Category Archives: NK Military

Is the North Korean military falling apart?

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.
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The North Korean army’s rape problem, “Kangan” Province, and Gloria Steinem

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.

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Latest defection of armed North Korean soldiers points to erosion in morale and discipline.

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.

I saw this pattern repeat itself several times during the life of this site, until Kim Jong Un came to power, and when Phase Three came on with a brutality and efficiency unlike anything in North Korea’s recent history.

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Meth prices inching up in North Korea

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.

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N. Korea Perestroika watch: crackdown forces border guards to become robbers

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.

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Cougar Town, North Korea

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.

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Bruce Bechtol and Gordon Chang on the John Batchelor Show

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.

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Does North Korea have tunnels under Seoul?

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]

I’d be much more surprised if the North Koreans didn’t have tunnels under Seoul. Nor is this the most outlandish claim I’ve heard about the extent of those tunnels.

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Malnutrition and disillusionment take their toll on the North Korean military.

Rimjin-gang reports that the NKPA is finding that after a full generation of hunger and depressed birth rates, there are fewer young North Korean men who meet its physical standards, and many of those who do dodge the draft. I’d assume that draft-dodging in North Korea requires one to have the financial means to pay significant bribes, and if the possession of such financial means is still largely a function of songbun (hereditary political caste), then the disillusionment has entered the middle and upper-middle castes, too.

For those seeking more background on hunger in the North Korean military, see the links at the end of Rimjin-gang’s article.

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Is N. Korea building a missile submarine?

”A missile launch tube on a North Korean submarine was observed recently by U.S. intelligence agencies and is raising new concerns about the missile and nuclear threat from the communist regime in Pyongyang, according to two defense officials familiar with reports of the development.” [Free Beacon]

That would complicate the interception of North Korean missiles immensely.

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South Korea’s missile problem, and ours

For the last year, the South Korean government has been saying that it considers a North Korean attack a very real risk, and it has also said that if attacked, its retaliation will be swift and severe. Its President, Park Geun-Hye, recently expressed concern about a North Korean “misjudgment,” and touted the U.S.-ROK military alliance as the best deterrent against that. As recently as this week, she has been warning her army of the dangers of “complacency.

I don’t have access to the intelligence that President Park has, so I have no basis to either affirm or question her premise. Part of this is probably deterrent bluster, but I doubt Park would bluster without some basis. I’ve always thought President Park was a smart and shrewd politician. In South Korea, appeasement is still politically popular — up to a point — although it’s not as popular as it was a decade ago. Still, I doubt that a politician as shrewd as Park would fabricate a threat that wouldn’t serve her political interests. (I’m sure others will disagree; so be it).

Today, I fear that the risk of a miscalculation that leads to war is greater than most North Korea watchers appreciate. Last month, Park told her top military commanders to return fire if attacked, without even waiting for her permission.

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I’m sure the “so-called pope” meant no offense, but if KCNA hadn’t norksplained it for me …

I would not have seen it from this perspective: “We would like to ask the pope why he set about his south Korean trip the day when we are making latest tactical rocket test-fire according to our regular plan though there are a lot of days in the year.”

Of course, given His Porcine Majesty’s crowded launch schedule and the absence of forewarning, it’s not exactly easy for His Holiness to squeeze in a visit to Korea in between. Sounds like the rockets were more of that 300-millimeter type.

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Insiders debate North Korea’s EMP capability

The simplest electro-magnetic pulse or EMP weapons are, put simply, nuclear weapons detonated at high altitude. A high-altitude nuclear blast would overload and destroy electrical circuits and infrastructure, and create blackouts over wide areas for extended periods of time. Imagine your life without the internet, telephone, electricity, or cars — in short, being part of a 21st Century population trying to sustain itself with Colonial Williamsburg technology — and you get the idea. Without the means to recover from that sort of attack quickly, a modern society can’t survive for long.

The Heritage Foundation has published this background paper on the EMP threat, which itself links to this study commissioned by Congress, which examines the threat in more detail. Although I’ve read some of the predictions about the potential consequences of an EMP strike that sound exaggerated, I do think EMP is a danger we should take seriously with respect to our defenses, and also, our capacity to recover our infrastructure after an EMP attack.

Last month, former CIA Director James Woolsey made some members of the House Armed Services Committee nervous when he warned, “There is now an increasing likelihood that rogue nations such as North Korea … will soon match Russia and China in that they will have the primary ingredients for an EMP attack.”

For South Korea, the EMP threat could be particularly dire.

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Test something louder, Dear Leader. John Kerry still can’t hear you.

With the world erupting in the greatest cascade of escalating conflicts since 1975 and President Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy at negative 21.2% — 11% lower than his overall (dis)approval rating — John Kerry eked out some time over the weekend to tempt fate with a dubious boast:

I just came back from China, where we are engaged with the Chinese in dealing with North Korea. And you will notice, since the visit last year, North Korea has been quieter. We haven’t done what we want to do yet with respect to the de-nuclearization. But we are working on that and moving forward. [John Kerry, Meet the Press, July 20, 2014]

If you’re in Seoul or certain parts of Washington, that clapping sound isn’t applause; it’s the smack of palms against foreheads. Kerry’s observation rubs a lamp that wiser men do not touch for fear of the genies they would rather not summon. One may as well compliment a politician’s moderate views during primary season, or announce one’s arrival in the cellblock by telling the gang leader that he seems a decent enough fellow. As if on cue, yesterday, North Korea threatened South Korea and the United States with “practical retaliatory actions of justice.”

As South Koreans are keenly aware, North Korea has not been quiet. Under the direct supervision of His Porcine Majesty, it has been testing SCUDs in violation of multiple U.N.

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U.S. should ask Mexico to search the M/V Mu Du Bong

Last week, I linked to a piece by investigative journalist Claudia Rosett (third item), noting the travels of the North Korean freighter Mu Du Bong from Cuba into points unknown in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, thanks to intrepid Miami Herald reporter Juan Tamayo, we learn that the Mu Du Bong has run aground in the Mexican Gulf Coast port of Tuxpan, not far from Veracruz. The ship is said to be empty, but there are a number of suspicious aspects of its behavior.

The 430-foot Mu Du Bong grounded Monday on a reef about seven miles from the Mexican port of Tuxpan, according to shipping industry officials. The job of pulling it off the reef will be complicated and take several days, they said.

The ship was empty and planning to pick up cargo in Tuxpan when it ran aground because its captain “lost his bearings,” according to a report by the Agence France Presse. Tuxpan is known as one of Mexico’s main sugar exporting ports.

Port administrators told El Nuevo Herald aid they did not know whether the Mu Du Bong was entering or leaving the port. An official at the Captain of the Port’s office said no one there was authorized to give information on the case.

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