SOLDIERS IN THE NORTH KOREAN MILITARY
It is said North Korea can mobilize 7.5 million combatants, nearly one third of the nation's population, in 48 hours. In addition to the 1.2 million-member regular army, there are 7.7 million people in the army reserves.
About 70 percent of North Korea’s 1.2 million troops are forward deployed within 100 kilometers (63 miles) of the DMZ. In spite of near famine condition, North Korea increased the size of it's military force in 1996 by 92,000 men — to 1.15 million. Young army recruits are told if they are captured American soldiers will suck blood from their necks.
In North Korea, soldier are visible everywhere. Often soldiers are skinny-looking as other people. Some are in the 40s. The uniforms are sometimes ragged. Despite North Korea’s “Military First” policy, which gives the military first dibs at food supplies and other stuff, military bases sometimes look like collections of hovels. Often soldiers have to collect firewood for heat. They are also often deployed to plant and harvest crops.
A lot of time and energy is devoted to preparing for ceremonial events. One Western observer saw a column of soldiers, eight abreast and more than a kilometer, long marching to prepare for a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of entrance fo China in the Korean War.
Weapons carried by soldiers include AK-47s machine guns, mortars, hand-towed light artillery and recoilless rifles. Among the larger pieces are antiaircraft weapons, 240mm rocket launchers,170mm North-Korean-made Koksan guns (among the longest-range artillery weapons in the world), fuel air explosives, chemical weapons, T-62 and T-55 tanks.
Military Personnel of North Korea
North Korea used to have more people in the military than any other country based on percentage of the population or labor force. Now it is second to Eritrea. North Korean armed forces personnel (percentage of total labor force): 8.9 percent (compared to 2.1 percent in South Korea, 12.4 percent in Eritrea, 4.3 percent in Israel and .8 percent in the United States). [Source: World Bank worldbank.org ]
Military and security service personnel strengths: assessments of the size of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) vary widely. It is widely believed there are approximately 1.1 million to 1.2 million active troops (950,000-1.0 million in the Army; 110-120,000 in the Air Force; 60,000 in the Navy; 10,000 in the Strategic Missile Forces); There are an addition 200,000 in Public Security forces (2020) =
Number of people in the military (active): 1,280,000 (compared 74,200 in Argentina, 1,358,193 in the United States, 0 in Costa Rica, and 2,035,000 in China). North Korea: reserve: 600,000; paramilitary: 5,889,000; total: 7,769,000; per 1000 capita total: 306.1 per 1000 capita active: 50.4 [Source: Wikipedia Wikipedia ]
Population in military: 5.8 percent (2005, compared to .73 percent in the United States). Largest armed forces as percentage of population: 1) North Korea; 2) Eritrea with 4.6 percent; and Singapore with 3.8 percent. [Source: Nationmaster, 2005]
Military service age and obligation: 17 years of age for compulsory male and female military service.The service obligation is 10 years for men, to age 23 for women. The service obligation was reportedly reduced in 2021 to 8 years for men and 5 years for women (2021). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
It was estimated that one out of every five North Korean men between the ages of sixteen and fifty-four was in the military in 1992. The active-duty forces account for at least 6 percent of the population and at least 12 percent of the male population. These capabilities far exceed any conceivable defensive requirement. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]
Military Service in North Korea
Military service age and obligation: 17 years of age for compulsory male and female military service. The service obligation is 10 years for men, to age 23 for women. The service obligation was reportedly reduced in 2021 to 8 years for men and 5 years for women (2021). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
Most North Koreans spend their prime working years in their 20s and 30s the army. Gifted students with special skills such as in sports and music may be excused military service. For ordinary North Koreans who are not members of the elite the traditional path to obtaining access to higher education is through the army's recommendation after several years' service. According to ”Countries and Their Cultures”: “The duration of the service is not clearly defined. Some stay five to six years, others less; women tend to stay shorter than men do. To go to the army even for a couple of years is an honor in North Korea, since it is a demonstration of one's readiness to devote one's life to the motherland. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Military service is more or less compulsory in North Korea even though it is not necessarily stated as such. Lines between civilian and military activities are often unclear. Most North Koreans enlist after high school. In the mid 2000s, conscription started at age 17 for at least 10 years, usually to age 30, followed by part-time compulsory service in the Workers and Peasants Red Guards until age 60. At that time all men were eligible for service; some women also served in the armed forces. Those who are accepted into universities do their military service after they graduate. People with university degrees in science and engineering are exempt from compulsory military service . [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007**]
