It’s been a decade since Lee So Yeon left the North Korean army, but her memories are still there.
She remembers the room she shared with more than 20 other women. She remembers her uncomfortable bottom bunk and how much she sweat. She remembers having to bathe with a hose because there was no hot water.
“As a woman, one of the toughest things is that we can’t shower properly,” So Yeon told the BBC. “We would get frogs and snakes through the hose.”
So Yeon, who is now 41 years old, volunteered to join the military in the 1990s, when North Korea was faced with famine and enlisting in the army was one of the only ways to ensure a meal every day. She was only 17. North Korea has since made it mandatory for women to serve at least seven years in the military.
Even with a guaranteed source of food; however, So Yeon and the thousands of other North Korean teenage girls and young women who made the same decision were not fed enough to keep up with the demands of their daily activities.
Though women had slightly shorter physical training regimens than the men, they were also expected to clean and cook, a responsibility they did not share with men. The job was physically and emotionally demanding, which took its toll on women in the service.
“After six months to a year of service, we wouldn’t menstruate any more because of malnutrition and the stressful environment,” she said.
This can be attributed to functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA), which refers to the absence of a menstrual cycle due to malnutrition, stress, and intense physical activity. FHA in young women can lead to stress fractures, bone loss, delayed puberty and infertility, according to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. The menstrual cycle can resume after the stressors have been eliminated, but it is not always guaranteed.
The women who did get their periods while serving in the North Korean military weren’t always happy about it. The army forced them to reuse their white cotton sanitary pads, which they had to get up early every day to wash when the men would not see.
“The female soldiers were saying that they are glad that they are not having periods,” So Yeon said. “They were saying that they were glad because the situation is so bad if they were having periods too that would have been worse.”
Even worse than the missed menstrual cycles was the prevalence of sexual assault and rape in the military. So Yeon herself was never raped, but she knew how common it was.
“The company commander would stay in his room at the unit after hours and rape the female soldiers under his command,” she said. “This would happen over and over without an end.”
The North Korean army claims to take sexual abuse very seriously and even has a jail sentence of up to seven years for men convicted of rape, the BBC reported.
“But most of the time nobody is willing to testify,” French journalist Juliette Morillot said in her piece, North Korea in 100 Questions, originally published in French. “So men often go unpunished.”
So Yeon left the military when she was 28, Express reported, but it wasn’t until 2008 that she decided she wanted to leave the country. On her first try, she was caught by the Chinese border and then sent to prison. When she was released from jail, she was able to get to China, where a broker helped her move to South Korea, where she lives now.
It is important that So Yeon shares her story of being a woman in the North Korean military so people understand what is happening in a country about which we know so little. Women are constantly mistreated every day, and the more people know about the truth, the more we can change.
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