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[Pyongyang 25 Hours] North Korea’s “State of Quasi-War”: Pulling Same Old Tricks for Three Generations

June 5, 2013

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The following opinion column is part of the series Pyongyang 25 Hours and appeared on pages 60-61 of the May 2013 issue of NK Vision magazine. Translation by NKnet volunteer Graham Hand.

Jang Sung Moo was born in Pyongsung in South Pyongan Province, and after working as a materials advisor at Factory 9-19 he escaped North Korea in 2003 and entered South Korea the same year. He currently serves as vice-president of Radio Free Chosun.

Students in the exercise yard at Mangyongdae Revolutionary School (만경대 혁명학원) practice marching in place under the direction of a drill sergeant. (Yonhap)
The Kim Jong Un regime has been going on and on about war, raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula to the highest possible extreme. On March 26 they declared that all field artillery units, including strategic missile units and long-distance artillery units, would enter into “Combat Duty Posture No. 1 (1호 전투근무태세).” They followed it up on the 30th by going on about how North-South relations were entering into a state of war. They’re threatening the Korean Peninsula. They ordered the total withdrawal of North Korean workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex (개성공단) on April 8 and the complete suspension of the complex’s operations. They even dragged missiles up to the shores of the East Sea, and went so far as to say that they will stop sending normal notifications to the International Maritime Organization.

But no matter how they make it sound, these are the same sneaky old tricks that the Kim family has been pulling for three generations now. As they raise tensions at home and abroad to the highest pitch, the leaders of North Korea are focused solely on achieving their own personal aims. While they throw around phrases like “a state of quasi-war” at the drop of a hat, the ones who suffer are innocent North Koreans. Really, the people of North Korea aren’t the slightest bit concerned about whether the government declares a state of quasi war or whether war actually breaks out. Considering the position they’re in – tossing and turning in their beds at night and scrambling around from dawn until late at night just to feed their families – the fact is that most of them pray that the sooner a war breaks out to turn this crummy world upside down the better. So there’s no chance that they’ll swallow Kim Jong Un’s war play.

All College Students Mobilized for Military Training

The way things are going today makes me think of the time of the 1976 Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident (1976년 판문점 도끼만행사건). It’s been more than 30 years now and my memory is fuzzy, but it was so similar to what’s happening today that the things I’d forgotten keep coming back to me. I was one year away from college graduation and it was the end of my last Local Reserve Forces training (교도대 훈련) session. These days students have six continuous months of Local Reserve Forces training during their second year of college, but back then we trained for two months a year during our second, third, and fourth years of university. On August 18, 1976, I was five days from going home at the end of my last training stint, and my heart was light as I fell peacefully asleep. But at 1 a.m. the guard’s urgent voice rang suddenly throughout the barracks: “Typhoon (폭풍)!”

This was far from the first time this had happened, so I was pulling my clothes on piece by piece when I heard the company commander’s shouts coming from outside like a crack of thunder. Something wasn’t right. As soon as we had lined up in front of the yard – “Comrades, our men mixed it up with some Americans at a checkpoint in Panmunjom and we’re now inches away from war. The Supreme Command (최고사령부) has declared that from this moment on we are entering into a state of war.” The atmosphere was so tense, we kept imagining signs that fighting was breaking out. My beautiful dream of going home after five days went up in smoke.

From that point on we didn’t just have to keep our uniforms on but even our boots. We also had to sleep not in the barracks but curled up in the shelter on base, where we kept the shells. As one or two days of this turned into a week, people started collapsing from exhaustion one by one. One guy was too weak to bring himself to say that he was unwell, and as he was trying to bear it he suddenly lost consciousness. By this time it seems that even the company commander had taken pity on us, and he began sending invalids to the barracks to rest. Immediately, students here and there started lying down and saying they were sick. Some went so far as to fake illness and discipline on base began to collapse without any way to stop it. The truth is that after four days without being able to take our shoes off, to say nothing of the smell, our toes felt like they were going to rot off and the pain was hard to bear.

More Students Fake Illness

Eventually our commanding officers came up with the idea of having one person per day pretend to be sick so they could go to the barracks and rest. The company commander must have known, but the fact that he closed his eyes to it will give you an idea of what a difficult time it was. During the day we removed our boots without the commanding officers’ knowledge and hung our socks up in the camp to dry, and a stench hung in the air. Even as I write this I can smell that peculiar, nauseating stench. Despite the scorching August sun we couldn’t even wash our faces properly, to say nothing of bathing, and we looked less like people than animals. After about two weeks had passed, people started leaving the base without permission.

The company commander and political advisor knew they had to do something and they began sending us home for a few days at a time to rest, holding out gifts of food or money as bait. The only catch was that they ordered us to bring our personal necessities with us when we came back. The students, completely exhausted from their arduous training, began using all kinds of excuses to go home. At this point, on top of faking illness some people started to tell the most unbelievable lies.

The exhausting days went on and on. One day I was asleep in the air-raid shelter, and when I woke up I couldn’t see in front of me. I found my glasses shattered. I had guarded them as carefully as my life – I was extremely short-sighted, and at that time there was nowhere I could buy new ones. My nerves on edge, I was sure that somebody must have done it on purpose and I cried out at the top of my lungs, “Who’s the jerk who did this, huh?” Unexpectedly, the guy who had been sleeping next to me said that he had felt bad for me sleeping with my glasses on, and as he was trying to take them off he had dropped them and they shattered on the ground. He apologized immediately and said he would replace them for me, and he immediately went to talk to the company commander. When he came back he said the two of us should leave the base together.

For a long time nothing passed between us but awkward silence. There was nowhere I could buy glasses, so even if I left the base where was I supposed to get them? I was deep in thought as we plodded into the city, when suddenly he smiled and said that he had shattered our friendship. I knew he was joking – even if my glasses were like eyes to me, how could they shatter friendship? But later on, after it was all over, when I found out that my friend had planned the whole thing out in order to get away from the endlessly exhausting “state of war” and rest for at least a little bit, I can’t tell you how surprised I was. This wasn’t like South Korea where you can just go and buy glasses any time you feel like it – considering the situation in North Korea at the time, I guess that’s the kind of trick people play when they’re exhausted enough to pull someone’s eyes out.

The North Korean People Believe That Kim Jong Un Doesn’t Want War

Decades have passed, but in a way the current situation seems even worse than things were then. At the very least that was the first crisis we’d gone through, and maybe people were mentally stronger than they are now.

Now, after decades of the authorities doing the same thing again and again, the North Korean people are too worn out to care what they say. Today the authorities’ ramblings go in one ear and out the other. Recently, on the day Kim Jong Un declared Combat Duty Posture No. 1, I got a call from someone in North Korea. Before he even said hello, he asked me, “What do you think? It looks like this time they’re really going to go to war.” He said that there was definitely something different this time. But a few days later he called me again and said that, sure enough, he’d been tricked again. The fact is that no one at all believes that Kim Jong Un is going to start a war.

On the contrary, at this point some people are openly hoping for a war to break out. How exhausted they must be to know the horrors of war and still hope for one to break out. While they cannot possibly want the start of a war, I wonder whether it doesn’t show how desperate people are to get out from under Kim Jong Un’s thumb by the quickest route possible.

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