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In North Korea, a soldier’s biggest threat may be the censor

The North Korean military is harshly punishing soldiers for divulging “sensitive” information —including their location or unit’s size — in letters back home, sources in the military told RFA.

In most of the world’s militaries, especially during wartime, soldiers are typically forbidden from relaying certain facts about their deployment.

But in secretive North Korea, which is still technically at war with South Korea, even honest mistakes can bring consequences that last a lifetime.

One soldier was recently punished when censors found that a letter he wrote revealed where the unit was located and the name of the battleship he served on, a military source from Sinpo, a city in the eastern province of South Hamgyong, told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“The soldier was arrested and interrogated by the State Security Department for nearly two months and was eventually separated from the service with a dishonorable discharge,” he said.

“If you fail to fulfil your military service time and are punished and discharged this way, that’s the end of any prospect for a good life.”

Every North Korean male serves about seven years in the armed forces, according to South Korean intelligence. All the mail that they write is read and censored. Soldiers are supposed to use military postcards to write to their families or sweethearts to make it easier for censors to identify offending passages.

But postcard supplies are down, so soldiers are sending more letters written on ordinary paper, in makeshift envelopes, according to the source. That affords more opportunities for mistakes.

“Military mail takes more than a month or two for the letters to come and go, and the soldiers are never able to write down everything they want to say on the postcard,” the source said.

If letters containing sensitive information are caught by censors, the person who delivered the letter to the post office can be punished alongside the sender, he said.

“Earlier this month, an East Coast squadron naval unit in the city of Sinpo held an educational session on how not to divulge military secrets in letters,” the military source said.

“The session pointed out how soldiers have been sending letters to civilian addresses with confidential information that the public should not know. The soldiers were warned not to reveal the location of troops, details about combat missions and troop movements. These are acts of treason and in violation of the military oath,” he said.

Another soldier who was caught by censors was sent to work in a coal mine, a resident of the South Hamgyong province told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“My friend’s younger brother, who enlisted to the army, was punished and separated from the military with a dishonorable discharge earlier this year. He bragged about his unit’s arms equipment in a letter to a friend at home who couldn’t join the military due to his physical condition, and this was caught in postal censorship,” said the second source.

“My friend’s brother was then deployed as a coal miner in a rural county. If you are discharged from the military for a mistake, you are placed in the most difficult areas of society and will be excluded from all personnel appointments. This includes membership in the Workers’ Party, commendations and university recommendations,” she said.

Party membership unlocks certain privileges like better education, housing and food rations — perks no longer available to the former soldier.

“Mining work is difficult and dangerous, so my friend’s parents tried to get their son out of the mine any way they could, but it didn’t work,” the second source said.

“My friend’s parents found out that there was a note in their son’s discharge document, saying ‘He must be assigned as a coal mine worker at the toughest coal mine. He should never be transferred to another company,’” she said.

Though a market economy has begun to emerge in recent years, North Koreans still must report to their government-assigned jobs. Toiling away in the mine provides no opportunity for the former soldier to earn money on the side.

“What I know about my friend’s younger brother is that he was bright and active. Now he is quiet and rarely speaks. He doesn’t meet his friends and he is very lonely. His parents are so sad,” she said.

“It seems excessive to impose a lifetime of punishment on young soldiers for inadvertently bragging about information related to military secrets. The fact that every letter we send and receive is inspected by the state security department is also terrifying,” she said.

Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.