Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week’s question is:
Tell me about military service in North Korea. For one thing, how long is military service in North Korea?
In North Korea, most soldiers serve in military for 10 years, but female soldiers serve in military for seven years. The special military unit serving as the bodyguards of Kim Jong Un serve in the military for 13 years.
As military service is compulsory in North Korea, most men enlist in military after high school graduation. However, the disabled are exempt from military service. People accepted into universities will enlist after they graduate from college. In this case, a man with a bachelor of arts will serve for five years. Men who studied engineering or science will serve for three years. It is well-known that the reason why men with science degrees serve for only three years is because Kim Jong Il wanted to encourage people to study science to contribute to the country. Kim wanted to encourage people to study science by providing a big incentive – less time in the military!
The first difficulty men have to endure in the military is hunger
The first difficulty men have to endure in the military is hunger. Soldiers in the special units won’t have to worry about this, but most soldiers in the bases outside Pyongyang are given two-three potatoes per meal. Or they are given raw corn kernels or corn rice for each meal.
Military training is not all they are expected to do on such meager amounts of food. They’re told to help farmers on their rice paddies in summer. That’s why so many North Korean soldiers become skinny and malnourished. Given such small amounts of food, they’re made to provide labor on occasions other than military training. Due to the threat of starvation, they turn to eating salted radish. As a result of devouring salted radish, some soldiers become plump. Some people may see them and think they’re well-fed by the North Korean military, but that’s not true: After devouring nothing but salted radish, they may look plump on the outside but they’re actually severely malnourished.
As a consequence, many soldiers flee the military to escape malnourishment. Military police will be out on the search for the soldiers who escaped to look for food. Those soldiers who escape from their barracks will rob civilians of their food. They will rob civilians and the stockrooms in farming communities because they’re so hungry. If it’s edible, they will steal it. Some officers will even go as far as forcing soldiers to rob civilians. If the soldier fails to steal food, they will suffer retaliation and malnourishment in the barracks.
In my graduating class in high school, there were 25 guys. Five of them went to college and the remaining 20 went to enlist in military. Out of those 20, 10 of them returned home suffering from malnourishment. When they become malnourished, they’re allowed to go home to get better. Most parents travel to the military barracks to pick up their sons. When they return home, their parents feed them. When their health improves, they’re sent back to military. Since they’re severely malnourished, most of them are too weak to even walk by themselves. That’s why parents travel all the way to military bases to pick up their sons and bring them home.
Those five of my classmates who didn’t suffer malnourishment were lucky to serve in the special unit or they served under good officers who took good care of their soldiers. One of my friends went to serve on the North Korean side of the Panmunjom on the 38th parallel. After I came to South Korea, I wanted to go to Panmunjom to see my friend’s face from the South Korean side. But he has been discharged and now I can’t go to Panmunjom to see him.
So many young men in North Korea go to serve in the military. They suffer from malnourishment while serving in military. They get to go home to get better while being fed by their parents. When their health improves, they are sent back to military. Some of them die from malnourishment before parents arrive to pick their sons up. North Korea may be the worst place in the world to do military service.
All of this may sound unbelievable to soldiers in South Korea and America. The only thing North Korean parents pray for is the safe return of their sons from military.
Got A Question?
Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Editing and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 811 words of this article.