Authorities in North Korea have stepped up checks for army deserters as hunger and cold drive soldiers to drop out of the ranks, according to sources in the hard-line communist state.
Military police and State Security Department authorities have been combing train stations, markets, and other public places this month for deserting soldiers, a source in North Hamygong province told RFA’s Korean Service.
“The main train stations in North Hamgyong province including Cheongjin Station, Gilju Station, and Gimchaek Station are crowded with military policemen” looking for runaway soldiers, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“State Security Department authorities are checking people who look suspicious at the markets in Gimchaek city and Cheongjin,” the source said, adding that the officials were often in plainclothes disguise.
The stepped-up patrols began Jan. 18 following a rise in desertions from the army during the cold winter months, according to the source.
The million-strong Korean People’s Army, which drafts males from age 17, is granted a primary position in North Korea’s political and social hierarchy under the country’s “military-first” policy, known as “songun.”
But amid the impoverished country’s chronic food shortages, low-ranking enlisted men go hungry, and suffer harsh cold during the winter, sources said.
Low-ranking soldiers receive mostly corn, instead of prized rice, in their rations, and often have only corn to eat when higher-ranking officers take their rice, another source in North Hamgyong province said.
Military police officers, on the other hand, receive rations with equal proportions of rice and corn, he added.
During the winter, soldiers also suffer from cold due to a shortage of firewood, another source in the province said.
“The sickrooms for the soldiers are as cold as the outside because of the lack of firewood. And moreover there is nothing to eat, so soldiers would rather desert from the armies than go hungry,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Soldiers have a greater incentive to desert the army during the winter, when many trains stop running, other sources said.
Since authorities won’t be able to transport deserters back to their assignments until the trains start running again, deserters run away in the winter hoping to rest until spring, they said.
North Korea, which relies on international food aid to feed its population of 24 million, has by far the world’s largest military in per capita terms, with around one in every 25 citizens enlisted in the military.
Although North Korea had its lowest staple food deficit in years last year, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the pariah state still faces widespread malnutrition, and sources say it struggles to feed even its soldiers.
Economically isolated North Korea’s food situation is unlikely to improve while Pyongyang threatens further nuclear tests, drawing strong criticism from the international community.
Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to retaliate against U.N. sanctions by preparing the country’s third nuclear test that was “aimed at the United States.”
New satellite images of ongoing activity at North Korea’s atomic test site suggest the facility would be ready to conduct the test “in a few weeks or less,” according to the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
On Monday, the U.S.’s top envoy on North Korea dismissed hopes for an immediate diplomatic solution to the expected nuclear test, saying that Pyongyang was “bent on playing a game of risk.”
Sources in North Korea have reported authorities turning to drastic measures to feed the country’s soldiers.
Earlier this winter, sources said authorities had launched a “patriotic rice” campaign to feed soldiers and construction workers, asking farmers and would-be members of the ruling Workers’ Party to donate rice to the state.
The campaign followed an effort launched in February 2011 to combat malnutrition among soldiers by encouraging them to raise their own livestock and grow enough food to feed themselves.
Reported by Sung Hui Moon. Translated by Ju Hyeon Park. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.