As North Korea’s economy struggles, disabled soldiers suffer more than most

The state calls them ‘honorable soldiers’ for their sacrifices but does not have the resources to support them.
By Chang Gyu Ahn
2022.04.12
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As North Korea’s economy struggles, disabled soldiers suffer more than most North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju inspect the Wonsan Disabled Soldiers' Bag Factory in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 25, 2018.
Reuters

North Korean soldiers who were injured during their service are now unable to depend on the state to care for them due to worsening economic conditions, sources in the country told RFA.

Officially known as “honorable soldiers,” many of the disabled rely on the government for basic support. For those who are incapable of working, a sudden drop-off in government-provided stipends and food rations can be devastating.

“Everyone is having a difficult time because the prices of goods are ridiculously expensive and business has not yet recovered,” a resident of Paegam county in the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA’s Korean Service April 6 on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“The honorable soldiers are facing a miserable situation, especially as the nation’s benefits have been reduced due to economic difficulties,” she said.

The source discussed the case of an honorable solder in her neighborhood who lost both of his legs and cannot work.

“There is no woman who wants to marry him, so he is living with his mother, who is the only person who can care for him. Since last summer, though, her health has become worse since she is getting older,” the source said.

“She normally has a vegetable business that she’s been doing for a long time, but she is no longer able, so their livelihood has been badly affected,” she said.

Honorable soldiers are classified as grade 1-3 depending on the severity of their injuries. Soldiers who have lost multiple limbs or have become paralyzed and must rely on others for basic tasks are classified as special grade. These soldiers are supposed to get support from the government for the rest of their lives, the source said.

“But I know that there is no other support except for a small amount of corn due to the poor economic situation of the country. The military provided firewood after his mother stopped her business, but now even that support has been cut off,” she said.

The daily supply of corn from the government amounts to less than 500 grams (1.1 lbs.), hardly enough to live on, the source said. Meat and cooking oils are rarely ever provided in the government support ration.

“I haven’t seen our honorable soldier in a while. His wheelchair is broken and he isn’t able to go outside,” the source said.

“If you go to the market in Hyesan, there’s a place there that sells Chinese-made wheelchairs, but they cost 200,000 to 400,000 won (U.S. $33 to $66). With no money he cannot afford to get a new one,” she said.

The source said she did not know how the soldier had lost both of his legs but many of the injuries to soldiers occur when they are assigned to construction duty. If an accident occurs, their injuries are officially recorded as having occurred while the soldier was on a military mission.

The soldiers are often reluctant to reveal how they were injured, except to their closest family members, according to the source.

Living conditions for honorable soldiers in the northwestern province of North Hamgyong is “appalling,” a resident of the province’s Orang county told RFA.

“The honorable soldiers in Pyongyang and other large cities work at  ‘Honorable Soldier Factories’ which operate at full capacity because they are important to the country, but out here in the small-town rural areas the factories for them aren’t running,” he said.

“In our county, we have more than 70 honorable soldiers with relatively minor disabilities. Most of them work at the honorable soldier fishing gear factory, but it has been a long time since they shut down due to a lack of electricity and raw materials,” the second source said.

The source said that when the factories shut down, the able-bodied were able to support themselves through other means.

“The ordinary residents can survive by going out to sea to fish or going to the mountains to collect firewood to sell, but the honorable soldiers cannot do those things because they can’t move around freely. The lives of the honorable soldiers are far more miserable than those of the able-bodied,” he said.

“Even now, the number of honorable soldiers continues to increase. They either have an injured limb or they lost an eye, or things like that. The authorities say that those soldiers are the precious treasures of the country and that they should be taken care of, but there’s no actual support.”

Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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