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North Korea moves to stem a rise in insubordination within its military

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), also, North Korea, People's Army guards march in formation to their appointed posts during a repatriation ceremony in the Panmunjom Joint Security Area. (TSGT James Mossman/U.S. Air Force)
January 09, 2022

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

After a North Korean army officer threatened his superior with a weapon and another attempted suicide when higher-ranking officers ignored his pleas for help, the country’s politburo is taking steps to stem what leaders fear may be a rising trend of insubordination within the military.

In the last three months of 2021, as many as 10 soldiers have violently confronted their superiors nationwide, a military official from the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA Dec. 20.

“At the end of November, a company-level officer of the 45th Division under the 9th Corps asked several times to his superior battalion to let him help solve a family issue and take care of his own personal health issue, but when he was ignored, he confronted his superior with a weapon while he was drunk,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“Even earlier this month, in a unit under the 3rd Corps, a company-level officer had a personal problem and appealed to a superior to help solve it,” the source said. “But when the senior officer ignored it, the company-level officer attempted to kill himself with a communication cable around his neck. This incident is embarrassing for the senior unit commanders.”

In North Korea, every able-bodied man is required to join the military for at least seven years. Officers can serve as long as 30 years.

Sources blamed the apparent rise in examples of insubordination — as well as a corresponding increase in incidents of superior officers brutally hazing enlisted personnel — on the stresses presented by a worsening North Korean economy due in part to COVID restrictions that have largely shut off trade with China.

After the incident in the 3rd Corps, the General Political Bureau, or politburo, ordered the higher-ranking officers to pay more attention to the problems of their subordinates, the source said.

“They fear that such incidents could demoralize the soldiers and spread into political incidents which could threaten the entire military hierarchy,” the source said. “The bureau ordered that they resolve conflicts by actively helping the lower-level officers having difficulties in their lives, especially since the new year is coming soon.”

Another aspect of the directive is to identify problem officers who could cause conflict within their units, the source said.

“The officers in charge of these problematic officers were ordered to routinely visit the subordinate units … and resolve any difficulties in a timely matter so that any political accidents can be prevented,” the source said.

In one case, the lower ranking officer exposed corruption among his superiors when they ignored his request for leave, an officer in the 8th Corps, stationed in the northwestern province of North Pyongan, told RFA.

“A company commander of a unit under the corps requested a leave of absence for his engagement ceremony, but the battalion commander and the political advisor ignored the request because it was during the winter military training period,” the second source told RFA.

“So, the company commander deserted for six days. When he was punished by the party, he publicly complained about their corruption,” the second source said.

The second source said that part of the directive from the General Political Bureau requires the senior officers to hold daily meetings with their subordinate officers to assess their loyalty.

“The low-level officers, however, claim that they are having a hard time living during such a time of economic hardship caused by the coronavirus, and that this problem will not simply be solved through ideological meetings.”

Hazing getting worse

In addition to incidents of insubordination, hazing among the enlisted ranks and their immediate superiors is now “getting serious,” another source said. In one case, a soldier almost froze to death after being beaten by his superiors.

“Recently a soldier from a unit under the 9th Corps, who had deserted several times from the unit, was badly beaten by several officers,” another military source from North Hamgyong province said.

“They imprisoned him in an iron barrel and left him out in the cold winter weather for several hours, almost killing him. It was reported to the General Political Bureau, and they began an investigation into military hazing,” said the third source, who declined to be named.

For their treatment of the enlisted man, the officers were demoted, and the investigation revealed that hazing is occurring most often in smaller units in remote locations as opposed to more centrally located larger units.

“In mid-October, at the 108th training camp in South Hamgyong Province, the commander of a security platoon questioned a platoon soldier for leaving his place of work while on duty at the guard post, and there was an incident where the commander hit the soldier with a rifle butt and inflicted serious injuries,” the third source said.

“In addition to the instructions to prepare measures to prevent hazing, the General Political Bureau made a study guide on the subject and distributed it to the units under its jurisdiction,” the third source said.

In North Pyongan, authorities are organizing teams consisting of officers from the secretariat to visit units across the country as part of the investigation, a fourth military source there told RFA.

“Countless orders to eradicate hazing have been issued, but it still happens often among the soldiers,” the fourth source said.

“Beatings in the military have become more severe these days, and the problem is directly related to poor living conditions for soldiers as the government is providing them with less and less each year.”