We talked to a group of North Koreans in exile who used to serve in the North Korean army, and asked them what they thought were the most significant weaknesses in the DPRK military. The unanimous conclusion was unexpected: at present, the greatest problem faced by the North Korean army is not the chronic shortage of food or even the outdated weaponry; the real crisis in the Korean People’s Army is sexually transmitted diseases.
The North Korean army is the national carrier of venereal diseases
On every North Korean train, there are usually two or three carriages that are reserved for soldiers. This is an indicator of how frequently the North Korean army transports its soldiers around the country. North Korean exile Choi Hyong-man told us that even the carriages reserved for soldiers have insufficient room sometimes, and so soldiers often spill into the civilian carriages. He continued, “The roads too are full of soldiers on the move. Soldiers usually take up more than half the space on lorries and buses. Using the ‘Military-First’ (songun) era as an excuse, soldiers bully the drivers into giving them a free ride. They are a pain in the neck for drivers.”
The reason for the constant mobilization of soldiers is said to be the ongoing food shortage. With so many soldiers suffering from malnutrition and the military unable to feed them, officers send the recruits home on a rolling basis so that they can ‘rest and recuperate’. As men must do ten years of military service and women must serve for seven years, soldiers are seen on the move everywhere, all-year round, in North Korea.
The top customers of prostitutes are North Korean soldiers
While the spread of sexually transmitted diseases may be facilitated by the constant movement of young people throughout the country, the diseases themselves cannot be spread without sexual contact. In North Korea, there exists a prostitution industry that is focused on serving those who are on leave from the army.
In every station, prostitutes can be seen waiting for military customers. Working alongside security guards, private homes loaned out by their occupants are used as temporary brothels. According to exile Kim Yoon-seok, “Women have to make a living too, and the best they have to offer is their bodies. Their primary source of income is the soldiers. As their sexual desires must be suppressed during military service, the young men are very bold and open about using prostitutes. The women receive food or cash for sleeping with them.”
To afford prostitutes, soldiers are said to raid civilian homes, from they which steal with impunity. Without even making an effort to hide themselves, they then make their way to stations or other red-light districts.
The bastard children of the North Korean army
We came across an interesting anecdote dealing with the consequences of rapes committed by North Korean soldiers. North Korean exile Kim Yoon-seok told us, “There was an incident where a soldier raped a woman at gunpoint. Obviously, he was never caught. As the father’s identity was unknown, the child that was born nine months later did not have a surname. The woman named the child Cho In-gun (the first letters of Chosun inmin-gun or ‘Korean People’s Army’. It is as if the baby was named ‘KPA’). The story spread like wildfire. That name, Cho In-gun, it is now used to mock the bastard children of the North Korean army.” In addition, ordinary North Koreans play on the pun to mock the soldiers themselves, referring to them as ‘Cho In-gun’.
The annual STD inspection
As the crisis of sexually transmitted diseases grew serious within the Korean People’s Army, a checkup for STDs was instigated in 2002 by the state. This annual checkup became a compulsory part of the military physical examination in the North Korean army. If a soldier was found to be infected with a venereal disease, restrictions would be placed on their membership of the Party or on their right to take leave.
According to North Korean exile Oh Jun-seong, however, these restrictions are never enforced in reality: “Any officer will turn a blind eye after receiving a bribe. In any case, the existence of sexually transmitted diseases among the soldiers is kept hidden by the superiors, because there is fierce competition between units for upholding their reputation.”
It is perhaps not a coincidence that every year, the price of penicillin in the black markets shoots up during the period of military checkups. An injection of penicillin in the target area will temporarily relieve symptoms of venereal disease, such as redness or discharge. Nevertheless, as the root of the problem cannot be dealt with in such a way, exiles testify that the North Korean army is full of soldiers who are chronically infected with sexually transmitted diseases.
The suffering of STD carriers during periods of military training
Whenever joint ROK-US drills are conducted, North Korea too conducts training exercises for its soldiers. Ex-military North Korean refugees testify how these periods are particularly difficult for those with venereal diseases. Oh Jun-seong told us, “We spent an entire month living in the tunnels. So many of us suffered from STDs, but no one said anything.” He added that the soldiers knew that the military doctors did not have the means to treat them anyway. He continued, “The Kim Jong-un regime is keeping quiet about the crisis of sexually transmitted diseases in the North Korean army. He does not ask for outside help because the existence of this kind of crisis among his soldiers is extremely embarrassing to him.”
Although the North Korean state likes to show off its military prowess and frequently announces itself as being in a state of ‘military-readiness’, ex-military North Korean refugees believe that the crisis of sexually transmitted diseases significantly weakens North Korea’s conventional military power.
One of them ended by saying, “The regime threatens the international community by pursuing nuclear war based on Songun (Military-First) policy, but it is really a Seongun (Military-Sex) policy.”