Guest Column: Military-Public Tensions in North Korea: Birth of a Social Movement?

Tuesday 16th September, 2014

The military is privileged over the rest of society in North Korea, but does this create harmony or social antagonism? Kim Jong-Il’s 1994 Military-First Policy (Songun Policy) placed the Korean People’s Army (KPA) at the forefront in the allocation of resources and the affairs of the state. The policy decision took place at a time of significant economic turmoil and supply shortages in North Korea. Only a few years prior to the policy, the collapse of the Soviet bloc left the North with few trade partners. Insistence on self-sufficiency left the agricultural sector fully vulnerable to climatic uncertainties, which soon came in force.

The Military First Policy was born between the loss of geopolitical allies and countless hundreds of thousands dead from starvation: it was born in chaos. The military, tasked with securing national sovereignty from enemy outsiders, had privileged access to resources and social capital. Yet, even the military suffered throughout the last two decades, and at least 635 former soldiers have defected to South Korea. Twenty years on from its formation, has the policy of diverting social advantage and resources to the military produced harmony, or social antagonism?

Recent research by Lee Kyo-dok and Chung Kyu-sup at the Korean Institute for National Unification1 indicates that all is not well between the public and the military in North Korea. It is possible that the Military First Policy inadvertently exacerbated antagonism by hardening existing lines of inequality between military and civilian realms. How divisive, how significant, are these antagonisms?

Internal KPA documents indicate that lectures were given instructing the military about how to treat the public “like your own parents and siblings.”

There are distinct areas of trouble both within the military itself, and at the military-civilian threshold. These troubles are significant not least because they reach deep into psychosocial aspects of life: alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual-abuse (in and out of the military), along with theft of materials and abuse of civilians. These problems are known to the government, and efforts have been in place to actively manage these issues since 1998. Leaked military documents indicate that the KPA’s General Political Bureau published lecture materials encouraging correct ways of behaving toward the public.2 These are, as Stalin would have said, efforts at the engineering of the human soul, or the military soul as it were. Instruction on how to improve military-public relations is not rare, but spans the late 1990s throughout the 2000s. Internal KPA documents indicate that lectures were given instructing the military about how to treat the public “like your own parents and siblings.”


Tensions between military and civilians are not instances of bad-seed soldiers, but rather appear to be organized movements. The military apparatus is involved in organized abuse of the public. Soldiers from 8.15 training camp in Eunpa-gun, North Hwanghae Province, looted food from a local town: their commanding officers at the battalion station gave the order. Although the townspeople filed a complaint and the looting was deemed a crime3 the fact remains: structural violence in North Korea is organized through the military. The Rodong Shinmun claims that “unity” between the military and the public is an “endless source of strength.”4 But relations between military and civilians in North Korea appear divisive, or at least resentful. Complying with the demands of soldiers, or someone wearing such a uniform, is a part of preserving life for people in North Korea.5 Human rights violations experienced by defectors, where they could identify the occupation of the perpetrator, were largely attributed to State Security Agency (SSD) officials, followed by the military.6


When categorized by occupation, few North Korean defectors are former SSD officers, and until recently the same was true of military personnel; but increasingly military defectors are appearing in South Korea. At present count there are 635.7 Currently, Lee and Chung’s 2012 KINU study is the only research that directly researches the experiences of this population group. Their study is incisive, exploring desertion from the military and disclosure of classified information; two areas of agency slack that were moderately present, but by far the greatest issue was by abuse of the public. New Focus International identified how North Korean KPA soldiers joke that it is not so much a Military First Policy, as a Sex-First Policy in North Korea.8 With reference to STDs, sexual abuse of women and “KPA” babies, as they are called, born of civilian women and military men, it makes one wonder if such word-play anecdotes signal tensions within the military itself that have leaked into the military-civilian realm?

The KPA is like a small archipelago state within North Korea with various unequal geographies and hierarchies.

The military’s access to resources exacerbates a roughly demarcated two-tier society where active duty personnel wield power through access to resources and privilege. The question is: is militarism such a cherished feature of North Korean society that the exaltation of the KPA is at once the synonymous exaltation of all North Koreans, thus all is forgiven? In a country where men are conscripted for ten years and women for seven, everyone would have someone in the KPA. The demarcations between those within and outside of the military are blurry and unfixed. Does this make resentment toward the military too blurry to generate large-scale social antagonism? Even within the military there is vast inequality. The KPA is like a small archipelago state within North Korea with various unequal geographies and hierarchies. Being in the military does not guarantee well-being or security, like in other militaries around the world. Anecdotal reports indicate that the KPA soldiers are, like the rest of the North’s population, often several centimeters shorter than their South Korean brethren. To compensate for this reduction in stature, the North Korean government lowered the height requirement for recruits with the incoming cohort born since the 1990s famine.


