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Insubordination Trend Rising in North Korean Military

Jonathan Walker
Jonathan loves talking politics, economics and philosophy. He carries unique perspectives on everything making him a rather odd mix of liberal-conservative with a streak of independent Austrian thought.
Published: January 12, 2022
North Korean army soldiers wearing masks look at the South side of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
North Korean army soldiers wearing masks look at the South side of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. (Image: Park Tae-hyun-Korea - Pool via Getty Images)

North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by a strong military establishment. Consequently, the loyalty of military personnel is a key factor that sustains the authoritarian regime. The regime’s top leaders are worried about the rising trend of insubordination among military members. A report by Radio Free Asia (RFA) published on Jan. 4 sheds light on such concerns in North Korea.

A North Korean military official revealed to the media outlet that 10 soldiers have violently confronted their superior officers between October to December last year. The rise of insubordination is being blamed on the country’s worsening economy since the COVID-19 outbreak. 

In 2020, the country’s economy tanked by 4.5 percent, its steepest economic decline since the 90s. North Korean law dictates every single able-bodied male to serve in the military for at least seven years.

According to the official, a company-level officer confronted his superior with a weapon while drunk in late November. The drastic action was taken after the officer had requested several times for his superior to help him with a health problem and family issue but was ignored. 

In another incident, a company-level officer tried to kill himself after his request to help resolve a personal problem was also ignored. This specific incident prompted the North Korean politburo to order high-ranking officers to pay attention to the issues faced by their subordinate officers.

“They fear that such incidents could demoralize the soldiers and spread into political incidents which could threaten the entire military hierarchy… 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,” the official stated.

Incidents of hazing are also “getting serious” in the North Korean military. A soldier who has a history of deserting his unit multiple times was beaten by several officers, put inside an iron barrel and left out in the cold winter for many hours to the extent that the soldier almost died. An investigation of the issue revealed that hazing was occurring more commonly among smaller units that are stationed in remote locations.

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

The worries about insubordination and hazing come as North Korea is speeding up programs to boost its military prowess. In October, leader Kim Jong-un had vowed to build an “invincible military” to counter what he says is America’s hostile policies. Jong-un insisted that there is “no behavioral basis” for his regime to believe that the United States is not hostile to Pyongyang.

After talks between Jong-Un and Donald Trump in 2019, there have not been any subsequent denuclearization discussions between the United States and North Korea. Though the Biden administration has offered to meet with representatives from North Korea without any preconditions, Washington has insisted that North Korea must denuclearize, something that Pyongyang has strongly dismissed. 

“Rather than expressing willingness for denuclearisation talks or interest in an end-of-war declaration, North Korea is signaling that neither the Omicron variant nor domestic food shortages will stop its aggressive missile development,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told The Guardian.

In the past year, North Korea has conducted several missile tests, including the test of a hypersonic missile in September. In Jan. 2021, Pyongyang unveiled what it calls the world’s “most powerful weapon,” a submarine-launched ballistic missile. However, the weapon’s actual capabilities are still unknown.