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North Korean military sees increase in officers seeking discharge

North Korean soldiers Panmunjom, Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ); North/South Korean Demarcation Line. (John Pavelka/Flickr)
October 20, 2018

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

As their elite status begins to wane, many of North Korea’s high-ranking military officers are now trying to exit the military, according to an RFA Korean Service source.

Outside analysts of North Korean politics say national leader Kim Jong Un over the past several years has shifted from his father’s emphasis on the military as the main pillar of his regime to a focus on boosting the economy and giving the ruling Worker’s Party more power.

Dubbed the byungjin (parallel development) policy, the shift represents the Kim government’s latest attempt to legitimize the young leader’s authority. But the pivot has resulted in a less-privileged lifestyle for military officers, who had been thriving under the previous two rulers.

“My son is a high-ranking officer and I spent $1,500 on a bribe to get him discharged. You can buy a house in Pyongyang with that money,” the source, based in Pyongyang, said.

“They no longer get better treatment and there are more rules they need to follow,” the source said, detailing how families of these high-ranking military officials used to preferential treatment are struggling compared to families of party officials and trade workers.

One restriction stipulates that military officers’ family members cannot work in local markets. This restriction has been a burden to the families. As North Korea transitions and introduces more aspects of a market economy, starting a business can be far more lucrative than serving in the military, the source added.

As is common in many other sectors of society, the lives of officers stationed in Pyongyang are comparatively better than those of their counterparts outside the capital. For this reason, the impetus to leave the armed forces is stronger in rural areas.

“The ones in remote areas tend to leave the military because they want to live together with their families who live in urban area due to convenience and education for their children,” the source said.

Difficulties in securing an exit from the armed forces vary by branch. This is mainly due to the difficulty in finding replacements for those hoping to be discharged.

“Army officers have a much easier time leaving than navy and air force guys,” the source said. “In the air force, it’s difficult even for older pilots to quit because fuel shortages and aging aircraft make it harder to train new pilots.”

Reported by Joonho Kim of RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.