Roh Chol Min, that slipped across the fortified border, defines an army life of corruption, hunger—and dedication to ‘Supreme Leader’ Kim Jong Un.

You are watching: A north korean defector’s tale shows rotting military


A North korean defector defines a military rife with graft and hunger. One of the upstream soldier’s jobs: searching for praying mantis eggs because that his superiors to sell.

Roh Chol Min , who slipped throughout the strengthened border, explains an military life of corruption, hunger—and dedication to ‘Supreme Leader’ Kim Jong Un.

Mr. Roh had won the desire position, in the so late summer of 2017, fan to his sharpshooting skills and height; in ~ 5-feet-8-inches that is person that is abnormal tall because that North Korea. Yet when the attended his first target practice, he to be stunned. Nobody else had actually bothered to show up. His compatriots had bribed senior officers to prevent the drill.

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What Mr. Roh involved learn—and what eventually drove him come defect to south Korea—was a difference that separated him from his elite comrades. Unlike them, he lacked the money come buy better treatment, much faster promotions, reprieve indigenous training and also even enough food to save from walking hungry. “I saw no future for myself,” he says.

North Korea’s future itself appeared hazy when leader Kim Jong Un shunned public appearances for almost three weeks in April, and rumors swirled around his health. After he reappeared, the North go out up a jointly operation inter-Korean liaison office after Kim Yo Jong, sister and also confidante the Mr. Kim, expressed rage over Seoul-based defector groups sending antiregime leaflets end the border. North Korea announced it had actually put troops ~ above alert and began reinstalling propaganda loudspeakers at the border the it had actually dismantled after ~ a 2018 inter-Korean pledge to ton down army tensions. derekwadsworth.com

Then critical week, Mr. Kim suddenly asserted a suspension that military action directed at south Korea. North Korea again gotten rid of the loudspeakers and also has yet to conduct additional actions targeting the South.Yet Mr. Kim’s tight on power, in ~ its most handy level, hinges on phibìc Korea’s military, the regime’s big institution. Armed forces experts, in the U.S. And also Asia, have long speculated the country’s armed forces space rotting from the inside, racked by corruption and also strategic decisions that funnel priceless funds into nuclear weapons and also missile research instead of caring for its troops.

Now a growing stream that defectors are building out the picture with gripping an individual accounts the deprivation.Roughly 33,000 north Koreans have fled to south Korea over the years, including homemakers, traders and also even a couple of diplomats. Many took courses through China. Because 1996, only 20 have defected throughout the heavily strengthened DMZ while offer in the military, according to an inner South oriental government record reviewed by the Journal.

The wall surface Street newspaper spoke with Mr. Roh for an ext than 15 hrs over the previous year, in his an initial interview v Western media. His account, which couldn’t be individually confirmed, verifies and also illuminates wider views by knowledge agencies, North oriental defectors and also researchers.

“It was lawless there,” Mr. Roh, in his beforehand 20s, says now. “If you had actually money, you might basically gain away through anything.”if(!window.loadCSS) function loadCSS(e,t,n)window.loadCSS=loadCSS; #g-NKSOLDIER-box.ai2html_export max-width: 299px; width:100%; margin: 0 auto; .g-aiImg margin-top: -1.2px; .g-_valign margin-top: -2px; div text-shadow: -1px -1px 0 #fff, 1px -1px 0 #fff, -1px 1px 0 #fff, 1px 1px 0 #fff; div text-shadow: 1px 1px 2px #fff; div text-shadow: -1px -1px 0 #000, 1px -1px 0 #000, -1px 1px 0 #000, 1px 1px 0 #000; div text-shadow: 1px 1px 2px #000; div text-shadow: -1px -1px 0 #dddddd, 1px -1px 0 #dddddd, -1px 1px 0 #dddddd, 1px 1px 0 #dddddd; div text-shadow: 1px 1px 2px #dddddd; #g-NKSOLDIER-box .g-artboard margin:0 auto; #g-NKSOLDIER-box ns margin:0; .g-aiAbs position:absolute; .g-aiImg display:block; width:100% !important; .g-aiSymbol position: absolute; box-sizing: border-box; .g-aiPointText ns white-space: nowrap; #g-NKSOLDIER-box tspan position:relative; overflow:hidden; #g-NKSOLDIER-box tspan p font-family:Retina,Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif; font-weight:300; font-size:15px; line-height:20px; filter:alpha(opacity=100); -ms-filter:progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.Alpha(Opacity=100); opacity:1; letter-spacing:0em; text-align:left; color:rgb(51.0000007599592,51.0000007599592,51.0000007599592); text-transform:none; padding-bottom:0; padding-top:0; mix-blend-mode:normal; font-style:normal; height:auto; position:static; #g-NKSOLDIER-box tspan .g-pstyle0 font-weight:500; font-size:18px; #g-NKSOLDIER-box tspan .g-pstyle1 font-weight:500; height:20px; color:rgb(50.0000008195639,50.0000008195639,50.0000008195639); #g-NKSOLDIER-box tspan .g-pstyle2 font-weight:700; height:20px; color:rgb(255,255,255); #g-NKSOLDIER-box tspan .g-pstyle3 font-weight:400; height:20px; color:rgb(255,255,255); #g-NKSOLDIER-box tspan .g-pstyle4 font-weight:700; line-height:17px; height:17px; #g-NKSOLDIER-box tspan .g-pstyle5 font-weight:400; height:20px; #g-NKSOLDIER-box tspan .g-pstyle6 font-size:13px; line-height:17px; color:rgb(114.000000804663,114.000000804663,114.000000804663); #g-NKSOLDIER-_300px position:relative; overflow:hidden; #g-NKSOLDIER-_300px ns font-family:Retina,Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif; font-weight:700; font-size:15px; line-height:17px; height:auto; filter:alpha(opacity=100); -ms-filter:progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.Alpha(Opacity=100); opacity:1; letter-spacing:0em; text-align:left; color:rgb(51.0000007599592,51.0000007599592,51.0000007599592); text-transform:none; padding-bottom:0; padding-top:0; mix-blend-mode:normal; font-style:normal; position:static; #g-NKSOLDIER-_300px .g-pstyle0 font-weight:500; line-height:20px; height:20px; color:rgb(50.0000008195639,50.0000008195639,50.0000008195639); #g-NKSOLDIER-_300px .g-pstyle1 line-height:20px; height:20px; color:rgb(255,255,255); #g-NKSOLDIER-_300px .g-pstyle2 font-weight:400; line-height:20px; height:20px; color:rgb(255,255,255); #g-NKSOLDIER-_300px .g-pstyle3 height:17px; #g-NKSOLDIER-_300px .g-pstyle4 font-weight:400; line-height:20px; height:20px; facing Off derekwadsworth.com

