone, anywhere in the world, will be able to access the internet. The signal might come from Google’s Project Loon, or Facebook’s Internet.org, or maybe some combination of both. Universal internet access will shatter Korea’s virtual DMZ; eventually, it can break the physical one, too. The day is coming when North Koreans will be able to attend South Korean classes, sermons, movies, clinics, lectures, and family reunions. There can be a revolution in the people-to-people engagement that the Sunshine Policy promised, but couldn’t deliver, if South Koreans have the vision and the courage to weave a virtual Ho Chi Minh Trail of clandestine communication from South to North. North and South Koreans can use this network to rebuild the North’s civil institutions from the ground up, to establish shadow governments, to build the capacity to resist the state’s most repressive policies, and to begin the process of reconstruction.
Of course, Pyongyang will try to enforce the poverty and isolation of its subjects as if its survival depends on it. Just as it crackeddown on its northern border, tracks down and arrests the users of Chinese cell phones, and sends distributors of foreign media to the gulag, it will try to arrest, imprison, terrorize, or kill anyone who listens to South-to-North broadcasts, or who makes inter-Korean phone calls. Yet the right policies on our part can give the people a fighting chance.
North Korea’s feared State Security Department (SSD) has established a new “trade organization” tasked with earning foreign currency from China, according to sources who say the branch will likely use its broad powers to tap into channels used by the impoverished nation’s subsistence smugglers.
The SSD, also known as the Ministry of State Security, set up the organization “very recently” with its headquarters in the capital Pyongyang and several satellite offices in “local areas” of North Korea, a source from North Hamgyong province, along the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“While the whole nation is aware of the shortage of foreign currency in North Korea, it seems strange to establish a new trade organization under the SSD, which traditionally monitors the population’s activities to ensure they do not contravene the rules of the regime,” said the source, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, after recently visiting China.
In addition to keeping an eye on the political actions of the public in North Korea, the SSD’s secret police force keeps tabs on North Koreans who travel to and from China, as well as telephone communications in border areas.
Sources said the move will likely have implications for North Koreans who subsist on Chinese currency they earn by running smuggling operations over the border. [….]
A source based in China who maintains a close relationship with North Koreans earning foreign currency there told RFA that a “large number of people belonging to the SSD” had been dispatched across the border since spring to “monitor and control the activities of North Korean residents” in the country.
“Since they are ostensibly working for foreign currency, they are called ‘trade representatives,’ just like others [who have been sent to earn cash for the regime],” said the source, who also declined to provide his name. [Radio Free Asia]
The regime’s use of trade to finance this crackdown sets up a zero-sum competition between state capitalism and free-market capitalism, the kind that has genuine potential to transform North Korean society. The SSD’s profiteering is neither a quiet capitalist revolution nor a sign of reform that is washing away the foundations of socialism. It pays for the enforcement of isolationism, and makes North Korea more unequal, oligarchical, and totalitarian (read: fascist). This may also be true of Pyongyang’s other trade relations, too, but we can only guess, because its finances are so opaque that not even the Treasury Department knows how it uses the proceeds.
In addition to broadcasting and people-to-people engagement, then, sanctions targeting the SSD’s assets are an important part of a policy to protect North Koreans from censorship and help them liberalize their society. By starving the security forces of cash, anti-censorship sanctions would deny the SSD the means to equip and pay its officers. They would foster the corruption that facilitates smuggling, and preferentially support engagement through independent free markets. The use of sanctions to fight censorship and support freedom of expression is nothing new. Treasury has anti-censorship sanctions against Iran to “facilitate communications by the Iranian people.” Why not North Korea?
Ha is dismissive of sanctions, perhaps because he lumps all kinds of sanctions together, and (like most people) doesn’t know the significant gaps in their enforcement. It’s a common myth that sanctions against Pyongyang are still strong, although I’ve previously debunked this myth in detail. Ha argues that the trade sanctions Seoul imposed on Pyongyang in 2010, after the attack on the ROKS Cheonan, haven’t made Pyongyang apologize or come to the negotiating table. He concludes that “economic sanctions don’t have effects, but broadcasts do.”
