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North Korean youth find ways to dodge military service

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), also, North Korea, People's Army guards march in formation to their appointed posts during a repatriation ceremony in the Panmunjom Joint Security Area. (TSGT James Mossman/U.S. Air Force)
March 13, 2021

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

More and more North Korean youth are dodging mandatory military service, because ruling party membership and all its perks are no longer as automatic for those who finish lengthy stints in the armed forces, sources in the country told RFA.

Membership in the Korean Workers’ Party is seen as a status symbol that can also be a gateway to better housing, employment, education and food in the impoverished country.

Every male citizen must serve an average of 10 years in the military, and under previous regulations most could expect to join the party upon discharge. RFA reported in late January, however, that authorities tightened the party’s entry barriers to the dismay of many serving soldiers, including many who are set to finish their service this year.

A resident of North Hamgyong province in the country’s northeast told RFA’s Korean Service this week that although the spring sign-up season was approaching, the youth were less than excited as they had been in previous years.

“At this time of year, the students who have just graduated from high school and those in their late teens usually visit the Military Mobilization Office to prepare for enlistment,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“But this year, as the number of applicants for enlistment has significantly decreased, the officials of the Military Mobilization Office are busy preparing countermeasures,” the source said.

In previous years most boys older than 17 would voluntarily enlist, usually to demonstrate loyalty to the state. Authorities generally did not need to hunt people down for refusing to appear for military service, because the consequences for not serving were too great.

Enlistment had been a joyous occasion seen almost as a coming of age, but now that party membership is no longer a given, youngsters are looking for ways out.

One of the most popular ways of dodging military service is to be declared medically exempt. The source said young people were secretly sharing with each other advice on how to fail medical exams.

“People with hepatitis or tuberculosis are excluded from the initial recruitment, so some people were found trying to get rejected at the physical examination by drinking a whole bottle of soy sauce to abnormally increase liver function,” the source said.

But after decades of food shortages many North Koreans don’t need any help to appear medically unfit for service. Since 2019, the minimum height for military service is 150 centimeters (about five feet) and the minimum weight is 50 kilograms (110 pounds).

“Many of this year’s recruits have not received enough nutrition to be in the military so their height and weight are less than standard,” the source said.

“Some of the healthy young people go so far as to bribe the physical examiners.”

Another source, a resident of South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, confirmed to RFA Monday that youth there were also trying to get out of serving.

“The party encourages military service, calling it an advance guard of national security, but the youth these days are avoiding service by any means possible. Since there are no benefits and no opportunity to join the party after 10 years of service, they are avoiding enlistment,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“Most of the recruits are high school senior boys, and this year there is an average of only four or five people from a single homeroom [of about 50 students] applying for enlistment,” the second source said. 

“Last year, about half of the graduates wanted to enlist, so this year things are cooling down. This is why the authorities have come up with a plan to increase enlistments among the graduates to normal levels,” the second source said.

Enlisting in the military is a financial burden on a soldier’s entire family. The second source said that the government does not keep the military adequately supplied, so soldiers’ families send them money for food and other necessities for the duration of their entire time in the military.

The sacrifice had been seen as worthwhile because party membership for the soldier upon discharge was virtually guaranteed.

“Starting this year, on the orders of the Highest Dignity the percentage of party memberships coming out of non-military roles has increased, and the percentage of memberships coming out of the military is down, so that’s why young people war avoiding enlistment,” the second source said, using the honorific title for leader Kim Jong Un.

“Some recruits are even envious of the children of people who escaped North Korea. According to policy, the children of those who have betrayed the country are excluded from the privilege of enlistment if one or both parents escaped the country to live in China or South Korea.”

However, the youth see this not as punishment, but an added perk, according to the second source. Not only do the children of escapees get out of military service, they also live well on money sent back by their “traitorous” parents.

The change in eligibility for party membership for soldiers is a result of economics. The central government has observed that collecting so-called loyalty funds for Kim Jong Un and the party center is easier when party members have more money, and soldiers are generally cash poor.

RFA’s Korean Service previously reported that under previous membership schemes, 90 percent of the party’s new members typically came from the military with about 10 percent coming from society.

Kim Jong Un recently ordered a change in the ratio to about 70 percent coming from the military and 30 percent from society, with fewer memberships awarded overall, saying that soldiers had come to expect party membership as a matter of course.

There are about 1.3 million personnel in the North Korean military, making it the world’s fourth-largest standing army after China, India and the United States.