The Inauspicious Life of Pilots

The pilot of the North Korean fighter jet which crashed in China passed away at the scene, leaving the key to the truth in the hands of the North Korean military. Since they have no intention of revealing it, the pilot’s intentions will remain a mystery. However, the idea of a pilot attempting to escape from North Korea is not a big surprise.

In North Korea, pilots receive top class treatment alongside submariners and the missile corps. They live above the law in many ways. For instance, if a pilot murders someone in society and then returns to their unit, M.P.s cannot arrest them.

While the top choice of middle school graduates is to work in the No.5 Department of the Central Committee of the Party, that which oversees every aspect of Kim Jong Il’s life, pilot is a popular second choice. The primary condition for selection is family background.

Until the 1980s, offspring of normal workers could be selected if they had a good academic record and enough physical strength. However, any person whose family had committed a political crime was excluded. Also, if a family member had sided with South Korea or went missing during the Korean War, they would be excluded, too.

Until this period, the occupation of pilot was deemed to be a dangerous job and children of the elite did not consider it as a career. However, as the economic crisis began in the 1990s, this view changed. Many of the children of elite officials now choose to become pilots.

Currently, pilots still receive ‘special treatment’ in North Korea; however, it is not particularly special any more. Compared to Party officials, who make money in business, the feeling of deprivation which pilots feel has increased a lot.

Pilots are still bound to the state for their living, while the elite increase their wealth and authority through foreign currency earning and market business.

Until the early 1990s, “No. 4 supplies,” which are given to pilots, were free and extras were sold to their families if necessary. Also, since North Korea was worried about the pilots’ mental states, they took care of family issues and distributed supplies to their families once a month.

Even during “The March of Tribulation” in the mid-1990s, normal food distribution was given to families of pilots. However, as the atmosphere in society changed, their stress is increasing. Children of pilots are becoming a target in schools; teachers demand much of pilots’ children first.

Air Force Units receive a relatively good coal supply, however, since the absolute quantity is still lacking, they need to prepare firewood on their own, too. Until the early 1990s, if one or two packs of cigarette, soybean oil, and beer were given to workers on a farm in the surrounding area or a forest ranger, firewood might come in return. However, the times have changed.

Wives of pilots also have to enter the battle. Wives sell distributed supplies to wholesalers or sell them directly in farming villages in the surrounding area.

However, even in the situation where a lot of workers receive not even a single grain of rice from the nation, the supply for pilots is still special. However, since pilots do not have the authority to use it for business and bribery like other officials; their practical standard of living is not very different from a person who sells home appliances in the market.

The biggest stress which North Korean pilots feel is their concern for their old age. Currently in North Korean society, the treatment you receive in active duty and that of the retired are very different.

Until the 1990s, North Korea praised pilots as a “treasure of the nation” and promised them lifelong care. But after 2000, the retired were completely abandoned. The national pension is worth less than a price of one kilogram of corn.

Usually in other countries, the rising generation has more discontent toward the government compared to the mature group, but in North Korea it is the opposite and this is the reason for the phenomenon. When retired, they need to farm or do business in the market, but retirees are short of market experience and strength. Current pilots, observing the lives of their former comrades, cannot feel comfortable about it.

Now we are in an era where even a pilot receiving “top” level treatment from North Korea attempts an escape, and this is not surprising anymore.