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What Preparing for War Looks Like Inside North Korea

A former UK ambassador to North Korea explains the difference between the way Kim Jong-un and the regime react to supposed threats, and the way average North Koreans do.
Kim Jong-un durante un'ispezione militare. [via Xinhua/KCNA e Getty Images]

Read and watch more about North Korea in "March Madness," a VICE News special section on the Hermit Kingdom.

Today, the US and South Korea kick off their annual joint military exercises. And North Korea is not happy about it.

The exercises, which have taken place for two decades, have always been characterized by the US and South Korea as rehearsals for a North Korean attack. Pyongyang, in turn, has repeatedly claimed that they're actually a cover for a planned invasion of the North.


And so, every year, the North Korean regime responds. It issues strongly worded statements accusing the US of, for example, bringing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war. It puts its own armed forces on high alert. This year and last year, it fired several missiles into the sea to emphasize its anger.

But the regime's response to the exercises is far different than that of ordinary North Koreans.

During my time as British Ambassador to North Korea, I lived through three of these exercises — from 2006 to 2008 — and I observed the same pattern each time. The regime would make sure that EU diplomats understood that it had no illusions about US perfidy, and that it was ready to respond fiercely should the US and its southern lackeys ever dare to invade.

However, EU ambassadors were not formally summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for this message — that would have come too close to blurring the distinction between the Europeans and the Americans, a distinction that North Korea was always anxious to maintain. Instead, the message would be sent in the margins of other business.

North Korean diplomats used to repeat to us the regime's official line, often using the exact wording of stories from Rodong Sinmun, the party's newspaper. (Careful memorization of texts is an important part of political survival in North Korea.) They would also repeat these messages on the Pyongyang social circuit, saying their piece as quickly as possible so as not to distract from the serious business of drinking foreign whisky.


The views of ordinary North Koreans I knew were quite different.

Some of their fathers were senior military officers, and all of them had at least one member of their family in the military. (Mandatory North Korean military service can last up to 10 years, depending on a range of factors, and almost every family has someone serving in the armed forces.) As these people told me, officers in the Korean People's Army (KPA) were not particularly worried that the exercises would spill over into an invasion. In fact, they were more worried on an everyday basis of a popular uprising coming from within their own country.

Related: North Korea Warns US 'Will Be Held Accountable' for Military Drills in South Korea

One of my friends, whose father was a senior officer in the KPA, used to tell me that the exercises were a terrible time for their family.

Because they were afraid that they might have to swing into action, I asked?

No, my friend said. It was because for the duration of the exercises, senior officers had to work hard inspecting units and checking on preparedness.

"This," my friend said with a sigh, "always brings on father's sciatica."

North Koreans with family members serving as non-commissioned military personnel said the enlisted men also hated the US/South Korea joint exercises. But again, not because they feared invasion. It was because they had to attend tedious extra meetings in which bored officers would lecture at length on the evils of the enemy and the need to defend "the core of the revolution" — a common phrase in North Korea that is now another way of saying "Kim Jong-un." Worse, the exercises inevitably meant extra duties. What little free time the soldiers normally had was taken away because weapons had to be double-checked and presented for inspection, and extra drills had to be completed.


The concerns of those who weren't members of the elite never involved a US invasion. The average North Korean was instead worried about the welfare of family members in the military.

During the period of high alert, communications between soldiers and their families — which could be precarious even in normal times — became almost non-existent. One friend pointed out that the 2008 exercises were particularly onerous because they started two weeks earlier than they had in previous years. Late March in Korea is almost spring, but early March can be very cold, and the friend said hapless soldiers sent out to guard barren patches of the DMZ were chilly.

In other words, the concerns of those who weren't members of the elite never involved the possibility of a US invasion. The average North Korean was instead worried about the welfare of family members in the military. Perhaps in the early days of the joint exercises in the 1990s, some North Koreans believed that a US-led invasion might be imminent, but this belief had vanished by the time I served in Pyongyang. Having lived through several of the exercises, and having been told each time by the regime to prepare for an invasion that never happened, March brought average North Koreans fear of little more than an unwelcome ritual.

My contacts were always reluctant to speculate on what might go on in the minds of their senior leaders (it is a dangerous subject to openly consider). But it is quite possible that the top leadership believes the imminence of an invasion. Although ordinary North Koreans interact with a variety of people as they go about their everyday lives, those at the top of the North Korean regime rarely talk to anyone outside their own class. They live in a closed society in which group think and paranoia easily take hold.


Moreover, perceptions of the threat probably depend on relations between North Korea and the rest of the world. In years when relations with the US and South Korea were relatively good, with few or no provocations or incidents, I doubt that the regime was truly convinced that the threat of invasion was real.

But not this year. Following North Korea's fourth nuclear test in January and its satellite launch in February — and the subsequent launch of a draft Security Council resolution including new and severe sanctions — tensions between the two Koreas, and between the North and the wider world, are at an all-time high.

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Senior levels of the North Korean regime will be genuinely alarmed that the 2016 exercises could be a front for a military intervention — especially because in January, South Korean defense officials told journalists that this year's exercises would include the simulated application of the "4D" concept — to detect, defend, disrupt, and destroy Pyongyang's missile inventory. The world should expect an even harsher reaction from Pyongyang than usual.

So spare a thought for the shivering North Korean soldiers.

John Everard served in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office for 27 years. His final assignment was as Ambassador to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. He is the author of Only Beautiful, Please, an account of his experiences there.

Read and watch more about North Korea in "March Madness," a VICE News special section on the Hermit Kingdom.