Thank your lucky stars




If you think your military service was tough, be thankful that you never had to serve in the North Korean military.

Most people that did national service, or any form of military service, will take great delight in telling you how tough their training was. Even if they did serve in the Woman’s Auxiliary Balloon Corps.

Now the next time you complain how hard your military service was or how tough life is in general, spare a thought for the 25 million people that live in the reclusive and isolated nation of North Korea. Life is not exactly a bed of roses for them.

And if things are rough for the ordinary citizen, imagine how hard it must be for those serving in the North Korean military.

Let’s take a look at what it’s like to be a soldier in the North Korean Army.

Compulsory service

North Korea has compulsory military service for everyone.  And this does mean everyone. Every man must complete 10 years of compulsory military service, and every woman must complete seven years.

Those lucky enough to get into university and get a bachelor’s degree only have to serve for five years after graduation. If you are a scientist and considered important to the country, you will only have to serve for three years. Unfortunately, very few citizens get the chance to attend university because of a lack of schooling.

It should come as no surprise that North Korea has the largest army in the world in comparison to the number of people who live there. There are 47 active soldiers for every 1,000 people. That’s a total of 1,190,000 active soldiers and 6,300,000 in reserve. Compare this to America, which has five active soldiers per 1,000 people, and Russia has 10.

Teens included

The North Korean paramilitary force includes teenagers. Now you would think that being able to put more than seven million troops into the field would be enough to protect their country from enemies.

This is not enough as far as they are concerned. They also have a paramilitary force – The Worker-Peasant Red Guards (also known as The Workers and Peasant’s Red Militia). This has somewhere between one and a half and six million reservists, but they don’t like to reveal the real numbers. And let’s not forget the teenage soldiers.

The Red Youth Guards organisation was created in 1970 and takes 15 to 17 year old teens on compulsory survival military training for 10 to 15 days in the summer. In this way they prepare for conscription at the age of 18. If there is a war, these teens will be shoved into the front line as well.


The nutrition is so bad that many soldiers can barely walk. You would think that having to serve your country for 10 years without any choice in the matter would be bad enough. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Imagine that you’re going through tough military training and all you get to eat is raw corn kernels or, if you’re really lucky, a few potatoes a day. So it’s hardly a surprise that two out of every five North Koreans are undernourished (according to United Nations figures).

This may also explain the fact that on average most North Korean soldiers are a few centimetres shorter than soldiers in the South Korean Army. Once they become too weak to be efficient in their training, they are sent home to recover. At that point, many of them are too weak to walk unaided.

Unfortunately, not everyone manages to get to the point where they are sent home to recover. Many soldiers pass away from hunger and related health issues. Can you imagine the anguish of parents who know that their children may not came back from the army – even in times of peace?

Soldiers fighting for their lives often have to steal food by raiding farms and villages that barely have enough food to meet their own needs.

There have been reports that senior officers force their juniors to steal from farmers. Sometimes they are hired out to work in the fields twice a year. They also say that they have to use human excrement to fertilize the crops.

ON TARGET: North Korea spends a fortune on weapons. It’s a pity so little of the budget is spent on food and clothing.

Uniforms that injure

Imagine, as a soldier, being injured by your own uniform. Unless you belong to some third-world rag tag guerrilla group, chances are that if you’re in the military you will wear a uniform.

Normally, it’s a subject of pride and respect. In North Korea, it’s also a source of pain and injuries.

According to former North Korean soldiers, the boots they are issued are thin and stuffed with cotton for reasons of economy. As you can imagine, this is no fun during the freezing cold winters.

They aren’t sturdy enough to protect the soldiers from frostbite and start to fall apart quickly. They also rub, hurt and injure the soldiers.

Even worse as a female

Things are even worse for female soldiers. These days most countries recognise that women deserve to be treated the same way as men and given the same rights. Yet it appears that the North Korean Army never got the memo.

During their seven years compulsory military service, many women fall victim to sexual violence or humiliation. The ‘right’ place for them is considered the kitchen.

Former soldiers told of how senior officers and commanders harass female recruits, touching them inappropriately. It is not uncommon for female recruits to be raped by senior NCOs and officers. If they dare complain then they are labelled as ‘trouble makers’ and can expect even harsher treatment.

There are currently around 180,000 women serving as it only become compulsory three years ago. This accounts for 40% of women aged between 18 and 25.

