North Korean parents fear their children will serve in army’s construction detail

Soldiers who serve their country as builders face years of hard labor on smaller food rations, sources say.
By Chang Gyu Ahn for RFA Korean
2022.08.31
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North Korean parents fear their children will serve in army’s construction detail "Soldier-builders" work on a construction site in central Pyongyang, October 11, 2015.
Reuters

As another armed forces recruitment period in North Korea approaches, parents hope their military-age children do not get assigned to construction units where they would face years of hard labor but fewer benefits compared to other soldiers.

While the concern is an annual worry for North Korean parents, their fears may be especially acute this year as the country already suffers from a shortage of food and other supplies. Construction unit soldiers could be especially vulnerable as North Korea struggles under international sanctions and trade restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every able-bodied citizen must serve in the North Korean military. Until recently soldiers spent 10 years in the service, but since 2020, men serve eight years and women five as part of a fighting force estimated by the CIA World Factbook to be 1.15 million strong. Eligible youths sign up for the military in recruitment drives held in April and September.

Much of a soldier’s tour of duty has little to do with preparing to fight — instead the government uses the available manpower as free labor for things like farm work, road maintenance and construction.

“The fall recruitment for the military has begun nationwide,” a resident of Unhung county in the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “Many parents are concerned that their children will go to the construction unit.”

Soldiers sent to general construction units are sent to state projects like a massive home-building effort in Pyongyang, or to build power plants, greenhouses and roads. They may be assigned to repair damage from natural disasters like floods.

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North Korean soldiers walk to a construction site on the bank of the Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, October 16, 2006. Credit: Reuters

Construction units are still, at least on paper, units in the Korean People’s Army. But soldiers hope to avoid the assignments because it typically means doing hard labor for their entire service. They are also a lower priority when it comes to doling out food and supplies, according to the source. 

“Powerful and wealthy people use bribes and connections to send their children to comfortable, well-regarded units. Parents who don’t have anything can do nothing about it,” the source said. “I can't help but be worried to hear from the soldiers I meet from time to time that their supplies have become even more pathetic than before.” 

Supplies are tight because North Korea at the beginning of the pandemic closed the border with China and suspended all trade. The trade ban has been on and off again in 2022, and supplies have continued to dwindle.

“The authorities are taking away precious youth of the young men and women who serve in the military, but they are not interested in improving their lifestyle and treatment,” the source said. “Parents who send their children to the military would not worry as they do now if their living conditions would improve, and they get adequate food, clothing and daily necessities.”

Sometimes even after completing their service, the country extracts more duty out of soldiers, ordering them to continue toil in coal mines and farms, according to the source.

“I really don't like the way soldiers who have finished their military service are not sent back to their hometowns,” the source said. “All parents long for their children to return to their hometowns after eight years of hard work in the military away from home.”

The gates in front of the Military Mobilization Office in each district of the city of Chongjin in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong were crowded for the fall recruitment period, a resident there told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely. 

“The spring recruitment period is in April and the fall recruitment is in September every year. These days, messages are sent out on loudspeakers and propaganda cars that come and go on the streets. They encourage young people to join the military by saying, ‘Securing the homeland is the greatest patriotism and military service is the sacred duty of young people,’” the second source said.

“Each district hospital has been conducting physical examinations for those on the military enlistment list. Young people who have passed the physical examinations will gather at the provincial Military Mobilization Office in an organized order after completing an interview at the Military Mobilization Office in their district,” the second source said.

Once at the provincial Military Mobilization Office, the prospective soldiers will undergo more physical organizations, tests and interviews over the next 10 days. They will then be assigned to a unit and go to basic training, according to the second source.

“The second recruitment in the fall includes those who were not on the first recruitment list due to college admissions recommendations, those who failed the college entrance exams, failed to pass the physical exam from the previous recruitment period, and those who entered society for work due to family circumstances,” the second source said. 

“As mandatory military service has been reduced from 10 years to eight years, it seems like more women are subject to be recruited in order to make up for the shortage of troops,” the second source said. 

Even with two recruitment periods each year, there are those who would attempt to get out of military service by falsifying health records or family tragedies.

“Controls for draft evaders is being strengthened. Military mobilization officers are conducting field investigations by visiting workplaces and the neighborhood watch units of young people who have been exempted due to their health and family circumstances.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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