North Korea’s military physical exams superficial at best, deadly at worst

Kim Jong Un at Ministry of the People's Armed Forces on 71st founding anniversary of North Korea's army
Kim Jong Un visits the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces on February 8, 2019 to mark the 71st founding anniversary of North Korea’s army. Image: KCNA

The incidence of soldiers with contagious diseases and those in such poor health that they cannot function properly has risen to such an extent that military hospitals are unable to handle the volume, North Korean sources have reported.

Some soldiers have become so sick that they have been ejected from service, and some have even died after leaving the military. The country’s poor health system and mismanagement by authorities are seen as the two major factors responsible.

“Recently, the number of soldiers with hepatitis and tuberculosis, along with others who have become so weak they cannot function properly, has increased significantly,” said a North Korean source in Pyongyang on February 12. “The authorities are just sending those soldiers who cannot be accommodated in hospitals back home.”

At least one soldier died less than a month after being sent home after early discharge from the military, having not received appropriate care, according to sources in South Pyongan Province.

The soldier, who hailed from South Pyongan Province, had long suffered frequent bouts of sickness due to liver issues unexpectedly passed the North Korean military’s physical examination, much to the surprise of his parents, who thought it was strange but nonetheless placed their trust in the authorities.

Unfortunately, just six months after he entered the military, the young man returned home after receiving a dishonorable discharge for illness. He died less than a month after returning home.

“The parents complained that the military half-forced them to send him to serve before sending him back right before he died, and that the authorities failed to find issues with him during his physical examination so he could receive treatment,” a source in South Pyongan Province reported.

The first cause of the rise in sick soldiers is the superficial nature of the physical examination they undergo before entering the military.

“Officially, prospective soldiers need to go through three stages of physical exams before starting their service,” said a source in North Pyongan Province. “In reality, the poor quality of equipment, the low level of technical knowledge on the part of doctors, irresponsibility and disinterest by military authorities along with their need to just pass as many potential soldiers as possible means that physical exams are not systematic.”

South Korea requires any cases of hepatitis or tuberculosis identified during military physical exams to be treated before military service begins. For those with acute forms of sickness, they may be allowed to work in non-military positions or are exempt from service.

“There are more and more young men and their parents who are finding ways to avoid military service through legal means,” said a separate source in South Pyongan Province. “Those with serious illnesses are the ones suffering when the military allows them to pass physical exams.”

Some hide their illnesses in the hope of joining the military, but most North Koreans no longer see this as honorable. The “new generation” believes that working in the markets earning money while avoiding conscription is the best thing to do.

There are also doctors who specialize in issuing “unfit for service” certificates for physical exams for a bribe of around 500 US dollars.