Today is the second part of our interview with Kim Hun, who has had decades of military experience in North Korea and is with us to offer his testimony on human rights abuses inside the country.
At what age do people usually enter the military in North Korea?
When North Koreans graduate middle school (the American equivalent of a combined middle and high school), they are around 17 or 18. Immediately after graduation, they are enlisted. I entered when I was 18 and was discharged when I was 45. I served as an officer for 25 years. Normal soldiers serve a mandatory 10 years if they are male and 6 years if they are female.
What kind of education and training do new recruits receive?
North Korean soldiers – whether Air Force, Army, or Navy – all receive the same education. Military training takes up about 40% of the time, and the remaining 60% is spent on Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist ideology. This education basically aims to turn North Korean soldiers into loyal bullets and bombs for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. They really step up the ideological training.
What does the ideological education consist of?
We’re taught to obey only Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un; whatever they order must be done, no matter how dangerous. We’re taught to have a sacrificial mentality in the service of the Kim family. They stress that Kim Il Sung founded the nation and Kim Jong Un succeeded him and developed the country. They are responsible for our happiness, we are told. Without them we are nothing, so we are taught to obey their every command and protect the regime. We are brainwashed into thinking that by doing so, we are giving hope to the succeeding generations. So the soldiers learn to think that their lives are worth giving up in order to protect the Suryong [Supreme Leader].
When I served in the army, protecting the leader was regarded as a sacred task. North Korea is a totally isolated country, and we really were successfully brainwashed. However, after going outside the country and seeing the truth, I realized that the demands that the authorities make of North Korean soldiers are not unlike suicidal missions. I’ve heard stories of children in the Middle East who are trained to blow themselves up in the middle of the street or near an enemy tank. They are told that the attack is carried out in the name of Allah. Similarly, in North Korea, we are told that we must give up our lives for Kim Il Sung.
17-year-olds are quite impressionable and just starting to form their values and opinions of the world. Does the brainwashing have a significant effect on them?
Absolutely. North Korean soldiers are virtually incapable of real logic and they know very little about the world. Even when they leave the service, they are programmed with the brainwashing they received for so many years in the service. When someone receives the same education for 10 years in a row, it is hard for them to develop a critical mind. They can’t even imagine the existence of an outside world. That’s why North Koreans say that discharged soldiers go through a “3-Year Stone Age” when they are released. Their heads become hardened like rocks and they have difficulty adapting to civilian life. Also, in terms of their physical state, discharged soldiers are extremely weak due to 10 years of grueling training and malnutrition. They are trained to think of themselves not as individuals, but as tools for the North Korean authorities.
Through the regime’s implementation of Songun [military-first policy], the military is used to support and maintain the regime. Some have said that the military gets preferential access to the public distribution system because of this. So does this mean that the military are a bit better fed than ordinary people?
In ordinary North Korean society, people use vegetable gardens on their private plots to provide themselves with food. But the army requires soldiers to train constantly, so there is no time to engage in farming. However, there is some down time. So some companies or platoons manage their own little gardens and some soldiers use their free time to cooperate with others and plant crops like squash and oriental melon.
But the food provided through the public distribution system is meager, consisting of only corn or potatoes, and they are forced to try and get by on it. I think that overall, soldiers were previously eating a similar amount to most ordinary people. But these days, ordinary people might be eating better than soldiers. Civilians are able to sell in the market to make money, but soldiers aren’t allowed to earn a living this way.
How much food is provided through the public distribution system to soldiers?
North Korea has a system called noruma, which is used to divvy up the distribution among the soldiers. Noruma is a classification system for determining how much food goes to which units. For example, number 1 goes to ordinary soldiers, number 8 goes to submarine sailors, and so forth. However, right now, the food distributions are not reaching the allotments specified by noruma. According to noruma, each meal should be 200 grams, but soldiers are only getting about 140 grams per meal.
From June to August, the authorities don’t even guarantee that amount, so the soldiers are left to fend for themselves. In June, the potato harvest comes in, so soldiers eat potatoes three meals a day. In August, the soldiers eat green corn three meals a day. We once went to visit my son in August when he was serving in the army. We brought him some steamed corn from the market, but he said he couldn’t eat it because he was so sick of it.
