A North Korean soldier sits on a bank of the Yalu River just north of Sinuiju, North Korea, on April 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Damir Sagolj
A North Korean soldier sits on a bank of the Yalu River just north of Sinuiju, North Korea, on April 2, 2017. Photo: Agencies

It’s probably no coincidence that North Korea’s test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Tuesday came just as the country’s military was reported to have begun investigating soldiers’ “nutritional status.”

After all, if the “human bullets” who have vowed to protect the leader are getting so few calories it affects their readiness to fight, it makes sense to distract enemies from that sign of national weakness and focus on a new and shiny, non-human projectile that will give the enemies something to worry about.

Seoul-based Daily NK reported that it had learned from “a source in the North Korean military” that leader Kim Jong Un “issued an order on October 9 calling for improvements in ‘logistics and soldiers’ health’ during October and November.” This is the period when the military is preparing for the winter months and for winter training.

The General Political Bureau and Ministry of Defense in response to Kim’s order are investigating not only wintertime food supplies for the Korean People’s Army (KPA), but also “the state of ‘frailty’ among soldiers due to malnutrition,” the specialty news organization said. 

In May, Kim ordered the “establishment of convalescent hospitals to treat soldiers suffering from malnutrition,” Daily NK said, following reports of “significant numbers of soldiers missing training due to serious malnutrition issues.”

While politicians and the public in South Korea and the United States may be distracted by the drumbeat of weapons tests, intelligence analysts are aware of Pyongyang’s problem of nutrition-challenged soldiers. Here’s a passage from a report just out this month from the US Defense Intelligence Agency:

Historically, KPA service members were afforded better rations than the general population, but this trend has declined precipitously since the mid-1990s, and most KPA conscripts now are subject to the same deprivation as the general population outside Pyongyang. Former KPA service members who have defected to the South describe malnutrition and harsh service conditions. Because of North Korea’s chronic food insecurity, military personnel are periodically diverted away from standard duties to plant or harvest crops.

Over the next few decades, the effects of the 1994-97 famine will continue to affect the population that constitutes the majority of the KPA reserve manpower pool. North Korean children born in the 1990s suffered malnutrition, which resulted in declining physical development, stunted growth, and mental underdevelopment. This trend suggests that some number of KPA conscripts in the reserves will function at lower levels of effectiveness due to mental and physical impairments.

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

Discharged – and disgruntled – service personnel are blamed for a crime wave, according to AsiaPress/Rimjin-Gang, an Osaka, Japan-based specialty North Korea news organization:

There have been many cases of discharged military personnel who were deployed to rural areas (after completing their military service this spring) committing violent incidents and robberies in urban areas, and the security authorities consider them to be an important target for special attention.

The discharged soldiers have been strongly dissatisfied because they were “forcibly assigned” to cooperative farms, the poorest of all occupations, after serving eight to 10 years in the military for the nation.

From the east-coast industrial city of Chongjin, AsiaPress reported:

In the evening, two men wearing inspection team armbands falsely accused a man of not properly wearing a mask and took him into an alley to inspect his luggage, before beating him up and stealing his bicycle, watch and rice. The inspection team is an organization dedicated to enforcing social order. It is composed of civilians.

In a separate incident, a woman working as a seafood wholesaler was attacked by a group of men on her way home from Songpyong Port and robbed of her bicycle, money and watch. Her husband, who had accompanied her just in case of danger, had his arm broken. The attackers were most likely discharged military personnel.