In early 2015, the North Korean government made military service mandatory for all women. The intention at least in part was to boost the numbers of the country's dwindling military forces. For women ages 17 to 20 that have graduated from middle and high school, enlistment is now a requirement. Prior to 2015, women only served on a voluntary basis, whereas men have always been forced to serve. The term of service differs. Women generally only serve until they the age of 23. The decision to make military service mandatory for all women was proposed to replenish the loss of manpower that occurred in the 1990s during the North Korean famine, when the country experienced widespread death, a low birth rate, and a high child mortality rate. The decision has raised many concerns as women are often the main family breadwinners money by working in illicit businesses. [Source: Wikipedia]
North Korean defector Kim Yoo-sung wrote in NK News: “In North Korea, men serve in the military for 10 years and women for seven. The special unit working as Kim Jong-un’s personal bodyguards serve for 13. Military service is compulsory in the DPRK and most people enlist after high school. Those who are accepted into universities do their military service after they graduate. Usually if you have a bachelor’s degree service lasts for five years, but if you studied engineering or science you serve three because the former leader Kim Jong-il wanted to encourage people to study science. [Source: Kim Yoo-sung, NK News, September 11, 2015]
Military Conscription and Recruitment in the 1990s
As of mid-1993, North Korea had national conscription for males that included significant pre-induction and post-enlistment obligations. Initial draft registration is at age fourteen, and two pre-induction physicals are conducted at age sixteen. Preinduction student training includes both high school and college training corps. Senior middle school students are enlisted in the Red Guard Youth and receive about 300 hours of rudimentary military training annually. Approximately 160 hours of this training takes place at school; the remainder is conducted during a one-time, week-long summer camp. College students are organized into College Training Units. They train for 160 hours annually on campus and participate in a one-time, six-month training camp. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
The typical draft age is seventeen — after high school graduation. Some youths are able to postpone entering the military through temporary deferments based on college attendance or civilian occupation skills. The maximum legal draft age is believed to be twenty-five. Eligibility for the draft is based on economic and political factors as well as physical condition. Technicians, skilled workers, members of special government organizations, and children of the politically influential often are excluded from the draft. Most service personnel are single.*
In mid-1993 the legal term of service for enlisted army draftees was believed to be forty-two months. The term of service for draftees in the navy and air force was forty-eight months. However, legal limits regularly are extended. Draftees in regular army units typically are discharged at age twenty-six, regardless of the time of entry into service. Those assigned to special operations forces or the air force often are not discharged until age thirty. Terms of service for draftees, therefore, range from less than four to more than ten years.*
Military Training for Soldiers in North Korea
Recruits undergo initial military familiarization before being sent to a basic training center. Induction and a month-long basic training program for conscripts are held between March and August. New recruit training is conducted by a training company at the regiment or division level depending on the service. Advanced training varies according to service and branch: infantry and armor training is for one month, artillery training for three months, and communications training for six months. Once assigned to a unit, the individual soldier receives further training, most of which is conducted at the company or platoon level. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
Training is conducted under constant supervision and essentially emphasizes memorization and repetition but also includes a heavy emphasis on technical skills and vocational training. Lack of a technical base is another reason for the emphasis on repetitive training drills. Night training is extensive, and physical and mental conditioning also are stressed. Remedial training for initially substandard performances is not uncommon. Such training methods produce soldiers well versed in the basics even under adverse conditions. The degree to which they are prepared to respond rapidly to changing circumstances is less certain.*
College Reserve Military Training Units at colleges and universities provide most of the training for reserve officers. Information available about the training does not differentiate between the officer selection process and other reserve military training. There may be two separate tracks or a selection process at the end of training.*
Training of North Korean Commandos
Elite commando reportedly endure four years of training in which they are trained in bombing, swimming, scuba diving, parachuting, kidnaping, martial arts, communications and driving. The sessions often last from 6:00am to 10:00pm. They learn to navigate through steep mountains and thick forests, dig secret trenches were they can hide themselves and move at a fast pace with fully-loaded packs. They usually travel in groups of twos and threes.
