Written by PAEK Chang-ryong, a defector reporter.
“Just a spoonful of oil for me…” A soldier pleads for grace
Since the beginning of the New Year, North Korean state media has publicized a series of articles about the First Secretary Kim Jong-un’s special “solicitudes” to the Korean People’s Army (KPA). On 7th January, Rodong Sinmun, the official mouth organ of the Korean Workers’ Party, ran an article stating that Kim Jong-un had made an inspection to the large fisheries products refrigerating facilities, newly built by the KPA Unit 534 in a military compound. The article explained that this inspection demonstrated that the Dear Comrade Secretary devotes his heart for soldiers and people to eat fish to their heart’s content.
In the other article, published 12th January, Kim Jong-un’s visit to the rear echelon unit, tasked with the procurement and supply of foodstuffs for the rear lines of the (combat) front, was introduced. It explained that he gave a direct command to the high ranking commander to improve the treatment of soldiers.
However, contrary to the Rodong Sinmun reports, the actual condition of the majority of KPA soldiers is dire, many reported to be suffering from chronic malnutrition. As the ASIAPRESS North Korea Reporting Team has been reporting in recent years, it not only the ordinary soldiers but the subordinate officers that are also emaciated, and it is not unusual to see these soldiers visiting ordinary people’s homes, knocking door to door, asking for food.
Malnutrition has become one of the “vicious heritages” of the KPA since the era of the late Kim Jong-il. These pictures, captured from secret video recording, show clearly the effects of malnutrition on soldiers in the People’s Army under the Kim Jong-un regime. (All ASIAPRESS pictures were taken between June and August 2013.)
A malnourished soldier; He explained that he belonged to the construction unit and served in Pyongyang. Since he suffered from chronic malnutrition, he was given a temporally discharge order and was on his way back to his family. He said he was thirty years old. His rank, as signified on his lapel, was sergeant, an enlisted man. The soldier eats bread which our reporting partner offered. Beside the soldier, a homeless boy was busy picking up the small crumbs of bread. (Photos are the captured image from the video taken in a city in the northern part of North Korea) ASIAPRESS
In August 2013, our reporting partner approached a soldier to ask about food conditions in the army. The soldier said he was serving in the engineering battalion in Pyongyang, as a sapper. It is painful to see his thin neck and baggy uniform. He said he was thirty years old, and had been serving in the military for nine years.
The North Korean conscription system enforces a 10-year service for males. Most of the soldiers who suffer from malnutrition are the early years of their service and have not yet adapted to life in the military.
This solider told a reporter “If I could sprinkle a spoonful of oil with the rice in our dinner everyday, I won’t be so malnourished.”
The North Korean engineering battalion is known to be a token military unit as, in reality, it is a construction unit engaged in building state facilities and buildings, deployed with a pick and shovel instead of a rifle.
Malnutrition among the commissioned officers is also a serious problem. Among the troops whose condition is worst affected by food shortages are officers whose regular rations to their family are often delayed.
The wife of a ranked officer is prohibited to work at the market due to her social position. Because of this fact, it used be an honor to marry with a ranked officer up until the 1980s, but now people say that women who marry with officers are at the bottom of the social ladder.
To ensure they get enough food for themselves, ranked officers often poach food from the lower ranking soldiers. This is another reason for the widespread malnutrition effecting soldiers in the North Korean army.
Soldiers that continuously suffer from hunger make a precarious living stealing food from citizens, ironically the very people they are supposed to protect.
Our reporting partner bemoaned the fact that the people’s soldier has fallen to the level of a gang of bandits, and this is now a common understanding among the people.
It has been two years since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, who implemented the era of ‘Songun’ (the Military First) Policy.
Improving food conditions in the military and restoring public trust should be considered top of the list of things to do for the young Kim Jong-un. However, so far, it seems his administration is yet to make any headway with these developments.