North Korean young people ordered to serve 3 years in military’s manual service corps

As so-called 'stormtroopers' they will provide labor for mining, construction work, and other government projects.
By Myung Chul Lee for RFA Korean
2023.02.02
North Korean young people ordered to serve 3 years in military’s manual service corps North Korean soldiers scoop up coal on the river bank of the North Korean town of Sinuiju, across from Dandong, China.
AP file photo

North Korea is ordering young men and women not presently in the military, including those granted exemptions or deferrals from mandatory service, to serve for three years as stormtroopers – a glorified name for military manual laborers, sources in the country told Radio Free Asia.

After completing high school, every able-bodied man must serve seven years in the 1.3-million-strong military, and every woman five. College-bound men and women can get deferrals until after they graduate, and people deemed unfit for service due to disease or disability are given exemptions.

But lately, there’s been a manpower shortage to complete ambitious construction projects in the capital Pyongyang, harvest the coal mines or maintain rural roads. So authorities ordered everyone currently not enlisted between 19 and 30 to be a “stormtrooper” for the next three years.

Among those to be affected by the order are young men and women who went straight to factories out of high school, a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Like prison camp

Young people say that the experience is like laboring in a prison camp, the source said.

“Life as a stormtrooper is the most difficult, as they suffer doing hard labor under strict discipline,” the source said. ”The youth are more reluctant to join the stormtroopers than any other position in the military … [they] fear this stormtrooper compulsory service system because it applies to everyone, regardless of if they’ve been previously excluded or exempted from the service.” 

In some cases, former soldiers who completed their mandatory service will be made to do a three-year stint as a stormtrooper, the source said.

“Those who have completed their military service but have not yet joined the Workers’ Party must complete three additional years of service as a stormtrooper to be eligible to join the party,” said the source.

Membership perks

Membership in the ruling Korean Workers’ Party has many benefits including preference for jobs, better food rations and more housing options. It used to be almost automatic for every man who completed his mandatory service time, which used to be 10 years. 

RFA’s Korean Service estimates that about 25% of the North Korean population are members, but according to a March 2021 RFA report, supreme leader Kim Jong Un ordered changes in new member policy, awarding fewer memberships each year and decreasing the proportion of new memberships coming from the military from 90% to 70%, angering many of the soldiers nearing the end of their service time.

Now many of the former soldiers are griping again. Even though they finished their seven years, they must do an additional three as stormtroopers because they were not selected as party members.

Parents think it is absurd that their military exempt or deferred sons and daughters have to join the stormtroopers, a resident in the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

The stormtrooper enlistment order does not apply to married women, the second source said. “More and more parents are rushing to get their young daughters married so they can avoid stormtrooper duty.”

Another way to get out of duty is by bribing the local officials in charge of staffing the groups of stormtroopers, according to the second source.

“The officials will take them off the stormtrooper selection list in exchange for a bribe of 300,000 won [U.S.$37.50] per month,” the second source said. “Young people with a lot of money can still drop off the roster or delay their selection … but the children of ordinary folks who have no money or power have no choice but to suffer doing hard labor.” 

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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