SEOUL, March 12 (Yonhap) -- Despite repeated war threats from Pyongyang, an increasing number of North Korean soldiers have gone AWOL from their front-line combat units in recent months, sources in Seoul said Tuesday, in a possible sign of rising discontent in the rank and file suffering from grueling winter training and food shortages.
"A recent analysis revealed the number of deserters in front-line military units has increased by seven to eight times compared to the same period of the previous year," a source said, asking for anonymity as he is not allowed to talk about military information. "Military and government officials are closely looking into the cause of the rise in desertions."
Front-line troops are grappling with difficulties in hunting down runaway soldiers while carrying out extensive drills in response to South Korea-U.S. joint exercises, the source said.
"Most of them are rank-and-file soldiers," another source said, asking for anonymity. "Frequent training without offering enough food may have led to their desertions."
While the North has carried out regular winter drills from December to February in the past several years, this year's training was extended to March, which is seen as a response to annual joint drills by South Korean and U.S. forces that began earlier this month.
Although Pyongyang has issued daily threats to launch an all-out war against Seoul and Washington, some question whether the impoverished nation is capable of making a pre-emptive attack when there's a great risk of retaliation.
While tensions have further escalated since Pyongyang threatened to scrap the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War and void non-aggression treaties signed with the South, a senior defense ministry official doubted whether its announcement means a declaration of a full-scale war, saying: "Barking dogs don't bite."
The threats in extreme language followed a new round of U.N. Security Council sanctions led by Seoul and Washington in response to Pyongyang's third nuclear test last month.
Seoul and Washington say the military exercises are defensive, but Pyongyang routinely denounces them as a rehearsal for a northward invasion.