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.
He reported that “According to an officer of the Military Service and Mobilization Division, the number of new recruits is only around 86% in proportion to the number of discharged soldiers. Since the military is facing recruit shortage, the state authority has ordered to conscript every potential recruit–except people with a serious physical problem. Therefore, the division has already started to go to each school to carry out medical checks for the next recruitment in the coming spring. It is because parents often scheme to prevent their children from getting drafted–such as faking sickness–when the recruitment season approaches. This time, the Military Service and Mobilization Division has intended to conduct medical checks before the evasion occurs.” [Rimjin-gang]
On one level, this report fits with multiplereports of low morale, lean rations, and rampant disease in some North Korean army units. I’ll also offer a major caveat to this story: many North Korean military units are really just glorified construction brigades. I often suspect that the soldiers in those units are drafted as much to keep North Korea’s population of young men busy, tired, and under close observation as for the labor they perform. The regime can afford to let those non-elite units be hollowed out without a significant impact on readiness, at least until it calls on those units to suppress local unrest, or to replace losses in front-line units in the event of war. To assess impacts on military readiness, focus on front-line units, especially those along the western corridor of the DMZ and along the Yalu River border with China. Nonetheless, the story is indicative of changing attitudes in North Korean society. That’s a trend we should be doing everything we can to catalyze.
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.
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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.
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.
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Update: Then again, maybe there isn’t another unit that Kim Jong-un can rotate in. Word is apparently spreading among the ranks that malnutrition and undernourishment are rife throughout the military because Hwang Pyong-so isn’t controlling corruption and pilferage.
A North Korean resident in Jagang Province told RFA that he was shocked by the news that his son, who entered the army in March, was suffering from malnutrition.
He said the rations given to ordinary soldiers are so poor that most are in a serious state of undernourishment.
The North Korean informant said that since his son went to the army, he ate only boiled corn with a soup of salted wild greens.
Another military source in Ryanggang Province said in the units he knew, the military food supply is not so bad as to cause malnutrition, but added that troops are starving due to deep-rooted corruption and greed for private profits by officers.
More often than not, army commanders embezzle food and even kitchen oil from the military, forcing soldiers into extreme undernourishment, the source said.
According to the military source, the food situation these days has become worse under the current director of the general political bureau of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Hwang Pyong-so, who is said to be incompetent in the everyday aspects of military affairs, especially at food rationing.
In comparison, Hwang’s predecessor, Choe Ryong-hae, provided more supplies such as seafood, nutritional pills and hardtack, but these supplementary foods were stopped after Choe stepped down.
Since the inauguration of Hwang, who has been lax on dealing with corruption, soldiers have begun to complain about him, the media outlet claimed. [Yonhap]
That would explain the recent uptick in reports of disciplinary incidents and hunger.
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.
A few days ago, the Korea Times carried a profile of Lee So-yeon, a native of Hoeryong in North Korea’s far northeast, who defected to the South in 2008, did menial jobs for a few years, later earned her bachelor’s degree in social welfare from Gukje Cyber University based in Suwon, and then founded an NGO called the North Korea Women’s Union.
Founded in 2011, the group hosts talks at schools and other groups, and provides job training and psychological counseling to defectors as well. What makes Lee, a defector, stand out is that she comes forth to speak about the ordeals of women defectors from North Korea.
“Whether it’s in the restaurant business, in the radio industry or something else, I believe North Korean defectors groups all are working for unification, for the democratization of North Korea and for change in North Korea,” Lee said in a recent interview at her office in Dangsan-dong, western Seoul. [Korea Times]
By Lee’s reckoning, she endured far less than other women refugees whose accounts she’s heard: “[W]hen I hear the stories of other female defectors, I think they are the stuff for movies.” After all, Lee was only caught and sent back for one attempted defection, and only spent one year in a North Korean prison for it. The interview briefly mentions that Lee previously served in the North Korean army’s signal corps, but doesn’t mention what she endured during her service. But elsewhere, Lee talked about what army life is like for female soldiers in North Korea, and what she said was horrifying.