Respectfully, I think Assemblyman Ha is missing a few key points, including the role sanctions can play in protecting his North Korean listeners. First, the lifting of these trade sanctions has been at the top of Pyongyang’s list of demands since 2010. If it can be argued that loudspeaker propaganda was effective because Pyongyang sounded desperate to switch it off, the same can be argued of the bilateral trade sanctions.
Second, by lumping all “sanctions” together, Ha overlooks what is beyond serious dispute — that financial sanctions hit Pyongyang where it hurt most:
Practically overnight, banks throughout the region, even in China, began turning away or throwing out North Korean government business. By this one simple act, Mr. Zarate writes, “the United States set powerful shock waves into motion across the banking world, isolating Pyongyang from the international financial system to an unprecedented degree.” [….]
Then, Mr. Zarate writes, a North Korean representative contacted the United States, seeking relief from the 311. At the State Department’s insistence, negotiations began in Beijing, and appeared to end when a Chinese bank volunteered to handle a measly $25 million of North Korean money the authorities in Macau had frozen.
Mr. Zarate writes that “the amount of money wasn’t the issue” and that the North Koreans “wanted the frozen assets returned so as to remove the scarlet letter from their reputation.”
Then, he says, something amazing happened. Despite its government’s support of North Korea, the Chinese central bank refused to approve this solution, indicating that it, too, wanted nothing to do with a bank hit by a 311. “Perhaps the most important lesson was that the Chinese could in fact be moved to follow the U.S. Treasury’s lead and act against their own stated foreign policy and political interests,” he writes. “The predominance of American market dominance had leapfrogged traditional notions of financial sanctions.” [N.Y. Times Review, “Treasury’s War,” by Juan Zarate]
Third, the May 24, 2010 sanctions are narrow sanctions with narrow purposes — they exclude Kaesong, after all. Ha has a vision for reunification and has articulated it; Park Geun-Hye doesn’t and hasn’t. Still, even Park’s limited goals can be valid ones. Trade sanctions deter Pyongyang by imposing a (small) price for murdering South Koreans with premeditation and malice aforethought. They’re also consistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions, which prohibit member states from providing “public financial support for trade with the DPRK (including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade) where such financial support could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes.” South Korea voted for those sanctions when it was a member of the Security Council. The other members of the Security Council approved them, in large part for South Korea’s own protection. Seoul can’t very well ignore them now.
We now have evidence that regime-controlled trade funds the oppression that isolates North Koreans, retards change, and helps Pyongyang repress the people who would listen to the broadcasts Ha supports. If the world wants North Korea to change, it has to give free markets — North Korea’s only independent institutions, on which most North Koreans depend for their survival — a fighting chance to survive. As long as Pyongyang’s oligarchy has unrestricted access to our financial system, it will use it to isolate and repress its people. We should seek to shift North Korea’s internal balance of power away from the ones with the guns and food toward those without. That means giving North Korea’s people information and access to markets. That, in turn, means blocking the funds that pay for Pyongyang’s policy of isolation and oppression.
Admittedly, Baek’s explanation of the North Korea’s guerrilla banking system isn’t the first I’ve read, it’s only the best:
The next time Kevin talks to his mother, she asks him for $1,000. She gives Kevin a phone number. When he hangs up after about a minute, Kevin then calls that number and tells the stranger on the line that he got a call from someone (he uses a pseudonym to protect his mother’s identity). Every time, the phone number is different.
The stranger on the other line is usually a girl, a Joseonjok girl. The woman gives Kevin a South Korean bank account number, to which Joseph wires $1,000. He then sends the woman a text message using Kakao Talk (a Korean smartphone application that’s similar to Whatsapp), texting that he sent the $1,000. After receiving the message, the Joseonjok lady sends a message to another Joseonjok living in North Korea. This person will then notify Kevin’s family via their legal domestic cell phones that the money has arrived so that Kevin’s mother can go to that individual’s location, or the underground financial house, to pick up her $700 in Chinese RMB. The two middlemen take 30 percent of the requested money and split the commission. The whole transaction, part of the small underground financing system inside the country, can take place in as little as 20 minutes. [Jieun Baek, Politico]
It sounds very much like the hawala systems that initially caused the Treasury Department so much trouble after 9/11, until Congress tightened requirements that they be licensed and regulated. With a few upgrades, this could be the guerrilla financial system I’d advocated for here.
