What Military Unit Is Most Sought After by North Korean Soldiers?

Which military unit is the most popular for North Korean soldiers about to serve their ten-year term in the army?

In the end, the answer is undoubtedly the Escort Bureau.

Although all North Korean middle school students submit an application, in which they write which unit they want to serve in to their city or county’s Military Mobilization Department before they graduate, the Escort Bureau is literally the only corps they “want.” Placement in the bureau, however, depends entirely on the applicant’s family background.

Only those students who have passed the military physical exam and have a good family background are allowed to participate in the two-month educational training sessions that are offered when students graduate from middle school around the age of seventeen. These sessions are offered to recruits at the training center of each unit or division and differ according to the branch of the military that the recruit will be serving in. However, the branches have in common the fact that if a recruit comes from a family of good political or economic standing or has a strong family background, he will be able to serve in a favorable unit.

Once soldiers serve in the Escort Bureau, they can live in Pyongyang and, if lucky, be allowed to remain in the capital after their discharge from the military. Additionally, they may receive a recommendation for college due to Kim Jong Il’s especial consideration for discharged soldiers from the Escort Bureau.

In addition, since it is a well-known fact that discharged soldiers from the Escort Bureau have good family backgrounds in politics and the economy, they become sought after by women as desirable bridegrooms.

The military attire of the Escort Bureau, including its hat, uniform, shoes, and belt, for even regular privates are furthermore special on a level similar to that of generals’ attire.

When they are discharged from the army, these soldiers must pledge not to expose what they have seen, listened to, and felt to the rest of society.

Lee Young Kuk recalls the time when he was being discharged from the army in his book I Was Kim Jong Il’s Bodyguard (Zeitgeist 2004), “When bodyguards are discharged from the army, they have to attend a debriefing lecture and sign a written pledge with their thumb, avowing that they will never disclose the secrets they know about Kim Jong Il .”

The border guard units dispatched to Shinuiju, North Hamkyung Province, Yangkang, North Hamkyung Provinces, and other border areas have also emerged recently as units popular with incoming recruits. The head officers of the border guard even come directly to the Military Mobilization Department of each area to select recruits for themselves.

Parents tend to do their best to have their children serve in border guard units through the use of human networking as well as bribes. The reason for this is that soldiers in border guard units are able to earn enough money to afford a wedding after their discharge from the military through the taking of bribes from traders and smugglers.

Choi Cheol Ho, who served in a border unit stationed in Manpo, Jagang Province, and defected in 2007, stated that, “Parents try to send their children to border units even if it means they must give up all of their property because they believe that the cost will be worth it for their children after just three years in the border unit.”

He added that he also offered a substantial bribe in order to enter the unit.

The next most popular areas of the military are the air force and navy. In order to serve in both the air force and navy, applicants must have a good family background and be in good health. If any of their relatives have crossed over to South Korea, they are automatically disqualified from serving in the air force and navy.

On the other hand, if a suspected criminal has relatives serving in air force or navy, they may be able to escape punishment.

Kim Dong Il, who defected to the South from Hamheung, South Hamkyung Province, in 2009, testified to this situation, “A friend of mine, Cheol Nam, went through a preliminary trial on suspicion of selling ‘Bingdu’ (methamphetamines) and was sentenced to a few months in a labor-training camp, which is like a detention center, while his accomplice was sentenced to three years in a reeducation camp, which is tantamount to being sentenced to time in a regular prison in most countries. The reason for the leniency Cheol Nam was shown was that his brother was a pilot in the air force.”

Some applicants attempt to serve in the Civilian Affairs Administrative Police Unit, which is located in the Panmunjom area and along the border with South Korea, out of curiosity.

The Civilian Affairs Administrative Police Unit and light infantry are special branches, so life for these soldiers is tough. However, soldiers discharged from these units are often able to receive a recommendation to enter a university after their military service.

“While I was serving in the Civilian Affairs Administrative Police Unit, I was able to listen to South Korean broadcasts. Therefore, we had to sit through ideology lectures every day,” Park Cheol, a defector who came to South Korea in 2009, recalled about his military service.

He added, “After they discharge soldiers from these units, the authorities send them to local universities. If they want to enter a university in Pyongyang, their family background must be superior to that of others. Entering even a regular university is quite advantageous because most discharged soldiers are sent to mines or other rural areas.”

Those who are rich but have been deprived of the chance to send their children to popular and advantageous military units because cadres’ children have taken all of the spots in these units tend to choose a different route, which is to have their children enter an infantry unit in Pyongyang. To achieve this, they need to offer bribes to the Military Mobilization Department. Units in Pyongyang have better food provisions than those in the provinces, and parents also have the chance to see the capital when they visit their children.

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