Technically, North Korea is still at war with South Korea. Although the fighting between the two countries ended in 1953 after three years of bitter conflict, only an armistice, or ceasefire, was actually signed. The parties to the war have never actually subscribed to a formal peace treaty. And that is the context within which North Korea has one of the most highly militarized societies in the world.
One piece of evidence of this extreme militarization is the level of dedication demanded by the North Korean regime and its leader, Kim Jong-un. All Korean men and women are subject to compulsory military service. Men have to serve for ten years while women serve for six.
In fact, North Korea spends no less than 20 percent of its annual national wealth on the military, although much of that no doubt goes towards its nuclear weapons program rather than to the army. Nevertheless, it has a huge army considering its population of 25 million or so. The North Korean military force is believed to be almost 6.5 million strong.
Recently, a North Korean defector who had served in the army there, spoke to the BBC about her experiences in the military. Lee So Yeon, 41 at the time of her November 2017 interview, is the daughter of a professor who teaches university students. Many of her male relatives had served in the North Korean military.
In the 1990s, a terrible famine hit the country. It was caused by a number of factors, including financial mismanagement by the central planning system of North Korea, the withdrawal of Russian support and a string of natural disasters. Figures are hard to come by, but the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that between 500,000 and 600,000 died from starvation.
Like many other North Korean women, Lee actually volunteered to join the military. But her motivation to join the armed forces in 1992 was not just rooted in patriotism, although that played a part. Simply, it was the fact that in the army, she would be fed on a regular basis.
Jieun Baek, author of the book North Korea’s Hidden Revolution, told the BBC, “The famine resulted in a particularly vulnerable time for women in North Korea. More women had to enter the labor force and more were subject to mistreatment, particularly harassment and sexual violence.” In Lee’s case, starting working life meant joining the army.
Baek counsels that evidence from defectors needs to be handled with circumspection. She points out, “There is such a high demand for knowledge from North Korea. It almost incentivizes people to tell exaggerated tales to the media, especially if that comes with [a] nice pay check.”
“A lot of defectors who don’t want to be in the media are very critical of ‘career defectors,’” Baek continued. “It’s worth keeping this in mind.” But in the case of Lee, Baek says her story fits with other accounts. And as the BBC did not pay Lee for her interview, it lends her account added credibility.
Lee was just 17 when she joined up, and at first she was happy with her new life. Small things, like the fact that she was given a hairdryer, were a real bonus. Unfortunately, though, regular power outages meant it was all but useless. And she discovered that women were expected to do domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning, while this was not required of the men.
French author Juliette Morillot is an expert on North Korea. She told the BBC, “North Korea is a traditional male-dominated society and traditional gender roles remain. Women are still seen as ttukong unjeongsu, which literally translates as ‘cooking pot lid drivers,’ and means that they should ‘stay in the kitchen where they belong.’”
As well as these domestic duties, Lee and her comrades were subjected to rigorous physical training and drill regimes. Indeed, so grueling were the demands on the young recruits that many actually stopped having periods. Physical exertion, stress and poor diet combined to take a terrible toll on the young recruits.
Lee remembered, “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. […] Because the situation is so bad if they were having periods too that would have been worse.”
And when any of the women did menstruate, they were left to fend for themselves by the North Korean Army. Lee says that women on their periods frequently had no choice but to reuse sanitary towels. And some bases had no women’s toilets, denying the recruits the most basic of privacy.
Lee recalled other details of her military service in an interview with The World. “I slept in a female barracks with 30 other women,” she said. “We all slept on bunk beds. Each of us had a little cabinet with photos of [North Korea’s founder] Kim Il-sung and [his now deceased heir] Kim Jong-il on top.”
Meanwhile, the promise of plentiful food that had lured Lee into the army was not all that it had seemed. Although there was a mouthwatering menu posted on the mess hall wall, it was far from the reality. “It was brilliant. Meat and tofu and those little rice cakes – and it changed throughout the week,” Lee remembered. “In reality, we just got bowls of rice with a little corn, over and over… I was always hungry.”
Shockingly, female soldiers also had to put up with gross sexual harassment, including rape. Although Lee says she was not raped, many others were. “The company commander would stay in his room at the unit after hours and rape the female soldiers under his command,” she told the BBC. “This would happen over and over without an end.”
In theory at least, the North Korean Army takes a serious view of rape. Anyone found guilty of the offense can be jailed for up to seven years. According to Juliette Morillot, though, the reality is very different. “Most of the time nobody is willing to testify,” she told the BBC. “So men often go unpunished.”
Lee achieved the rank of sergeant in her signals unit, which was based near the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. She left the military in 2001 when she was 28 and returned to her family. But she found life outside the army difficult, while money was always short.
Lee So Yeon’s first bid to defect in 2008 ended when she was arrested at the Chinese border. She served a year in a prison camp. But she succeeded on her second attempt, swimming the Tumen River to China before ending up in South Korea. Now Lee works with the New Korea Women’s Union, an organization dedicated to publicizing the plight of women in Kim Jong-un’s oppressive one-party state.