Baek also writes that refugees in the South can send medicine to their sick relatives in the North via smugglers. That has helped to ease the suffering caused by the collapse of North Korea’s state-run health care system, but there are risks that come with this, too. As Rimjin-gang recently informed us, some North Koreans who take smuggled medicines — often, medicines stolen from U.N. aid supplies — without a doctor’s advice are getting sick. If some way could be found to open the lines of communication wider, doctors in South Korea could volunteer to treat North Korean patients remotely, practicing what’s now called telemedicine.
Jieun Baek is writing some of the most thought-provoking work on how to “engage” with the North Korean people I’ve yet read. I’ve added her to my blogroll, and must keep a closer eye on what she writes.
Last week, a 19 year-old North Korean army private fled “repeated physical abuse at the hands of his superiors” and “the realities of his impoverished country,” walked and rode for a week as a fugitive, crossed the heavily mined DMZ, and fell asleep next to a South Korean guard post.* Surely this young soldier knows that his family will now face terrible retribution for what he has done. We can even speculate that others have tried, and failed, at similar attempts that we’ve never heard about.
What conditions cause such desperation? How prevalent are they within the North Korean military? What can incidents like these tell us about morale and readiness in the North Korean armed forces? Finally, do incidents like this suggest different approaches for policymakers who seek to prevent war, and to make conditions inside North Korea less brutal for its people?
A careful review of open-source reports suggests a steady stream of defections and fratricides within the North Korean military, but that the largest-scale mutiny of which we know (since the 6th Corps mutiny in 1996) was at the brigade level:
June 2005: A 20 year-old private deserts his anti-aircraft unit and walks across the DMZ. A South Korean civilian finds him in the back of a truck, eating instant ramyeon noodles and ChocoPies.
February 2007: A platoon of approximately 20 border guards deserts, en masse, into China, after coming under suspicion for cross-border smuggling.
August 2010: In a possible attempt to defect, a North Korean pilot flies his MiG-21 to China, crashes, and is killed.
April 2011: According to a Daily NK report, sourced to North Korean Intellectuals’ Solidarity, a brigade of starving soldiers, assigned to mine uranium, goes on strike and refuses to work until they are fed.
April 2012: Chinese and North Korean authorities launch 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.
October 2012: A soldier shoots his squad and platoon leaders to death and flees across the DMZ.
October 2012: Another solder walks across the DMZ and knocks (twice!) on the door of a ROK Army barracks. The incident causes several high-ranking ROK Army officers to face disciplinary action over the perceived lack of readiness. The report also references a third defection in September 2012.
March 2013: A border guard in Musan County, North Hamgyeong province, frags five company commanders (!) and attempts, unsuccessfully, to desert. The soldier is said to have been disgruntled because he was underfed and was caught stealing food.
September-December 2014: Several desperate North Korean border guards, denied the income that they would otherwise have earned by taking bribes from smugglers, desert across the border into China, and rob and murder several civilians. Some Chinese flee the border villages. Chinese authorities respond by forming vigilante patrols and deploying troops to the border. This month, hypervigilant police shoot an unarmed, fleeing refugee.
Next, what conditions cause incidents like these? Many (but not all) of these accounts come from defector-run sources, such as the Daily NK, Open News, and New Focus, which likely share my view that the currents of human nature and history must eventually wash this regime away. It is likely that the reports contain some degree of selection bias. The regime itself has made independent verification of these accounts impossible, which compels us to look for patterns and consistent accounts before we credit them too strongly. But this secrecy also suggests that some adverse inferences about conditions in the North Korean military are justifiable.
First, the soldiers are hungry because the commissary system and their own officers are stealing their rations and reselling them on the markets. (For a more detailed explanation, see this article by Jonathan Corrado in The Daily NK.)