The KPA is the largest institution in North Korea. Consisting of the Ground Force, the Navy, the Air Force, the Strategic Rocket Forces, the Special Operation Force and the Worker-Peasant Red Guard, the KPA is the most diverse employer in North Korea. Having been nominally established in 1932, it is older than the nation itself. Familial ties to the KPA, past or present, typically translate into privileged access to education, professional opportunities, medical treatment, travel, and of course food and other necessary items. Given the sheer size of the KPA, with numbers of paramilitary, active duty and reserve troops estimated at more than nine million, the triage of resources to the military is not unusual: it is an industrial complex after all. The KPA holds enough collective power to unseat the political apparatus which directs it. Priority access to resources, along with multiple levels of triangular surveillance, keeps this large institution effectively coup-proof. Coercion, indoctrination and social control maintain the KPA, and the KPA effectively keeps the country functioning.

Coercion, indoctrination and social control maintain the KPA, and the KPA effectively keeps the country functioning.

The largest contributor of human capital to North Korea’s economic projects, construction, and labor is the military: in this mundane yet significant way the KPA is the lifeblood of North Korea. With this level of importance in North Korea and with privileged access to resources, there is bound to be agency slack: signs that the military are involved in less than honorable activities for personal gain, lack of morale or other reasons. As mentioned previously, among the 27,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea approximately 635 are from the KPA. The natural question is why these people left when the government purports to put the KPA first? Did they leave because, caught in agency slack, they had effectively ruined their political reputation? Are they propelled out by forces other than those driving most people? Did they lose morale, for instance, lose faith in the government?


In the 1990s, as aid agencies were increasing their involvement in North Korea, in the wake of the famine and subsequent struggles, rumors circulated that food aid was being diverted to the military. This sparked debate in the international community over whether aid should be given at all. Various arguments surfaced: Weren’t the military also people? Do they not deserve food? Are there even “civilians” in a place like North Korea?

Setting aside those debates, rumors about the military siphoning off international aid has value for other reasons. The rumors indicate that there is a fissure between these groups, that they can be demarcated at points of access to resources. If the siphoning occurred, according to what rationale was it justified? Who deemed it justifiable? If civilians witnessed and learned of this, how did they make sense of this allocation? Did their interpretations change over time? Answers to such questions do not tell us the truth of whether the military did or did not siphon aid. Rather they tell us that people truly believed such an act was possible. In other words, the inbuilt structural inequality between the military and the public was well known. Life was such that if it did occur, it wouldn’t be surprising. Rumor is an indicator of psychosocial relations in North Korea; it signposts where people perceive social inequality to exist. Is the perception of inequality important? Would unequal social relations be interpreted in the North Korean context as they are beyond its borders?

Rumor is an indicator of psychosocial relations in North Korea; it signposts where people perceive social inequality to exist.

North Koreans who survived the 1990s famine and resettled in Seoul and Tokyo, when I sat with them in 2006, explained to me how they understood blatant social inequalities demarcated by kilograms of food: that’s just the way we lived. The phrase, rather than suggesting a surrendered acceptance of powerlessness while in North Korea, articulated the awareness that some are more equal than others. In other words, no pantomime of equality but a stark awareness that society is unequal. Inequality is fair and square.


Lately we hear a lot about: Do North Korean’s watch South Korean dramas? Do they know how the rest of the world lives? There are even valuable studies about the “South Korean wave” in North Korea. These are interesting questions, and at the bottom of them is the thought that through such access to information frames of injustice might be identified and perhaps a new ideas of better will be striven towards. It is my view, however, that those that those kinds of questions reflect a shadow belief that all of North Korean society is equally horrible, equally bad, equally under supplied; that it is the outside world which will provide a different view on the one experience they are all having there. Certainly, international media entering North Korea is a fine form of soft power that has generated cravings for another way of life (it is often then hastily imagined that they will want our way of life, rather than a varied version of their own). But we forget to explore how North Koreans give meaning to the injustice frames already deeply imbedded and starkly obvious inside their country: inequality in North Korea is shaped by factors which determine access to resources and social capital. Inequalities between the military and the public, be they generators of antagonism and or benevolence, signal the presence of social dynamism in North Korea. Could such inequalities possibly be the birth place of social movement?

Sandra Fahy is assistant professor of anthropology at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan. Her book Marching through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea (Columbia University Press) is forthcoming in 2015. She is working on her second book about military-public relations in North Korea.

The views expressed in this column are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of New Focus International.

1 2012,
2 “Study Materials on Psychological Education concerning the major points of the speech to the KPA by the Supreme Commander, Comrade Kim Jong-il,” Study Materials on Psychological Education, KPA Publishing Company 1998, p.5; cited in Lee and Chung 2012 p.19
3 Free North Korea Radio, January 24, 2011, cited in Lee and Chung 2012, p. 22.
4 Rodong Shinmun editorial April 25, 2011,
5 Free North Korea Radio, February 8, 2011.
6 The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) 2013 White Paper on North Korean Human Rights, 107.
7 NKDB 2013, 104-105.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

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