In North Korea, the biggest threat to a soldier may be censorship — Radio Free Asia
The North Korean military is harshly punishing soldiers for disclosing “sensitive” information – including their location or unit size – in letters home, military sources told RFA.
In most armies around the world, especially in times of war, soldiers are generally prohibited from relaying certain facts about their deployment.
But in secretive North Korea, which is still technically at war with South Korea, even honest mistakes can have lifelong consequences.
A soldier was recently punished when censors discovered that a letter he had written revealed the whereabouts of the unit and the name of the battleship he was serving on, a military source from Sinpo, a town in the province, said. East of South Hamgyong, to RFA’s Korean service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“The soldier was arrested and questioned by the Department of State Security for nearly two months and was ultimately discharged from service with a dishonorable discharge,” he said.
“If you don’t complete your military service time and you’re punished and fired that way, that’s the end of any prospect of a good life.”
Each North Korean man serves about seven years in the armed forces, according to South Korean intelligence. All the mail they write is read and censored. Soldiers are supposed to use military postcards to write to family or loved ones to make it easier for censors to identify offending passages.
But supplies of postcards are dwindling, so soldiers are sending more letters written on plain paper, in makeshift envelopes, the source said. This offers more possibilities for errors.
“Military mail takes over a month or two for letters to arrive and leave, and soldiers are never able to write everything they want to say on the postcard,” the source said.
If letters containing sensitive information are captured by censors, the person who delivered the letter to the post office can be punished alongside the sender, he said.
“Earlier this month, a naval unit from an east coast squadron in the town of Sinpo held a training session on how not to disclose military secrets in letters,” the military source said. .
“The session highlighted how soldiers sent letters to civilian addresses containing confidential information that the public should not know. Soldiers were warned not to reveal troop locations, combat mission details and troop movements. These are acts of treason and in violation of the military oath,” he said.
Another soldier who was caught by censors was sent to work in a coal mine, a resident of South Hamgyong province told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“My friend’s younger brother, who joined the military, was punished and discharged from the military with a dishonorable discharge earlier this year. He bragged about his unit’s weaponry equipment in a letter to a friend back home who could not join the army due to his physical condition, and this was caught in the postal censorship,” said the second source.
“My friend’s brother was then deployed as a coal miner in a rural county. If you are discharged from the army for a mistake, you are placed in the most difficult areas of society and will be excluded from all personnel appointments. This includes Workers’ Party membership, academic commendations and recommendations,” she said.
Party membership unlocks certain privileges like better education, housing, and food rations—benefits no longer available to the former soldier.
“Mining work is hard and dangerous, so my friend’s parents tried to get their son out of the mine by all means, but it didn’t work out,” the second source said.
“My friend’s parents found that there was a note in their son’s discharge document, saying ‘He is to be assigned as a coal mine worker at the most difficult coal mine. It should never be transferred to another company,” she said.
Although a market economy has begun to emerge in recent years, North Koreans still have to report for their government-assigned jobs. Working in the mine offers no opportunity for the former soldier to earn money on the side.
“What I know of my friend’s younger brother is that he was bright and active. Now he is silent and rarely speaks. He does not meet his friends and he is very alone. Her parents are so sad,” she said.
“It seems excessive to impose a life sentence on young soldiers who inadvertently brag about information related to military secrets. The fact that every letter we send and receive is inspected by the State Security Department is also terrifying,” she said.
Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.