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North Korean soldier deserts unit during military parade practice

North Korea held its military parade to celebrate its 70th anniversary. (Facebook)
September 10, 2020

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

Authorities in North Korea are on high alert after a soldier deserted his unit during training for a major military parade next month for the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party, sources in Pyongyang told RFA.

North Korea is planning a larger-than-normal celebration for the 75th anniversary of the October 10, 1945 foundation of the party, one of North Korea’s most important national holidays. Soldiers selected and screened to march in the parade are forced to undergo months of grueling drills, the sources said.

The soldier, who would have undergone background checks of his loyalty to the party, deserted on Sept. 5 because he was tired of the punishing training regimen and the bullying he received from other soldiers, said a military source in Pyongyang, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“In February there was an order from the authorities to turn the October 10th celebration of the founding of the Workers’ Party into a ‘grand celebration venue for the victor,’ so the fact that the deserter ran away from a unit participating in the military parade is considered a major mistake by military authorities,” the source told RFA’s Korean Service.

“The deserter is a 22-year old male soldier who they say was subjected to extreme training and constant bullying. He left the military parade training center at Mirim Airport, located on the outskirts of Pyongyang, at dawn on the 5th,” said the military source, who declined to identify the soldier or his unit for safety reasons.

The source said the soldier had been harshly punished after making mistakes during practice.

“They say he received severe verbal abuse and punishment from the vice platoon leader on the day before he deserted. He had slacked off in training and had failed to march in time with his line and column and had not goose-stepped with his legs at the right height,” the source said.

“It seems like he fled the military because of the harsh treatment from his superior,” the source added.

“A number of soldiers have collapsed after training sessions that last more than 12 hours, as the unit strives to ensure a perfect performance on the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party. Even so, authorities are pushing the soldiers to train even harder to ensure the quality of the event, regardless of their safety,” the source said.

“In this country, it is the highest honor not only to yourself, but also for your family, to participate in an official military parade, especially to commemorate such an important historical event, but the solder deserted training anyway,” said the source.

Another source in Pyongyang, who declined to be named, confirmed the desertion to RFA.

“Due to the desertion, they are enhancing guard duty and restricting nighttime movement at the campsite of the soldiers and their training site at Mirim Airport,” the second source said.

“Military parades are not only national spectacles; they show off our military power not only in North Korea but also in other countries. This is why flouting orders to participate in a military parade, regardless of the reason, is an act that diminishes the pride and status of our military,” said the second source.

“If the deserter is arrested, he will face severe punishment,” the second source added.

The second source said that the selection process for parade participants is lengthy and includes background checks, so it is likely that the deserter will not be the only one reprimanded.

“Participants in all national events… are selected as people deemed to have relatively deep loyalty toward the Party and its leader. After the 75th anniversary [celebration], it will be difficult for not only the deserter, but his superiors to avoid joint responsibility.”

A North Korean refugee living in South Korea told RFA on condition of anonymity that the experience of military parades is so grueling that it takes months to recover.

“Once you march in a military parade, which is a national event in North Korea, you will feel severe pain as if your intestines ruptured,” the refugee said.

“Soldiers participating in this year’s parade, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party, are likely to suffer with the aftereffects of training in parade formation for a long while after the event is finished,” said the refugee.

“Since most of the training occurs in summer, soldiers die from the extreme summer heat and the unimaginable high-intensity training.”

The Washington-based Stimson Center’s 38 North project on Sept. 1 released their analysis of satellite imagery of the training site at Mirim Airport, saying that North Korea was using the site to prepare for a military parade “likely to be held next month.”

“Two images from August 31, taken just 30 minutes apart, show hundreds of vehicles parked in the northwest parking lots adjacent to the parade grounds, and thousands of troops in formations near or in the area that replicates Kim Il Sung Square,” the report said.