North Korea does not need soldiers who cannot be absolutely loyal to the Chosun Workers’ Party and the nation’s leader, Kim Jong Eun declared defiantly in a recent speech at the unveiling of new statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the elite Kim Il Sung Military University in Pyongyang.
An edited version of Kim’s speech, which was delivered on October 29th, was subsequently broadcast by Chosun Central TV on the 30th as part of a propaganda documentary film commemorating the visit.
Kim told the assembled audience of soldiers, state officials and locally-based diplomats, “We do not need people who are not devoted to the Party and Suryeong, no matter how militaristic their disposition or excellent their tactical ability.”
“Loyalty to Party and Suryeong are the very mark of an armed revolutionary,” he went on, emphasizing, “Historical experience has shown us that soldiers who are not devoted to the Party and Suryeong do not accomplish their mission as the warriors of a revolutionary army, and then fall as traitors to the revolution later on.”
In emphasizing the importance of loyalty, and the potential for disloyalty, in this way, Kim’s speech appears to lend credence to recent claims that reliability at all levels of the military is now a pressing issue for the regime. It can be argued that ever since the sudden departure of former Chosun People's Army (KPA) Chief of Staff Lee Young Ho in mid-July there have been signs of instability developing, a state of affairs that is very dangerous indeed, especially for a self-declared “military-first state” in which domestic rule is buttressed predominantly by military, rather than economic, strength.
Lee’s departure has since been followed by a number of well-known military defections, most famously of a frontline member of the elite Minkyung Unit that guards the truce village at Panmunjom. The soldier, who had been picked to serve in the unit precisely because of his perceived loyalty to the regime under North Korea’s “Songbun” system of social discrimination, shot and killed two of his superiors before escaping across the Military Demarcation Line at Dorasan, where the integrity of the DMZ is weakened by the road and rail link between South Korea and the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
There is no suggestion that the defections are directly linked to Lee’s removal, but they do appear to suggest that the regime is increasingly unable to rely on the loyalty of even the younger officer class, much less the average conscript soldier.
Further circumstantial evidence of this can be found in a meeting of low-level unit chairpersons of the military’s youth arm on the 31st. The meeting, the first of its kind for ten years, allowed for not only shows of devotion to the regime from the junior officers present, but also, if the last such meeting in 2002 is an accurate guide, for the distribution of luxury gifts in an attempt to buy the loyalty which ideology can no longer guarantee.
As Kim Kwang In, who heads the North Korea Strategy Center, told Daily NK yesterday, “The recent incident of a soldier crossing the DMZ is a perfect example of how military discipline has loosened. The meeting was to establish military discipline while simultaneously boosting morale.”
“Those serving in the Chosun People’s Army today were either born around the time of the March of Tribulation or spent their childhoods during it,” Kim went on to point out. “Food problems then continued and, because these young adults have never experienced the benefits of their state, Kim Jong Eun must feel it is essential to manage them better now.”