November 2005: Former army captain Kim Seung Min (who now heads Free North Korea Radio) tells The Daily NK that corrupt officers routinely steal and sell food, fuel, clothing, soap, and toothbrushes from the military commissary system, causing soldiers to go without.
July 2005: The Daily NK releases a clandestine video interview of a North Korean soldier who become so emaciated from eating grass that the army discharged him and sent him home to die.
June 2011: Footage smuggled out of North Korea shows starving North Korean soldiers.
Second, because the soldiers are hungry, they have turned to smuggling, or stealing from the civilian population, a sign of poor discipline and morale.
September 2009: North Korean soldiers are photographed in the act of smuggling across the Tumen River border.
May 2010:Beginning in the famine years of the 1990s, border guards, including company-grade officers, went into the business of smuggling drugs across the Tumen River into China.
January 2011: According to a series of reports, North Korean soldiers, including members of elite units, are underfed, poorly clothed, freezing, deserting, and resorting to looting the civilian population to survive.
April 2011:The Daily NK reports that soldiers in front-line units are hungry and malnourished because of pilferage of food from multiple layers of the commissary system (see also here and here), and that more soldiers are deserting, stealing from markets, or burglarizing civilian homes because of hunger. The report interviews two separate defectors, who report that their battalion-size units, one in Kangwan-do, on the eastern DMZ front, and one in Pyongyang, had desertion rates of 5% and 10%. The defectors report that by this time, the punishment for a first-time desertion has been reduced to a criticism.
May 2015: Soldiers, posted in isolated areas and denied permission to marry or have girlfriends, frequently rape civilian women, some of whom carry DIY pepper spray to protect themselves. Military authorities do not investigate or punish the rapes, creating a culture of impunity.
June 2015: Another report tells of increased theft by border guards, directed against the civilian population.
Third, a significant number of soldiers are sick, and the military medical system doesn’t take care of them.
June 2015: Theft of medicine from military hospitals means that tuberculosis is widespread among soldiers. Because there is no medicine to treat the soldiers, they are put into isolation wards until they are sent home to die.
Fourth, hazing and abuse—even rape—of solders by their superiors are serious problems, leading to fratricides and suicides.
November 2005 (via Kim Seung Min): Morale is low; hazing, assaults, and suicides are widespread; and enlisted soldiers do not respect their officers. As of 1999, over 1,000 deserters were hiding out. According to the report, the punishment for desertion is a sentence to a labor camp or a severe, crippling beating.
June 2015: “Violence and brutality in North Korea’s armed forces have surged after Kim Jong Un came into power, with severe beatings of lower ranking soldiers becoming more commonplace, Daily NK has learned…. After Kim Jong Un assumed leadership, internal monitoring and surveillance have been ramped up to establish order over officers and lower ranking soldiers. However, this approach has led to young troops frequently escaping or going absent without leave, as they are ordered into submission without being provided with proper food supplies.” The report claims that “a lot of” low-ranking soldiers die from being beaten by their superiors. The report also claims that soldiers frequently fight over food, property, and work and that South Korean culture is a “growing influence” on North Korean soldiers in front-line units.
Fifth, corruption and morale problems are having a significant impact on military readiness.
April 2011: Via The Daily NK: “In the military unit supply depot, the depletion of supplies is so severe that explosives, fuses, medicines and medical supplies, wires, and fuel have run out.” It claims that during a 1999 naval skirmish, some patrol boats were unable to join the battle because they had no fuel.
October 2013: Two unexplained fires destroy a train carrying military uniforms and an arms factory.
November 2013: According to a South Korean think tank, “Corruption is rife in the North Korean army as sanctions eat into official perks for soldiers,” and that “officers have smuggled out sensitive files,” including “orders of the supreme command, wartime plans, and guidelines for electronic warfare,” to sell to “information traders” in China. Low-ranking soldiers pay bribes to their superiors to be assigned to guard the Chinese border, where they can earn money by smuggling, or taking bribes from smugglers. (More)
November 2013: A submarine chaser and a patrol boat collide off Wonsan, on the east coast, killing “scores” of sailors.
