The North Korean military recently began putting a series of measures in place that have reduced the length of required service but have increased requirements for soldiers to gain entry into the Workers’ Party of Korea. The new policies have resulted in a surge in incidences of soldiers deserting their posts.

According to a source in North Korea, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un handed down an order as the commander-in-chief of the North Korean armed forces to “comprehensively analyze desertions by unit” and put in place a plan to construct a “regular daily report system over the course of a year.”

A military source told Daily NK on Apr. 20 that the General Political Bureau had received a briefing on the comprehensive military desertion management system and had established rules to generate comprehensive statistics on the matter in accordance with Kim Jong Un’s instructions.

Kim also sent down strong guidelines for “dedicating the year 2021 to reducing desertions” to the entire military. With a broad goal to reduce desertions to zero, the authorities plan to use desertions as a measure of how well the party organization is in control over each unit.

Efforts to put these measures into place began after North Korean law enforcement agencies reported the fact that most soldiers arrested from January to March were either absent without leave (AWOL) or had deserted their posts. In the future, it appears that the authorities will use this issue to measure the loyalty of military units.

Kim also directly addressed the issue of returning deserters to their posts. Kim gave instructions that “[we] should bring them back in the same spirit as finding a child that left the house” and specified that “there should be no punishment whatsoever.”

anti-socialist punishment
North Korean soldiers / Image: KCNA

The source said that the General Political Bureau’s Organization Department emphasized that “all [the deserters] must be brought back by the time winter drills begin in December,” and that “each unit’s political department must take full responsibility for their soldiers’ whereabouts.” By essentially saying that the authorities would conduct an evaluation of each military unit, this was a clarion call to conduct a major search operation to find deserters.

However, the most fundamental reason for the increase in desertions may actually have been government policies. After increasing the party membership candidacy period from one to three years last year, the authorities reduced the total period of military service this year. They even sent some soldiers who had been discharged early to work in coal mines and rural areas. 

Some soldiers had already served between eight and nine years and the military but still risked receiving additional orders to work in difficult areas of the country. Without hope of achieving their goal of party membership in return, many soldiers decided to desert their posts. 

In short, after the authorities increased the candidacy period for party member hopefuls from one year to three years, many middle-level soldiers and officers who had lost hope of ever receiving party membership deserted their units. Many soldiers also decided to abandon their posts after seeing that the service period reduction made it impossible for their superiors to gain party membership.

It is also notable that the reasons soldiers are deserting are changing. In the past, most post deserters left their posts due to harsh training and food shortages. However, within the past year, new policies on the part of the government have caused an upsurge in desertions among middle-level soldiers and officers.

The source said that the instances of desertion occurred most frequently in the First Corps and the Fifth Corps, which is near the country’s “frontline,” while desertions that took place overseas most often involved employees of the Reconnaissance Bureau. 

The source also said that the North Korean authorities had decided to conduct more rigorous background checks on people applying to serve in foreign countries before sending them abroad. The authorities plan to use “electronic systems” to administer and process background checks more thoroughly.

*Translated by S & J

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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