Conscription in North Korea

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

  Countries with ongoing conscription

Conscription in North Korea occurs despite ambiguity concerning its legal status. Men are universally conscripted while females undergo selective conscription. Conscription takes place at age 14[1]; service starts at 17 and ends at 30. Children of the political elites are exempt from conscription, as are people with bad songbun (ascribed social status in North Korea). Recruitment is done on the basis of annual targets drawn up by the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea and implemented locally by schools.

Conscription first began before the Korean War. Initially, under the rule of Kim Il-sung, forced conscription was largely not necessary because the level of voluntary enlistment was high due to financial rewards. Under Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un these rewards have diminished.


North Korea is considered the world's most militarized society.[2] As many as one in three North Koreans may be enlisted at one of many military organizations at any given time.[3]


Conscription in North Korea began before the Korean War. The draft helped to rapidly grow the size of the Korean People's Army (KPA) before the war broke out in 1950.[4]

During Kim Il-sung's rule in particular, enlisting in the army could reap considerable financial rewards. It was often families themselves that would pressure young people to enlist in the army to secure their well-being, and the government did not need to forcibly conscript people.[5]

In 1993, conscription was extended from eight to ten years.[1]

Under the rules of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, rewards for military service diminished.[5]

Legal status[edit]

In 1958, North Korea adopted Cabinet Decision number 148 to define service of conscripts as three and a half years in the army and four years in the navy. In 1993, service was expanded to ten years on the orders of Kim Jong-il.[6] In 1996, conscription was further extended and conscripts will now have to serve until they are aged 30.[1] According to some sources,[5] more recently conscription is codified in a law adopted by the 10th Supreme People's Assembly in 2003.[6]

In 2003, North Korea reported to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that all military enlistment in the country is on a voluntary basis.[5]

Annual target quotas for conscription are set by the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea and, before the Constitution was amended in 2016, the National Defence Commission of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. These orders are then implemented by local officials on the provincial, municipal, and county levels. The county level delegates the task of levying recruits to local schools.[7]

Although the legal status of conscription in North Korea is not entirely clear, the country de facto maintains a system of conscription.[5]

In practice[edit]


All men over the age of 17 effectively have to enlist. They have to partake in constant enlistment rallies during which it is nearly impossible to refuse service.[5]

In the present day, families have become less content with their members being drafted and rewards for doing so have dwindled. It is therefore likely that the current system has to exert some kind of coercion, "to the extent that we can understand the practice as conscription."[5] Young men are enthusiastic about enlisting because it protects them from the stigma attached to those who do not join the military. Some positive incentives still exist, as military training invariably increases the draftee's chances of employment after service.[2]

There are obligations for conscripts not only during, but also before and after service. Registering for draft takes place at age 14,[1] and two rounds of physical examination are conducted at age 15 or 16.[1][6] The physical examination ensures that draftees meet the requirement of being at least 148 cm tall and weighing 43 kg, although exceptions are made.[6]

Drafting usually takes place at age 17 after graduating from senior middle school. Economic, political, and health concerns are weighed when draft is decided on. Postponing military service is possible for some if they continue education in high school or college.[1]

Skilled workers, technicians, members of some government organizations,[1] and children of political and military notables are often excluded from conscription.[7][8] Some 30 percent of male middle school students, usually sons of the elite, are exempt from the draft to progress directly through high school to college or university. For instance, Kim Jong-il never went through the compulsory military service.[8] In addition to the privileged, those considered politically unloyal (those with particularly bad songbun) are also exempt from service.[9]

Upon conscription, servicemen are assigned to a branch, specialization, and a duty unit.[7]

In service[edit]

Each conscript begins their service with basic training that lasts for about two months in the army, and up to three months in the air force and navy. Training methods emphasize memorization and repetition, but also psychological, occupational and technical skills. Drills often take place during nighttime, and repetitiveness is in part due to the low-tech nature of the force, but also to bring performance up to a standard. The training methods are effective, and produce a fighting force that is, according to James Minnich, "well versed in the basics even under adverse conditions". NCO candidates are chosen based on military merits.[7] Because the overwhelming majority of officers have worked their way up the ranks, the result is an egalitarian corps whose officers are familiar with the concerns of ordinary recruits.[10] Conditions are harsh,[7] and training typically lasts from five AM to 10 PM.[11]

Servicemen are expected to grow food to supplement their otherwise meager rations between 700 and 850 grams.[12] Other activities not directly related to training are also imposed on them.[11] Leaves are limited. A conscript may, in rare cases, be granted a two-week leave once or twice during his entire service. Service personnel are not allowed to marry, so conscripts typically stay single until they turn 30.[7] About five percent of draftees, on the military's insistence, proceed to college or university after a year-long preparatory course. This route to higher education is considered easier than continuing studies right after middle school.[8]


Conscription for men is universal.[1]


  Countries with obligatory conscription for women

Women are selectively conscripted at a ratio where for every one female there are nine male conscripts. Women serve in all three service branches of the KPA: its Ground Force, Navy, and Air Force.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Minnich 2008, p. 264.
  2. ^ a b Hunter 2008, p. 102.
  3. ^ Oh, Kongdan; Hassig, Ralph C. (2004). North Korea through the Looking Glass. Washington: Brookings Institution Press. p. 231. ISBN 978-0-8157-9820-0.
  4. ^ Minnich 2008, p. 238.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Smith, Hazel (2015). North Korea: Markets and Military Rule. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 226. ISBN 978-0-521-89778-5.
  6. ^ a b c d Understanding North Korea: Totalitarian dictatorship, Highly centralized economies, Grand Socialist Family. Institute for Unification Education, Ministry of Unification. 30 January 2015. p. 173. GGKEY:Q35FXTAE44S.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Minnich 2008, p. 265.
  8. ^ a b c Hunter 2008, p. 122.
  9. ^ Hunter 2008, p. 103.
  10. ^ Tertitskiy, Fyodor (6 June 2016). "The good things in North Korea". NK News. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  11. ^ a b Minnich 2008, p. 267.
  12. ^ Minnich 2008, pp. 265, 267.

Works cited[edit]

  • Hunter, Helen-Louise (2008). "The Society and Its Environment". In Worden, Robert L. (ed.). North Korea: A Country Study (Fifth ed.). Washington: Government Printing Office. pp. 59–134. ISBN 978-0-16-088278-4. LCCN 2008028547.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Minnich, James M. (2008). "National Security". In Worden, Robert L. (ed.). North Korea: A Country Study (Fifth ed.). Washington: Government Printing Office. pp. 237–282. ISBN 978-0-16-088278-4. LCCN 2008028547.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

Further reading[edit]

  • Chŏng Yŏng-t'ae (2008). Internal and External Perceptions of the North Korean Army. Seoul: Korea Institute for National Unification. ISBN 978-89-8479-455-9.
  • Kim Chong-min (August 1999). "Conscription System and Soldiers' Lives in North Korea". Pukhan: 134–145.