North Korean commandos reportedly can kill with their bare hands and feet and go through a training in which they walk barefoot over broken glass and have shovels smashed into their abdomens. During one demonstration, Kim Jong Il reportedly swung a shovel at few commandos, saying "I trust them completely." He told the soldiers engaged in a mock hand-to-hand combat to do it for real and was satisfied after they bloodied and bruised themselves.
Describing a training demonstration video shown on North Korean television with Kim Jong-un, Connor Simpson wrote in The Atlantic: “ The leader surveyed his highly-trained, deadly team of martial artists and sharp shooters. First, we get a glimpse of the very organized, in sync, North Korean military doing what appear to be dance steps. Their form is strong and they're clearly working as a unit..... Their high kicks and are impressively high... Their punches pack a lot of, well, punch.” [Source: Connor Simpson, The Atlantic. April 6, 2013]
Next, “we see four soldiers demonstrating their wrestling prowess. On the left, one soldier performs a fireman's carry suplex and appears to kill his victim. He then jumps backward and takes a "bump" himself for good measure.... We have watched this GIF probably 50 times and cannot figure out why he jumps backwards.... Ge gets an assisst from his dance partner jumping into it. It looks like the jumper lands on his head... We cannot figure out a practical application for this flipping manoeuvre on the battlefield but it is undeniably fierce....At this point the video gets kind of boring. Un goes to a shooting range with some guys in funny hats. He watches soldiers fire at long range targets and then goes to inspect the results. Unsurprisingly, they only hit the center of the target...For good measure, Un also inexplicably starts brandishing a handgun..."This is how you kill the American scum dead," he's telling them in this GIF.”
Daily Life of North Korean Soldiers
The quality of life of the enlisted soldier is difficult to evaluate. In the 1990s, conditions were harsh; rations were 650 to 750 grams per day (80 to 90 percent of the South Korean ration), depending on branch and service. Leave and passes were limited and strictly controlled. A two-week leave was allowed only once or twice during an enlistment. A ten-day leave normally was granted for marriage or parental death. Passes for enlisted men were even rarer; neither day nor overnight passes were granted. During tours of duty, day passes were granted for public affairs duties or KWP-related activities. There was conflicting information about the frequency of corporal punishment and the harshness of military justice. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
A typical daily routine can run from 5:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M., with at least ten hours devoted to training and only three hours of free or rest time, excluding meals. In addition, soldiers perform many duties not related to their basic mission. Units were expected, for example, to grow crops and to raise livestock or fish to supplement their rations.*
North Korean defector Kim Yoo-sung wrote in NK News: “The main difficulty conscripts must endure is constant hunger. Soldiers in the special units are well taken care of but those stationed outside the capital Pyongyang are only given two or three potatoes a meal, or are fed solely on raw corn kernels or corn rice. Thanks to these diets, North Korean soldiers are said to be several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts – a sensitive subject for the North, wrote Adam Cathcart, as tensions flared on the peninsula last month. [Source: Kim Yoo-sung, NK News, September 11, 2015]
“On meagre rations the soldiers not only have to train but are given physical tasks such as helping farmers on their rice paddy fields. Many become very thin and hungry, and desperate to escape. The military police are always on the look out forsoldiers who’ve escaped to look for food. Sometimes these soldiers steal from civilians and farming stockrooms because they’re so hungry. If it’s edible, they’ll steal it. I’ve heard that some senior officers will even order soldiers to go out and steal. If they fail they may be punished.
