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Kim Jong Un disbands military unit for allowing refugee to return across Sino-Korean border

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un before a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on the south side of the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019. State media said Kim inspected a new submarine that would soon be deployed. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
August 27, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has disbanded a military company guarding part of the country’s porous border with China after they failed in mid-July to detect a North Korean refugee returning home after having spent an unspecified amount of time outside the country, sources told RFA Tuesday.

The refugee, a native of Chongjin, North Hamgyong province, reentered North Korea by crossing the Tumen river into the province’s Onsong county. He was able to completely sidestep soldiers of the 271st Regiment’s 27th Brigade before turning himself in to the provincial Security Department.

“The North Korean refugee confessed during the security department’s interrogation that he had not been stopped and had no interruption when crossing the North Korea-China border,” a North Hamgyong resident, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“A military official said that the Supreme Commander’s order to disband the unit was issued after the incident was reported to the supreme command,” the source said, referring to Kim Jong Un by his military rank.

The incident occurred around the same time as a more widely publicized returning refugee incident on July 19, when a man who had escaped to South Korea in 2017 swam back to the North across the inter-Korean border in the vicinity of his hometown Kaesong.

The state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported that authorities had declared a national maximum emergency at a July 25 meeting of the Political Bureau, over concerns that the man had brought the coronavirus with him.

The city of Kaesong was put on complete lockdown, and travel between provinces was shut down.

“Sometime around then, the [second] returning refugee incident was reported to the Supreme Command, and the Supreme Commander imposed the strong punishment of disbanding the troops to raise alarm among the entire military,” the source said.

In North Korea, those found guilty of crimes are not the only ones punished. Often their family members are sentenced alongside them for being guilty by association.

“Military leaders with the rank of company commander or lower were sentenced to more than 10 years for neglecting their duties as combat-ready border guards. They say their family members were loaded into cars and taken to correctional camps without knowing why,” the source said.

RFA was unable to confirm if family members of the company’s leaders were also sentenced to 10 years, but in most cases, family members of criminals are given lighter sentences.

The refugee may have been able to slip by the border guards because they were not focused on their jobs due to low morale, according to the source.

“In the past, the border guards were able to extort money from smugglers on a regular basis. They were able to save enough money to live on for years after their discharge from the military,” the source said, adding that since the border closed in January due to the coronavirus, extortion opportunities became far scarcer.

“The demoralized soldiers have been on duty just to fill their time, and such an incident has finally occurred.”

Another North Hamgyong resident confirmed RFA that a company of the 27th Brigade was disbanded for allowing the refugee to return across the border undetected.

“We know that the refugee who came back lived in Chongjin. He crossed back into North Korea without any problems and had been staying in his own house for 10 days when he turned himself in to the provincial security department,” the second source said.

“They say he is now in quarantine as a suspected COVID-19 infectee after being questioned. But the authorities have not said whether the refugee had only been to China or if he was coming back after having lived in South Korea, because they are afraid this information will have a negative impact,” the second source added.

The dissolution of the unit would do little to improve the readiness of other border guard units, according to the second source.

“Stories of the complete replacement of entire border guard companies have been circulating in the wake of the incident. But even if they are replaced, it won’t matter until [the authorities] improve the food situation and treat [the guards] better.”

Meanwhile, sources told RFA that during the Political Bureau’s July 25 meeting, the Party’s Central Military Commission discussed the results of an intensive investigation into military units stationed near Kaesong, responsible for the lax security that allowed the July 19 returning refugee incident.