There have been defections of small units of North Korean soldiers to China – soldiers who were subsequently turned around and sent back to North Korea, says retired Brig. Gen. Russell Howard, former commander of the 1st Special Forces Group, which has an Asia focus.
This may seem like a positive development, but it is a problem because it means that Kim may feel the need to reassert his control over the military, by beating the war drum and trying to get his troops to rally around it. The more he needs their support, the harder he might beat the drum.
The rehabilitation of Kim Young-choi, who was responsible for sinking the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan in 2010, which killed 46 seamen, is another clue, says Howard, who is now the director of the Terrorism Research and Education Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
It could signal that Kim Jong-un is taking a harder military line, since Kim Young-choi is also believed to have coordinated cyberattacks on South Korean firms, as well as an assassination attempt on a high-ranking North Korean defector.
“It seems that a more aggressive clique now has influence over Kim,” Howard says.
Indeed, plenty of questions remain about just what Kim’s relationship is to the military, says Victor Cha, director of Asian Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.