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DPRK - Military Personnel

By late 2015 a number of scholars both in South Korea and other countries concluded that the North Korean army was composed of around 700,000 soldiers. This is 500,000 fewer than the South Korean government’s official estimate of 1.2 million soldiers that appeared in the 2014 white paper by the Ministry of National Defense, or the 1,020,000 in recent editions of the authoritative IISS Military Balance.

“It can be inferred that the approximate size of the North Korean regular army is between 500,000 on the low side and 750,000 on the high side,” said Sogang University Professor Jeong Yeong-cheol in a report commissioned by the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee. The report was titled “Population Statistics and Social Change in North Korea: Changes in the Education System and a New Estimate of the Size of the Army.”

Satoru Miyamoto, a professor at Japan’s Seigakuin University, estimated the strength of the Korean People’s Army at 702,372. Satoru made the estimate in a paper titled “The Military Organization and Strength of the Korean People’s Army,” which he presented at the World Conference on North Korean Studies, held in Seoul in October 2015.

The reserve forces in North Korea are composed of the Reserve Military Training Unit, which is a subject of combat mobilization, the Worker-Peasant Red Army established by workplace and region, the Red Youth Guard, which is a military organization in middle schools (advanced classes), and paramilitary units. The age eligibility of mobilization is between 14 and 60 years old, which corresponds to 7.7 million people or roughly 30% of the population.

Military spending is estimated at as much as a quarter of GNP, with up to 20% of men ages 17-54 in the regular armed forces in some form or another. Out of every 1,000 people, 40 serve in uniform. By comparison, the ROK has 14 of every 1,000 people serving in uniform. The DPRK maintains imposing forces in terms of numbers. Over 1,200,000 personnel serve in the active forces, with reserve forces totaling over 5,000,000, making it the fourth largest military force in the world.

All junior officers under company commander level are now required residence inside their base or unit barracks until the age of thirty and are forbidden to marry while on the base. The quality of life of the enlisted soldier is difficult to evaluate. Conditions are harsh; rations are no more than 700 to 850 grams per day, depending on branch and service. Leave and passes are limited and strictly controlled. A two-week leave is allowed, although rarely granted, only once or twice during an entire enlistment. Passes for enlisted personnel are even more rare; neither day nor overnight passes are granted. During tours of duty, day passes are granted for public affairs duties or KWP-related activities. There is conflicting information about the frequency of corporal punishment and the harshness of military justice.

Minimum service periods [as of 1997] were as follows: 5 to 8 years (army), 3 to 4 years (air force), and 5 to 10 years (navy). Those not able to serve actively for that period of time are enlisted Red Guard militia, a large paramilitary force. Active service is followed by part-time service in the military reserves or service in the Worker-Peasant Red Guard to age 60.

Candidates for officers are selected from the enlisted ranks, and candidates receive officers' training at either Kanggun Military Academy, the Kim Jung-sook Naval Academy, or Kim Chaek Air Force Academy. Political officers are picked by the party and receive their commissions after education at Kim Il-sung Political University.

In spite of government directives mandating that North Korean high school students serve in the military after they graduate, children of the country’s wealthy families can duck active service by the payment of bribes or through childhood selection to a prestigious academy. By government order, all North Korean men must now enter the military on graduation at age 17 or 18 and serve for 13 years, with women joining on graduation at the same age and required to serve from seven to eight years. Exemptions are routinely made, though, for young North Koreans placed on an advanced academic track through enrollment in the country’s elite Number One High School. This is why wealthy families and the families of top executives do everything they can, and spend whatever they have to, to ensure their children are accepted to the school.

Officials in North Korea have begun conscripting people previously exempted from compulsory military service to counter the effects of a shortage of recruits due to the country’s rapidly decreasing birth rate, North Korean sources told Radio Free Asia. The country’s birth rate had sharply declining since a devastating famine hit the country in the mid-1990s during which several millions of North Koreans died of malnutrition and starvation. This was followed by the government’s discontinuation of food distribution.

Because the majority of those who perished were children, the country now faced a shortage of young people of conscription age, RFA reported 12 August 2016. “Recently, the Central Party partially cancelled some recruitment regulations because of a decrease in the number of military-age recruits,” a source in North Hamgyong province told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity. In the past, those who were the only son in their families, whose parents worked on collective farms, or who were the children of mine workers did not have to join the military, he said.

“A new recruitment regulation requires that all men up to their mid-30s, who have been exempt from the military in the past, now serve,” he said. Recent university graduates who have been exempt from military service, those who work in factories, and those who have a family are now among the citizens being recruited, the source said.

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. 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.

By 2020 more North Korean youth were dodging mandatory military service, because ruling party membership and all its perks were no longer as automatic for those who finish lengthy stints in the armed forces. Starting this year, on the orders of the Highest Dignity [Kim Jong Un] 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 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.

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 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.

At the spring sign-up season, 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. But by 2020, as the number of applicants for enlistment significantly decreased, the officials of the Military Mobilization Office were busy preparing countermeasures. 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.

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.

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.

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

Military officials in North Korea take bribes from the parents of new recruits, promising to assign their children to units in Pyongyang, where they can spend their service in relative comfort. The life of a soldier in the North Korean military is typically one of toil and sweat. The government routinely mobilizes soldiers to exploit their free labor, requiring them to work on farms, factories and construction sites, all while maintaining a modicum of battle readiness. But certain military assignments can park a soldier behind a desk in Pyongyang, the country’s capital and home of the privileged and elite.

Parents are eager to ensure their sons can spend seven years living in what they would consider luxury, rather than doing hard labor in the rural areas. Parents who receive bribe requests give money to the officials to ensure the safety of their children, but the amount they are asking - $300 - is too large for most to afford. The average monthly salary for North Koreans working in government-assigned jobs is around $4.

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Page last modified: 16-04-2022 19:23:19 ZULU