Forces: August 19, 2003

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There are many signs that the mighty million man (and woman) North Korea  army is fading away. North Korea is running into serious problems getting enough men for it's armed forces. North Korea relies on conscription to maintain its 1.1 million man (and woman) forces. This is difficult with a population of only about 23 million. In the last twenty years the number of 17 year old males available each year for service had been declining, from about a quarter million in the early 1980s to less than 200,000 now. 

But it's worse than that, as the persistent famine over the last decade, along with the collapse of the economy, has reduced the number of 17 year old males actually fit for military service. There are more health problems because of the poor diet, and a lot of these kids, who should be there, have died from starvation and hunger related diseases. Local officials have falsified their records to stay out of trouble with the central government. When it comes time to deliver the draftees, the officials claim the lads have run away. This usually works, because a lot of the eligible (healthy) 17 year olds have run off to China or Russia. Some hide in other parts of North Korea, but this is difficult, because it is a tightly controlled police state. Or at least it used to be. Corruption is becoming more common, and thus it's easier to pay some official to have your son marked as "disappeared," or otherwise ineligible for service. Talks with defectors indicates that 5-10 percent of the eligible 17 year olds have run away to somewhere or are in hiding.  

The government has allowed more free enterprise in the last two years, so more families have the cash to bribe the officials in charge of conscription. This also provides more young men with a reason to avoid service. If they can make money, why be in the army? Moreover, it's common for children of the senior communist party members to be exempt from service. This does not go unnoticed.

During the last decade, the problem was taken care of by extending terms of service, from four years in the early 1990s, to as much as ten years now. But the troops are becoming rather surly regarding the longer military service, and the fact that their families are increasingly hungry and destitute. Another solution is to draft more women, and many support and anti-aircraft units are now all female. 

Military service is not all military, troops spend a lot of their time growing some of their own food and going out and providing additional manpower for farmers during harvests or natural disasters. There have been more of the latter than the former during the last decade. Living conditions are primitive and food is more than civilians get (on average), but only about 80 percent of what South Korean conscripts (who serve 26-30 months) receive. Leave is rare and punishments are harsh. The North Korean military has become the kind of organization no one wants to belong to, and if they do, they'd really rather leave.

 


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