How do soldiers compensate for the nutritional deficiencies in the public distribution system?
There are cooperative farms in normal society. At these places, there are military provisions that we can go and collect. Farmers save a portion of their rice when they collect the harvest. First, the military provisions are sorted out, and then a portion is stored for emergency wartime scenarios. This leaves very little left over for the farmers themselves.
However, not much rice ends up in the mouths of ordinary soldiers. That’s why soldiers are forced to go out into normal society and steal food. It’s no exaggeration to say that North Korean soldiers learn nothing but theft during their time in the service. One sign of malnutrition is sleep sensitivity. If the person next to you is sucking on a piece of candy, you stay awake all night listening intently. I asked my son this very question, and that was his response: he learned how to steal. Those with a conscience who refuse to steal end up starving to death.
Did many soldiers die of malnutrition?
Yes, quite a lot. Every troop has a squad that deals with the malnutrition issue. They are called the “Supplement Squad.” It sounds like a good name, right? Malnutrition has many stages. Those who reach the second stage are sent to this squad. If you reach the third stage, chances are high that you will pass away. Sometimes soldiers will donate their leftover food to this squad, but the total amount is not a lot. If you can’t make it in this squad, they discharge you so you can go out into society to die.
What about amenities like heating?
Wooden stoves were the only form of heat we had. During October and November we prepared the firewood. We went into the mountains to collect wood and grass roots to prepare for winter. However, it’s not very good to have a stove in the room because it produces a lot of smoke. The soot and ash goes in the air and is inhaled by the soldiers, causing health problems in the lungs. A lot of soldiers end up getting sick this way.
How about clothing?
We were provided with summer clothes once every two years. Winter clothes were given once every three years. Winter shoes came in once every two years and summer shoes came in once a year. The insides of the winter boots are stuffed with cotton and produced rather shabbily, so after you wear them a couple times, the cotton starts to come out. Then it hurts every time you wear them.
Soldiers are ordered to participate in frequent drills and training. That being the case, it seems like it might be easy to get injured. When that happens, what kind of treatment is available?
Every corps has its own hospital. Every hospital is numbered for ease of identification. Every division and regiment has a facility called a military treatment center. But these centers do not have any medicine. And when they do have medicine, they charge you for it. They usually have iodine and a form of red-colored disinfectant. But calling this medicine might not be accurate – it’s more like rubbing alcohol. So soldiers usually buy medicine from merchants, or they use a traditional remedy. For instance, people who get bronchitis sometimes brew a herbal tea from tree leaves.
Is there any compensation for those who are injured or die during service?
No, there is not. All they do is issue you with a certificate. My family also experienced that. We have a fallen service member in our family, but we did not receive any compensation. The certificate says that the soldier fell in the line of duty out of loyalty to the Suryeong. But the certificate is really worthless. You can’t even use it to get more rice. It’s just a simple keepsake telling the parents that their son or daughter committed ten years of their life to the party and the Suryong.
People must change quite a bit over the course of their 10-year service period. We’ve also heard that people in North Korea say that people come back from the military damaged. Is that true?
People change and develop over time just like society does. But the North Korean army sends young people on a meaningless path. Model students are turned into thieves when they spend time in the military. Each soldier’s body weight and physique does not change much over the course of the service period.
The most significant change is the soldier’s personality. Gentle people are turned into violent thugs. Being a soldier teaches you theft and malice. That’s what they are like when they are discharged into society, so there are a lot of complaints about soldiers from ordinary residents – reports of soldiers beating fellow passengers on a train or violently harassing merchants in the market. These discharged soldiers are called “Honorable Soldiers,” and most people try to avoid them. Some merchants even pack up their things and leave if they see a soldier approaching.
Do you have any messages that you want to send to the North Korean authorities who are responsible for the army?
The rest of the world respects the concepts of human rights and freedom. This means that people are born with inherent rights. Only North Korea treats its own people like animals. But it will not be this way forever. The day will come when the authorities will be forced to respect the rights of the people. The people will become aware, and the authorities should keep this in mind. Only by respecting human rights will there be a future for us all.