“In my high school class there were 25 boys. Five went to college and the remaining 20 went into the military. Half of those were returned home suffering from the effects of malnutrition. Soldiers are given home leave to recover. Most are too weak to even walk by themselves, so their parents pick them up and feed them back to health. When they improve they go back to the army. The lucky ones serve in the special unit, or serve under good officers who take care of them. The unlucky ones die of hunger before their parents have a chance to help them. The only thing these parents pray for is the safe return of their sons. North Korea may be the worst place in the world to do military service.”
Women in the North Korea's Army
North Korean women must serve a minimum of seven years in the military, while men are required to serve 10. This is the longest mandatory service in the world for both men and women It's estimated that about 40 percent of women aged between 18 and 25 are serving in the military — a number that is expected to grow as numbers increase as military service became compulsory for women in 2015. [Source: BBC, 2017]
In early 2015, the North Korean government made military service mandatory for all women. The intention at least in part was to boost the numbers of the country's dwindling military forces. For women ages 17 to 20 that have graduated from middle and high school, enlistment is now a requirement. Prior to 2015, women only served on a voluntary basis, whereas men have always been forced to serve. The term of service differs. Women generally only serve until they the age of 23. [Source: Wikipedia]
The decision to make military service mandatory for all women was proposed to replenish the loss of manpower that occurred in the 1990s during the North Korean famine, when the country experienced widespread death, a low birth rate, and a high child mortality rate. The decision has raised many concerns as women are often the main family breadwinners money by working in illicit businesses.
Women have traditionally been recruited on a limited scale for rear area duties: psychological warfare units, hospitals, administration, and antiaircraft units. Most women are assigned to units defending fixed installations near their workplaces. In 2003, in an annual Supreme People's Assembly, the government granted a small reprieve for members of the military, reducing the term for men from 13 to 10 years and for women from 10 to seven. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]
On one woman who joined the army and later defected to South Korea, Megha Mohan of the BBC wrote: “The daughter of a university professor, Lee So Yeon,” who was born in 1976 and “grew up in the north of the country. Many male members of her family had been soldiers, and when famine devastated the country in the 1990s she volunteered — motivated by the thought of a guaranteed meal each day. Thousands of other young women did the same. "The famine resulted in a particularly vulnerable time for women in North Korea," says Jieun Baek, author of North Korea's Hidden Revolution. "More women had to enter the labour force and more were subject to mistreatment, particularly harassment and sexual violence."[Source: Megha Mohan, BBC World Service, November 21, 2017]
“To begin with, buoyed by a sense of patriotism and collective endeavour, the 17-year-old Lee So Yeon enjoyed her life in the army. She was impressed with her allocated hairdryer, although infrequent electricity meant she had little use for it. Daily routines for men and women were roughly the same. Women tended to have slightly shorter physical training regimes - but they were also required to perform daily chores such as cleaning, and cooking that male soldiers were exempted from.
Rough Life of Women in the North Korea's Army
The former soldier So Yeon described above told the BBC that life for women in the North Korean army was so tough that many stopped having period and rape was a common occurrence. Megha Mohan of the BBC wrote: “For almost 10 years Lee So Yeon slept on the bottom bunk bed, in a room she shared with more than two dozen women. Every woman was given a small set of drawers in which to store their uniforms. On top of those drawers each kept two framed photographs. One was of North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung. The second was of his now deceased heir, Kim Jong-il. "We sweat quite a bit. "The mattress we sleep on, it's made of the rice hull. So all the body odour seeps into the mattress. It's not made of cotton. Because it's rice hull, all the odour from sweat and other smells are there. It's not pleasant."[Source: Megha Mohan, BBC World Service, November 21, 2017]
One of the reasons for this was the state of the washing facilities. "As a woman, one of the toughest things is that we can't shower properly," says Lee So Yeon. "Because there is no hot water. They connect a hose to the mountain stream and have water directly from the hose. "We would get frogs and snakes through the hose."
