Soldiers in the Korean People’s Army (KPA) have taken an increasing role in large-scale construction projects pursued as part of North Korea’s “five-year strategy for national economic development.” 

The KPA has been deployed to three major construction sites in the country, including the Samjiyon Modernization Project, the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourism Zone, and the Yangdok Hot Spring Tourism Zone. 

Despite the increasing role for the military in major construction projects, the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)’s control over the military has strengthened during the Kim Jong Un era. There are signs that this is contributing to an atmosphere of discontent within the military. 

ENDING THE MILITARY’S DOMINANCE IN STATE AFFAIRS…

After taking power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a bold move by getting rid of the songun (“military-first”) policy. In its place, he chose to restore a party-centered system through revisions of the country’s constitution. This step ensured that the military would not exert as much influence over political affairs as it had in the past. 

In fact, at the fourth session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) in June 2016, the National Defense Commission, which was the most powerful institution during the Kim Jong Il era, was reorganized into a State Council through a constitutional revision. Moreover, at the first meeting of the 14th SPA held in April this year, the constitution was again amended, this time to remove the terms “military-first” and “military-first revolutionary policy“ from the text of the constitution. 

Ever since taking office, Kim Jong Un has been working particularly hard to reduce the military’s power, which greatly increased under his father’s leadership. The younger Kim began by taming the military through frequent personnel appointments of military leaders and the demotion and reinstatement of military generals, thereby increasing his grip over internal military affairs and the military as a whole. 

Experts point to the demotion of Hwang Pyong So as an example of the military’s falling status. Despite being chief of the military’s General Political Bureau (GPB), which manages political indoctrination in the military, Hwang was not named a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee. North Korea observers have suggested that this is an example of the military’s decreasing authority in state affairs. 

…WHILE RELIANCE ON THE MILITARY FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CONTINUES

Despite the dwindling political status and influence of the military, the role of the country’s armed services in large-scale national construction projects is gradually expanding under the banner of self-reliance and amid economic difficulties caused by international sanctions. Kim Jong Un appears to be actively using the military as a key player in his vision for “socialist” economic development.

Kim is burdened by the need to produce results in the country’s economic sector by 2020, when the country’s five-year strategy for economic development is set to end. As such, the government is putting all of its capabilities into showy construction projects. The military is the only organization capable enough to lead these construction projects. 

Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Area
The Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Zone. / Image: KCNA

North Korea is currently mobilizing all available military forces for three major construction projects: the Samjiyon Modernization Project, the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourism Zone, and the Yangdok Hot Spring Tourism Zone. Some predict that the military is likely to lead the reconstruction of the Mount Kumgang tourist zone that was ordered by Kim in October.

Various military organizations are involved in these projects. The Samjiyon Modernization Project is currently a joint military-civilian project, while the Yangdok Hot Spring Tourism Zone is led by the Special Warfare Command. Meanwhile, the Wonsan-Kalma project is being managed by the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces’ Construction Bureau. Soldiers in the Air Force Command, moreover, were in charge of the recent construction of the Jungphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm and Tree Nursery.

RISING DISCONTENT AMONG SOLDIERS

Daily NK sources have reported that there is a rising atmosphere of discontent within the military due to the large number of constructions it is being asked to take on on top of its existing burdens.

For example, the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces General Logistics Bureau recently demanded that the military increase its share of “peace-time supplies” to 40%. The order, however, came at a time when the military has been overburdened by its role in construction projects. 

To make matters worse, the number of monthly rations given to military officers and their families has further decreased this year. The government gives monthly food rations to soldiers but the amounts differ each month. This has caused many soldiers to complain about how to make food, enough for just 15 days, last for an entire month, sources reported. 

Kim In Tae, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, told Daily NK that in the run-up to the 75th anniversary of the WPK’s founding next year, North Korea will speed up work at its three major construction projects as well as other regional construction projects. These projects will likely require even more resources from the military. Kim pointed out that these ambitious construction plans may further breed discontent within the military.

*Translated by Gabriela Bernal

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.