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To deal with deterioration in its standard military, north Korea looks for an upper hand in thin numbers. NORTHKOREASOUTHKOREATroops599,0001,280,000Tanks4,3002,300Combat aircraft410810Amphibious vesselsand surface combatants110680Helicopters40290Submarines

7010Source: southern Korea’s Defense White paper 2018Mr. Kim, dealing with Western sanctions over his atom program and also strains do by the coronavirus pandemic, demands unquestioned military vitality all the much more now. At a Workers’ Party meeting late last year, that announced a “new strategic weapon” would be unveiled soon and encouraged his human being to tighten their belts and prepare themselves because that life under sanctions. In the country’s Covid-19 fight, of i m sorry Pyongyang has yet to report a single case, soldiers beat a vital role locking down borders and ensuring citizens abide by preventive measures.

North Korea maintains among the world’s largest standing armies with about 1.2 million energetic soldiers. Pyongyang spends approximately a quarter of that is gross residential product on armed forces expenditures, the highest possible ratio amongst 170 nations tracked through U.S. State room estimates. In contrast, America’s defense spending represents around 3% that GDP.

Little of the money trickles down to front-line troops, come hear defectors talk. Mr. Roh, serving just throughout the border from south Korean and American troops, had expected the significant DMZ role would mean plentiful food, arranged leadership and also focused training. Instead soldiers died from accidental discharges the weapons. Superiors stole his food. The withered to 90 pounds in a couple of months, eating wild mushrooms and also somehow preventing the toxicity ones that eliminated others. The just thing extensively available, that recalled, was cigarettes. derekwadsworth.com

“Don’t you desire a promotion?” he claims a commander as soon as asked him, if demanding a payout he can not afford.North korean men, with few exceptions, offer for at the very least 10 years. They room conscripted at a young age partly to indoctrinate certain allegiance to the state. But it is a hardship that has required some enlistees to crack.

From 2016 to 2018, 6 soldiers defected over the inter-Korean border. One sprinted across the border under heavy gunfire, request 12 liters of blood infusion while undergoing therapy by South korean doctors, do headlines across the world. He was found to have actually an exceptionally lengthy parasitic worm in his stomach. Another wore shabby boots covering in apparel while offer in the snow-capped hills of eastern Korea, prior to making a operation for it throughout the DMZ. One more active-duty soldier defected throughout the border critical year.

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None the the soldiers would have been informed of Mr. Kim’s recent lack if they were still serving within North Korea, Mr. Roh says, as the twice-a-day news broadcasts nothing report ~ above the supreme Leader’s health and wellness status. The public didn’t discover why Mr. Kim was lacking for almost seven weeks during a 2014 fish eye surgery, receiving hints only afterward when the leader emerged with a cane and a limp. “The residential audience is retained in the dark about these things,” Mr. Roh says.

