Systematic Embezzlement Causes Food Crisis in Military

North Korean authorities have been pursuing government stabilization through the military and under the slogan “Military-first Politics”. But soldiers on the front line are facing a dire situation where it is difficult to receive their fair distribution of three meals per day. The number of soldiers who choose to desert the military due to hunger and malnutrition is increasing. Soldiers pocketing products from the market or stealing food by breaking into citizens’ houses are becoming more prevalent.

The aftermath of the North Korean economic crisis has played a role in the worsening of soldiers’ situation and also in the chain of corruption within the military.

The backdrop of these difficulties in food distribution to the military is related to the corruption chain in the military as well as North Korean economic crisis.

The food crisis of the North Korean military went through its worst during the late 1990s but has, since then, shown signs of improvement. However, the situation regressed again in 2005.

The economic difficulty of the People’s Army has caused changes peoples’ desire to enter the military, to wilt. During the economic crisis of the 1990s, parents tended to send their children in to the military in order to reduce their familial food consumption. Nowadays, parents do not to welcome their children’s enrollment in the military because they may suffer from malnutrition and have a rough time.

Lee Jin Woo, a North Korean defector who served in a Pyongyang military unit for ten years, commented on a phone interview with The Daily NK that, “There are many cases where soldiers serve for a few months then desert the military. Among each battalion of the infantry division, which is composed of some 120 soldiers, about ten soldiers will desert.”

Park who served in a tank unit of the 5th Corps, located in Cheolwon of Kangwon Province, explained, “The battalion of a mechanized unit is composed of approximately 600 soldiers and about 30 soldiers, which is the size of a company, run away from the military.”

Prior to the food crisis, North Korea strengthened the punishment for runaway soldiers by describing them as a “traitor who betrayed the People’s Army.” However, as the number of soldiers choosing to run away from the military is increasing, a first time offender only receives criticism. This is because the reinforcement of punishment could lead to the increment of desertion.

As the food crisis in the military has worsened, soldiers who are being discharged from service due to illness are emerging. They would swallow metal pieces on purpose, or cut their index finger then stay in the hospital for six months, in order to be discharged.

The North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, an organization of North Korean defectors in South Korea, reported, “An incident of starving soldiers defying the work order, en masse, occurred on March 17th at the 47th Brigade of North Korean People’s Army’s 131th Bureau, which is a secret unit digging uranium ore for the manufacture of nuclear weapons.” This unit could not provide food for the soldiers who had worked at the mining site for two days since and had thus seen their food supplies run out.

Citizens can survive such situations by conducting a business at the jangmadang, but it is impossible for soldiers to do the same. Therefore, North Korean people say the biggest victim of food crisis is the People’s Army.

The daily ration within the military is 800 grams but currently only 550~600 grams are provided and only corn rather than rice.

The General Federation of Rear Services, under the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, is the department which provides all necessary supplies for 1.19 million North Korean soldiers. The department is responsible for the supply of everything, from daily necessities like toothpaste; toothbrush; soap; and razor; military uniform; combat boots; underwear; and socks; as well as food like rice and side dishes. The preparation of reserve supplies, for a defense situation, is also the responsibility of the General Federation of Rear Services as well.

Since the significance of this department is large, Kim Jong Il is directly involved in the appointment of its head. As long as the party-led political bureau exists, as in all state apparatus of North Korea, the General Federation of Rear Services will also be operated by the political bureau and the staff bureau system. In the same manner as with other organizations, the political bureau has an organizing department, propaganda department, cadre department, and party guidance department. The staff bureau consists of military uniform, provisions, bookkeeping, sideline guidance, transportation, building management, military hospital department, and fuel management bureaus.

The supplies for a military unit are distributed to the supply center of each province on the instruction of a bookkeeping officer at the General Federation of Rear Services and the Head of Storage. They embezzle the supplies at the distribution phase and it eventually becomes the bribe of officials at the bureau.

Also, an additional embezzlement takes place along every part of the process, through the entire distribution network: at the provincial supply center by a bookkeeping officer, at the corps or division by a bookkeeping officer, within the company by a sergeant major, amidst a platoon by a deputy leader, and finally by a general soldier. It can be described as a “food chain” structure, through which embezzlement takes place in a total of five phases of distribution.

The reason why only 550~600 grams of food is given instead of 800 grams of corn is because of prevalent corruption within the North Korean military. Regarding this matter, a North Korean source explained that, “Embezzlement and bribery are the only methods of increasing the wealth of military officials and superior officers.”

Food is not the only product being embezzled by military officials. Fuel storage under the military unit, weapon stores, military uniforms and construction materials are also sold to the jangmadang through cadres of the military. In the military unit supply depot, the depletion of supplies is so severe that explosives, fuses, medicines and medical supplies, wires, and fuel have run out.

According to Open Radio for North Korea, when the Defense Security Command conducted a survey by dispatching inspection teams to military units and key construction sites nationwide, from early December of last year until February, the supply depots had been stripped due to the embezzlement of officials.

Lee, a North Korean defector, added that, “During the first West Sea battle in 1999, the West Sea Fleet Headquarters gave a wartime order to launch torpedo boats to the spot. However, they could not move due to a lack of fuel. Due to this incident, the inspection of military supplies was strengthened at the time.”

Questions or comments about this article? Contact us at