Tired of Nonstop Work, Some North Korean Soldiers Look for a Way Out

2016-05-27
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This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) inspecting tree nursery No. 122 of the Korean People's Army at an undisclosed location, May 15, 2016.
This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) inspecting tree nursery No. 122 of the Korean People's Army at an undisclosed location, May 15, 2016.
KCNA VIA KNS/AFP

Morale in the North Korean military is plummeting as a series of non-stop deployments have some soldiers thinking that taking a dishonorable discharge and being drummed out of the ruling party is better than staying in the army, sources in the country tell RFA.

After their time is up, North Korean soldiers are usually sent home in the spring and summer, but this year Pyongyang extended service for the Seventh Party Congress in early May. Some soldiers were also ordered to go to work on two megaprojects, the Tanchon hydroelectric power station and the Sepo tableland project, a military source told RFA’s Korean Service.

Military service is mandatory in North Korea, with its male soldiers serving for 13 years and women serving for seven. The country remains in a technical state of war with South Korea, because the war North Korea launched with its invasion of the South in June 1950 ended in 1953 with an armed truce, short of a peace treaty.

“Soldiers who leave the military usually return to their home in March, May or July when the military service enrollment expires,” an official from Yanggang Province Military Mobilization Division told RFA. “But the authorities did not allow the soldiers to leave the military in March or May, citing the preparation and convening of the Seventh Party Congress.”

It’s unclear when the soldiers will be discharged, as North Korean leaders have only announced a tentative date for the middle of June for some of the soldiers, and they have not issued a list of the soldiers who will be discharged, the source told RFA.

“The North Korean People’s Army General Service Department only notified the tentative time for the discharge but did not send any list of the soldiers leaving the military as usual,” the source said.

The lack of an announcement usually means that soldiers due to be released will be sent on a “mass deployment” to work as laborers on state projects. In this case, the places mentioned where soldiers are likely to go are the Tanchon Power Station and Sepo tableland project.

With the Sepo tableland project, North Korea is attempting to turn tens of thousands of hectares of windswept plateau in Kangwon province into a large-scale livestock breeding enterprise. State media sometimes mentions how Korean People’s Army service members and officers are contributing to the project.

Less is known about the Tanchon power station. Tanchon is a mining center in northeastern South Hamgyong province.

A North Hamgyong province border garrison soldier told RFA that some soldiers are starting to wonder if they would be better off taking a dishonorable discharge than going on the “mass deployment.”

“A very strange phenomenon happens: The soldiers in the garrison are envious of the soldiers who committed crimes and thus were expelled from the Workers’ Party with a ‘dishonorable discharge,’” the soldier said.

In North Korea, the dishonorable discharge is used as a way to discharge soldiers who have  been determined unsuitable for military service. Soldiers dishonorably discharged from the military are automatically expelled from the Workers’ Party, which permanently deprives them of the right to be a party official, the source explained.

While that makes the future difficult for the dishonorably discharged soldiers, the source claims they are much better off than those suffering from compulsory labor under the mass deployments because dishonorably discharged soldiers can at least go home and earn money through doing business in local markets. Some make quick cash by aiding smugglers who move goods over the North’s border with China.

“The border garrison soldiers are these days saying to one another: ‘Let’s make money by helping with the illegal traffic, and then go back home with a dishonorable discharge,” the soldier said.

Reported by Sunghui Moon for RFA’s Korea Service. Translated by Dohyun Gwon. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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