Letters to North Korean soldiers: condolences, sympathies, cigarettes

Tuesday 4th November, 2014

One merit of being a soldier in North Korea, the champion nation of the “Military-First Policy,” is receiving letters of condolence and sympathy from young students. Typically, students are instructed by teachers on how to write the letters to the soldiers. Each letter is inspected by the teacher, and students are sometimes chastised for writing too little.

But these letters are not necessarily popular for the emotions they are supposed to invoke. To some soldiers, what is important about the letters is not the content of the writing.

“The soldiers know from personal experience that students write these letters out of obligation and formality,” asserts Oh Chul-jae, a defector and former soldier in the DPRK army. “The content doesn’t interest them — it’s the monetary value of the letters that concerns the soldiers. They check the quality of the paper, and check if the material is good enough to roll and sell as cigarettes.”

“Newspaper is generally preferred over notebook paper, because the former is better suited for rolling cigarettes. I’ve heard some of my colleagues say, “The kids should have just sent us newspapers, not letters.” The quality of student notebooks used to be superior to newspapers, but now the situation has been reversed.”

Oh questioned whether the innocent sentiments — the heart fluttering at a letter from a stranger, or the sense of loyalty to the regime — still remain in the North Korean military, where malnutrition is not uncommon. “I wonder what my colleagues would say if a little boy wrote a heartfelt letter, aspiring to protect the nation like the “heroes” in the army now. I wonder what I would say to that boy.”



Reporting by Seo Young-suk.
Read in Korean.
Translated by Sharon Kim. Edited by Haeryun Kang.
Featured image: Wikipedia (James Mossman) 

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