April 2015: The theft of fuel by military drivers and quartermasters is reported to be common. In the navy, sailors siphon fuel out of warships and replace it with (corrosive) sea water to foil inspectors.
Finally, there is some evidence—most of it very recent—that the mutual distrust and low morale reach from the lowest ranks to the very highest.
November 2008: The regime rations and controls ammunition strictly, which may explain why there aren’t more fratricide incidents. This means, however, that soldiers get little marksmanship training.
April 2015: The regime maintains tight control over every round of ammunition, in part to prevent fratricides.
May 2015: Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol is abruptly purged and executed. Afterward, The Daily NK reports that the regime has tightly restricted the movements of officials, and that “military and Party cadres in Pyongyang affiliated with Hyon are living in fear, not knowing whether they will fall victims as well.”
June 2015: The regime disbands an elite anti-aircraft unit, whose mission is to guard statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, after some of its 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns are found deployed along a highway traveled by Kim Jong Un.
June 2015: Yonhap reports that the regime is laying more land mines along the DMZ, to prevent its soldiers from fleeing. Reports trickling out of the North, mostly third-hand, seem to confirm that Kim Jong Un purged and replaced his Defense Minister, Hyon Yong-chol.
June 2015: Interviewed by The Washington Post, South Korean President Park Geun Hye says:
Since [he] took power 3 1 / 2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime….
Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee.
Some cautions are in order here. First, not all of these reports can be verified independently. Second, conditions from unit to unit are almost certainly as variable as the ethics of the men who lead them. Theft is probably tolerated much less among the Special Forces than in other units. Units that are effectively used as construction brigades are probably the least disciplined and cohesive. Note also that none of these reports originate from North Korea’s ballistic missile forces, which pose the greatest military threat to the South, and to U.S. Forces, Korea. This may be because those units are better led, or because they tend to be located in the interior, away from our prying eyes. It is telling, however, that many of these stories originate in either the border guard units along the northern border, or from the front-line army units posted near the DMZ. This suggests that the decay of the military’s values, culture, cohesion, and readiness are likely advanced and widespread.
This doesn’t mean that the North Korean army wouldn’t fight; after all, the reports suggest that morale and cohesion were already poor before the attacks of 2010. But morale problems in the North Korean military do suggest opportunities to prevent war and free more North Koreans–soldiers and civilians alike–from the grip of fear. When soldiers are ordered into battle, they usually obey orders, at least initially, unless they are mentally and emotionally prepared to disobey. What these reports tell us is that the soldiers have lost faith in their leaders, and that they are ready to be led in different and more peaceful directions. But first, we must prepare them.
First, information operations should target low-ranking North Korean soldiers with a message of peace–that war between the Koreas would be fratricidal and destructive to both Koreas. South Korean culture can play an important role here, in humanizing the potential victims of war. Soldiers should be told that theft, pilferage, and sabotage of military fuel, supplies, and other equipment helps to prevent war, and is an act of national patriotism. The highest ranking leaders, after all, are less likely to provoke a war if they know that their armed forces are neither ready nor willing to fight.
Second, reports of poor morale, discipline, and cohesion should be publicized, both internationally and internally, so that company-grade, field-grade, and flag officers will question their own sense of purpose, their confidence in their soldiers, and their confidence in other units. Top officials in the North Korean government have internet access; reports like these may dissuade them from joining in any attack against the South, particularly if they are told that they will be held accountable for the loss of civilian lives. The objective is to cause officers to waver or hesitate before following orders to use deadly force, until opposition to those orders has a chance to build momentum. If the officers come to believe rumors (whether true or not) that there are supplies of ammunition beyond the state’s control, they will fear for their own safety if they continue to mistreat their soldiers.
Finally, soldiers who fear for their lives, their health, their safety, and their survival shouldn’t have to walk through minefields to find refuge. Eventually, guerrilla engagement advances sufficiently, it can create a network of shelters inside North Korea, where deserters can receive forged identity documents, regular meals, medical treatment, education, religious services (should they choose them) and humane treatment, in exchange for useful labor in guerrilla NGO-run farms and factories. The methods used to recruit these soldiers need not differ substantially from the methods used to recruit them into smuggling networks, and often into close (even intimate) relationships with smugglers, today. Indeed, many North Korean soldiers in border regions already live in civilian homes; the next steps aren’t hard to imagine. Some of these deserters could be re-formed into security services to protect markets, trade, and the local population from the predations of soldiers. If there is a sudden and unexpected descent into anarchy, those units may prove invaluable in the restoration of order.