Juliette Morillot and Jieun Baek say Lee So Yeon's testimony accords with other accounts they have heard, but warn that defectors have to be treated with caution. "There is such a high demand for knowledge from North Korea," says Baek. "It almost incentivises people to tell exaggerated tales to the media, especially if that comes with nice pay cheque. A lot of defectors who don't want to be in the media are very critical of 'career defectors'. It's worth keeping this in mind."
Women in the North Korean Army Stop Having Periods
Megha Mohan of the BBC wrote: “The hard training and dwindling food rations took their toll on the bodies of Lee So Yeon and her fellow recruits. "After six months to a year of service, we wouldn't menstruate any more because of malnutrition and the stressful environment," she says. "The female soldiers were saying that they are glad that they are not having periods. They were saying that they were glad because the situation is so bad if they were having periods too that would have been worse."[Source: Megha Mohan, BBC World Service, November 21, 2017]
So Yeon says that the army failed to make provision for menstruation, during her time in the military, and that she and other female colleagues often had no choice but to reuse sanitary pads. "Women to this day still use the traditional white cotton pads," says Juliette Morillot. "They have to be washed every night when out of men's sight, so women get up early and wash them." And having just returned from a field visit where she spoke to several female soldiers, Morillot confirms that they often do miss their periods. "One of the girls I spoke with, who was 20, told me she trained so much that she had skipped her periods for two years," she says.
“At the same time North Korea's government took the unusual step of saying it would distribute a premium female sanitary brand called Daedong in most female units. "This may have been a way to atone for conditions of the past," says Jieun Baek. "That statement may have been to overcorrect for this well-known phenomenon that conditions for women used to be bad. It may have been a way to boost morale and get more women to think, 'Wow, we will be taken care of.'" A premium cosmetic brand Pyongyang Products was also recently distributed to several female aviation units, following a call by Kim Jong-un in 2016 for North Korean beauty products to compete with global brands like Lancome, Chanel and Christian Dior.
Rape and Sexual Harassment in the North Korean Army
Megha Mohan of the BBC wrote: “Female soldiers stationed in the countryside don't always have access to private toilets, with some telling Morillot they often have to relieve themselves in front of men, making them feel especially vulnerable. Morillot says that when she broached the subject of rape in the army with serving female soldiers, "most women said it happens to others". None said they had experienced it personally. [Source: Megha Mohan, BBC World Service, November 21, 2017]
“Lee So Yeon also says that she was not raped during her time in the army between 1992 and 2001, but that many of her comrades were. "The company commander would stay in his room at the unit after hours and rape the female soldiers under his command. This would happen over and over without an end."
North Korea's military says that it takes sexual abuse seriously, with a jail sentence of up to seven years for men found guilty of rape. "But most of the time nobody is willing to testify. So men often go unpunished," says Juliette Morillot. She adds that silence about sexual abuse in the army is rooted in the "patriarchal attitudes of North Korean society" - the same attitudes that ensure that women in the army do most of the chores.
“Women from poor backgrounds recruited into construction brigades, and housed in informal small barracks or huts, are especially insecure, she says. "Domestic violence is still widely accepted, and not reported, so it is the same in the army. But I should really stress the fact that you have the same kind of culture (of harassment) in the South Korean army."
