SEOUL, South Korea—There are people who swear they will not remove their military uniforms until there is unification between North and South Korea. They are former North Korean soldiers who defected to South Korea, and who recently established a group known as the NK People’s Liberation Front.
At their launch ceremony, held in downtown Seoul, South Korea, on Sept. 9, close to 100 NK Front members showed up in their uniforms.
Designed similarly to those of the South Korean special warfare command—only different in color—the uniforms carry two meanings: they represent the former identity of the wearers as former soldiers of North Korea, and they represent a pledge to help topple the Kim Jong Il regime if there is a war between the North and South.
Joining an armed battle is not their ultimate purpose, however, as they’ve already taken up a different form of war with the North Korean regime.
“NK soldiers can be main agents to change the NK regime if we deliver the true information of South Korea to them,” said NK Front Secretary-General Jang Se-yul during a Sept. 14 interview.
To achieve this, members of the NK Front wield telephones instead of guns—making regular calls to former colleagues who are still in the North Korean army, or who have already left it.
From the South, they make international calls to Chinese cell phones given to North Korean soldiers through brokers. The Chinese cell towers’ signal only penetrates about six miles into North Korea, so NK Front members make appointments with the soldiers on what times to meet via phone, and how often.
The soldiers they contact typically work as border guards or in the rocket launcher brigades deployed along the borders. Conversations sound as casual as questions such as, “How are you doing now?” but carry a deeper intention.
The NK Front members keep a checklist on facts the NK soldiers misunderstand, and then relay the facts to them.
According to Mr. Jang, this provides a “systemic inflow of information to change the soldiers.”
Flow of Information
In the time before the NK Front was established, many NK defectors in the South had taken up similar means to communicate with North Korean residents using Chinese cell phones. Mr. Jang estimates that thousands of such calls are made daily.
The calls give NK defectors and those in the outside world a glimpse of life in the North, where all media is heavily controlled, propaganda flows into every phone, and where residents cannot even make international calls, or access the Internet.
Many NK defectors try to systematically provide information from the outside world to North Korean residents. Radio stations, including Free North Korea Radio and Open Radio for North Korea, were established by NK defectors and broadcast news into the North to expose the Kim Jong Il regime and tell of the outside world.
Some NK groups even regularly send large balloons floating into the North, filled with leaflets, CDs, small radios, and one dollar bills.
The approach taken by the NK Front is unique since its focus is on current soldiers who play a pivotal role in maintaining the North Korean regime.
Even as food shortages and nationwide food rationing paralyze the North, the regime still provides food to the military. NK defectors claim that all the food that South Korea and the United States sent to starving residents in the North was distributed only to the military and communist cadres, with only a small portion leaking into the local markets.
“Because of hunger, soldiers cannot be trained well and some soldiers even run away,” Mr. Jang said. “In such circumstances, does the regime give rice to the residents? No, it doesn’t. We oppose food aid even if our parents and brothers are still living in the North, because the food aid will be used as to strengthen the power of the regime.”
Even so, the military’s food situation is not ideal. “Soldiers are better off than ordinary people but live from hand to mouth,” Mr. Jang said. “They are poorer than the middle class who are running the market. Soldiers’ wives are prohibited from going to market and doing business. If they do, they will be the target of the criticism.”
An Unstable Regime
Amid the economic distress, NK soldiers have complaints against the eventual takeover of the North by the youngest son of ailing dictator Kim Jong Il.
In 1980, Kim Jong Il was publicly acknowledged as the eventual successor to his father Kim Il Sung, who ruled the regime from its founding day in 1948, until his death in 1994.
“When Kim Jong Il took over power, there was widespread sentiment that it did not matter who would become successor as long as people could be better off,” Mr. Jang said. “Now because people have suffered severe economic distress for a long time with no signs of recovery, the soldiers are upset, saying, ‘What change can happen when power is passed on to the son?’”
Outside the barracks, North Korean soldiers who lost money to the Nov. 30, 2009, currency reform feel outraged against their “Dear Leader.”
Since soldiers cannot join the market, however, many avoided becoming victims of the reform, as the regime confiscated the savings and capital of private entrepreneurs and limited the amount of money that could be converted.
“Before the currency reform the residents felt proud of Kim Jong Il’s visit to their villages, but now when we ask about him, they [use] swear words,” Mr. Jang said.
According to Mr. Jang, the regime has maintained its control over its military and citizens through propaganda surrounding the sinking of the South Korean warship, Cheonan, which killed 46 South Korean soldiers.
“The North has spread the fear that South Korea or [the] USA may attack the North, shifting to a wartime posture so the regime can control people dissatisfied with the currency reform. Its strategy to overcome a crisis with a desperate method works,” Mr. Jang said.