SEOUL—North Korean soldiers, including elite special forces troops, are facing severe food shortages along with the rest of the population, according to a recent defector from the Korean People’s Army, the North’s communist army.
The officer, a career military officer in his 40s who escaped through China last fall, also disclosed that hoped-for improvements in living conditions in the communist state under new supreme leader Kim Jong-un have not taken place.
"Kim Jong-un repeatedly states that he will improve the livelihood of ordinary people but nothing has really changed," said the defector who spoke through an interpreter and uses a pseudonym, Kim Gil-su.
"There have been no concrete actions to improve the livelihood of the people, so people no longer trust Kim Jong-un’s words and statements."
Kim disclosed the hardships of life in the military and society in North Korea to the Washington Free Beacon in his first news interview since escaping North Korea. He requested anonymity because of security concerns.
The defector was part of North Korea’s elite Storm Corps, but says he was not involved in that unit’s domestic security activities.
Human rights groups have said Storm Corps security forces have been used by Kim Jong-un to crack down on popular dissent in North Korea.
The soldier’s escape involved swimming across a river into China armed with a knife that he carried in his mouth. "I had no other place to carry it while swimming and I needed it in case I had to fight security officers or to commit suicide, if I was captured," he said.
Kim warned that instability is growing inside the reclusive state.
"The so-called mosquito net should be destroyed so that other ideas and ideologies can enter North Korean society and help collapse the regime," Kim said.
North Korea’s tightly controlled information infrastructure is frequently referred to as a "mosquito net" that permits only limited information in or out of the country.
"Otherwise if the regime continues, the country will experience a very serious internal explosion throughout the population," Kim continued.
The military uses a catch phrase to try to inspire soldiers and the population. The phrase is "if you are committed to death and work on that principle, nothing is impossible," according to Kim.
The slogan is widely used in lectures and posters within the military.
On starvation within the military, Kim said military officers are much better off than the general population and lower ranking troops.
Lower ranking soldiers are limited to meals of "corn rice"—ground corn fashioned into kernels of rice.
The troops "are very young and strong and are really energetic and require food," Kim said. "But such needs are not met by the military. So some soldiers try to escape the military. Some steal food just to live."
Kim said the military, with 1.1 million active duty troops and 800,000 reservists makes up a significant percentage of the population but does not produce any food, so it faces chronic food shortages.
"Out of one year, for about five months the military soldiers do not have enough rice," Kim said.
"Every year in June is the time when potatoes are produced and in June and July, soldiers feed on potatoes. And during July and August it is farm harvesting season, they feed on corn."
The food shortages are so severe soldiers cannot live on the rations provided by the military and must go outside of bases and steal food to survive.
"They are in a very serious situation," Kim said.
"Those who are alert go out and steal some food, they eat it and they can survive. But those who are really conservative and diligent do not go out stealing, so they suffer from hunger, they got weak and they die. I buried seven people, my friends who starved to death," he said.
Food shortages and starvation are widely known to be part of life for most North Koreans. Kim’s report is distinctive in his claim that malnutrition extends not only into the military but even to elite special forces units.
North Korea’s numerous, highly trained special operations troops are said to endure harsh training involving martial arts courses, strength training, and winter water immersion.
North Korea for the past several decades experienced frequent nationwide famines due to a combination of bad weather and regime mismanagement of the economy. As a result, food shortages are chronic and life for most of North Korea’s 25 million people is grim.
The defector said he does not believe it is possible for North Korea to become a liberal, free, and democratic society without the fall of the regime.
"The North is called the Democratic People’s Republic, but it is not democratic at all. Rather, it’s a kind of tyranny by the Kim family. If Kim Jong-un disappears there will be another one from the Kim family to become leaders."
Food aid supplied to North Korea by South Korea has been misused by the military, the defector said.
Soldiers take off their uniforms and change the tags on vehicles when they pick up foreign aid from foreign relief agencies to disguise the fact that the aid is bolstering the military.
"The South Korean government should stop such action because such support does not go to ordinary people. It goes directly to the military," he said.
Additionally, in order to raise money, troops take the donated food aid and sell it in markets.
South Korean government officials said the Pyongyang regime has launched economic reforms similar to those in China but on a much more limited basis.
The human rights situation in the country is very serious, the defector disclosed.
"In North Korea money is human rights, and those with money can have human rights. But those without money do not have any human rights," Kim said.
The Kim regime sought to impose what the defector said is a "mosquito net" of pervasive information controls over the entire country designed to prevent "capitalist" and "anti-socialist" ideas from entering the country.
After Kim Jong-un took power following the death of his father in December 2011, North Koreans thought life would improve because the 32-year-old leader looked similar to his grandfather and regime founder Kim Il-sung.
"Many people in North Korea admit the situation is undesirable and they have a lot of complaints but they cannot express that openly," he said.
North Koreans would rather watch foreign films instead of propaganda movies, all of which glorify Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
Kim said the transition from life in the North was hard.
"I was taught in North Korea that South Korea was a deplorable country, sick with capitalism," he said. "But after I came here it was vice versa.
North Korea was sick country with a nonsensical system."
"In North Korea, the regime states that our country is a people oriented society and the happiest country in the world, but it’s not true. It’s all lies," he said.
Soldiers in the Korean People’s Army undergo ideological indoctrination sessions twice every day, in sessions lasting 45 minutes.
"They are taught that reunification by force is the only way for there to be reunification" of the country, Kim said of the sessions. North Korean soldiers are also told that South Korea’s military is not stronger than the North.
A central theme of the soldiers’ indoctrination is that they must "live" for the past leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
"They are taught that from very early ages and must live that way until their death," he said.