We all hear the stories, but it’s only the people who have lived it that truly understand what conditions in North Korea are like.
Leader Kim Jong-Un this week declared that singing and drinking are banned in the tightly censored state, adding to the monumental list of prohibited activities that include using the internet, talking negatively about the government, sporting a mohawk and literally having an opinion.
It sounds completely absurd to us, but for North Koreans who are fed ridiculous propaganda and forced to regurgitate ideologies about their “supreme leader”, they’ve got no choice but to live that way.
In a recent expose from BBC News, a former female soldier of North Korea who managed to flee the country almost ten years ago has spoken out and shared her own frightful stories of her time serving in the military. She shared frightful details of how many women were raped, abused and even had their periods stop due to their poor health.
Lee So Yeon, now 41, joined the army voluntarily in 1992 and spent almost ten years in North Korea’s military service. It was during a time of famine, and So Yeon was motivated to volunteer because she would be guaranteed a meal every day.
But little did she know that conditions would be far from comfortable. At first, So Yeon was driven by a sense of patriotism and felt delighted after being given a hairdryer. But with access to electricity a rarity, she had little use for it.
It turns out that the basic needs of women in the North Korean army were not catered to at all. So Yeon said that she and her female colleagues were not provided for during menstruation, meaning they often had no choice but to reuse dirtied sanitary pads.
For some women, their menstrual periods stopped entirely.
“After six months to a year of service, we wouldn’t menstruate anymore because of malnutrition and the stressful environment,” she recollected.
“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.”
So Yeon also told of how they couldn’t clean themselves properly due to the poor washing facilities. She told BBC News: “there is no hot water. They connect a hose to the mountain stream and have water directly from the hose.” This water source often brought along with it frogs and snakes that would spurt through the hose onto their naked bodies.
While their training regime is less severe than for the male soldiers, the women are still required to complete daily tasks like cleaning and cooking. The men are exempted from such chores, as is the norm in the male-dominated society that North Korea still is.
So Yeon described how she slept in a bunk bed in a room with more than two dozen women. The rooms stank due to the sweat and other body odours that absorbed into and lingered in the mattresses made of rice hull.
Every woman was to keep two framed photographs next to their beds: one was of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, the other of his now deceased heir, Kim Jong-il.
While So Yeon says she was not raped during her time in the army, she said that many of her fellow female comrades 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.”
She served as a sergeant in a signals unit near the South Korean border, and finally left in 2001 when she was 28 years old. So Yeon struggled to readjust to life outside the military, especially financially. In 2008, she decided to escape the country and managed to flee to South Korea on her second attempt.
Just two years ago it was announced that all women in North Korea must do seven years of military service after turning 18. Men are required to serve ten, making it the longest mandatory service in the world.
The fact that So Yeon volunteered of her own accord all those years ago and stayed in the army despite the horrifying conditions may be astounding to many. But sadly, it serves as yet another example of how the hostage citizens of South Korea can do little but accept their prescribed fate under tyrannical rule.