The horrors in North Korea expand far beyond nightmarish work camps and starvation for its citizens. Women who serve in North Korea’s army also face their own horrors, including rape and extreme malnutrition.
North Korean defector Lee So Yeon told the BBC that women in the North Korean military are treated as the troops that do less physical work, but also do the most chores, such as the cleaning. Women are often subjected to unsanitary conditions, including showers with no heat that invite animals like frogs and snakes to travel through the pipes.
Conditions are so unsanitary that women are often forced to reuse feminine hygiene products such as menstrual pads. However, the malnutrition and stress put on the women is so intense that they stop having periods altogether.
But on top of all that, the women within the North Korean army are often raped by their commanding officers. Juliette Morillot, author of North Korea in 100 questions, and Jieun Baek, author of North Korea’s Hidden Revolution, describe the stories of former army women whom they have interviewed.
Sexual harassment, say both Baek and Morillot, is rife.
Morillot says that when she broached the subject of rape in the army with serving female soldiers, “most women said it happens to others”. None said they had experienced it personally.
Lee So Yeon also says that she was not raped during her time in the army between 1992 and 2001, but that many of her 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.”
North Korea’s military says that it takes sexual abuse seriously, with a jail sentence of up to seven years for men found guilty of rape.
“But most of the time nobody is willing to testify. So men often go unpunished,” says Juliette Morillot.
North Korea is famously known for the mistreatment of its own people under the communist regime overseen by the Kim family. Defectors from North Korea are common, and each new story told by an escapee is as horrifying as the last.