“Out of 120 soldiers in my unit, there were only 20 men, but they were all high-ranking officers. I was in the 1st squad, but a couple of squad leaders in the 2nd squad raped every single one of the low-ranking female soldiers,” Lee testified.
One defector, Kim Eun-mi, who worked as a railway attendant, said in the conference, “women crew members often fell victim to sexual assault and rape, which was common in trains carrying soldiers, especially in the evening when lights were turned off.”
Kim also mentioned that she worked under a squalid condition where female crew had to “reuse sanitary pads that were already solidified (with blood).”
Choi Su-hyang, a former nurse in the North Korean Army, left the country for the South in 2014. She pointed out that 30 to 40 percent of the North‘s military personnel are women, who are often raped and assaulted by superior officers.
Adding to the sexual assault, she added, most military soldiers, both males and females, suffer from malnutrition, and are at high risk of contracting diseases like hepatitis and tuberculosis. [Korea Herald]
To maintain such a large army in proportion to its population, the North Korean military has long terms of enlistment, often as long as ten years. Soldiers aren’t allowed to marry or have girlfriends, so rape and prostitution become outlets for their desires. The state and the command don’t punish rape or abuse — sexual or otherwise — thus creating an environment of impunity.
“Those who got pregnant were sent to a hospital in the city of Haeju, South Hwanghae Province, the only hospital in the vicinity of the military base,” Lee said, according to the report. “Medical personnel in the hospital who found out about the incident divulged the fact after two years.”
Rape targeting female soldiers is frequent at North Korean military bases and those responsible are rarely punished, she said. Victims are often dishonorably discharged from the military.
“Authorities, aware of time and money invested in nurturing high-ranking male officers, are reluctant to punish them, although they are responsible for the crime,” Lee said. [Korea Times]
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry found evidence of frequent rapes and murders of female inmates in its prison camps, and that violence against women both in public and in the home was commonplace.
I’ve prosecuted and defended multiple sexual assault cases in the U.S. Army (nearly all of them soldier-on-soldier, with an occasional civilian wife as the accuser), and it must be the case that sexual assault is a serious problem that every army has to confront. That’s just a demographic inevitability. What implicates a command as responsible for the problem is whether it investigates and prosecutes credible allegations, whether it maintains a fair process to try the accused, and whether it punishes the guilty. What’s clear is that the North Korean government appears to be doing none of those things. What’s less clear is why some self-described feminists in this country give the North Korean government a free pass for that.
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.
~ ~ ~
* 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.
It has been four whole days since I said I was done talking about Women Cross DMZ for a year. How foolish it was of me to write that. For one thing, I did not anticipate having this detailed history of Christine Ahn’s pro-North Korean views, which outdoes my own, to graf for you:
In late April, WomenCrossDMZ held a press conference in New York City. Ahn was not in attendance to respond to our question of why the group omits discussion of human rights. But Steinem was: she responded that this was a “bananas question … there are many sins on every side.” Ahn and Steinem’s co-organizer, theology professor Hyun-Kyung Chung, added that “when you go out on a first date, you don’t talk about all the bad things you did last summer.” Fair enough. Even Charles Manson has suitors. [Thor Halvorssen & Alex Gladstein, Foreign Policy]
For another, a horrible new report from New Focus International describes the “rape culture” that has developed among North Korean soldiers in Kangwon Province, or Kangwon-do, where soldiers rape civilian women so frequently that residents have taken to grimly calling it kangan-do. In Korean, kangan means rape:
The source explains, “Wherever you go in Kangwon Province, there are more soldiers than civilians. Because almost everyone you bump into is a soldier, you notice that as a major group they commit a lot of crimes. Mostly, the crimes are rape and sexual assault. In Kangwon Province, the soldiers move in large groups, and attacks have become so frequent that it isn’t even surprising to us anymore.
