Army, military – these are among the first things that come to mind when one hears the words “North Korea.” Many have seen North Korean military parades or drills on TV. But how do soldiers of the Korean People’s Army live when parades are over?
There are very few articles dedicated to answering these questions. First, the army is rarely studied from a sociologist’s point of view. Usually books about military are dedicated either to a war it has fought in or to the military equipment an army has, not to the life of its soldiers.
Second, North Koreans classify almost all military-related information. To my knowledge, the DPRK has not published a single source since the mid-1980s containing even basic information such as a list of military ranks in the KPA.
Therefore, studying the North Korean army is not an easy task. In this article I would like to tell of some things I have learned about it.
FOLLOWING THE SOVIET UNION – TO THE LETTER
The Korean People’s Army was created on February 8, 1948 in the Soviet occupation zone of Korea. The Soviet military authorities created it in their own image: the KPA’s uniform, rank insignia, internal instructions etc. were copied form the USSR. It was quite a natural decision, since the members of the socialist bloc were supposed to follow the Soviet model and an independent Korean army had not existed since 1907, thus the local traditions were virtually non-existent.
… the North Korean army did not have any military ranks up to 1952
Therefore the KPA was to follow in the footsteps of the Red Army. One of the most vivid manifestations of this was that the North Korean army did not have any military ranks up to 1952. Instead, the insignia reflected the soldier’s position: battalion commander, chief of general staff etc. The ranks were introduced only on December 31, 1952, at the end of the Korean War. It is quite interesting that the idea that an army could not have ranks was incomprehensible to the vast majority of contemporary scholars, so you can see a North Korean soldier from late 1940s called “sergeant” or “lieutenant” in contemporary English literature. This is, however, historically inaccurate.
Moreover, for the first decade or so, the internal regulations of the KPA were literally translated from Russian. The translation was done by Soviet Koreans who were bilingual but never received any education about how a translation should be done. Thus they often translated Russian text word-by-word and the end result looked quite funny. For example, according to the 1955 regulations, a commander welcoming his unit was supposed to say: “Are you healthy, comrades?” And the response was “We wish you health, comrade commander!” These who know that the Russian standard greeting Zdravstvujte! literally means “I wish you health” would get the joke.
Another example: The KPA regulations used to have detailed instructions regarding rights and responsibilities of army and front commanders. The funny part is that the KPA never had neither armies nor fronts, as the largest military unit in the North Korean Army was always a corps. But these did exist in the Soviet Army and the interpreter once again translated literally what was written.
Of course, when the DPRK became politically independent from the USSR, many of these remnants of Soviet influence were gone, replaced by local peculiarities. After the DPRK established the “monolithic ideological system” (yuil sasang chaegae, literally “the only thought system”), the personality cult became far more intensive and pervasive than it used to be. Before that a soldier awarded a medal was supposed to answer “serving the Motherland!” From the 1970s the prescribed answer was “Serving the Great Leader and the respected comrade Dear Leader” and from 1990s “Serving the Beloved and respected Supreme Commander.”
As time went by, North Koreans came to serve longer, until, in the early 1990s it was officially announced that they would be conscripted for 10 years. The Cold War was over and North Korea was alone, without allies, and the state tried to compensate for the lack of military balance with the South. However, that was not the only cause: The soldiers were often used as a cheap workforce. This is recognized officially and many North Korean songs and movies are dedicated to soldiers helping farmers or other civilians.
Why would one want to serve in such a place?
The main cause is that a military man can join the party with relative ease – which is a much harder task for a civilian. Under Kim Il Sung, the army was probably the only social lift in the country. Sometimes people even bribed the mobilization committee so they would be send to the army even if they don’t qualify for medical reasons.
SERVING THE LEADER
When a North Korean studies in high school he (or, recently, she) is summoned to the regional military mobilization department, where he/she must pass a heath check. Under Kim Il Sung young men shorter than 150 cm, thinner than 48 kg or with acuity of vision less than 0.8 (1 stands for perfect) were not conscripted. Later these norms were amended – a conscript should have height of greathe than 148 cm, weigh more than 43kg and have acuity of vision not less than 0.4. In 2008 these norms were abolished completely. Of course, an invalid or a person suffering from a chronic disease still won’t be conscripted.
Apart from this, university students, young criminals who served in prisons or camps, people with a very bad songbun (social status) and those few residents of the DPRK who do not have North Korean citizenship are not conscripted as well. Of course, the DPRK does not have any alternative service.
Girls were not conscripted until very recently, but many joined as volunteers to have an opportunity to join the party. Those who wished to serve have to tell this to their form-master, who submitted the list to the principal. The principal, in turn, sends it to the military mobilization department. However, things are now different: From 2015 the DPRK started to conscript women as well.
When a North Korean turns 17, he is summoned to the military mobilization department once again where he is told where he will serve. Unlike most countries, potential conscripts are not asked whether they wish to serve in ground force, navy, air force etc. which may easily cause a young men who loved sea and ships from his childhood to be send to serve as an artillerist. Fortunately the department can be bribed, so this is solvable.
For two months or so the new conscript is trained at a special camp with the conditions there being better than in a normal unit. After this, a normal service begins.
The life of a North Korean soldier does not, of course, solely consist of working in a field or on a construction site, but also of training and military exercises – like it should be. The soldiers also get ideological education about the immense greatness of the Beloved Supreme Commander.
