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March 3, 2024

Promised new homes don’t materialize for retired North Korean soldiers

Newly retired military officers in North Korea are complaining to authorities about a serious lack of housing, with many of them forced to stay with relatives in utility rooms and basements after decades of service to the country, sources told RFA.

The military officers, who joined up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were promised that the hardships they would experience in the line of duty would be worth it, because they would be well taken care of after completing their service.

But many have been waiting around for years for the government to provide them with homes. Some are beginning to think that it won’t happen at all.

“As winter begins, dissatisfaction with the authorities is rising among the retired officers. Their housing problems have not been resolved even after they’ve waited several years,” a local government employee from the port city of Hamhung on the East Coast told RFA Dec. 15.

“At the end of last month, several recently discharged military officers visited the Hamhung Municipal People’s Committee and protested the lack of housing support,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Most of the retired officers are living wherever they can, with friends, acquaintances or even in factory dormitories, according to the source.

Home construction has been put on hold due to a suspension of trade with China to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Chinese construction materials have not been available for almost two years in North Korea.

The central government has been funneling resources and electricity to the capital Pyongyang so that it can complete an ambitious national plan to construct 50,000 homes by 2025, including 10,000 by the end of this year.

But this has taken even more attention away from the provinces, the source said.

“Housing construction has been so sluggish here that receiving a state provided house is akin to picking the stars out of the sky,” the source said. “Still, the discharged officers visit the Urban Management Department of the People’s Committee every day to complain.”

Ex-soldiers, especially officers, are supposed to receive benefits like new homes in return for their 30 years of service, but Hamhung officials have been unable to comply, the source said.

“The housing problem for veterans is likely to be similar in other regions of the country, beyond just Hamhung,” the source said.

“It’s a difficult time for everyone to live these days, but the transition from military life is even more difficult. Veterans are accustomed to receiving monthly food rations while in the military. … They have to live their lives to the best of their ability where there are no rations at all,” said the source.

For many, the hard military life was better than their retirement, according to the source.

“They are tired of waiting for their house to be assigned. They are suffering from hardships they never experienced while in uniform,” the source said. “They are not hiding their dissatisfaction, saying, ‘Is this our reward for more than 30 years of hard work in service of the party and the country?’”

A resident of the city of Hyesan, on the border with China in Ryanggang province, told RFA that an uncle has been living with the family for three years while waiting for his own house from the government.

“My uncle visits the People’s Committee every week to find out when he will get his house, but he comes back discouraged because there is no prospect that the problem will be resolved,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“At least the veterans with parents and relatives can live with them, but most veterans have been assigned to places where there was nobody to support them, so now they live in basements of apartments or in storage rooms,” the second source said.

The economy has transformed radically since the time that the retired officers joined the military. Back then, the Soviet Union was still in existence, providing aid to Pyongyang that kept the economy stable. People could live off their government salaries.

Now government salaries are nowhere near enough to live on, and a nascent market economy has emerged. Most people earn their living doing secondary jobs, usually by running a family business.

“Veterans have no experience doing business in the market, so it is more difficult for them to live,” the second source said. “This is emerging as a real social problem, so urban youth who see these veterans suffering from housing shortages and hardships do not hope to become military officers, and women do not want to marry soldiers.”

Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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