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.

    You May Like

    Rolling Thunder Tribute to US Military Turns into a Trump Rally

    Half-million motorcycles are expected to rumble Sunday afternoon from Pentagon to Vietnam War Memorial for rally in event group calls Ride for Freedom

    The Struggle With Painkillers: Treating Pain Without Feeding Addiction

    'Wonder drug' pain medications have turned out to be major problem: not only do they run high risk of addicting the user, but they can actually make patients' chronic pain worse, US CDC says

    Video Canine Reading Buddies Help Students With Literacy

    Idea behind reading program is that sharing book with nonjudgmental companion boosts students' confidence and helps instill love of reading

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora