News / Asia

N. Korean Defections Raise Questions about Security, Loyalty

North Korean soldiers watch the South Korean side from a lookout tower at their observation post in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, December 28, 2011.
North Korean soldiers watch the South Korean side from a lookout tower at their observation post in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, December 28, 2011.
Three defections across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea are raising questions about the global flashpoint.

South Korean officials said three North Korean defectors have sneaked across the DMZ in the past three months, one of them announcing his arrival by knocking on the door of a South Korean barracks.

That incident has drawn a public rebuke from South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who summoned the defense minister Thursday and said those responsible for the security lapse should be punished. But it is also raising concerns about the state of North Korea's forces.

Soldiers stationed by Pyongyang along DMZ are normally selected very carefully and are thought to be among those most loyal to the regime. And before the recent defections, the last such attempt to cross the DMZ was about two years ago.

Lax discipline in the North

A South Korean official who asked not to be named said the events, especially the most recent defection, by a North Korean soldier who first killed his superiors, are troublesome. The official, who is very familiar with the ongoing interrogation, called Saturday's incident evidence of lax discipline in the North's ranks.  

But some analysts warned it is dangerous to read too much into the incidents.

"The defections themselves may not signal anything more than isolated incidents," said Georgetown University Professor Balbina Hwang. "Now, three in a period over a couple of months across the DMZ may or may not be significant. What would be far more significant is if we saw an entire platoon or an entire unit of the North Korean army defect all together."

Hwang, a former State Department adviser on East Asia, said the DMZ remains the "most dangerous border left on the planet," and that there are clearly problems with low morale on both sides, not just the North.

"This [North Korea] is, obviously, a system that is eroding.  It is a system that is weak.  But a system that is in crisis?  That does not seem to be the case," she said.

A more relaxed mood

In some ways, North Korea may be stabilizing after the recent leadership transition.

Ruediger Frank with Vienna University in Austria, visited North Korea last month.    

"The mood was much more relaxed. You could already feel that entering the airport building, how the officials would relate to you, but also from the attitude of our guides, or minders, and also people on the street, actually," Frank said.  "You can look into their faces and though you can't really talk to everybody, you get a certain impression."

Frank, a frequent visitor to North Korea who has studied at Kim Il Sung University, added it was not just the mood that was better. There were signs the economy was changing, as well, with many more vendors hawking their goods.

"Certainly between April and September, which is a very short period, I would say the number has quadrupled, or even increased four to five times, perhaps," he said.  "And what people sold were not just fresh agricultural products, but mainly soda of all types, cigarettes, bread and, of course, seasonal products, which is bing su or water ice."

Frank added that he saw "even at intersections right in the countryside, that is not in provincial cities where an intersection of two major roads was, not just one woman sitting there with a plastic bowl or someone sitting on the ground, selling stuff, but that looked much more institutionalized, much more professional."

"You would see three or four of them joining together catering to customers who would drive by either on their bicycles or who would walk by," he said.

Uncertainty in the South

In the meantime, Georgetown University's Balbina Hwang said there is another factor to consider in the ongoing wrangling between the Koreas, South Korea's upcoming presidential election.

"In South Korea this is a particularly, I don't want to say unstable, but it is a particularly tumultuous period politically," she said. "And it is very clear that periods of political turmoil in South Korea have actually been periods of advantage for North Korea."

Hwang said she expects more saber-rattling from the North. Already, Pyongyang warned its rockets are capable of striking the continental United States, likely a response to a new U.S.-South Korean deal extending the range of Seoul's missiles. U.S. officials have dismissed the threats.  

Still State Department Assistant Secretary Mike Hammer said the United States is bracing for more threats.  

"Clearly, North Korea remains defiant," he said at a recent briefing at a Foreign Press Center in New York. "We want to make sure it ceases its provocative acts and we're still looking for it to undertake its commitments and to move in the direction we would all like to see."

Containing defections

In the meantime, it appears Pyongyang is moving to prevent further defections.

South Korean officials told VOA's Korean service that since last week's defection, the North has been conducting special inspections of its frontline units, including the unit to which the defector belonged.

The regular penalties for defection also make clear there is a high price to be paid for disloyalty.  Under North Korea's collective punishment system, a soldier's defection would mean harsh treatment for his family, extending for three generations.

More than 23,500 North Koreans have escaped and resettled in South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953 with a cease-fire agreement. But nearly all of them make their way through China and Southeast Asia to get to South Korea, risking repatriation if they are caught in China.

Jeff Seldin

Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

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