North Korea's First Supersonic Jet Pilots Called 'Flowers of the Sky'
In 2015, North Korea’s state media released photos of Kim Jong-un observing the inaugural training session of the nation’s first two female supersonic jet pilots. The Independent reported: Kim watched as Jo Kum-hyang and Rim Sol took off and landed during a drill, and called them “flowers of the sky”, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported citing North Korea’s Central News Agency. [Source: Kashmira Gander, The Independent, June 22, 2015]
“The two women were previously praised by the leader in 2014, when they completed a flying pursuit drill, The Telegraph reported. On both occasions, Kim made comments highlighting that the pair were women in order to suggest that they would find it more difficult to fly planes. “The girls' solo flight of supersonic fighters in which it is hard for men to fly is a success to be proud of in the world,“ he said about the latest flight, the KCNA reported.
North Korean Military Academy and Officer Education
The first military training school, the Pyongyang Military Academy, was established in North Korea in 1945. The Security Cadres School was founded in 1946 and was later renamed the First Officer Candidate School. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
The military education and training system for officers is quite elaborate. The officer education system includes approximately seventeen universities, colleges, schools, and academies. Among them are officer candidate schools for each service; basic and advanced branch schools for armor, artillery, rear services, and other branches; mid-career staff colleges; senior war colleges; and special schools, including medical and veterinary service schools.*
Officer candidates, typically selected from enlisted men who have served three to four years in the military, receive their initial cadet training at a service academy. The Kang Kon Military Academy near Pyongyang is North Korea's equivalent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. The academy offers a two-year course for infantry and rear service; a threeyear course for engineering, communications, chemical, and other services; and a six-to-twelve-month "short course" refresher for all branches of service.*
Two schools are of particular importance. The Mangyongdae Revolutionary Institute, founded in 1947 for children of the party elite, provides a seven-year quasi-military training program. Kim Il Sung Military College, the most prestigious military school for training senior officers and ranking party cadre, has a three-year course designed for senior company and field-grade officers. Graduation is a prerequisite for promotion to general. A one-year "refresher" course is offered for senior field-grade and general officers of all services and for senior party officials.*
The Air Academy in Chongjin, founded in 1961 when it separated from Kim Il Sung Military College, offers a four-year course for regular cadets, a three-year mid-career staff college course, and a one-year refresher course. Senior officer training courses and refresher courses also are offered. Cadets become pilots or maintenance officers upon graduation from the academy. The Naval Academy, located at Najin, offers a four-year training program and a mid-career staff college course of unknown length.*
Mid-career staff, or "refresher," training is offered at all the service academies at various branch schools. Courses taught at the service colleges run six months to a year, whereas branch and other courses tend to be limited to six months.*
Officers in the North Korean Military
Recruitment and selection of political officers vary with rank. Stringent selection requirements include prior military service, a family with a politically reliable background, and proven party loyalty. Political officers are trained at Kim Il Sung Political College and Kumsong Political College, among other institutions. Training focuses on politics, economics, party history, juche philosophy, and party loyalty. Upon graduating, students are appointed second lieutenants in political or political security positions in KPA units. Advanced political officer training also is provided. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]
Political officers for field-grade positions are selected by the political department at the corps level from party members in the corps headquarters. Supplemental training can include a sixmonth course at a political college. Candidates for positions at the division or higher level are identified by the Organization Department of the General Political Bureau of the KPA. They are then screened by the party committee and approved by the Secretariat of the party Central Committee before appointment as head of a political department at the division or higher level.*
Officer rank structure is divided into company-grade, fieldgrade , and general officers. The army and air force have the same ranks, but the navy has a different nomenclature. Company-grade officer ranks are four-tiered for the army and air force and three-tiered for the navy.*
Promotion is a slow process. There is a minimum period of two years between private and private first class and four or five years between private first class (private and senior private in the air force, or seaman apprentice and seaman in the navy) and consideration for non-commissioned officer (NCO) training and corporal status. NCO training is conducted at an NCO school and lasts between six and ten months.*
Until December 1991, Kim Il Sung alone held the rank of marshal in his position as supreme commander of the KPA. In December 1991, Kim Jong Il was named supreme commander of the KPA; and on April 20, 1992, Kim Il Sung was given the title Grand Marshal and Kim Jong Il and Minister of People's Armed Forces O Chin-u were named marshal. The title of vice marshal was also awarded to eight other military leaders. These promotions were followed by a massive wave of senior officer promotions that involved as many as 664 generals.*
North Korea Army Cuts Height Requirement to Accommodate Famine-Stunted Conscripts
In 2012, North Korea reduced its minimum height requirement for military conscripts because young people coming to military service age at that time had been stunted by the deadly famines in the 1990s. Daily NK, a Seoul-based online newspaper run by North Korean defectors, said the military has cut the minimum height from 145 centimeters to 142 centimeters. AFP reported: "There were too many short boys who don't meet the previous height requirement... so the military is now accepting all who are taller than 142 centimeters," said a North Korean source quoted by Daily NK. The average height for South Korean boys of the same age is about 172 centimeters. [Source: AFP. April 2, 2012]
North Korean boys facing conscription this year were born in the mid-1990s — at the height of the famine that devastated the impoverished communist state and killed hundreds of thousands. Child mortality during this period was high and the fertility rate low, causing an acute shortage of new conscripts, said the source. "North Koreans say the country's new generation is shrinking in size," said the source, adding the army was still struggling to find enough new troops even after relaxing the physical requirements.
