North Korean soldiers no longer believe war propaganda

The bellicose posture of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is stoking the flames of war. But morale in the Korean People’s Army is low and its will to fight waning.

At the beginning of the year, in a policy speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim openly displayed his willingness to risk war. He said the constitution should be changed to position South Korea as the “No.1 enemy nation” and “implacable foe” and that North Korea should plan to “fully occupy, pacify and absorb South Korea and incorporate it into the territory of the republic in the event of war.”

Predictably, Korean Central Television showed soldiers and citizens declaring their determination to “swiftly conquer” South Korea if the Supreme Commander gave the order.

However, this televised confidence is the opposite of the truth.

Actual morale among the troops contradicts the government’s resolve, according to soldiers who have been stationed on the DMZ border and those who have served in the 8th Army Corps in North Pyongan Province and 9th Army Corps in North Hamgyong Province.

Their testimony suggests a widespread conviction that if there was a war, their country would lose. 

That is because soldiers of the jangmadang market generation are far better informed about the outside world, especially regarding the United States and South Korea, than earlier generations. They have learned through South Korean and American dramas and movies about the power of the US military, and how it is equipped with state-of-the-art weapons systems.

This is not a new problem for military authorities in Pyongyang. In 2013, when Kim became the Supreme Commander, internal military documents pointed out a “growing mindset of war-weariness and mental state of fear of war which must be overcome.” They stressed the need to arm soldiers with the attitude of “revolutionary warfare.” They should have an “indomitable spirit and conviction” that under Kim’s leadership North Korea’s military would be victorious.

Of the 35,000 North Korean defectors to South Korea, around 3,000 served in the military. Through them, it is evident how attitudes to war have changed over the years.

My generation – I was born in 1969 and served from 1985 to 1994 – is astounded by the transformation. We were instilled with the belief that victory was inevitable. We were told our forces in the Korean War repelled an invasion by the United States and South Korea and 16 other nations. July 27, when the armistice was signed in 1953, was celebrated as a “Day of Victory.”

When we left home for military service, our parents told us, “Return as a unification hero.” New recruits wanted to be assigned to special forces units. Those rejected due to a low songbun (family background) or physical ineligibility often blamed their parents. Some even ran away from home.

All of that has changed. Nowadays, when their children are called up to serve, parents mobilize family ties and connections, and even prepare bribes, to ensure their children are assigned to non-combatant roles, such as rearguard units, cyber units, or border guards, rather than frontline combat units.

Oh Chong-song who escaped through the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom in November 2017, said that most North Korean soldiers are aware that the United States and South Korea are overwhelmingly superior. Nobody believes the North could ever win. More to the point, they don’t believe they would personally survive if war broke out.

That is not to say the North Korean military does not pose a significant threat. It is capable of provocation and inciting war. The source of the threat, however, lies in Kim’s personal sentiments and in the instability of his regime.

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