Moreover, since they spend 10 years in the army, the soldiers also get some general education. In one of the issues of the military journal Kunin saenghwal (“Life in the army”) one can find not only stories about Kim Jong Il and anti-tank rocket launcher model RPG-7, but also the explanation about what a Guinness Book of Records is and a translation of a part of a Soviet short story “A few days,” written by Alexander Bek.
Those who served in the North Korean army often complained that the state of discipline there is not very good. Under Kim Il Sung soldiers many have sometimes beat an officer – and his superiors would cover the crime in order not to be punished as well. Surely, violence towards one’s subordinates was more frequent.
Once Kim Jong Il took power, he tried to introduce at least some discipline to the military: The internal propaganda started to emphasize the importance of mutual understanding between officers and soldiers and that violence is unacceptable. This seemingly had some effect and the discipline is now better but is still far from the ideal. The girls are especially vulnerable: A commander can demand that a female soldier would sleep with him, threatening that otherwise she won’t join the party. The latter would mean that the girl had wasted several years of her life – and it is not easy for her to protect herself.
In late 1990s the situation was critical. There were many cases when the soldiers who were not fed simply robbed the civilians. Their commanders covered up their crimes, and it was hard for policemen to get their hands on a criminal wearing a uniform. Fortunately, when the situation improved in 2000s, such cases became far rarer.
Usually soldiers are never permitted to visit their homes for all 10 years of service. An exception is granted sometimes, but even a parent’s death may not be enough. I personally know a former KPA major who had a commissar deny his request to go to his father’s funeral: “The service is above all,” he said.
Usually twice a year soldiers are subjected to labor mobilizations. This may be some grand construction project or simply work in the fields of a collective farm. Some soldiers are annoyed that they – the supposed defenders of the Motherland – are used as laborers, but for the others this is viewed as a nice change of activities.
When the 10 years are nearing completion, the soldier usually rises in rank up to Senior Sergeant, which is usually equal to a position of a platoon second in command. By that time, he or she is usually admitted to the party. A candidate would need two recommendations for that – just like in the USSR, but the final decision is made by a political officer. Surely, the officer may allow someone to join the WPK earlier and to deny some applications as well.
After the service term is – finally – over most soldiers return home, but some choose to enter an academy. This a very important trait of the North Korean army: With a rarest exceptions all KPA officers used to be privates once. The applications for an academy are submitted to the division’s personnel department and, of course, not all of them are approved.
The department reviews the candidate’s songbun, service record, knowledge of state ideology and training results. Thus we may say with virtual certainty that every single officer in the KPA is a party member.
A personal commendation of the Leader is, of course, a colossal career bonus. Kims often visit various military units. If, for example, the Great Marshal would at some moment point at some soldier and say “this comrade is doing well,” one may be sure that this comrade would someday become an officer – and not less than a major.
Kim Jong Il strictly forbid all junior soldiers from having a relationship
After a cadet graduates from the academy and reaches a position of a company commander (usually this corresponds with a rank of senior lieutenant), he earn the right to get married, and once it is done – the right not to live in the barracks. For all junior soldiers having a relationship is strictly forbidden by Kim Jong Il.
A rank of colonel is an unofficial career top for a vast majority of the KPA officers – just like it is in most armies. If one does not have powerful relatives or special merit, it is very hard to advance further. Those who still manage get their promotion to a general by a personal order of the Leader. Usually it is done at the eve of some national holiday – like Kim Il Sung of Kim Jong Il’s birthday.
The highest rank a mere mortal might hope to achieve is the one of vice-marshal, which is conferred on a formal meeting of the WPK’s Central military commission: the party rules both the state and the army in the DPRK without any pretense. Only less than 30 men achieved this rank in the entire North Korean history.
Finally, the higher rank if Marshal of the KPA was conferred only on former members of the Kim Il Sung’s partisan unit and two highest ranks – Marshal of the DPRK and Generalissimo – are conferred only to the members of the ruling dynasty.
IS IT REALLY AN ARMY?
All in all, the North Korean army is not just a military organization
First, it has many civilian tasks, since, as I said, the soldiers are used as a labor force to compensate for the ineffective North Korean economy.
Second, some specific traits of the North Korean political system hinder its proper development. Instead of training, reading military literature etc. soldiers have to spend lots of time to memorize just another set of “brilliant instructions” of a Kim in charge. And the fact that a soldier’s career is linked to his ancestry is the cause of that for a loyal citizen who was unlucky to born with a bad songbun it would be very hard to become an officer. But, however, this is even more true for the North Korean civilians.
Third, we should remember that the long term of service solves one more problem for the DPRK’s authorities. The young people are usually the most active part of the society. And by sending them to the barracks, the government tears them off their families and friends and has no problems with indoctrinating them with the state ideology. Thus, the probability of them being involved in any unwanted activity is minimal.
It might be that this is one of causes why Kim Jong Un instituted the female conscription recently. As these are mostly women who trade in North Korean markets, they role in the society grows, but by sending the young ladies to the army, the government may succeed in neutralizing them.
So the North Korean army serves to solve to only military, but also social and political tasks. This, surely, does not have a good effect on its fighting efficiency.
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Featured Image: North Korean army Pyongyang by Eric Lafforgue on 2008-11-28 01:10:30