North Korean soldiers in Russia earning foreign currency still can’t return home

North Korean Workers in Russia (Kang Dong Wan, Professor, Dong-A University)

North Korean soldiers sent to Russia to earn foreign currency were unable to return home, despite having completed their three years of overseas service.

A North Korean source in Russia told Daily NK on April 1 that a North Korean soldier in his twenties, surnamed Choi – along with four other soldiers from the Seventh General Office – were not allowed to return home. Their three-year service in Russia ended a long time ago, but instead of returning home, they are involved in foreign currency earning activities.

Generally, North Korean overseas workers are sent abroad for three years before others are sent to replace them. After the three years have elapsed, workers are expected to return home to their original position.

However, North Korea’s prolonged border closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the return of many overseas workers. This is what allegedly happened to Choi and the other four soldiers.

Choi and the other soldiers were sent to Russia in 2018 before the pandemic hit. In principle, they should have returned to North Korea in 2021. Although they were eligible for release from the army last year, their release orders have been delayed and they are still in Russia to earn currency foreign to the North Korean government.

Some soldiers in similar positions even tried to flee. According to the source, two soldiers from the Seventh General Office left their base in Moscow without permission in mid-March. They were later apprehended by officers from the Ministry of State Security (MSS).

During their interrogation, the two soldiers told MSS officials that they had gone out to earn some extra money, but that did not convince the authorities. The soldiers are currently imprisoned for attempted defection.

“The first thing North Korean authorities consider when deciding which soldiers to send overseas is whether or not an individual will flee to a foreign country,” the source said, adding that “since the soldiers are fully armed politically and ideologically, and because they have families at home, [the authorities] prefer them to regular workers.

For the North Korean government, the most important thing when sending North Koreans abroad is loyalty to the ruling Workers’ Party and the Supreme Leader (Kim Jong Un). In addition, the families of soldiers sent abroad are used as hostages to ensure that no defections take place. The logic is that while a person’s thoughts or ideology may change, the family is something much more permanent, and therefore a much more powerful tool that the government can use to prevent defections.

“There are soldiers in other units who have not been able to return home despite being old enough to be discharged,” the source said. “But I also know that there are many soldiers who are thinking of fleeing because of the long working hours that extend into the night and the poor wages, which are not even enough to buy cigarettes.”

According to a report submitted by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service to the National Assembly Intelligence Committee in February 2021, North Korea has shortened mandatory military service periods for North Korean men and women. For men, the length of service was shortened from “nine to 10 years” to “seven to eight years”, while for women it was shortened to five years from the previous “six to seven years”.

Translated by Gabriela Bernal

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