Slaves in uniform: The secret behind North Korean’s ten-year mandatory military service

The groundbreaking ceremony for building homes in Hwaseong district on Feb. 23. Image | Rodong Sinmun

Around North Korea in late February, there were grand groundbreaking ceremonies for large-scale housing construction projects and new factories. 

The showy events kicked off this year’s ambitious plan to build 10,000 homes in Pyongyang’s Hwaseong district and open new factories in 20 cities and counties.

To achieve the goal, the military has been mobilized. It has organized soldiers into 124 construction units. 

Kim Jong-un attended a ceremony in Songchon County, South Pyongan Province, on Feb 28,  and, to show he meant business, even picked up a shovel. It was also significant that he handed unit flags to 20 leaders of the newly established military construction teams.

Mobilization of soldiers is understandable when civilian authorities need help dealing with natural disasters and accidents. But the routine exploitation of labor on a large scale in North Korea constitutes a clear violation of human rights

What lies behind it? 

North Korean men and women reportedly serve from age 17 for a mandatory five to 13 years. Men do a maximum of ten years (13 years for certain specialized combat units) and women do seven. The logical explanation for this is military manpower shortage. But that is clearly not the case. According to South Korean estimates, North Korea had approximately 1.28 million active-duty soldiers as of December 2022, while South Korea had 555,000. This makes North Korea the fourth-largest military power in the world, surpassing even Russia.

Assuming these figures are accurate, is the explanation for such large numbers of young people from such a relatively small population of 26 million indication of a pressing security threat? This is also not the case. While technically still at war as there is no Korean War peace treaty, the likelihood of war or military provocations started by South Korea is close to zero. 

This is something I have confirmed and become convinced of over the years since my defection to South Korea in 2004.

So what is the hidden explanation? 

The fact is that North Korea operates according to a meticulously calculated strategy for regime survival. This strategy employs mechanisms for control, for mobilization for the economy, and for sustaining the system. If we look at these themes of how the current troublesome young generation is kept under control and how the regime ensures a steady supply of well-trained labor at minimal cost, and boosts its own vitality, we can see what lies behind the longest mandatory military service in the world. 

Taming troublesome youth 

The core explanation for North Korea’s long-term military service lies in the need of the dictatorship to keep young people under control. 

This is a serious consideration for a dictator as young adults are usually more energetic and idealistic than their parents and grandparents. While they can in any country serve as a powerful driving force for development, they can also, under certain circumstances, play a leading role in disruption leading to reform. 

The April 19 Revolution in South Korea is a good example, where students risked their lives to stage protests that led to a change of government. Another case would be the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China which were crushed with great loss of life.

North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, found the answer to this potential threat in the form of extended military service. 

He took young men fresh out of high school at a time when they were forming their identity and worldview, and subjected them to a prolonged experience of communal life in the military. 

This achieved two things. It significantly reduced the regime’s insecurity. It also facilitated indoctrination of young men, who had no parents and siblings around to guide them in other directions. In the barracks, they learned the values of blind loyalty to the Kim dynasty, unconditional obedience to the dictator’s orders, the virtues of political life, and the suicidal-attack spirit. 

The objective of military service, in other words, is far more than territorial defense. It aims to thoroughly block young minds from alternative influences and instill a sense of slave-like obedience. It achieves this through intense training, labor, and loyalty competitiveness. People who go through this come to regard the nation as the supreme entity, the leader as the supreme authority, their comrades as family, and rebellion as betrayal.

In his book Dear Leader, Jang Jin-sung, a psychological warfare officer and poet before his defection, provides a unique insight into the depth of the indoctrination and how it begins early on and intensifies during military service. Like many children, Jang was filled with unwavering loyalty to the regime as a member of the Korean Children’s Union and the Kim Il-sung Socialist Patriotic Youth League. 

In the military, his days began with songs praising then-leader Kim Jong-il and ended with cultural education glorifying the history of the Kim dynasty and the country’s Juche ideology. 

Endless supply of cheap and well-trained labor 

This need to indoctrinate each new generation explains the sheer size of the military. This in turn provides a ready solution to the economic challenge the country faces. The military functions as a huge, disciplined workforce. 

Soldiers mobilized for construction projects and work on farms and elsewhere cost nothing. While officers and professional soldiers receive wages, conscripts get nothing. If they knew their South Korean counterparts were paid – for instance, the annual salary for a sergeant went up from KRW 1 million (USD 748) to KRW 1.25 million (USD 935) in 2024 – they would be astonished. In real terms, the South also provides funds to help soldiers in asset formation after their discharge. The monthly amount is now KRW 400,000 (USD 300). 

In this 2016 documentary broadcast on North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television (KCTV), soldiers are seen working at various construction sites under harsh conditions.

In a 2022 report, the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights called on Pyongyang to “eliminate the dual system of people-military exploitation” and “provide adequate payment for labor.” 

“There is virtually no concept of salaries for soldiers,” said Choi Jeong-hoon, who was an officer in the North Korean army. “The state mocks capitalist countries saying soldiers there enlist for money. But the reality is its own soldiers envy them. 

“Soldiers dedicate their youth for ten years for no pay,” he said. “I was surprised when I first saw the PX store in the South Korean military after coming here. There is simply no comparison.”

Creating great vitality throughout the system

After such a prolonged period of rigorous military training and slave labor, young people have exhausted their youthful vigor by the time they are discharged. 

Then they find themselves facing even more unjust treatment. Instead of returning home to their parents and siblings, they are assigned to unfamiliar and especially challenging work in mines and on building sites and farms. 

We may evaluate this practice as a strategy to foster the vitality of the regime. It’s another instance of exploitation for political ends. But this time it is not just for ten years. It’s potentially for life. There are several positive outcomes from the regime’s point of view: social stability and integration, economic development, reinforcement of political loyalty, and the promotion of social responsibility and volunteerism. 

Furthermore, the deployment of discharged soldiers to challenging work sites also allows for continued surveillance and control. The former soldiers are compelled to endure and refrain from expressing any grievances about the harsh labor conditions.

Although not a soldier herself, Lee Hyeon-seo in The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story vividly reveals how youth are coerced into arduous slave labor under the guise of military service. She recounts how her cousin, upon completing mandatory service, was not allowed to return to his hometown but instead was assigned as a laborer in one of the most difficult jobs: mining. Mines are notorious for accidents, minimal safety regulations, and high rates of respiratory diseases among workers. Working there is the fate of many former soldiers.

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