As a boy, Mr. Roh grew up in relative deluxe in a rural mountain town near the Chinese border, through a television, a couch, and also batteries because that electricity. His grandparents were extremely educated elites in Pyongyang; his grandfather even attended university v Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father. Both his parents functioned for a time yet life ended up being more daunting as the economic situation contracted, and also often both were the end of work. He has memories that his enlarge sister offering handpicked herbs therefore she might feed the a potato.

He states he dreamy of involvement the North korean military—a feeling that deepened ~ Mr. Kim suspect the mantle the “Supreme Leader” in late 2011.Before he landing his DMZ post, Mr. Roh to be drafted into one the the many units that comprise North Korea’s 200,000-strong special forces, in huge part, because of his social class. When going v a lift check, Mr. Roh remembers one officer native the ministry of the People’s equipped Forces coming to view him. “You have a great foundation, comrade,” the official told him.

At his an initial post in the distinct forces, Mr. Roh’s physical boundaries were experiment through challenging military training, absence of food and proper medical care. His commitment for Mr. Kim to be reinforced by day-to-day ideological sessions.One “glorious” day, Mr. Roh recalled, the leader himself went to his base. Mr. Kim showed up in his luxurious black color van, escorted through bodyguards. Mr. Roh claims he almost choked together he observed the leader happen by indigenous afar. He sobbed into his flavorless key of dinner, overwhelmed through the general’s presence. Not daring come look at the leader directly, Mr. Roh feel his head throbbing.

Once Mr. Kim left, Mr. Roh stood v his other soldiers, fanatically chanting, “Long live general Kim!”SHARE your THOUGHTS What execute you make of the North oriental defector’s revelations? sign up with the conversation below.Even a televised picture of Mr. Kim inspecting a manufacturing facility or farm would certainly prompt Mr. Roh and his fellow soldiers come sit up straight, neaten your uniforms and also clap in unison. Citizens room taught native a young period that North korean leaders need to hail native the “Mount Paektu bloodline” v a straight lineage to the country’s founder Kim Il Sung. The is unimaginable anyone however a Kim would dominance the country, Mr. Roh says: “It is a respect you just feel for Kim family members.”

When Mr. Roh arrived at the DMZ posting after ~ toiling v a 12-hour train journey on phibìc Korea’s world War II-era railways, he to be ordered to move bricks in ~ a building and construction site the a brand-new dining facility. An officer approached him.“You carry out as i say. If I desire to to win you, ns beat you. If i tell you come die, girlfriend die,” he claims the officer said him.

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Photographs through Tim Franco because that The wall surface Street journal Mr. Roh, now in his early 20s, live alone in southern Korea prior to settling under at the dormitory.Mr. Roh walks the dormitory dog early in the morning. In the days prior to his defection, he had actually gone days without sleep.

Mr. Roh practice in the backyard that the house. He claims his physical limits were experiment through challenging military training, absence of food and also proper medical treatment in the one-of-a-kind forces.Mr Roh was recruited come the prior lines for his spicy shooting an abilities and height.

The soldiers were mobilized to relocate bricks day and also night. Mr. Roh was just assigned come the building project because that his first three days. He didn’t acquire to check out the cafeteria completed, together he defected after simply three months at the front lines.Corruption to be rampant at the border, where males from elite backgrounds were stationed. Officers sold the rice detailed to the unit at a adjacent market, feeding soldiers cheaper corn porridge. The front-line soldiers, through high-ranking parents, carried approximately cash as bribes.

His main duty to be to was standing guard in ~ a short article overlooking the DMZ. Mr. Roh worked 13-hour move in a uniform the hardly retained him warm. The temperature dropped to nearly 40 degrees listed below zero. Together he collection out for duty every morning, his skin cracked and also eyebrows frosted in ~ every breath.

The rather avoided was standing in the cold, having bribed the unit’s commanders with U.S. Dollars at sums of up to $150 a month. The payments bought extra food, attract warmer clothes and also making weekly call calls to family.Money can buy an instant promotion and assist a soldier drop the end of training. Mr. Roh feel devastated. That watched as the others delighted in extra sleep and went out to local sectors to to buy sweet bread. He hadn’t to be able to do a solitary call come his family and also spent most of his time in ~ the safety post.

Inside north Korea’s front-line guard posts, posters that South oriental aircraft held on the walls. Every of the South oriental combat planes to be labeled under their photo with your models. Photos of South oriental soldiers in their military uniforms were posted top top the wall for familiarization. Mr. Roh wonder if their stays were any type of different, as he shivered in the cold.

In the weeks prior to his defection, Mr. Roh often stood in ~ his guard post, having actually gone days without sleep. Messages came with the call in tap code as he sat inside the guard article alone. “Don’t fall asleep,” a commander signaled.Some job Mr. Roh walked the end into areas to achieve impossible missions: to bring back 100 praying mantis eggs within two hours. The police officers would offer the egg at the marketplace, to be supplied in Chinese medicine. Mr. Roh trudged approximately the reed field with a plastic bag make the efforts to fill the quota, from which the police officers would profit.

