Unity's hard when you don't have enough to eat. North Korean propaganda poster depicts workers and soldiers with a slogan about prosperous socialism, Pyongan Province, North Korea. Photo: AFP / Eric Lafforgue / Hans Lucas

Kim Jong Un’s deemphasis of the military at a time of widespread food shortages has left many serving and recently discharged soldiers hungry enough to turn angry and violent, judging from recent reporting by news organizations that have sources inside North Korea.

Members of North Korea’s military have been “robbing citizens on the streets to secure materials needed to celebrate the signing of the July 27, 1953, armistice agreement that ended Korean War hostilities,” Radio Free Asia quotes its sources in the country as saying.

North Korea designates the anniversary of the agreement as a national holiday called the “Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War,” the US government-funded news agency notes – “even though the war ended in what is widely considered to be a stalemate.”

A group of North Korean soldiers on a freight train. Photo: AFP / Jian Luo / Hans Lucas

Its article continues:

The country’s cash-strapped government has in recent years struggled to adequately supply the military with even food and basic necessities, often leaving individual units to fend for themselves.

Over the past few years, incidents of the military “commandeering” supplies from civilians or forcing them to “donate” them have been common. But as economic conditions worsen under international nuclear sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, soldiers are now increasingly shaking down people who dare to walk the streets alone.

The terrified citizens are now referring to the roving bands of soldiers looking to take their belongings as “bandits.”

“Robbery and assault ahead of the 7.27 Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War by soldiers here in Pyongsan county just crosses the line,” a resident of North Hwanghae province, south of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service July 21.

“When residents see soldiers even from a distance on the street, they feel afraid and go out of their way to avoid them,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Items frequently stolen from citizens include cigarettes, cash, food, and other things that the government would normally supply them, according to the source.

“Last week a resident of Pyongsan county was walking down a quiet road when three soldiers popped up and threatened him, demanding all his belongings,” the source said.

“One of the soldiers said, ‘The Day of Victory in the war is coming soon, so shouldn’t we have something for the holiday?’ and the other two soldiers forcibly took the resident’s backpack and ran away,” said the source.

“It’s not like this never happened before, but these days it occurs all too often.… Residents criticize the government authorities, saying ‘If the state provided enough food for soldiers, they wouldn’t do this, but the state doesn’t support the military,’” the source said.

A military source in the northeastern city of Chongjin in North Hamgyong province confirmed to RFA the same day that soldiers there were also mugging citizens.

“There have been five robbery incidents this month alone by soldiers of a military unit in Panjuk-dong, so public opinion toward the soldiers has greatly worsened,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely….

According to the second source, the military conducts education sessions for soldiers to prevent crimes from happening, but taking things from the people technically does not violate any rules. “As long as it is not murder, it’s common for stealing from the residents to go on without investigation or punishment within the military justice system.”

Two North Korean soldiers wait to cross a junction. Photo: AFP / Jian Luo / Hans Lucas

Sometimes it is murder, as another news outlet, DailyNK, has reported:

Two soldiers with a military engineering unit in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, have fled after murdering two locals last month, Daily NK has learned. Their unit has been tasked with constructing concrete walls and high voltage wires along the North Korea-China border.

A source in the province told Daily NK on Friday that North Korean authorities have put out wanted notices for the soldiers, who allegedly killed the two people when they were caught stealing food in a residential area. 

According to the source, soldiers with the military engineering construction unit in Hoeryong are suffering from extreme hunger and frequently leave construction sites to steal food from residential areas. 

In mid-June, the two soldiers in question raided a kindergarten in a residential area under the cover of darkness. While trying to steal food from its storage room and cafeteria, they were discovered by a kindergarten teacher standing guard and her mother. The mother was there to help her daughter, who had been tasked with guarding the facility alone. The soldiers proceeded to “mercilessly” stab the pair to death.

“After the two soldiers committed the murders, they cleaned out all the food and disappeared, and they haven’t been caught yet,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

North Korean propaganda poster depicting a miner, Pyongan Province, North Korea. Photo: AFP / Eric Lafforgue / Hans Lucas

Even more hopeless than the average serving soldier may be the legions of soldiers who have been mustered out recently and dispatched to take on for the rest of their working lives civilian jobs that are categorized among the most undesirable in the country: farmer, construction worker and miner. As a third news organization, AsiaPress/Rimjingang, reports:

This spring, soldiers who were discharged from the People’s Army and subsequently deployed to rural areas have been causing problems across the country. Discharged soldiers have been behind violence, theft, and other acts that have broken local order. Indeed, these incidents have become so frequent that the police cannot respond in any meaningful way. In mid-July, Mr Kim (pseudonym), a reporting partner living in North Hamkyung Province, investigated a cooperative farm to learn more.

When Mr Kim visited Cooperative Farm “A,” an old acquaintance of his told him the following: The main problem is the issue of women. Those who have been discharged from the military are in their mid-to-late twenties and have just finished eight years of military service. Therefore, they follow women around without coming to work, trying to find a marriage partner, and have constant disputes with the women’s families. The report continued:

“When they fight, they beat others until they bleed. Also, they swear at the women on the farm. At the beginning of July, one of them drank alcohol and beat up the group leader, and was questioned by the police. However, even the police were having trouble controlling them. A farmer lamented that it was as if a group of bandits had arrived.” …

After the Workers’ Party Congress held in January, the Kim Jong-un regime took the decision to drastically reduce the number of military personnel. The period of military service was shortened from 13 years to 8 years for men and from 8 years to 5 years for women, and soldiers who had reached maturity were to be discharged as of 2020.

The main purpose of this was to redirect the workforce to key industries that were severely understaffed. Discharged military personnel were mainly deployed in rural areas, mines, coal mines, and construction sites for national projects….

“There were complaints from those who were to be discharged from the military, saying, ‘You mean I have to spend the rest of my life with a stag beetle, a pickaxe, and a shovel?’” said another reporting partner.

In North Korean society, farmers are positioned at the lowest level. In addition to being poor, they have almost no chance of being allowed to move to cities or change jobs, even if they want to. Their children and grandchildren will have to work as farm laborers. It is the worst possible placement for a young person.

In North Korea, it has been said that. “If you join the military, your head will turn to stone in three years,” meaning that even if you are discharged and return to society, you will be useless. Nevertheless, most discharged soldiers live diligently for a year as candidate party members in order to be given preferential treatment upon joining the … party. However, at the Workers’ Party Congress held in January 2021, the rules were changed and the procedure for joining the party became stricter.

The AsiaPress article offers much detail. Read it in full here.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.