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Ask a North Korean: what's life like in the army? (theguardian.com)
53 points by yitchelle on Sept 11, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 23 comments

There is big difference between elite North Korean army and regular army. Totalitarian regime would never trust their citizens with guns. Regular army is basically forced labor camp. Some of them might train shooting, but at level three shots per week, in heavily guarded area.

Source: my father served in communist army.

Yeah, this is an important part of the picture as well. In NK, "being in the army" is basically being a slave.

Maybe some people are siphoned off from the labor pool to be trained in actual warfare, but most aren't.

Whenever I hear about disadvantaged North Koreans, it confuses me how they can survive- Some of these people say they had never eaten any other food besides ground corn, even rice was an unobtainable luxury. How is it possible for a person with that type of diet to remain alive, from just a pure medical/physiological standpoint?

There is a rationing system for rice and corn. It's highly unlikely that this is enough food to live on, so people probably turn to the black market for food-- but even that is probably quite thin, and extremely expensive.

Eating edible grasses/herbs (even ferns), very weak bone-based soup/tea, gutter fish, frogs, roadkill, rice roots/tubers, tree bark (the NKs have been known to make pine bark "cake"), wild mushrooms, oysters/clams (if near the ocean), wild berries/fruits, lichen, bugs, rats, wild hemp (extremely nutrient rich and unregulated in NK), and sparrows, all of which are plentiful in NK. Knowing Koreans, they probably also have family gardens where they grow garlic and shallots (relatively easy to do), provided that they can retain viable seeds. I'd imagine that these private gardens are frequently stolen from by other hungry people, so they may be clandestine a lot of the time. No kimchi, though-- they can't grow the cabbage.

You see this kind of food pyramid a lot during famines-- most recently, during the Cambodian genocide but also during the Great Leap Forward in China and the Holodomor in Ukraine. Scavenging low-density calorie sources from wherever, with increasingly lowered standards for what constitutes food. The problem becomes when effectively everyone is scavenging, which leads to sparse finds and increased calorie usage during harvesting. I assume they have been in this state of extremely scarce scavengeables for years now.

There's effectively no access to dairy items or fresh fruits from what I can tell. This probably results in near-endemic calcium deficiency, and is supported by their tragically reduced heights and high infant mortality.

During the last NK famine in the 90s, there were widespread rumors of abduction of children for the purpose of cannibalism, and people were told not to eat meat unless they knew the source. It's tremendously sad.

This is fascinating - do you know what books/articles I can read to learn more about NK diets?

My informed conjecture about NK diets is based off of a few survivor accounts from expats and a lot of background information about NK that I've picked up over the years, paired with a lot of information I learned about various other famines via Wikipedia and college. I can't suggest any specific books or articles though-- too many articles to list, and I wouldn't remember what factoid came from which article anyway. In general, I just ask a question to myself, then use the internet to find the answer.

If you want related books to help think about what sorts of things happen during these times, I'd start with Maus. It's not at all related to NK, but it captures the desperation and ingenuity of long term crisis.

The short answer: it isn't possible. The infant mortality rate in North Korea is more than six times higher than it is in the South, and life expectancy at birth is ten years shorter. (Data: http://www.theguardian.com/world/datablog/2013/apr/08/south-...)

Look into history, we have this sort of luxuries only last few hundred years. Exclusive diet on corn must be supplemented with salt.

Also some of them might have chicken or small garden at home, but wont admit it, because it could be illegal or whatever.

> The main difficulty conscripts must endure is constant hunger. Soldiers in the special units are well taken care of but those stationed outside the capital Pyongyang are only given two or three potatoes a meal, or are fed solely on raw corn kernels or corn rice... North Korea may be the worst place in the world to do military service.

I don't doubt it, but it's probably worth noting that those North Koreans inside the army still live better than those outside it. The official ideology of the modern North Korean state is songun (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songun), "military first," meaning that the military's needs are prioritized when allocating the nation's extremely scarce resources. (Which makes sense, considering how critical the army is to maintaining the regime's hold on power.)

So if soldiers are only getting two potatoes, that doesn't mean that they'll be looking enviously upon the diets of the civilian population. The civilians will be having to make do with even less.

North Korea may be the worst place in the world to do military service.

Eritrea also seems to be solidly in the running for this questionable record:


From the article:

In the United States, individuals join the military as a way to serve their country with honor and pursue new career opportunities. But that’s not the case in Eritrea, where men and women risk their lives and those of their families just to escape military service.

Both are nation-states though, and both have governments that pass laws and then punish the masses for disobeying them.

In other words, the people of both countries have rulers, and the main difference is in the rulers' degree of "benevolence" towards their subjects.

You're fine with your particular government ruling over you because you think they would never do what Eritrea and North-Korea are doing.

But that's how German people thought before Germany turned into a mass-murdering Nazi-Germany, so that kind of thinking is clearly misguided.

Any nation-state is just a police state waiting to happen. Then it does happen, and years or decades pass until tyranny subsides, and then people go back to "it could never happen here!"

How crazy is that?

I guess if you're more of an Anarchist, you could go to Somolia, or Afghanistan, parts of both are considered fallen states with no actual government.

Are you trying to make an argument? What is it?

"Thanks to these diets, North Korean soldiers are said to be several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts"

Diet early in life has the determination if you are going to have a stunted growth. By the time you finish high school you are about as tall as you are going to be.

You can also get stunted growth if your mother is malnourished during pregnancy or even before. In fact, it can take several generations for the effects malnourishment to be eliminated.

My grandparents and granduncles were all Irish farmers who immigrated after WW2. None were over 5'9. From photographs, it appears that their parents were noticeably shorter. None of the males of my generation is under 6', and most are > 6'2". None of the females are shorter than 5'8" or so.

Also related, I have a friend that runs a nonprofit to try to get information about the outside world into North Korea. Running a fundraiser currently: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/6-000-miles-to-freedom#/s...

> Thanks to these diets, North Korean soldiers are said to be several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts

If people join after high-school, how does that work?

They starve even before their military service- The only reason this comes up for the military is because soldiers from both sides appear near each other on the borders, making the height comparison easy.

south korea specifically picks only tall soldiers to stand guard at the border. They do it on purpose to intimidate the north koreans. It is consider special duty in south korean army and you must be hand picked. The US does this shit too, to be a flag bearer or part of official honor guard you must be over 6 feet tall

So why wouldn't North Korea do the same?

Starvation alongside a severe lack of essential nutrients. So even if they get enough calories in their daily intake its likely their highly restricted choices make it near impossible to obtain the right nutrients

Their mothers were malnourished

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