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North Koreans pay for sons to spend military service in cushy capital posts

Military officials in North Korea are taking bribes from the parents of new recruits, promising to assign their children to units in Pyongyang, where they can spend their service in relative comfort, sources in the country told RFA.

Still technically at war with wealthier South Korea, North Korea makes every male serve about seven years in the armed forces, according to South Korean intelligence.

The life of a soldier in the North Korean military is typically one of toil and sweat. The government routinely mobilizes soldiers to exploit their free labor, requiring them to work on farms, factories and construction sites, all while maintaining a modicum of battle readiness.

But certain military assignments can park a soldier behind a desk in Pyongyang, the country’s capital and home of the privileged and elite.

Parents are eager to ensure their sons can spend seven years living in what they would consider luxury, rather than doing hard labor in the rural areas.

“Parents who receive bribe requests give money to the officials to ensure the safety of their children, but the amount they are asking is too large for most to afford,” a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“A resident in the Sunam district of Chongjin city asked an official of the military mobilization office, a longtime acquaintance, to send his son, to a comfortable and safe unit, but the official requested at least U.S. $300,” he said.

The average monthly salary for North Koreans working in government-assigned jobs is around $4, the Seoul-based Korea Joongang Daily reported in 2018.

Paying the exorbitant bribe can even be a point of pride.

“A resident of Chongam district paid a bribe of $500 … to send his son to a military police unit in Pyongyang. The resident proudly boasts that the son has completed his training as a new recruit at the unit in Pyongyang, which is off limits to ordinary folks, and he started his military life in Pyongyang,” the source said.

“North Korea has a declining birth rate, so most families these days have only one child, two at most. So people try to protect their kids from danger by any means necessary. The officials in the military mobilization office can use the psychology of these parents to their advantage,” he said.

But some residents complain that officials are using the new recruits as bait to get bribes, the source said.

The sons of parents who cannot pay the bribe are sent off to more difficult military postings, as happened to one family in the northwestern province of North Pyongan.

“A resident of Tongrim town asked the military mobilization office to have his son sent to a safe and comfortable unit, but the family was unable to pay the $300 bribe, so the son was shipped off to the front line area unit of the 1st Corps,” a resident of the province’s Tongrim county told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“Our neighborhood is a village with cooperative farms, so most of the new recruits are the children of poor farmers. This is why most of the new recruits have no power or money, and they get sent to the front line units in the rugged mountains of Kangwon province, so there is great concern for parents sending their children to the military,” he said.

The parents who cannot afford the bribe can do nothing but watch as their sons are sent to do hard labor in Kangwon, in the east, along the border with South Korea, the second source said.

“The authorities are aware that bribery is going on, but I don’t know whether there is a way to stop it, or whether they are condoning it. I have never seen any official from the military mobilization office get punished for accepting bribes,” he said.

“In this country, children of powerful and wealthy families can serve in comfortable assignments in the military, but it gets taken for granted that everyone with no money or power will have a difficult military life.”

Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.