North Korea’s military has discharged a vast number of soldiers since early last month, according to sources inside the country, amid reports of a drastic reduction in the hermit kingdom’s army—widely considered to be among the world’s largest.
A source in Yanggang province, along the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service that the majority of soldiers from the region had been sent home as part of a wider downscale of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) between June 5 and July 10 this year.
“The majority of soldiers from Yanggang province have returned home since early June,” the source said.
“Currently, however, there is a delay in discharges because of preparation for local elections, which will be held on July 19,” he added, referring to regional polls held every four years at the city, county and provincial levels to appoint candidates to local people's assemblies.
Local elections in North Korea are not competitive, because all candidates are elected by the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, which is led by the Workers' Party of North Korea. The public is urged to vote “yes” during the polls to legitimize the regime’s political appointments.
The source cited recently discharged soldiers as saying that many more members of the armed forces will be removed from service after the regional elections are over.
While only infantry troops were discharged between June and July, those to be released following the polls will consist of only soldiers over the age of 30 on rear supply and construction details, such as members of sapper (engineer) units and Bureau 8, which serves under the North Korean police.
No technicians or specialists will be discharged from the military, the source added.
A soldier from North Hamgyong province who returned home in recent days told RFA that the new bid to reduce the size of North Korea’s military was unprecedented during the rule of Kim Jong Un, who assumed power in 2012 following the death of his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il from a heart attack.
Since 2012, the regime had even stopped discharging 27-year-old men who had completed their minimum 10 years of military service after graduating from high school, he said.
While this policy had confused military commanders about the length of service, the soldier said the recent decision to discharge soldiers over the age of 30 had confirmed that the required term had at least been extended to 13 years.
Kim Jong Un has repeatedly stated his intention to “reunify North and South Korea by force by 2015,” and recently ordered stricter regulations for physical examinations required to serve in the armed forces during a military lecture, the soldier said, in the interest of strengthening the KPA.
The soldier said that, despite lengthening of the required term of military service, the size of North Korea’s armed forces is destined to decrease because few people born during the 1994-98 “Great Famine,” and who are now of serving age, will be able to pass the KPA physical examination.
Nuclear-armed North Korea’s military was founded 82 years ago and is older than the country itself. It began as an anti-Japanese militia and is now the heart of the nation’s “military first” policy.
The country has one of the world's largest armies, with about 1.2 million soldiers, although it hasn’t fought since 1953, when an armistice suspended the Korean War.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yunju Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.