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North Korea forces new military officers to volunteer for harsh front-line duty

North Korean soldiers (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)
October 17, 2021

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

North Korea is “encouraging” newly graduated military officers to take up harsh assignments on the front lines in yet another example of forcing less privileged people to “volunteer” for unpleasant duties, sources in the country told RFA.

As it is still technically at war with prosperous South Korea, North Korea makes every male serve at least seven backbreaking years in the armed forces after finishing high school, but those who are well connected or show promise can enter military academies and become officers with easier duties.

The 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th Corps of the Korean People’s Army are front-line units stationed in areas of North Korea closest to the Demilitarized Zone which separates North from South. Even for officers, service on the front is more difficult, more dangerous, and requires much more labor than other assignments.

“My son and most of his classmates in this year’s graduating class at O Jin U Artillery Academy have been assigned to the 1st and 5th Corps, front units in Kangwon province,” a farmer from Ryanggang province in the country’s north told RFA’s Korean Service Thursday.

“The academy’s political department forced them to volunteer, saying it was a request of the party,” said the farmer, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

The farmer said his son had previously been assigned to the 7th Corps in South Hamgyong province in the country’s east, a relatively easy assignment in the rear.

“When he went to the military academy, he expected to return to his original unit, but when graduation approached… they gathered all the students from rear units and said, ‘You’ve had a comfortable time in the military in the rear. It is your duty as soldiers and members of the party to go to the front lines and follow the will of the Supreme Commander,” said the farmer, referring to the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.

“In a meeting ahead of graduation, the head of the academy told our son, ‘The General Secretary’s request is for you to go to the 1st Corps, the main outpost of the country,’ basically forcing him to volunteer,” the farmer said.

The head of the academy told his son that it would be helpful for his future if he volunteered for duty in the 1st Corps and would be a good display of his loyalty, according to the farmer.

“If he were to disobey the request to join the unit on the front line, it would leave a mark on his personal record and follow him for the rest of his days. Moreover, all his hard work over the past three years becoming a military officer as the son of a lowly farmer will have been in vain,” said the farmer.

All the graduates from the rear naturally volunteered for service on the front, according to the farmer. 

“Who could possibly dare to disobey the demands of the party?”

A former soldier who served in the 1st Corps told RFA that frontline service is so bad that nobody wants to serve in those units.

“Kangwon province is very mountainous, so there are not many people, and the transportation situation is very inconvenient. Working and living conditions are awful,” said the former soldier, who now lives in North Hamgyong in the country’s northeast.

“Once assigned to a front unit, it’s almost impossible to be reassigned to the rear. The greatest wish for 1st Corps soldiers and their families is to go to a rear unit north of Chollyong,” said the former soldier, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Chollyong is an area of Kangwon province notorious for its 99 steep peaks and valleys. The rough terrain makes any assignment there extremely difficult, and anything north of Chollyong is a cushy rear assignment in comparison.

“The 1st and 5th Corps are all-round corps, larger than the others and are the core units that the party is most focused on,” the former soldier said.

Kim Jong Un’s father and predecessor Kim Jong Il visited the 1st and 5th Corps during the 1994-1998 North Korean famine to encourage them to prevent any unexpected chaos at a time when the country was on the brink of collapse, the former soldier said.

“I don’t know how I endured more than 20 years at the base in that mountain range in Kangwon province. I still get goosebumps thinking about that time,” the former soldier said. 

The former soldier said that all the officers at the front are always trying to transfer to the rear, and nobody wants to serve there when they graduate from the academy, so therefore authorities are forcing them to volunteer.

“In the end, the reality of this country’s military is that the children of the poor and powerless have no choice but to serve at the front.”