Young soldiers like Mr. Roh learned to become members the the ruling Workers’ Party. Gaining party member is a action up the society ladder in phibìc Korea, a country dominated in all elements by the ruling party. To pass the test, Mr. Roh supplied the small time he had actually to memorize military legislation by filling his notebook with army regulations. But within a month Mr. Roh uncovered himself lacking the money to also buy a brand-new notebook or a pen.

Officers pressured Mr. Roh to contact his parents for money. One time, they lent him sufficient for a two-minute phone contact home. Together an officer stood beside Mr. Roh nudging him to ask for money, he can not say a word around how ache life was at the front lines. His sister sent him accumulation to sheathe the phone call call—the indistinguishable of a dollar. With the couple of pennies left over, he bought a notebook and a flashlight.

The border smelled of rotten animals. Mr. Roh regularly heard wild boars electrocuted by the fence. At other times, with his binoculars, Mr. Roh might see South oriental tourists curiously spring over right into North Korea.var insetData_1083125=function() return "uuid":"2040155c-a92e-47e6-9d57-d355600662f8","slug":"nksoldier-2","sub_type":"parallax-gallery","includeData":true,"version":"1.0.5","fallbackCssUrl":"https://asset.wsj.net/wsjnewsgraphics/parallax-gallery/fallback.min.1.0.5.css","fallbackJsUrl":"https://asset.wsj.net/wsjnewsgraphics/parallax-gallery/fallback.min.1.0.5.js","cssUrl":"https://asset.wsj.net/wsjnewsgraphics/parallax-gallery/app.min.1.0.5.css","jsUrl":"https://asset.wsj.net/wsjnewsgraphics/parallax-gallery/app.min.1.0.5.js","options":"transition":"fade","items":<"type":"image","image":true,"options":"background":"pg-dark","isStickyCaption":false,"textLocation":"pg-left","data":"media":"https://images.wsj.net/im-204608","mediaBody":"Mr. Roh unloads a van at his part-time task at a wedding buffet before guests arrive.

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">,"isBleed":false,"isOffset":false,"isMargin":false,"isHeader":false,"isWrap":false,"isInline":false,"isMobile":true; Mr. Roh unloads a van at his part-time project at a wedding buffet prior to guests arrive.

Photographs through Tim Franco for The wall surface Street journal He prays prior to breakfast at the begin of the work-related day. He sometimes skips meals currently that food is plentiful.Mr. Roh has made friends through coworkers his age. In the North oriental military, his comrades bribed officials for extra food, clothes and weekly phone call calls to family.

Mr. Roh is currently enrolled in ~ a university in Seoul and works weekends at the buffet.He says his household members in the North would certainly have tiny protection from Covid-19.In the days leading approximately his decision end whether to flee, Mr. Roh says military officials accused that of thefts rice crackers—a crime he says he didn’t commit. His squad leader to win him and also he was required to endure self-criticism sessions.

One December 2017 morning, as soon as he make the short walk to his DMZ safety post, a tantalizing—but dangerous—idea flashed in his head. Passing under a North korean flag he refused to salute because that the an initial time. Mr. Roh climate lifted up a steel fence v a gentle nudge of his rifle butt. He crawled under. And made a operation for it.

When the bolted, Mr. Roh waded v chest-high waters, rifle over his shoulder, transporting 90 bullets and also two hand grenades. Together Mr. Roh ran through the fog to freedom, hoping he wouldn’t action on a floor mine, a propaganda slogan concerned mind: “No issue the temptation, us shall protect the nation.”

The slogan, installed in his storage from years of chanting, sent shivers under his spine as he taken into consideration the enormousness the his betrayal.Once that safely got to the South korean side, soldiers barked at him: “Are friend a defector?” but Mr. Roh to be puzzled. He had actually never heard the word before.

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Now the reads Sherlock Holmes novels, which he finds much more entertaining than the Kim hagiographies the was compelled to consume. Food is currently so numerous he occasionally skips a meal. He’s arisen a fondness for warm lattes.Mr. Roh recently enrolled at a college in Seoul and works weekends at a wedding-hall buffet. As he watches virtual lectures native his home, feeling safe native the coronavirus, Mr. Roh worries about his household members in the North who have little protection native the pandemic. The shudders reasoning of how he’d it is in treated together a North oriental soldier. “They would leave us to die,” Mr. Roh says. “We’re thought about disposable.”

He carries about guilt about his defection—especially because he doesn’t recognize what happened to his family. The Kim regime regularly punishes family members members the defectors. Yet Mr. Roh tries not to dwell top top the unknown as well much. That only causes him an ext pain.“I try to forget every day,” the says.