“UN agencies, after a visit to the North, estimated last November that three million people would need food aid in 2012. UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, after a separate visit last October, said that in northern regions almost one in two children were chronically malnourished.”
Half of North Korea's Army 'Starving'
In the early 2010s, it was estimated that as many as half of all of North Korea's soldiers were starving as food shortages that were previously affecting only the civilian population were also taking a heavy toll on the military. Julian Ryall wrote in The Telegraph: “Disaffected North Koreans working secretly as journalists within the country for the Japan-based Asiapress International news agency have smuggled out video footage of interviews with soldiers in different parts of the isolated country, with many complaining of malnutrition. [Source: Julian Ryall, The Telegraph, September 13, 2011]
Asked how many of the men in his unit are experiencing malnutrition, one young conscript said it is as high as 50 per cent in the spring. "And it will get worse after a while," another soldier said. "After the potatoes are harvested, we only have seven small potatoes for one meal." The soldier indicated that each potato is only the size of his thumb. "The shortage of food is not only in this unit," he said. "Food shortages and malnutrition are rampant among all troops." One officer charged with regional security for the government said that their rations for one meal weighted 100 grams, or just 3.5 ounces.
Around the same time, Mark Willacy wrote in abc.net.au: “ Footage shot inside North Korea has revealed the extent of chronic food shortages and malnutrition inside North Korea. Shot over several months by an undercover North Korean journalist, the harrowing footage shows images of soldiers demanding bribes. It is clear that the all-powerful army — once quarantined from food shortages and famine — is starting to go hungry. "Everybody is weak," says one young North Korean soldier."Within my troop of 100 comrades, half of them are malnourished," he said. [Source: Mark Willacy, abc.net.au July 15, 2011]
“In the footage, a party official is demanding a stallholder make a donation of rice to the army. "My business is not good," complains the stallholder. "Shut up," replies the official. "Don't offer excuses." Jiro Ishimaru is the man who trained the undercover reporter to use the hidden camera. "This footage is important because it shows that Kim Jong-il's regime is growing weak," he said. "It used to put the military first, but now it can't even supply food to its soldiers. Rice is being sold in markets but they are starving. This is the most significant thing in this video." Kim Jong-il's grip on power depends on the military and if some of its soldiers have growling, empty bellies, it is bad news for the dictator.”
