Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hey everybody! Nobody's guarding the southern border anymore!

Maybe this is old news to some people, but I was impressed by an article on Ju Sung Ha's blog last week in which he made the rather startling observation that North Korea has de-prioritized the guarding of its southern border to the point that the only real obstacle to southward-bound defection may be on the South Korean side.

In the old days, patrolling the southern border was considered one of the most vital military tasks, so only soldiers from the most trustworthy classes were posted there, and they were well-supplied and compensated. But as northward defections into China have become more of a problem, it seems that the regime has shifted most of those elite troops to the north, leaving the southern border in the hands of the least favored military units, composed mostly of starving kids in ill-fitting uniforms.

Ju's blog and other defector sources have reported much in recent years about the sorry state of the majority of the North's troops, who frequently steal food from civilians and in some cases are reportedly so malnourished they no longer have the strength to control their bowels and have taken to wearing diapers. These half-starved soldiers who stare across the border all day, collecting South Korean propaganda fliers for disposal and illicitly listening to South Korean radio, could be prime candidates for defection.

As a policy suggestion, Mr. Ju proposes that South Korea clear "defection paths" through the minefields on its side of the border, leaving the anti-tank mines and barbed wire fences in place but removing the anti-personnel mines and posting signs to show the northerners where it is safe to cross. The soldiers on the northern side would presumably know or be able to find out where their own landmines are. He astutely anticipates that the strongest objections to this plan would probably come from South Koreans afraid of the social disruption caused by waves of refugee soldiers. To these naysayers, he advises growing some balls:
As a reporter who has experienced life in both North and South, I have observed that the northern side seems to always reach for the sky with nothing but bluff and bluster, while the South has actual capability but no confidence.

If only they knew the reality; the South with its tremendous degree of openness can afford to be shaken 10 meters from side to side without collapsing, but the North is so extremely isolated that it cannot stand to wobble even one meter.

If the landmines are removed from the DMZ, it is the North that will really be in an uproar.
Of course, the removal of landmines in the South is nothing new. South Korea has periodically removed swathes of them in the past, not to encourage defection but to protect its own citizens and soldiers from stray mines that get washed away from their original positions due to flooding. Clearly both Koreas long ago stopped worrying about the possibility of an infantry invasion from across the border. But if this new development reported by Mr. Ju is true, it adds an interesting new element to the equation.

The obvious question which Mr. Ju does not address is how the North Korean authorities might react to such a move. Clearing defection paths and posting signs would certainly not go unnoticed, and the North would use any means at its disposal to shut them down. Even if the vast majority of soldiers want to defect, all it takes is one brown-nose standing in a tower with a machine gun to dissuade them.

They would also probably not let the South Koreans off easily, although their official response might be interesting. After all, it's not the same as the South's loudspeakers, which the North could condemn as psychological warfare and threaten to use for artillery target practice. It's hard to think of a persuasive argument for how the removal of landmines constitutes a "dastardly plot to disrupt peace on the peninsula."

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