North Korean defectors can't join South Korea's army

The World

By Jason Struther

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived in South Korea today. He's there nearly two months after North Korea launched an attack on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island.

Since the shelling, which killed two South Korean marines and two civilians, the South Korean military has stepped up recruiting efforts, and it is making it tougher for young men to get out of their mandatory service.

But there's at least one group of men that military recruiters are staying away from: North Korean defectors. South Korean law forbids refugees from enlisting, but some defectors say they want to be sent to the frontlines to fight against their former comrades.

A recent rally in Seoul, North Korean defectors held a mock execution of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il. A man in a grey jumpsuit, wearing a paper Kim Jong-Il mask, was bound loosely in rope.

Several men in camouflage fatigues wielded plastic rifles. They took aim and fired.

The mock execution was put on by the North Korea Peoples Liberation Front, a group of former North Korean soldiers who defected to the south.

One member, Lee Cheol-soo, a 10-year veteran of the North's army, said he'd like to trade in his toy gun for a real one. Lee said that after 60 years of dictatorship, the only way North Korea can become free is to execute Kim Jong-Il.

Another member, 40-year old Park Dae-gook, was once in charge of political education within the North's military ranks. He said North Korean soldiers have a strong psychological advantage over their South Korean counterparts.

"North Koreans have a real fighting spirit," Park said, adding that they all think that the US and South Korea are their enemies and that the North can beat them in any war. Park said that he doesn't think that type of spirit exists here in South Korea.

But Park and the other members of the Liberation Front want to help the South Korean military overcome this deficit.

Last month, they sent a request to the South Korean government to allow them to form their own army division. They say they can train South Korean soldiers to fight better against the North, and if war breaks out, they want to be sent to the front.

South Korea's Ministry of Defense declined to be interviewed for this story, but a spokesman said the government is reviewing the defector group's proposal.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst at Seoul's Kookmin University, said in the past both Koreas trained defectors to infiltrate enemy lines. But times have changed, he said, and there are at least two good reasons these North Korean defectors should not be armed.

"One is that a creation of such a group, especially if it's publicized to some extent, will be seen to the North Koreans as a provocation, and indeed this is a provocation, " he said. "Second, if you arm these people, most of whom are ideologically motivated and probably quite selfless people who have nothing to lose, and who are determined to fight for their cause, well, you will create a loose cannon."

Lankov added that the Ministry of Defense is probably also concerned that these defectors could be spies.

At the rally, the men and women of the North Korea Peoples Liberation Front saluted the South Korean flag as the national anthem plays. Defector Park Dae-gook said he thinks serving again as soldiers is the best way for northern refugees to prove themselves loyal to the South.

Many South Koreans are suspicious of us, Park said. They think we betrayed our government before, so maybe we might do that again.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

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