Conscripted Society: North Korea's Main Vulnerability

April 11 2018 | by Korvin AG |

(This article is based on the use of Human Network Analysis, one of my resolution-finding tools.)

    Time after time, North Korea manages to steer itself into the lime-lights of the global media and usually it does so by threatening the outside World. It is pretty much understood that this tiny country is armed to the teeth and that it is having an elite ruling its population with an iron fist. And yes, they have nuclear warheads and rockets of various sizes in various stages of development. Apart from the raw military might they possess, they are also very adapt at the diplomatic trickery to instigate World powers against each other in order to maintain a situation where its sovereignty is guaranteed. This status quo, however, is a flawed one as - for all parties except North Korea - it presents an uneasy situation. More precisely: they are a thorn in everyone's side. North Korea is also having a purpose-built intelligence network that is fine-tuned to maintain the elite's grip, including counterfeiting, hacking, smuggling operations and occasional wetwork assignments. All these sometimes make the World think that North Korea is a solid monolithic empire which is almost impossible to change or put down. 

    But North Korea's forte is actually its greatest weakness. Because it is based on the forced conscription of its population. No matter whether we are looking at a kindergarten, a factory, a ministry, the politbüro or the army: every kid, woman and man is actually serving their national service - indefinitely. And conscription has its weaknesses, and these weaknesses are actually numerous.

    Let's start with the basics: North Korea is being run as a conscripted army. Every and all branches of the state and the society is organized like an army unit. This means that there are no leaders, only commanders. And no workers, only subordinates. And we also have to add that as in every communist and / or socialist model armies there are two commands existing besides each other: a professional one and a political one. So, there is always a professional commander and a political deputy, a komissar, who can overrule all commands and decisions and who is only subordinated to the party structure, but never to the professional hierarchy. This creates an atmosphere of permanent suspicion and a universal lack of untrustworthiness. While it is a great system to force the hesitating to do what the top brass told them, it relies solely on preplanned and sequenced  orders and an uninterrupted command & control lifeline. This system, however, can not react to sudden and / or unforeseen events. This We seen when the like-minded regimes collapsed, like in Enver Hoxha's Albania, Erich Honecker's East Germany and Nicolae Ceaușescu's Romania.

    (While I regard North Korea as a nationalist dictatorship, its organs are directly modeled after the Stalinist institutions and this is why they are using a mix of  nationalist and  communist regalia. But command and control is identical to the so-called Marxist-Leninist system and that is why there is no resemblance to the nazi Germany's armed force concept.)

     The conscripted forces are trained to be able to operate their equipment to the level of the next soldier. Excellence is not welcomed - as everyone must excel to the fullest in order to have the unit (the squad, the platoon, the company, the battalion, the brigade, the office, etc.) perform excellently. And since it is impossible to have only excellent members in any group, conscripted units are always kept busy to act -like- being excellent. This is done by always training for displaying this excellence. Whether it is a parade trough Pyongyang where there are all those immaculate columns march past the top brass, or a display of force by sending off rockets into the air in a strictly choreographed way, or meticulously painting the curb white  before the reception of the big men for weeks.  And seriously, I don't think that just because in North Korea every display is done so much theatrically it could be otherwise.

    And this display comes with a price: that there is little time and funds left to train for anything else. While there are large-scale exercises, these are also organized to have the big men watch it with joyfulness.  At the other hand there is always a shortage of fuel and ammo, so it is quite normal to have field days and rifle practices called off.

    The above picture (of the official KCNA agency) makes us wonder where these soldiers are actually shoot at? Is it something high up in the air... or is it for the show? I bet it is the latter.

    This picture (source: Neelam Tailor\Getty Images) is too telling: yes, these troops are equipped with modern stuff, they even having handheld radios and mounts for NVGs - not to mention the gold-plated binocular and assault rifle, which must had been given by the number one man on Earth. But having the selector switched off from 'safe' when the man without parallel walking by...?

    The conscript is basically a poor youngster (or an elder in North Korea's case)  who has to comply with the rules imposed upon her or him. She or He would like to survive it somehow. And knowing that it will last a mere five or more years, well... they learn quickly how to make an impression of doing something without actually doing it. When I was a conscript, we used to say that conscription teaches you to lie and lie swiftly. And this exactly is the case with North Korea. If a superior is not around, subordinates will sit down, then lay down and finally will sleep. Or if it is not possible, they will become sloppy in their looks and lazy in going after their obligations. Anyone who ever served in any military will tell you that this is how it is working. Of course there are camaraderie and esprit de corps, BUT: there is not much pride in wearing a uniform - if everyone in the country has to wear one. The combat readiness is great for heightening the alertness of the troops, but a constant high readiness state for a full-scale war that just doesn't occur will only cause attrition.

    The conscripted military has a shortcoming in the form of its weakly trained NCOs and junior officers. This isn't because it's hardcoded into the concept of the drafted armies, no. It is because the dynamics of the daily grind. In the drafted armies the rank means everything, because as soon as you gain a rank - no matter how low it would be - it is signaling that you are smarter and more experienced, even though the ranks are given automatically over time. And therefore there is no correlation between ranks and experience. And this means poor leadership and permanent animosity towards the higher echelons.

    One last thought on this topic about the daily lives of the conscripted society: a highly hierarchical population consists of masters and servants. And oftentimes it means that those who became a master of a kind will resort to showing it off. And the North Korean regime is precisely all about this. Cars, household appliances, gold-plated Kalashnikovs, posh office furniture are coming with the rank AND blind obedience. And it comes with a number of handy servants in the form of conscripted other ranks. And these other ranks are the most dangerous to this system. Because chauffeurs and sommeliers in uniforms are tend to be the most gossiping and untrustworthy of them all. Because not only they are closer to the gravy train, but very soon they start to feel like they are the ones who are holding the rank of their masters. And this creates a vulnerability, because it is likely that these servants, who are in the know, would flip to the other side rather than going back to a less cushy posting.

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Korvin AG

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