Because of the terrible conditions they live in, the hard training and malnutrition, a lot of them miss their periods for years. However, they say that this is not a bad thing because they would otherwise have to wash and reuse cotton sanitary pads and suffer even more.

Throwing sea mines

You may be called upon to throw sea mines into the Yellow Sea. According to reports Kim Jong-un forced his army to throw sea mines into the Yellow Sea, which would resurface in South Korea and kill locals and tourists.

The reports say that the primary target of those mines was American tourists and there were over 100 recorded incidents connected with those sea mines in 2017.

Foreign tourists obviously can’t read the warning signs in Korean characters and they fall into danger zones quite easily. Even though not all of the soldiers agree with a command leading to so much cruelty, they have no choice not to do it, nor any right to complain. Refuse an order and it’s tickets for you.

Soldiers are brainwashed

One might hope that no human being would support violence against other humans, even if they came from a different country or political regime.

Well, even if some North Korean soldiers refuse to support violence, their army commanders are working hard to change that. They spend about 60% of their time learning the ‘right’ ideology.

In this case ‘right’ means that North Korea is superior to other countries, and all those other countries want to attack them. So they always have to be on guard, obey Kim Jong-un no matter what, and be ready to give their lives for him.

They’re supposedly doing it for the next generation, so that they can enjoy the same happy life that they’re living now. Brainwashing isn’t so hard in an isolated country.

Dodgy military hospitals

Brainwashed soldiers believe that it’s an honour to die or get injured in the name of their glorious leader. So what happens to those soldiers that do get hurt? They are sent to a special military treatment centre. However, those centres have no free medications.

When interviewed, former soldiers described how they had to pay for their own treatment and, even when they did pay, all they got was alcohol rubbed on them. The only effect it had was to cause even more pain.

When treatment doesn’t help, they are kicked out of the army. In case of death, there is no compensation for the family. All they get is a certificate stating how long the soldier served.  I wonder if the families have to pay for the printing of the certificate as well?

NOT HAPPY CAMPERS: Training is often brutal, and so what if a few recruits are lost. After all, troops are considered expendable.

Personality change

Making it back home from the army alive and physically uninjured sounds like a dream when you consider everything they have to go through. Yet there’s a different kind of danger to the soldiers.

Their personalities often shift so greatly that there’s nothing that can be done to bring things back to normal. Soldiers have to be merciless and suppress their feelings and emotions.

Years of violence cannot go unnoticed, and they turn those men and women into cruel machines. It’s no wonder that many civilians prefer to avoid any contact with the military.

No escape

The bad news is that there is no way to escape. The most natural thing to do to avoid all the pain, suffering, and cruelty seems to be escaping the army. There have been multiple attempts to do so, but they usually don’t end well.

Kim Jong-un takes a dim view on defection, especially when soldiers try to flee the country. Running away abroad seems like the only route to safety.

The Supreme Leader believes that it’s bad for the country’s reputation, so those trying to cross the Tumen River are mostly taken down – in a very terminal manner.

Military seniors who didn’t stop their recruits from escaping or failed to inform about their plot get punished as well. That’s why very few people are bold enough to try and escape.

And if all this is not scary enough, here are two facts that you need to take into consideration.

North Korean subs

North Korea has the same number of submarines as the United States Navy.

This may seem a bit out of balance when you consider the size of the US Navy and the Korean People’s Navy.

The US has 72 submarines while North Korea has between 70 and 75, but there is no comparison.  

North Korea has one nuclear submarine, four former Soviet Whiskey-class submarines built in the 1950s and 20 Chinese-built Romeo class submarines which were also built in the 1950s. The others are Romeo-class subs built in North Korea.

Even their single nuclear sub (Kim Jong-un’s personal submarine) is a former Yugoslavian vessel built in the early 1970s.

According to reports, many of the Korean People’s Navy vessels are not sea worthy. And this includes their submarine force.

The US Navy has 14 nuclear submarines. They also have 51 modern conventional attack submarines

Big Budget

North Korea spends almost half of its budget on the military. The exact amount is not in open sources, but a lot of people are wondering just how much North Korea spends on its military. Official North Korean government reports say that it is only 15,8%, but most experts agree that it is far higher than this figure.

By all accounts, North Korea is no Utopia, and living there is not much fun for your average citizen.

Having to serve in the military sounds like even less fun. When compared to North Korea, our military training doesn’t seem quite so bad now, does it?

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