Even the police try to avoid them. This is because they try to contain the soldiers, but usually end up being humiliated. The soldiers in Kangwon Province are uncontrollable and virtually lawless. So the civilians of Kangwon Province have resorted to calling their hometown ‘Robbery Province’ or ‘Rape Province’.” [New Focus, Apr. 29, 2015]
The problem is impunity: the command and the security forces have made a decision not to prosecute rapes. This is same the impunity the U.N. Commission of Inquiry found, and which I quoted in my recent piece for The Weekly Standard. According to the report, witnesses reported that North Korean authorities don’t treat the rape of an adult woman as a crime at all.
Song Geum-bok, who escaped North Korea in March 2014, testifies: “There are army units everywhere in Kangwon Province. Eight of the ten people that pass you in the streets of Kangwon Province are soldiers. Put simply, there are more soldiers in this province than rocks. So naturally, when bad news circulates among the neighbourhood people, we presume that a soldier is involved in some way.
“The greatest victims of the soldiers are women. These youthful soldiers, who are in their prime both physically and sexually, are forced to serve in the army, and as time passes they become like uncontrollable wolves. When women become the target of a soldier, there is no stopping them. Soldiers usually loiter around dark places at night and jump on women passing by. Some women don’t even fight it – they just obediently adhere to the soldiers’ desires.
“Why? It’s because there is no use in fighting back. The women believe that by being compliant, they will at least be able to avoid suffering too many injuries.[New Focus, Apr. 29, 2015]
If there are no prosecutions, there is no point in reporting rapes. North Korean women know how little their government values their safety, their health, their bodies. Imagine the circumstances of a low-songbun North Korean woman who becomes pregnant, or who is injured or infected with an STD, after she’s raped.
We came across an interesting anecdote dealing with the consequences of rapes committed by North Korean soldiers. North Korean exile Kim Yoon-seok tells us, “There was an incident where a soldier raped a woman at gunpoint. Obviously, he was never caught. As the father’s identity was unknown, the child that was born nine months later did not have a surname. The woman named the child Cho In-gun (the first letters of Chosun inmin-gun or ‘Korean People’s Army’. It is as if the baby was named ‘KPA’). The story spread like wildfire. That name, Cho In-gun, it is now used to mock the bastard children of the North Korean army.” [New Focus, 2013]
According to that same report, STDs are common in the North Korean military. For North Korea’s lower classes, there’s little or no medical care to be found. In North Korea, a poor woman has no one but herself. That’s why some women are learning to fight back:
A homegrown version of pepper spray has become the latest item carried by female merchants in North Korea, namely to combat sexual harassment and theft. For others, however, it plays an increasingly integral part in the perpetual struggle they face in trying to get by on a daily basis.
In most of the world, pepper spray, also known as oleoresin capsicum or OC, is derived from the same chemical that gives chili peppers their heat–but at much higher concentrations. North Korea’s version of pepper spray forgoes any complex chemical processes; in fact, instead of a spray, North Korea’s deterrent consists of pulverized chili peppers tucked into an easily accessible sack, which residents have coined the “chili powder bomb.”
“Women in Chongjin, Hamheung, Pyeongseong, and other cities are carrying around ‘chili powder bombs’ for protection,” a source from Hamkyung North Province told Daily NK on the 28th. “Women merchants as well as travelers are using bags of ground chili pepper as a means of self-protection.” [Daily NK]
North Korean soldiers often have long enlistments, and are not allowed to marry. Those who might already be married or have girlfriends seldom get leave. This doesn’t excuse anything, but it must be seen as another factor contributing to the problem that these young men are denied the option of love, marriage, and family until some of their best years are behind them.
In every station, prostitutes can be seen waiting for military customers. Working alongside security guards, private homes loaned out by their occupants are used as temporary brothels.
According to exile Kim Yoon-seok, “Women have to make a living too, and the best they have to offer is their bodies. Their primary source of income is the soldiers. As their sexual desires must be suppressed during military service, the young men are very bold and open about using prostitutes. The women receive food or cash for sleeping with them.”
