A BBC report details the horrific circumstances under which North Korean women served in the army. A former soldier, Lee So Yeon defected to South Korea via China after swimming across the Tumen river and lived to tell how she served more than 10 years in the army. So Yeon joined the army when she was 17 years old and the whole country was devastated by a famine in the 1990s. Like thousands of other women, she volunteered to enrol in the military, driven by the guarantee of a meal each day.
Lee So Yeon said that they were given photo frames of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung and his successor Kim Jong-il that they were mandated to keep atop their drawers. She said,
The mattress we sleep on, it’s made of the rice hull. So all the body odour seeps into the mattress. It’s not made of cotton. Because it’s rice hull, all the odour from sweat and other smells are there. It’s not pleasant.
As North Korea is a traditionally male-dominated society, women in the army were required to do daily chores like cooking and cleaning that male soldiers were exempted from. The hard training and scarce food rations took a toll on the bodies of female recruits like So Yeon and many of them stopped menstruating. So Yeon narrated,
After six months to a year of service, we wouldn’t menstruate any more because of malnutrition and the stressful environment. The female soldiers were saying that they are glad that they are not having periods. They were saying that they were glad because the situation is so bad if they were having periods too that would have been worse.
North Korean women still use traditional cotton pads which they have to wash early in the morning out of men’s sight. So Yeon said that until 2015 because the army did not make any provisions for menstruation, they had to reuse sanitary pads.
Female soldiers stationed in the countryside outside the cities still do not have access to private toilets. Some of them often have to relieve in front of their male soldiers. Due to such vulnerability, sexual harassment and even rape were rife in the military. Though Yo Seon said she was not raped during her time in the army, her fellow colleagues were.
The company commander would stay in his room at the unit after hours and rape the female soldiers under his command. This would happen over and over without an end.
Though North Korea’s military says that men found guilty of rape are sentenced up to seven years in jail, the men often go unpunished as nobody testifies.
Earlier this year, a video of North Korean defector Park Yeon-mi went viral where she described how her mother allowed herself to be raped in order for Park to escape the country.