The top officers of one of North Korea’s crack army brigades have been sacked after soldiers under their command shot and killed a member of a powerful military unit tasked with providing security to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a routine checkpoint stop, sources said.
The shooting incident in June has exposed serious discipline problems among the ranks of the 43rd Infantry Brigade, a Special Forces mountain unit under North Korea’s Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, residents of Yanggang province, which borders China, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“In the middle of last month, soldiers in the 43rd Infantry Brigade shot at a car driven by members of the Guard Command,” which is in charge of providing security to Kim and other senior leaders, said a source in Yanggang, where the brigade’s headquarters is located.
“All the commanders in the brigade were replaced because of this incident.”
According to the source, soldiers from the Guard Command had ignored a request by troops from the 43rd Infantry Brigade to halt their vehicle at a checkpoint, prompting the latter to fire their weapons.
The 43rd Infantry Brigade troops had initially aimed at the tires of the vehicle, but mistakenly killed a soldier from the Guard Command who was riding in a cargo container.
On June 28, military authorities organized a “key army officers' meeting” at the 43rd Infantry Brigade command center in Yanggang’s Gapsan county and arrested the unit’s general-level officers for dereliction of duty in failing to uphold discipline, sources said.
All regular commanders of the brigade were also replaced, they said.
A second source in Yanggang told RFA that the order to sack the brigade’s commanders had come directly from Kim.
“I heard directly from a high-ranking officer in the 10th Unit that Kim Jong Un received the incident report and came unglued,” the source said.
“He treated this incident as if the shooting had been directed at him.”
The 43rd Infantry Brigade is known by several names, including the Gapsan Brigade—for the location of the troop—and Unit 682, sources said.
But residents of the area refer to the brigade as the Makhno Unit, in reference to the Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno, because of its notoriously undisciplined nature.
According to the second source, following the dismissal of the 43rd Infantry Brigade’s commanders, information was released about a previously unreported incident involving soldiers from the unit.
In March, he said, brigade troops fired their weapons at one another during an altercation, leaving three dead and two injured, but commanders didn’t report the incident to their superior officers and covered it up internally.
“There are constant incidents occurring with the 43rd Infantry Brigade due to the sloppy management of soldiers,” the source said.
“Gunfights within the army show how lack of discipline has become a serious problem.”
Young men in nuclear-armed North Korea are required to join the country’s military and serve for a minimum of 10 years after graduating from high school. Young women who live in the capital Pyongyang must serve for two years after graduating, but those outside the city are not required to join.
But Kim’s regime has faced severe food shortages exacerbated by international sanctions levied over missile and nuclear tests, and feeding the impoverished nation’s estimated 1.2 million-member army has not been easy.
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.
North Korea, a country of about 25 million, has an estimated 7.7 million army reserves.
Kim’s father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011, raised the military’s profile during his 17 years in power.
The younger Kim last year instructed the Korean People’s Army to focus on a “nuclear arms force,” but it is believed to be operating on outdated materials and short supplies.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jina Lee. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.