To afford prostitutes, soldiers are said to raid civilian homes, from which they steal with impunity. Without even making an effort to hide themselves, they then make their way to stations or other red-light districts. [New Focus, 2013]
For years, guerrilla news services have reported that North Korean soldiers maraud nearby farms and homes to steal food and valuables. Sometimes, that violence even spills over the border, into China. Last year, Chinese media began to report that North Korean army deserters were robbing and murdering Chinese civilians. According to a new Chinese press report, three more deserters crossed into China and killed three more civilians, “a 55-year-old surnamed Chao, his 26-year-old daughter and a 67-year-old Sun.” When the victims of these attacks are Chinese, there is some chance that the crimes will be reported; there may even be a measure of accountability for the commanders. When the victims are North Korean, the state’s culture of secrecy and impunity almost assures that that won’t happen.
Would it be too much for Gloria Steinem to ask North Korea to investigate and prosecute the rapists in its ranks? After all, Steinem’s Feminist Majority has been outspoken on the subject of sexual assault in the U.S. armed forces. The organizer of Women Cross DMZ, Christine Ahn, has denounced “sexual violence by U.S. servicemen” in South Korea, even suggesting that it’s a greater threat to South Korea’s civilian population than North Korea’s nuclear weapons. (This is a hyperbolic falsehood, as I can testify from my four years as an Army prosecutor and defense counsel in Korea. If anything, the U.S. Army’s extreme sensitivity to bad publicity and political pressure causes it to overcharge alleged sexual assaults. Alleged assaults were overwhelmingly soldier-on-soldier; relatively few involved Korean victims.)
For purely demographic reasons, all militaries need to be concerned about sexual assaults, whether among soldiers, or against the civilian population. Every government’s command deserves to be judged by how it balances its responsibility to protect victims with how it protects the rights of the accused to a fair trial. Clearly, Pyongyang has made the decision that women’s bodies are not worth protecting from rapists. That’s a problem that any self-respecting feminist has a duty to speak out about. And if Steinem has the courage to call the North Koreans out on their own soil, she would earn our sincere respect for that. On her way from Pyongyang to the DMZ, Gloria Steinem should not bypass “Kangan” Province.
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.
~ ~ ~
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.
Rimjin-gang updates us on the meth trade in North Hamgyeong, in the extreme northeast of North Korea:
I would say that the buying and selling of these substances are far more active than ever before. The price for these products is increasing. A year ago it was 100 Chinese RMB (around 16 US dollars) for 1 gram. Since the beginning of this year it has increased to 100 RMB for 0.8 gram. A small sack of product, made for only 1 to 2 uses, is sold at 30,000 NK won (around 4 US dollars). [Rimjin-gang]
I wonder if this is tied to a shortage of precursor chemicals as a result of the border crackdown. Otherwise, I’d have suspected that the loss of access to Chinese markets would have driven the price down, not up.
The source also reports that “many” cops and soldiers use meth, too:
Partner: Yes. There are many. Sometimes they go and buy eoleum by themselves. If they don’t have money with them, they’ve been known to pawn something like a bicycle. Since those who carry out the crackdowns are involved in eoleum trafficking and some of them are also users, the authorities are not able to enforce controls.
Odd. I used to prosecute guys for using meth in the American Army, and I know how quickly this stuff can spread through a unit and wreck its efficiency. For the first few months, it actually makes people better at their jobs. Later, it causes them to miss formation, sleep on the job, and finally, it turns them psychotic.
It has occurred to me that a soldier with a meth problem and no more pay to spend would trade just about anything–including an RPG-7–for an eight ball.
Look for a Part 2 to Rimjin-gang’s report in the coming days.
