Recent weeks have seen a series of defections across the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) by North Korean soldiers. Aside from the 17-year old who famously shot his platoon leader and company commander before crossing the MDL last Saturday, on August 17th a soldier holding a white flag crossed the MDL, and on the 2nd of this month another was found on closed circuit video footage having already arrived on South Korean soil.
The important point to note is what the events say about North Korean military discipline. If these incidents are the result of accumulated discontent, it is a great sign for the (non-)future of the North Korean regime. However, this is a double-edged sword, for it is highly likely that the authorities will use provocations as method by which to re-instill military discipline. We must remain alert.
The welfare of North Korean soldiers is as poor as it gets. A shocking video released by ASIAPRESS last year showed groups of malnourished soldiers languishing by the roadside. We regularly hear how hunger in the Chosun People’s Army is leading to more and more friction between people and military.
Even guards on the Sino-North Korean border, where conditions are relatively good, are only receiving half their rations, it seems. A civilian in China to visit relatives recently testified that she was shocked by what a female soldier in the same unit as her son had described; with an unhealthy dark complexion and drawn face, she admitted that she no longer has monthly menstruations.
Another former soldier who spent time with the same unit as the 17-year old who defected after shooting his platoon leader said that things were no better in the 2nd Corps, which guards a section of the MDL. “There was no fire wood to heat in the winter and we used straw mats infested with lice to stay warm,” he admitted.
It is highly likely that recent inflows of information about South Korea are reminding these young men and women of the deprivations they suffer, and this fuels their opposition to the corruption of the dictatorship that conscripts them.
Soldiers along the MDL come from relatively good backgrounds and are assumed to have strong ideological convictions. Each unit has a political commissar, who checks them and decides the deployment of each one depending on personality, habits and the mood of the day.
Yet despite these attempts to forestall defection, soldiers crossing the MDL tell us that poor treatment and indiscipline are rife. These holes in the system should be watched closely, for they are intimately related to Kim Jong Eun’s weak leadership and could lead to ugly scenes, many with South Korea on the receiving end.