In response to the recent US-ROK joint military drills and the latest UN sanctions that followed North Korea’s nuclear test, DPRK state news agency KCNA released a statement this morning, declaring its intention to enter into a state of war with South Korea. Even those who do not take these threats at face value saw an increased potential for miscalculation, and the risk of escalation on the Korean peninsula seems higher than ever. Nevertheless, while business carries on as usual in North Korea’s Kaesong industrial zone – where South Koreans remain at work – North Koreans in exile have interesting perspectives to offer on what life is like on the ground for North Koreans during these tense times.
Before his escape from North Korea, Lee Gi-chul served in the KPA as a lieutenant in the 2nd War Training Unit (responsible for guerrilla warfare). He described to us how fellow soldiers looked forward to the time of the annual US-ROK joint military drills: “We had to spend several nights in the field, march long distances at night, and even during rest, keep our boots on and sleep in short bursts. Nevertheless, we were happy because this was about the only time we received regular meals: 800 grams of daily rations. We called it a meal ‘above the bowl’ because normally, there was so little rice in our bowls that you could see to the bottom before you even started eating.”
Kim Hyun-soo used to work in Construction Unit 501. He told us, “Throughout the year, we did hard labor at construction sites, or had to work on a farm. But during times of war-readiness, the hard labor stopped. All we had to do was turn up to work and wait for orders. When we had to do night shifts in the field, no one took it seriously. Someone would always sneak out a few bottles of alcohol for us to drink at night.” Kim Hyun-soo added that soldiers would play card games while on standby.
For ordinary North Koreans however, the US-ROK joint military drills are considered more of a disruptive nuisance. Since soldiers have to relocate and remain in a restricted area for long periods, they are sent by senior officers to go into neighboring villages and demand donations from farmers. One North Korean refugee told us that they would “voluntarily offer goods to the soldiers, because no matter how much they saved for themselves, the soldiers would end up finding stealing their property.” In return they pleaded with the soldiers to promise to not steal livestock from their village.
Kim Hyun-soo added, “For North Korean soldiers, the US-ROK joint drills are golden days.” Soldiers would wish for the drills and rhetoric to carry on for longer for two reasons: more food and a break from regular duties. To place this in context, by 2001, malnutrition had already become so serious that Kim Jong-il himself ordered that half of military training be converted to ‘thought training’.
North Korean refugees seem to concur that as the joint drills and military-readiness rhetoric comes to an end, North Korean soldiers will feel disappointed.