How old are soldiers in North Korea?

Wednesday 13th May, 2015

A look at the starting age of North Korea’s reservists reveal …

Currently, a large number of South Korean males are heading off to different locations around the country to report to annual reservist training sessions. It is no different for public figures – as the police investigation of Super Junior’s Kangin’s failure to report to reservist training becomes a topic of national conversation, the general public’s interest in the matter is reflected in Naver’s RealTimeSearch function.

A military reservist is a soldier who is prepared to mobilize in the face of national emergency according to protocol to join with troops in active service units and meet operation demands. In addition, reservists are tasked with subduing hostile forces in regions of armed conflict or potential armed conflict.  The reserve force is generally comprised of those who have completed military service and their service with the reservists force lasts the duration of about six years.  Reservists enter training camps, practice shooting guns and are trained in realistic scenarios of combat, with training amounting to 36 hours per year.

The reservist’s motto of “fight while we work, and work while we fight” is the philosophy behind a key pillar of the pan-national defense of liberty. If so, how does the reservist force training proceed in North Korea, a place engaged in perpetual military face-off with South Korea? And who comprises the North Korean reservist force? New Focus learnt about the North Korean reservist force through defectors recently settled in South Korea.

North Korea claims to be a nation fully militarized. It is important to point out here that, with the exception of active duty soldiers, the typical training age of reservists begins at 16 years of age.  This is the South Korean equivalent of a student in his second year of middle school.

Hyesan native Park Uk-Cheol settled in South Korea in December of 2012. He stated, “ Attendance of military training is mandatory once you reach the fifth year of secondary school.  It is called the ‘Red Youth Guard’ and training commences every year in July or August, lasting about ten to fifteen days. The aim is to train student military reservists in order to mobilize them in the event of war.”

“A typical student in his fifth year of middle school is fifteen or sixteen. Taking into account the fact that North Koreans are shorter than average in stature, this student is approximately 140cm~150cm tall. You are responsible for providing the uniform you wear and the food you eat during the training period.”

He continued, “When you first arrive at the training camp, there presides a platoon leader. He is not an active duty soldier but is dispatched from a civilian artillery unit or the Worker-Peasant Red Guard. Each student is given a wooden gun.”

“The gun’s length is typically one metre. Smaller students who shoulder the gun find that it trails on the ground. You can see the strain on many of their faces when they are marching with their platoons, usually 30 per unit. They can’t take off their heavy uniforms and must carry the wooden rifle with them at all times during training.”

The weight of wooden rifles is not the only challenge faced by reservists in training. “With no covering to shield them from the scorching sun,” Park continues, “the students must train all day in the field, emulating the shooting of guns and the throwing of grenades. When the sun sets, they move on to weeding the cornfields. Dinner is ‘nylon soup’ (soup with no meat or vegetables) and corn rice that barely fills half of a bowl.”

At the end of the training period comes the final test. “After two weeks, the skills they’ve practiced are judged by setting up ten targets 100m away from each student, who is given three rounds of live ammunition. Ten children stand in front of the automatic rifles at one time. When they aim and fire, many of the students become startled into tears by the sound of their own rifle.” After the Red Youth Guard drills in the fifth year of secondary education, students are subject to a more intense experience in environments supposed to more closely resemble wartime conditions.

Han Ok-ryun, from Musan, arrived in South Korea in May 2013. She testifies: “In North Korea, sixth graders in secondary school must go through training known as military camping. The camps are deep in the mountains, where reserve drills take place as if the students are in actual war, setting up tents and boiling meals.”

Further, she recalls, “It rained at night and my tent collapsed, so everyone shivered in the rain throughout the long night. I cannot forget the memory of not being able to cook because the trees were wet, and how everyone slipped down the mud as we made our way back home. Marching in rank with heads bowed, we looked like weary stragglers going home after being defeated in battle.”

Ok-ryun sighed throughout her reminiscence of reservist training. “Every year during recruitment season, when I saw students barely out of childhood having to don uniforms and line up, I cringed. Not having enough to eat even though they are still growing, I wondered how they could handle the weight of their rifles. But their suffering carries on, even today.”


Reporting by Park, Ju-Hee.

Translation by Sharon Kim.

Read in Korean.

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