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* A previous version of this post said, “Given the geography, this soldier must have come from one of North Korea’s front-line units, whose members are usually selected for their reliably loyal family backgrounds.” Commenter Yang (thank you) points to a Korean-language story that the soldier’s unit was in Hamheung, which is at a considerable distance from the DMZ.
New Focus International has published an “exclusive” report that “North Korea’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) and Ministry of People’s Security (MPS)” have begun what amounts to an internal terror campaign against the people, personally ratified by Kim Jong Un in September 2013, and aimed at “the sweeping out of impure and hostile elements.” The campaign consists of a series of crackdowns, collectively known as the “9.8 measures.” According to the report, Kim Jong Un has taken personal oversight* (read: personal responsibility and culpability) for the campaign, ratifying “further instructions” for the goon squads “at the rate of two to three times a month.” The campaign emphasizes the militarization of North Korean society, enforced by what amounts to martial law.
With social command and control and mass human surveillance remaining at the heart of these new slogans and measures, acts regarded as human rights violations such as extrajudicial public executions meted out for political infringements continue to be systematically sanctioned, and are being regarded as more institutionally acceptable under Kim Jong Un than under the rule of Kim Jong Il.
The joint command issued by the Central Military Committee and Central Committee claimed that the order stemmed from a conversation that took place between the Minister of State Security Kim Won Hong and Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un in October 2013, thereby stressing the perceptible authority of these public offices.
It read, “most criminals who are forgiven are likely to commit another crime” and that “the time has come when words are not enough. The sound of gunshot must accompany the destruction of impure and hostile elements, and when necessary, public executions are to be used so that the masses come to their senses”. It also ratified the extra-judicial clause, “if an anti-regime act is uncovered, State Security soldiers are to judge and execute by gunfire of their own accord, and afterwards file a report on the person and crime to Pyongyang”.
The instructions additionally read, “gunfire must be made to resound in order to totally rip from the roots acts such as illegal border activities, flights to the south and smuggling operations” and that “those who attempted to leave during the mourning period of Kim Jong Il must be executed by firing squad and their seed thoroughly annihilated”.
It also stressed the need to prevent further escapes in order to limit international criticism, and read “State Security must take measures to ensure that the talk on ‘human trafficking’ and ‘river-crossings’ by foreigners abroad is not renewed”. [New Focus]
The focus of these efforts is on border control:
To implement this instruction, several newly formed organisations controlled by the Ministry of State Security, which in April 2012 took over the command authority of military troops stationed in the border regions near China, have established offices in Pyongyang and the border regions to seek out escapees, mount operations to bring defectors back to North Korea through coercion or persuasion, gather information and maintain files on defectors, trace their phone calls and correspondence, and maintain special oversight over defectors’ remaining family members in North Korea. [New Focus]
No doubt cognizant of the phases I described in this post, Kim Jong Un is also expelling or banishing a “sizeable numbers of soldiers” from the army, and rotating better-disciplined and more brutal units into the border zone. All of which fits with reports we’ve seen since Kim Jong Un’s coronation, about crackdowns on cross-border trade and information flows.
For example, the Daily NK reports that the MPS has deployed “Rapid Reaction Forces” in the border regions to do “invasive searches at random on passenger trains and around main railway hubs.” Many train passengers bribe local authorities to get travel passes to transport goods for sale, or to attend funerals, wedding, or other family events, and they’re terrified of the brutal MPS squads. If the squads catch people whose “papers are not in order,” as the expression goes, they can arrest them and take them to “collecting points” for up to three months of hard labor.
