North Korea's Wealthy Families 'Buy' Their Children Back From Army

nk-kpa-soldiers-march-2013.jpg This picture, taken by the Korean Central News Agency on March 20, 2013, shows Korean People's Army soldiers at an undisclosed location in North Korea.

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, sources say.

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.  

“This is a policy recently enacted by the army’s central command. You can’t avoid recruitment even if you are a girl or the child of a top executive,” a source in the isolated, one-party state’s North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service.

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, RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“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,” he said.

Even for those forced into the military after graduation, family money paid to their assigned units guarantees a quick return home on extended “medical leave.”

“The sons and daughters of wealthy families only have to wait out their six-month period of basic training and then offer money to be allowed to go home,” he said. “These families will spend up to U.S. $500 in foreign currency each month to help their children avoid service.”

Dangerous posts

Meanwhile, military conscripts from less well-off families are frequently assigned to dangerous posts at nuclear-weapons installations or to construction brigades after they finish their basic training, a source in South Hamgyong province said.

“Though officially in uniform, these soldiers have in reality been put into forced labor,” the source said.

Soldiers mobilized to work in the capital Pyongyang, at the Huicheon hydroelectric power station, or at racetracks are being pushed into construction work “with only corn kernels for their meals and not enough time for rest,” he said.

“It’s common at visitors’ centers to see families weeping miserably on seeing their children suffering from malnutrition and weakness,” he said, adding that soldiers’ parents will frequently argue with escorting officers because they do not want to see their children sent back.

Families of lower-class background are unable to take their sons or daughters out of the army, though, even if their children may die during their military service, he said.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jackie Yoo. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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