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

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    Factions Shift as Civilians Die in Syrian War

    Scenario likely only to further confuse military situation on ground and potentially worsen humanitarian crisis that already has grown to epic proportions

    Presidential Hopefuls Woo Minorities, Evangelicals

    Four GOP candidates to speak at forum at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.