North Korean Soldiers Planting Crops Near the DMZ
Associated Press reported from Sasi-ri in 2013:“The North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone is a hive of activity — not of fighting, but of farming. Beyond the barbed wire, ruddy-faced North Korean soldiers put down their rifles and stood shoulder to shoulder with farmers as they turned their focus to another battle: the spring planting. As neighboring nations remain on guard for a missile launch or nuclear test that South Korean and U.S officials say could take place at any time, the focus north of the border is on planting rice, cabbage and soybeans. In hamlets all along the DMZ, soldiers were knee-deep in mud and water as they helped farmers with the spring planting. [Source: Associated Press, April 24, 2013]
“Inside the DMZ, hundreds of North Korean soldiers marched in a line with backpacks. On a hilltop above them in North Hwanghae province, Col. Kim Chang Jun said they were being dispatched to farms — but still prepared for war if need be. "From the outside, it looks peaceful: farmers are out in the fields, children are going to school," he said. "But behind the scenes, they are getting ready for war. They're working until midnight but come morning, if the call comes, they'll be ready to go to battle."
“For the moment, however, the labor of many North Korean soldiers is turned to the land. Spring is arriving slowly this year in North Korea, pushing back the crucial planting season by a month. Impoverished North Korea struggles to feed its 24 million people, with the U.N. estimating that two-thirds of the population cope with chronic food shortages. Farmers in Panmunjom-ri, the North Korean village inside the DMZ, were busy planting rice, cabbage, soybeans and radish in fields surrounded by barbed wire and anti-tank barriers. Elsewhere, faces flushed and still in their uniforms, men and women soldiers waded into muddy paddies and bent down with fistfuls of spinach to plant. Around them, red banners fluttered in the wind. One read, "At a breath," a phrase urging North Koreans to work hard. The other read, "Defend to the death."
North Korean Soldiers Loot Farmers Crops
In 2016, there were reports soldiers in a North Korean province bordering China raiding farms to seize crops and farmers selling portions of their harvests set aside for military use in order to pay the costs of fertilizers, sources say. Radio Free Asia reported: Emboldened by government policy giving the military preference in resource distribution, North Korean soldiers are now behaving less like the country’s protector and more like “a punitive force,” a source in North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service. “The people are suffering immeasurably under the regime’s Military First policy,” RFA’s source said. “The farmers are helpless against the looting.” [Source: Radio Free Asia, October 23, 2016]
“Soldiers now carry out frequent nighttime raids against farmers’ stores, taking as much as they can of harvested crops, he said, adding, “Some cooperative farm members standing guard have begged to be tied up in order to avoid being blamed later on for what has been lost.” “The military should be protecting the people, but instead are taking away their property,” he said. “Their raids to seize the farmers’ precious crops are like the raids of a punitive force suppressing a rebellion.”
“Meanwhile, in North Hamgyong’s Cheongjin city, the head of a cooperative farm’s management committee was dismissed from his post, and members of his staff jailed, after they sold 200 kilograms of corn intended for military use in order to pay the costs of earlier farming, another source said. “He used the crops he stole from the military provision in order to pay for the fertilizer and pesticides they had purchased in the spring, as well as for the meals for volunteers,” the source said. The committee head was then discharged from his post, and staff members sentenced to prison terms of 15 years, for their role in the theft, he said. “Farmers are now criticizing the authorities, and are angry at being forced to become criminals after slaving away in the fields, he said. Civilian animosity against North Korea’s military is now “extremely high both in the cities and rural towns because of a series of incidents involving soldiers,” the source said.
Deserters of the North Korean Army
Some North Korean soldiers have deserted because of hunger and contempt for military life. If they get caught they risk being executed by the government. The 521-kilometer (324-mile) long Tumen River that divides China and North Korea is a popular escape route used by deserters as well as defectors fleeing North Korea.
In 2015, a North Korean army deserter crossed the border into China and reportedly killed four people in the Chinese border city of Helong in a robbery and then died from injuries suffered during his capture, the Chinese foreign ministry said. [Source: Reuters, January 7, 2015]
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that Chinese police immediately arrested the suspect after the incident but that the soldier had subsequently died from the wounds. "The North Korean side expressed regret over the incident and extended sympathies to the families of the victims," Hong said. Chinese officials have not confirmed the number of victims in the incident that reportedly happened after the soldier crossed the border in search of food.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021