Last week, China filed an official protest with North Korea over the December killing of four Chinese civilians by a rogue North Korean border guard who had turned to robbery. A Bloomberg reporter researches this further, in search of a pattern, and finds one:
A spate of murders by North Koreans inside China’s border is prompting some residents to abandon their homes, testing China’s ability to manage both the 1400-kilometre shared frontier and its relationship with the reclusive nation.
The violence reflects a growing desperation among soldiers, including border guards, since Kim Jong-un took over as supreme leader in Pyongyang three years ago. As well as seeking food, they are entering China to steal money.
“Bribes were one of the key sources of income for these guards to survive, but after Kim Jong-un came to power and tightened controls, it became difficult for them to take bribes, thus the criminal deviations,” said Kang Dong Wan, a professor of international relations at Busan’s Dong-a University in South Korea. [Bloomberg]
The reporter interviews “a senior local official,” who asked not to be identified, and who says that “[a]round 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years.” Before the December incident, in September, another North Korean soldier murdered three members of another family over 500 yuan, just under $100. The soldier was later caught.
The crime wave has caused some residents to leave the village. The official says that in the winter, when the Tumen River freezes over, “it is common for soldiers to enter the village to demand food.”
“Barbed wires separating China and North Korea are as good as non-existent, with some parts of the border river being so shallow that you only risk getting yourself wet from the knee down when you wade across it,” Dr Kang said. “The geographic extensiveness of the border also makes it very difficult to maintain a complete watch.” [….]
“Military units in fringe areas or with less influence also get less food,” Mr Kwon said. “This will get worse. It is estimated about 2 million North Koreans are still unable to feed themselves properly even though the days of them starving to death are over.”
Reaching back into the vast OFK archives, there is a long history of known incidents of North Korean border guards and soldiers either getting involved in smuggling, defecting, or even fragging their officers. For example, in 2010, I wrote this:
Border guards were no exception. As cross-border trade became more lucrative, so did the acceptance of bribes to overlook it. The corruption of the border guards became so brazen that they have been photographed while smuggling in broad daylight. Even field-grade officers, and most strikingly, members of North Korea’s intelligence services, went into the smuggling business. [….]
In October 2012, a soldier fragged two officers and fled across the DMZ, to South Korea.
May of 2012, the Daily NK reported that two North Korean border guards shot roughly half a dozen of their colleagues, crossed the border, and went up to the hills to hide. The Chinese caught them and repatriated them back to North Korea.
In February 2007, a group of twenty North Korean border guards defected. Asahi TV later interviewed two of them.
Historically, when disciplinary infractions have embarrassed the regime, it has carried out mass transfers of the force, sometimes swapping border guard for regular army units, or flooding the zone with officers of the Ministry of Public Security or State Security Department.
The regime knows too well that banditry can beget mutiny.
Twenty years ago in North Korea’s outer provinces, heavy industry seized up. In short order, so did most of the beneficial functions of government, including the food distribution system. The state continued to do other things, of course, most of them mean or silly. In former industrial regions, it still enforced the primacy of men as breadwinners by forcing them to report each day to idled factories that couldn’t pay their wages. A consequence of this was that market-savvy wives supplanted their husbands as providers. And in the areas near North Korea’s northern border, there have been other consequences.
Because North Korea has no Third Amendment, local families are expected to house border guards in their homes. Often, the guards’ hostesses live (and even prosper) by dealing in wares smuggled from across the border. For the guards, that’s not a flaw; it’s a feature.
After being assigned to his border post, one of the first things that a soldier needs to do is find a host house. North Korean border guards may wield the authority to guard the border and crackdown on smugglers; but if they want to make money, they must have access to a host house that is located not too far from his checkpoint and whose owner specializes in smuggling.