The regime is also deterring defections by imposing collective punishment on the family members the refugees (some of whom are only migrant workers) leave behind. The family members may be sent to work in state enterprises (in one case, a blast furnace notorious for its working conditions), exiled to remote parts of the country, or sent to prison camps. MPS agents are reportedly extorting between $1,000 and $2,000 from some wealthier family members to spare them from punishment, but as always, North Korea’s poor are out of luck.
For years, it has been common for workers to bribe their way out of showing up at (often, idled) state-owned enterprises. Some of those workers engaged in trade or farming while away from their workplaces. The regime has now cracked down by imposing heavy fines on those found to be absent without leave.
The Daily NK also reports that the regime continues its crackdown on international telephone calls, employing “state-of-the-art devices” (reportedly, made in Germany) to “increase the efficacy of mobile monitoring and detection,” and increasing punishments for making international calls to one year at hard labor for a second offense. MPS officials have announced the new rules at work units, warning that repeat offenders may be sent to prison camps. Few people now risk a cross-border call without a long hike into the mountains. Others tell the Daily NK that in time, MPS officers will start taking bribes to allow cross-border calls, but that doesn’t seem to be widespread yet. The restrictions have been highly effective in re-imposing an information blockade that had begun to leak.
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* A previous version of this post used the word “control,” but “oversight” is probably a more accurate characterization.
In the eleven years I’ve been writing OFK, I’ve observed a cycle in North Korea’s border security.
– In Phase One, the lure of capitalism coopts and corrupts the men (and they are mostly men) who guard the borders. Most, but not all, of the corruption is financial, but it is also chemical and sensual.
– In Phase Two, the corrupt practices gain acceptance. The norms of accepted illegality change the de facto rules of border security, the rules of the markets they supply, and the rules of the society supplied by the markets.
– In Phase Three, Pyongyang reacts to reverse Phases One and Two. It transfers the guard force to other locations en masse and replaces it with units that report to a different command structure.
– In Phase Four, a population without sources of food, money, and consumer goods it had come to depend on perseveres until it can’t. The hungriest, the bravest, the greediest, and the most desperate slowly shift the paradigm back to Phase One again.
Two armed North Korean border patrol guards from Sinuiju in North Hamkyung Province reportedly escaped the country and crossed over into China’s Dandong on Tuesday, Daily NK has learned. Of the two, one was captured on Thursday by Chinese public security officials, while the other is still on the run, according to local sources.
Upon discovery of the incident, North Korea’s military authorities immediately alerted Chinese authorities in the border city of Dandong, leading to a large-scale manhunt on the same day and the plastering of posters featuring the soldiers’ images around heavily trafficked areas of Dandong. Going AWOL, particularly while armed, is considered an offense of great magnitude in both North Korea and China.
Three days into the search, one of the soldiers was arrested in a small rural village near Dandong. “A North Korean solider carrying a gun was apprehended in quiet village near Dandong Singu District,” a source based in the border city told Daily NK. “At the time, there were large numbers of public security officials and soldiers on the streets.”
He added, “The solider held a woman hostage shortly before he was captured, creating a standoff with security officials. But in the end he was subdued.” [Daily NK]
The Daily NK even has a photo of a wanted poster for one of the soldiers. Later, it obtained this picture one of the soldiers’ arrests. If you believe in prayer, pray that this young man’s short, unhappy life ends as painlessly as possible.
One day, these guys will learn to leave the civilians alone and to shoot back at the ChiCom police instead. It’s not as if they have anything to lose by doing so.
Has discipline collapsed so badly in the North Korean military? After all, these are, in a very important way, front-line troops. If sealing the border with China is important to His Porcine Majesty as I think it is, these should be North Korea’s most disciplined and best-paid soldiers.
“Rigorous verification of loyalty to the state is carried out when selecting border patrol guards, so to have lower-ranking soldiers go AWOL with their weapons signals just how poor their discipline has become,” an ex-military North Korean defector told Daily NK. “It likely means rations were not being handed out properly or that they defected due to conflicts with senior soldiers.”
The source, however, explained that many other factors may have contributed to their decision to escape. “The younger generation has been exposed a lot to [illegal according to North Korean penal code] South Korean or foreign movies, so there is a strong desire to leave the country.
For more on the influence of South Korean culture in North Korean barracks, see this report.
