A source told Daily NK on Monday that North Korea’s First Corps has been hit so badly by malnutrition, desertions, and quarantines related to COVID-19 that only half of its personnel is able to take part in this year’s winter training (December-March).

Rumor has it that the corps’ staff officers as well as the General Staff Department were dumbstruck when this unprecedentedly bad conclusion was deduced during a recent internal count carried out in preparation of the training.

According to the source, who is based in Gangwon Province, the General Staff Department’s Ninth Operations Training Department – the section that handles training execution and evaluations – ordered North Korea’s entire military on Nov. 24 to report per-unit statistics on how many personnel will actually take part in training versus the unit’s total formation strength.

In North Korea, all personnel mobilized for outside activities, training, side jobs, construction and other projects must return to their units by the end of November. Even if there are unavoidable circumstances such as deployment to national construction projects, personnel must take part in two weeks of the first month of training (December).

Naturally, the First Corps carried out its own tally. The staff department of First Corps, Second Division in Kumgang County, Gangwon Province, issued a final report that only 65% of its total formation strength will take actual part in the training.

For example, of the 100 personnel of one company, six were hospitalized with contagious tuberculosis, pleuritis or hepatitis, six needed continuous treatment for malnutrition at division infirmaries, four had deserted, and nine were at corps-operated special quarantine facilities or local quarantine facilities run by military health officials due to unusual symptoms or respiratory distress.

North Korean soldiers in Sakju County, North Pyongan Province enlistees biological wafare
North Korean soldiers in Sakju County, North Pyongan Province. / Image: Daily NK

This means the company reported to their superiors that as much as 35% of its troop strength was expected to be on leave due to suspected COVID-19 symptoms or malnutrition.

“Within the military, the numbers of troops per unit  participating in the training reminds people of the Arduous March [the period of mass hunger om the mid-to-late 1990s],” the source said. 

“As this is the first time during the training personnel requisition process that so many soldiers are missing, the Training Department is also embarrassed,” another source in the country told Daily NK. “There is even concern about how the remaining soldiers are going to maintain their weapons and equipment due to insufficient formation strength.”  

Accordingly, military officers are scrambling at First Corps command. The General Staff Department has also informed each service that it would evaluate the combat readiness of each unit based foremost on the percentage of its total formation strength that actually takes part in the winter training.

As part of this process to increase the numbers of participants, the authorities focused on malnutrition patients. Orders were given to discharge soldiers from hospitals who are suffering from “no particular illness.” In fact, there have been a string of instances of soldiers rejoining their units straight out of sickbed, the source said. 

Another order was issued to ensure “a participation rate of 90% of more” in the training. The military appears to have judged that it could not realistically drag in soldiers who have been quarantined with COVID-19 symptoms, including fevers or coughs.

Naturally, plans are also afoot to catch deserters. Parents and local party committees have been warned that soldiers who do not return to their units by Dec. 10 will be “dealt with as deserters in accordance with military law.”

The military has essentially threatened that it would apply tough military law on soldiers who not only desert, but also those who have failed to return to their posts, according to the source. 

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.
Read in Korean
Jeong Tae Joo is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. He focuses on North Korean military matters. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.