“People who work as smugglers in border towns are generally from the younger generation. Bringing in smuggled goods and sending them to China is easier said than done. You have to be meticulous with sums and be quick and crafty, to avoid being caught in surveillance operations set up by State Security and People’s Security agents. It is not a job for older people,” said Ms. Yoon Seong-hee, who is from Hyesan in North Korea and settled in the South in May 2013. [New Focus International]
Because North Korea also has no Fourth Amendment, the state must have expected these young guards to police their host families. But some of these guards share feelings with their hostesses that they do not share with the state: loneliness, fear, greed, trust, and desire. That has incubated something extraordinary—symbiotic polyandry:
“Hosts, smugglers and border guards become like a family. Smugglers must connect with the locality’s border guards in order to send and receive goods over the border. They come to be in frequent contact, and become familiar with each other to the extent that border guards take naps in their smuggling host houses,” explained Ms. Yoon.
“Since these kinds of co-existence arrangements are prevalent, relationships between the border guards and women of their host houses sometimes lead to affairs. There have even been incidents of men launching official complaints to the relevant brigade or party cadres, but the tendency is to compromise on the matter quietly, for the sake of the children,” she continued.
“Border guards prefer married women for several reasons. When the women are more mature, they take better care of soldiers, in the manner they do with younger siblings. And the closer the relationship between the two, the more reliably the woman can be trusted to manage their money matters. Regardless of how much money border guards can make, if they meet a bad host, they can be easily defrauded,” said Ms. Yoon.
New Focus offers no estimate of the incidence of these alternative lifestyles, but reports that they can outlast the guards’ enlistments. The young men, once emancipated, become the kept men of their sugar mamas, and de facto family members. (Imagine the awkwardness of the conversations over dinner.) In a country without a G.I. Bill, these relationships can earn them enough cash to bribe their way into a university, or even party membership. For the women, their boy-toys bring give them affection, wealth, and even status:
According to Ms. Kim Hyun-kyung, a North Korean exile from Musan, “In the past, if there was an affair between an occupant of a host house and a border guard, people would point fingers and the woman could not go out with her head up high. However, things are very different now.”
“These days, a lot of soldiers posted to border guard units do not go back to their hometown upon being discharged. They may integrate into a family with married women whom they met during their border service, continue to make money through border exchanges, and secure entry to a local university with their earnings. This sort of thing would have been considered beyond the pale in the past. But nowadays, people may still criticize such people behind their back, but women who have younger men around in such a manner are actually considered to be capable and resourceful.”
“Before I fled, I knew several households in my own area where married women lived with border guards. Whatever the morality, those families make money, so they can live without causing much fuss. Even when scandalous rumours turn the town upside down initially, if they continue to live well, the criticisms soon disappear. But the older people say that the world is becoming more rotten and would still click their tongues in disapproval,” said Ms. Kim.
Someone could make a fine screenplay from this, if he could abstain from writing “turgid,” “supple,” or “quivered,” or allowing it to be produced in Japan. It has all the elements of a best-seller: sex (and it has been proven that this is the only element any book really needs), adultery, jealousy, love, crime, punishment, intrigue, “exotic” cultures (that word), and the subversion of the world’s most inscrutable (that word) society by history’s most irresistible forces. Not to mention, so much potential for violence.
The North Korea part begins around the one-minute mark. Chang and Bechtol think North Korea is unstable, but they may know something I don’t. I agree that the turnover seems to have been high lately—and some of that can be sourced to North Korean sources, for whatever that’s worth—but I just don’t have confidence that we really know the facts. If it is true, however, turnover sounds more like a sign of instability than a sign of consolidation.
There’s also some good discussion about North Korea’s growing military threat.
Well, I assume that if the ROK Army saw any such signs, it would have followed them to the tunnels, right? (Actually, I’ve heard that it’s not so easy in practice.) Its reasons don’t quite persuade me, but a geologist’s opinion might.
Gen. Hahn Sung-Chu never believed North Korea could dig a tunnel that reached Seoul — until now.
Standing inside a basement of an apartment block in the heart of the capital, the former two-star general in the South Korean military says, “This is a kind of invasion, North Korean soldiers working underneath us.”
Hahn says residents had complained of underground vibrations, but the subway does not run beneath them. [CNN]