North Korea has disbanded an elite anti-aircraft artillery unit tasked with guarding statues of the nation’s founder Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il based on concerns over the safety of the founder's grandson and current regime leader Kim Jong Un, according to sources inside the country.
“The artillery company assigned to protect the two statues was disbanded in March this year,” a source in Yanggang province told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity, adding that the unit was Company 9 of the 82nd Regiment under the 10th Corps of the North Korean People’s Army, stationed in Hyesan city.
The unit was broken up because the nine 14.5-millimeter machine guns it had maintained since 1989 to defend Kim’s statue and other historic sites in Hyesan’s Bocheon district were placed in sensitive locations along the city’s “1st Roadway,” he said, referring to a route used only by the Kim family.
The source noted that authorities had torn down a munitions plant located near Wangduk train station, which was used exclusively at the time by Kim Il Sung’s son and successor Kim Jong Il to access Hyesan by rail, amid concerns for his safety following a train explosion in North Pyongan province in 2004.
However, Company 9 remained intact throughout Kim Jong Il’s leadership, the source said, suggesting that his son Kim Jong Un, who assumed power following his father’s death from a heart attack in December 2011, “doesn’t fully trust the military.”
A second source in Yanggang, who also declined to provide his name, confirmed that Company 9 had been disbanded, but said the outfit’s soldiers would continue their duties of protecting statues and historical sites after handing over their artillery.
“Company 9 shut down its ammunition depot in March … Their machine guns are now being held in the arsenal of the Bocheon Paramilitary Training Unit’s 3rd Battalion under the 10th Corps,” he said.
“The artillery company was disbanded, but its role has been maintained, while its machine guns were handed from active soldiers to those in paramilitary training,” who use them during exercises, he added.
According to the source, North Koreans have been mocking the authorities for dismissing Company 9 by saying “the legacy of the dead leader can be destroyed, as long as Kim Jong Un’s safety is guaranteed.”
In February last year, sources told RFA that North Korea was purging its military officer corps of personnel linked to Kim Jong Un’s executed uncle Jang Song Thaek, in a massive shake-up that had led to a freeze on military exercises and delayed replacement of cadres in the ruling party but raised promotion prospects for younger officers.
Jang, 67, who was the de facto number-two leader, was executed in December 2013, after being accused of plotting to overthrow the hard-line communist regime. The young Kim is moving to remove all those linked to his uncle, who was considered instrumental in his rise to power in December 2011.
Nuclear-armed North Korea’s military was founded 82 years ago and is older than the country itself. It began as an anti-Japanese militia and is now the heart of the nation’s “military first” policy.
The country has one of the world's largest armies, with about 1.2 million soldiers, although it hasn’t fought since 1953, when an armistice suspended the Korean War.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yunju Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.