Remembering the Coup d’etat in 1996

[imText1]The No.6 Corps Incident of 1996 was when a coup d’etat was planned by the No. 6 Corps in North Hamkyung Province but found before it could be implemented and the corps completely dismantled. It failed, but the ripple effect of the planned coup was substantial, and therefore most North Korean people have heard of it.

Before the incident, the No. 6 Corps HQ, which was in Chongjin, was in charge of military activities in the whole of North Hamkyung Province. It consisted of three infantry divisions, four rocket brigades and one artillery division.

The coup plot was led by political committees and included commanders of battalions, while the chief secretary of North Hamkyung Province, administrative cadres, vice directors of the provincial National Security Agency and Social Safety Agency and other cadres were implicated. The group was apparently planning to start an uprising in North Hamkyung Province first and then head for Pyongyang. However, the plan was picked up by Defense Security Command and the ringleaders rounded up. Around 40 were executed and a further 300 severely punished.

It failed in part because in North Korea the military operates a triangular monitoring system from top to bottom: members of the political committee, military commanders and NSA agents cross check each other at every stage. Additionally, there is a reporting officer who can connect to Kim Jong Il’s secretary’s office, monitoring commanders, and Defense Security Command monitors the whole system via wire taps.

The late Hwang Jang Yop said of this situation, “If a coup is to be carried out successfully, it needs strong political foundations, but since Party organs are involved in the military system, it is impossible,” and, “In a country where the political level is low, the military authorities can grasp political power, but in North Korea it is hard to find any military officers who have that ability.”

However, defectors claim that there have been elements causing instability in the military for the last decade. Therefore, another coup d’etat plan like that of the No. 6 Corps is not out of the question.

This is rendered more likely as potential sparks for unrest grow in number. Lower level cadres and soldiers suffer chronic malnutrition, and have done for some years. At various times, they are forced to live on corn kernels and salty soup. Equally, as in the society at large, the flow of information in the military is broadening; therefore, complaints about upper cadres and the authorities are accumulating.

But we can also look for signs of change away from the regular military; the scale of North Korea’s civilian armed forces is also vast. In the words of the late Hwang, “Regardless, we can pin our hopes on youthful military cadres,” for democratization.

Elsewhere, there have been a few news reports in the Japanese media, such as one about a purported anti-regime group, “Free Youth Comrades,” and one in 2005 of some video footage of banners on a wall in Hoiryeong; elsewhere, in 1989 there was another incident where university students in Pyongyang spread leaflets criticizing the Kim Jong Il regime.

These efforts are piecemeal, it is true, but it is nevertheless clear that some people are willing to take the risk of acting against the regime. However, unlike in North Africa, for example, since even freedom of migration between provinces is not allowed in North Korea, forming a social network or publicly organizing anti-regime activities are both unimaginable.

It is true that social networks using the internet and cell phones were key starting points of the democratization movements in Egypt and Tunisia, and their absence makes it harder for anti-regime activities to meet with success in North Korea. The quick spread of information is at the core of modern-day revolutions, and the outside world must work hard to aid in those efforts.