Soldiers in North Korea, who have traditionally been denied vacations, are increasingly being given leave by their superiors in exchange for cash “donations” and other goods, sources inside the country said, adding that the practice is leaving the families of troops bankrupt.
“These days the number of soldiers returning home on vacation has noticeably increased,” one source from North Hamgyong province, along the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity.
“If they want to take special leave, however, they have to first prove that they are able to collect their allotted goods and items from their homes for donation to their units,” said the source.
In the past, military units would only grant leave to soldiers who could “collect window panes and paint, in addition to a goat, 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of rice, and car parts” in order to “make up for their unit’s deficiencies,” he said.
Only soldiers whose parents are ranking officials from the ruling Workers’ Party or wealthy were able to procure such goods, allowing them to lead a largely civilian life at home—much to the chagrin of the public.
But the sources told RFA that as North Korea has settled into winter, when weather severely hampers transportation, the type of goods they exchange for leave has shifted to cash for the sake of convenience.
A second source from North Hamgyong told RFA that soldiers, who often lack acceptable daily rations, view leave as a chance to receive much-needed nutrition from home, while their families are willing to make sacrifices to see their missed loved ones.
“Vacation means nutritional supplements for the soldier taking vacation [and because] a one-time vacation currently costs at least 500,000 North Korean won (U.S. $4,167, official rate; U.S. $61 black market rate), parents longing to see their children are suffering financially,” said the source, who also declined to be named.
“Frequent vacations by soldiers these days testify to the dire food situation in military units. Those who take leave only one month after their latest vacation are the envy of other less fortunate soldiers,” he said.
As soldiers with less affluent parents routinely ask for money to take leave, their families suffer the burden of securing the funds, the sources said.
“In North Korean military units, there is now an unwritten rule that ‘taking leave requires money,’” they said.
“Emotional friction between those soldiers who can take vacation and those who can’t is deepening and the collective morale of the military has been seriously affected.”
In 2013, sources told RFA that the children of North Korea’s privileged class were shirking their military duties in exchange for bribes, while officials looked the other way.
They said those who hope to join the exclusive Workers’ Party must first serve in the North Korean People’s Army, but, for a price, can get away with special treatment or are given cushy positions after donning fatigues.
Young men in nuclear-armed North Korea are required to join the country’s military and serve for a minimum of 13 years after graduating from high school. Young women who live in the capital Pyongyang had to serve for two years after graduating, and those outside the city five years in the past, but since 2014 all young women must serve for seven years.
But the regime under leader Kim Jong Un has faced severe food shortages exacerbated by international sanctions levied over recent rocket and nuclear tests, and feeding the impoverished nation’s estimated 1.2 million-member army has not been easy.
Lack of resource support coupled with grueling work assignments for members of the military has led the majority of influential families to seek a way out of service for their children, largely through bribery.
Sources have said that the sons and daughters of those who can afford to pay are either passed over by the military or, if they serve, are given lengthy furloughs from duty or discharged from service early.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Changsop Pyon. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.