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A former soldier says that life as a woman in the fourth largest army in the world, North Korea, was so hard that many stopped having menstruation.
And the violations, he says, were one more thing in life for many of the women he served in the Armed Forces.
For almost a decade Lee So Yeon slept on the bunk below a room he shared with more than a dozen women. Each of them had a small chest of drawers where they kept their uniforms.
Above that chest of drawers, each one kept two photographs: one of the North Korean founder, Kim Il Sung, and another of his deceased heir, Kim Jong Il.
It’s been ten years since he left, but he still remembers the smell of concrete barracks.
“We used to sweat a lot, the mattress where we slept was made of rice husk, so the mattress was impregnated with all the body odor, it is not made of cotton, as it was rice husk, the smell of sweat and other things remains There, it’s not very nice. ”
One of the reasons was the conditions in which the washing facilities were located.
“As a woman, one of the hardest things was that you could not shower properly because there was no hot water,” says Lee So Yeon.
“They connected the hose to a stream in the mountain and the water came directly from there, frogs and snakes entered through the hose.”
The daughter of a university professor, So Yeon, who is now 41 years old, grew up in the north of the country.
Many men in his family had been soldiers and when the famine devastated North Korea in the 1990s he enlisted voluntarily, thinking he would have food secured every day.
Thousands of young women did the same.
“The famine resulted in a particularly vulnerable period for women in North Korea,” says Jieun Baek, author of the book “The Hidden Revolution of North Korea.”
“More women had to go to work and more were subject to abuse, specifically sexual harassment and violence.”
Trust the deserters
Juliette Morillot and Jieun Baek assure that the testimony of Lee So Yeon corresponds with other stories they have heard, but warn that the stories of the defectors must be taken with caution.
“There is a high demand for information about North Korea,” says Baek. “It almost encourages people to exaggerate their stories when they talk to the media, especially if it comes with a good check.” Many defectors who do not want to appear in the media are very critical of “career dropouts.” remember it. ”
The information that comes from North Korean government sources, on the other hand, tends to be pure propaganda.
The BBC did not pay Lee So Yeon for interviewing her.
To begin with, animated by a patriotic feeling and collective work, the 17-year-old enjoyed her life in the Armed Forces. She was impressed with the hair dryer that had been assigned to her, although the frequent power outages did not allow her to use it much.
The daily routine for men and women was practically the same. Women tended to have slightly shorter training regimens, but were forced to carry out daily tasks such as cleaning or cooking, of which men were exempt.
“North Korea is a traditional society dominated by men and traditional gender roles continue,” explains Juliette Morillot, author of “North Korea in 100 questions”, published in French.
“The women are still ttukong unjeongsu , which translates literally as ‘kitchen pot lid drivers’, which means they should ‘stay in the kitchen, where they belong’.
Hard training and waning affected the bodies of Lee So Yeon and her fellow recruits.
“After six months to one year of training we stopped having menstruation, due to malnutrition and the stressful environment.”
“The soldier women said they were happy for not having their periods, they said they were happy because the situation was so bad that having their periods would have made it worse.”
- About 70% of deserters in North Korea are women , a fact that some link to higher levels of unemployment among women.
- More than half are between 20 and 30 years old , partly because it is easier for young people to swim rivers and overcome bad weather in what is a difficult journey.
So Yeon says the army did not stock up for menstruation when she was a part, and that she and other women colleagues often had no choice but to reuse the sanitary wipes.
“Women to this day still use traditional white cotton wipes,” says Morillot. “They have to be washed every night, away from the sight of men, so women get up early and wash them.”
Morillot, who has just returned from a visit to the field in which he spoke with several soldiers, confirms that they often do not have menstruation.
“One of the girls I spoke with, who was 20 years old, told me that she trained so much that she had not menstruated for two years,” she explains.
Although Lee So Yeon joined the army voluntarily, in 2015 it was announced that all women in North Korea should do seven years of military service since they were 18 years old.
At the same time, the government took the unusual step of saying that it would distribute a quality brand of women’s health products called Daedong.
“It may have been a way to repair the conditions of the past,” says Baek. “It may have been a way to increase morale and that more women think they are taking care of them.”
A quality cosmetics brand called Pyongyang Products was also recently distributed to several women’s aviation units, after Kim Jong one asked in 2016 to compete with global brands such as Lancome, Chanel and Christian Dior.
Despite this, women soldiers do not always have access to private bathrooms and some told Morillot that they often have to go to the bathroom in front of men .
Military service in North Korea
- North Korean women must spend at least seven years in the army , and men ten years. It is the longest compulsory military service in the world.
- It is estimated that 40% of women between 18 and 25 years old wear uniforms, a figure that is expected to grow, given that military service became mandatory for women two years ago.
- The government says that around 15% of the country’s budget is spent on military spending, but analysis centers say the figure could be even 40%.
- Students with special qualities, for example for sports or music, may be exempted from military service.
Sexual harassment, say both Baek and Morillot, is widespread.
Morillot explains that when he mentioned the issue of rapes in the army with women soldiers in office, “most said it had happened to others.” None said that he had experienced it in his own flesh.
Lee So Yeon affirms that she was not raped during her time in the army between 1992 and 2001, but that many of her companions were.
“The commander of the company stayed in his room in the unit late and raped the female soldiers who were under his command.This happened again and again, without end.”
The army says it takes sexual abuse very seriously and that men found guilty of rape can be sentenced to up to seven years in prison.
“But most of the time nobody wants to testify, so many times men are not punished,” says Morillot.
Morillot adds that the silence against sexual abuse in the army is rooted in the “patriarchal attitudes of North Korean society,” the same attitudes that make women in the army responsible for daily tasks.
Women from poor backgrounds recruited into construction brigades, who live in small barracks or informal cabins are especially insecure, she said.
“Domestic violence is still widely accepted, and is not reported, so the same thing happens in the army, but I also insist on the fact that the same kind of culture (of harassment) exists in the South Korean army.”
Lee So Yeon, who served as a sergeant in a communication unit near the border with South Korea, finally left the army at age 28.
She was relieved to have the opportunity to spend more time with her family, but she also felt that she was not ready for life outside the military and had financial problems.
In 2008, he decided to escape to South Korea. On the first attempt she was trapped on the border with China and sent to an internment camp for a year.
On his second attempt, shortly after leaving prison, he swam the Tumen River and crossed into China. There, on the border, he met with an intermediary, who prepared everything so that he could reach South Korea through China.