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N. Korea struggles with troop shortage

North Korea is moving to extend the mandatory military service term for male draftees and recruit more female conscripts in efforts to address its worsening troop shortage, sources said Monday.

Pyongyang has recently been encouraging male soldiers to serve at least one more year beyond their 10-year service term to help maintain its 1.19-million-strong military, and more stably mobilize troops for various state construction projects, the sources said.

“The North has yet to officially announce its policy to extend the term, but I heard that the ruling party has been encouraging soldiers to voluntarily serve one or more years beyond their service period,” Jang Se-yul, a North Korean defector who served in the North’s military from 1984 through 1996, told The Korea Herald.

The North is promoting the “voluntary” extension of the service term in light of the troops’ loyalty to the dynastic ruler Kim Jong-un, he added.

Analysts said that the troop shortage was mainly caused by the deaths of many children during a severe famine in the mid-1990s and a growing reluctance to join the military due to the lengthy service term.

“The primary reason for the extension appears to be the troop shortage rather than a campaign to strengthen its armed forces,” said Chang Yong-seok, an analyst at the Institute of Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.

“The shortage might have resulted from the so-called ‘Arduous March,’ a devastating famine in the mid-1990s. The number of children, who were born during the period and now around 20 years, might be very small, affecting the current troop level.”

The famine was caused by the North’s international isolation following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, along with bungled economic policies and flooding. During the famine, some 2 million people are thought to have died.

North Korean men are drafted at age 17 for the 10-year term, which is by far the longest in the world. The North recruits soldiers in April and September, and the number of new recruits has recently dwindled ― a reason the regime is seeking to bring in more female recruits, observers said.

Female recruits, once selected, are known to serve for at least seven years. They are not recruited by their own choice, but on an order from the communist regime, sources said. The female soldiers are estimated to account for some 22 percent of the total troops.

As for the troop shortage, some experts noted that the North’s decision to extend its compulsory public education period by a year to 12 years could be one reason. The extension has resulted in a decrease in the number of high-school graduates subject to military conscription, analysts said.

The lack of benefits for military personnel has also made many reluctant to join the military, Jang said.

“In the past, there were some perks that soldiers could enjoy, such as special food rations and other things. But such incentives have long disappeared. If you spend a decade or more in the military, then you would also end up having trouble adapting to civilian life,” he said.

“On top of that, with many profiting from the growing market activities in the North, military jobs are no longer attractive.”

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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