In a lot of cases, they end up traversing the border not to defect, but rather from an inability to subdue the desire to cross over and set foot in Chinese territory,” he said, pointing out that the incident reveals further cracks in North Korea’s perennial attempts to promulgate its “superior system” to residents, who are increasingly unwilling to believe in it. [Daily NK]
This sort of conduct, by the way, isn’t completely unprecedented. There was another wave of border guard defections in 2007, but those guards didn’t attack or rob civilians.
North Korea’s lawless, undisciplined troops certainly don’t see Chinese civilians as the easiest targets, just the fattest ones. North Korean troops also prey on North Korean civilians.
A recent incident has acutely highlighted the high-handed behavior, namely violence under the pretense of inspections, of officials with the Chosun People’s Army [KPA] Defense Security Command [DSC]–an unceasing source of rage among residents.
“Six armed soldiers with the DSC barged into the train (bound for Musan from Pyongyang) in Musan Station, North Hamkyung Province and suddenly began conducting luggage checks,” a source in the same province reported to Daily NK on March 24th. “They unleashed a torrent of violence, hitting civilians and ordinary soldiers in the process. “
He added, “If people were deemed uncooperative during the search, these officials would scream, ‘Why are you so slow? What’s your problem?’ while they kicked and hit these hapless people. A man in his 60s or 70s valiantly protested by saying, ‘You’re a military inspector! You should be handling only soldiers–why are you examining ordinary residents too?’ The guards responded by punching that poor old man so hard that he vomited blood.” [Daily NK]
But at least the story has a happy ending:
This behavior does not go entirely unpunished, however, at least for some offenders; resident-delivered justice often prevails–when officers previously affiliated with the DSC are discharged or enter military academies, they are frequently ostracized and/or undergo severe beatings at the hands of their former victims.
He asserted the recent train incident to be no exception, with those affected by the incident already saying, “Just wait until those DSC soldiers are discharged…we’ll break their legs as soon as they’re out of their uniforms.”
There comes a point when violent resistance to the state becomes morally and legally defensible, when the state leaves no non-violent means to survive, to better one’s life, or to demand change. When the legitimate government of your country and the United Nations behave like passive bystanders. When all non-violent options for a human being to claim the rights that belong to all human beings have been exhausted.
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Update: And on a related note, North Korean parents are now bribing recruiters to get their kids assigned to units where they won’t starve to death:
With the March military draft season in full motion, mobilization officials in North Korea are said to be receiving bribes from conscripts in exchange for favorable postings, Daily NK has learned.
“When conscription begins, the mobilization units naturally start digging for bribes. The entire process is driven by it,” a source in Gangwon Province told Daily NK on Wednesday. “Party cadres receive bribes from the parents of draftees and then assign them to areas like the Pyongyang guard service, the general rear service department, military police, and border areas, where rations are regular and working conditions are relatively superior.” [Daily NK]
You’ll never guess which currency the recruiters prefer.
In mid-November 2014 in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, a woman in her 50s considered part of the donju [new affluent middle class] was publicly executed for “gambling and drug use,” Daily NK has recently learned.
According to Daily NK’s source in North Pyongan Province, the woman was “the wife of a North Korean trader in Dandong who was able to rapidly accumulate wealth by having Sinuiju’s wholesale market at her fingertips.”
He added, “Following an intense investigation after her initial arrest for gambling, this woman was found to have bribed officials with the Chosun Workers’ Party, the Ministry of People’s Safety, and most every law enforcement body in North Korea. Orders for her public execution were quickly handed down by the authorities as she was ‘practicing an unclean lifestyle by gambling and using drugs,’ running contrary to the accepted practices of a socialist society.” [Daily NK]
The report claims that the actual reason for her execution was that she was rich. (I guess that privilege is reserved for corrupt officials.)
So does that mean that a North Korean who makes it as far as the prison gate should consider herself lucky? If you’re asking yourself that, you must be new here. North Korea has another method for keeping its prison population down amid its own war on drugs: it maintains an “extremely high rate of deaths in custody . . . due to starvation, neglect, arduous forced labour, disease and execution.”