Kim Dan-geum joined the North Korean army right out of high school because she wanted a better life.
Military service was one way of acquiring membership in the Korean Workers’ Party, which in turn opened up a host of opportunities and privileges like increased rations, better jobs and higher salaries.
“There was a divisional headquarters in front of our house,” said Kim, who in 2014 escaped to South Korea, where she now runs a popular YouTube channel talking about her military experiences.
“The female soldiers looked so pretty as they walked around in their army uniforms,” she said. “Seeing them every day made me think that I too must join the army.”
But she quickly found out that life in the Korean People’s Army was harsh and unforgiving. And she never forgot the bone-chilling cold.
“When you’re enlisted, you cannot think of yourself as a young woman. There is no time to dress up [and do makeup],” she said. “The weather in Pyongyang is very cold, and I had to work in the biting wind. I opened up a hole in the ice to wash my hair and do laundry.”
“I was hungry all the time. The food rations were not enough,” Kim said. “Meals were a bowl of rice with cabbage soup and some salted radish and cabbage.”
“Also we didn’t get sanitary pads, instead they gave us one meter of gauze cloth, which I divided into quarters to use, even washing and reusing them. Even as an officer we didn’t get sanitary pads.”
No breaks for female soldiers
Kim’s account provides a rare glimpse into life for women in North Korea’s 1.15-million strong military. About 20% of the armed forces are women according to South Korean estimates.
Every able bodied man must serve for seven or eight years. Women who sign up must serve for five. Female enlistment is said to be voluntary, but the government in recent years has strongly encouraged women to join, to the point that it is practically mandatory.
In North Korea, soldiers are viewed as more or less free labor for the government. Beyond their military training, troops are sent to work on farms and construction projects – and women are subjected to the same backbreaking physical labor as men.
Female soldiers can be seen carrying heavy rocks and firewood on their backs and clearing farmland by hand, as well as other menial tasks in a video that appeared on the YouTube channel Galaxy Stars TV, which carries footage of daily life in the North.
‘Stones on stretchers’
Another former soldier, Son Na-jung, told Radio Free Asia that troops who have completed the first half of their training are immediately sent off to be laborers, and there is no distinction between male and female no matter how hard the work is.
“In North Korea, everything is transported by humans. … I have carried stones on a stretcher so many times,” said Son, who was a sergeant in the Capital Defense Command at the time of her discharge from the army.
“When you join the military, gender is not a thing,” she said. “We are all only soldiers, so [labor] must be done by both men and women. Even if you are a woman, you must participate.”
Professor Kang Dong-wan of Dong-A University in Busan is the head of the South Korean city’s Hanawon resettlement center for North Korean escapees. For the past 10 years, he has frequently traveled to the Chinese border with North Korea and has taken pictures of North Koreans from across the Yalu River.
“I could see North Korean soldiers going out on the Yalu River in the middle of winter to fetch water,” he said. “I could see ordinary residents washing their clothes in the water in temperatures around minus 30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit).”
The North Korean military aggressively recruits women to join the military.
On Mar. 1, recruitment events were held at high schools nationwide to essentially force high school graduates to join, a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The Military Mobilization Office held talks with all non-college-bound male students in the senior class and female students who were placed by the school on enlistment lists, inviting them to serve as distinguished members of the Great General’s army, using the military rank to refer to the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.
But once they are in, the women never have family visits, outings or any kind of leave for the next five years – except in rare circumstances, the two women said.
For Kim, who enlisted at 17, the first two years of military life were miserable.
She knew that the only way to overcome despair was to distinguish herself. So she spent her nights studying speeches by North Korean leaders and the Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System, a set of rules that in practice have come to serve as the country’s supreme law and which soldiers have to demonstrate knowledge of to secure promotions.
“I memorized the 10 principles and the new year’s address so that I would not lose out to others,” said Kim. “I worked really hard to do well in training. No matter what, I had to do better than the others.”
Achieving in the eyes of her superiors would give her a brief respite from the daily toil.
“I was very good at shooting during one of our training events, so I received a commendation and got leave time after my first year,” said Kim. “Ordinary soldiers don’t get leave. There is no leave. You can only go home if you do very well in training and get a commendation.”
During and shortly after her military service, Kim said she had no regrets. She was proud of devoting her youth to the cause of the country she was born in. She was able to use her military service record to go to college and become a party secretary, then a government official.
But after defecting, her thoughts on the matter changed.
“When I came to South Korea, I found that there are many benefits for officers in the armed forces here. It made me regret serving,” Kim said. “At the time I didn’t know what I was doing, and I did it on a whim. I was full of will. But now that I think about it, I wish I hadn’t applied.”
She said that military life was bearable because she didn’t know any better.
“Now I think it is amazing what I did in that kind of poor environment. I can’t fathom why I was so excited about it back then,” she said. “I didn’t even know it could be so cold in the middle of winter, so I didn’t even bother to cover my face, and I lived like that for 10 years. I thought that was normal.”
‘Why did I live like that?’
Son also expressed regret.
“It’s supposed to be our time in full bloom [as young women.] It’s our time to study and go out on dates. It’s really sad that [female soldiers] are living life like that without being able to enjoy it.”
She now curses herself for joining and doing whatever she was told while she was enlisted.
“These days I think, ‘Why did I live like that? I have lived such a foolish life.’”
Kang, the professor, said that many of the female soldiers he has seen in his travels to the border region looked so young it would be more accurate to call them girls, rather than women.
He recounted a time he saw a boy and a girl in uniform throwing pebbles in the river, laughing together and holding hands.
“These are young men and women in their teens to early 20s. They have dreams and they will have romantic feelings and become attracted to each other while living together in the same spaces,” Kang said.
“It must be so pitiful to live like Kim Jong Un’s servant rather than being able to act on your own feelings or chase your own dreams.”
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Soram Cheon for RFA Korean.