By Julia Campbell, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
July 14, 2022
The people of North Korea are subjected to serious human rights violations on a daily basis. These include the exploitation of children for labor and the imposition of harsh punishments for “crimes” that are seen as dangerous to the regime, such as watching South Korean dramas, distributing foreign media content, or attempting to escape the country. However, there are sub-groups of people who are particularly vulnerable, one being the women of the North Korean military.
In North Korea, women experience extreme oppression from men who are in positions of official authority. This can be even worse for women in the military. Women in North Korea are required to serve in the military, but this was not always the case. According to Daily NK, in 2015, North Korea made military service mandatory for women between the ages of 17 and 20. Women are required to serve until the age of 23. Some of the horrific treatment and conditions women face in the military include sexual assault, brutal physical punishments, forced abortions, lack of feminine hygiene products, and the use of threats to shame and silence women. This essay describes these conditions in greater detail by recounting the testimonies of several women who served in North Korea’s military, formally known as the Korean People’s Army (KPA).
In an interview with the BBC, Lee So-Yeon, a former KPA soldier, describes the conditions she faced. To begin with, patriarchal ideology was emphasized in the military. In addition to basic training, women had to do household chores such as cooking and cleaning. Men were exempt from such chores. With inadequate food and stressful training, Lee explains that women would stop having periods, and if they did have them, they would have to reuse sanitary pads and wash them when the men were not looking. She also recalls that women could rarely shower due to the lack of hot water. They had to use a hose to shower, and at times frogs and snakes would come out of the hose. Lee and her fellow soldiers were not given the necessities for proper hygiene.
Sexual assault and rape were also prevalent. Lee did not experience this herself, but she said many of her comrades had. She states, “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.” Rape in the military was commonplace, and the victims were often blackmailed into silence. According to Hyun-Joo Lim, a senior lecturer at Bournemouth University, “Being able to join the Worker’s Party of Korea is an essential pathway to a secure, successful life in North Korea, and a major reason for women to join the army is to become a member of the party. Senior male officials frequently exploit this as a means to manipulate and harass young women, threatening to block their chances of joining the party if they refuse or attempt to report the abuse.” Unable to report their abusers, women face an endless cycle of suffering.
Another alarming aspect of being a woman in the North Korean military is what women must do when they become pregnant. Women are blamed for the pregnancy, so they utilize dangerous methods to abort. This includes “tightening their stomach with an army belt to hide their growing pregnancy, taking anthelmintic medicine (antiparasitic drugs designed to remove parasitic worms from the body), or jumping off and rolling down the high mountain hills.” Lim adds a horrific detail, based on testimony from escapees: “it’s common to find foetuses in army toilets.” That women are willing to put their own health and safety at risk in this way highlights their fear and shows just how difficult life is for women in the North Korean military.
The testimony of North Korean escapee Jennifer Kim (alias), originally featured in a video interview by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), provides another illustration of women’s experiences in the KPA. Kim and other female soldiers faced cruel punishments. She recalls one punishment that involved dipping one’s hands into freezing water then placing them on iron bars. When the hands were removed, so was a layer of flesh. This would happen to all the women if even one person made a mistake.
Kim was sexually assaulted when she served in the military. She was called to a political advisor’s office when she was 23 years old and had a gut feeling about what was going to happen, but she was unable to refuse his order. Kim states, “If I refuse his request, I can’t become a member of the of the Workers’ Party of Korea...If I return to society without being able to join the party, I’m perceived as a problem child and I will be stigmatised for the rest of my life.” Kim ended up becoming pregnant and experienced a traumatic abortion. Kim describes her horrific experience as follows. “I went to the military medical office... a military surgeon was already waiting for me. He performed an abortion on me without anaesthesia...It still haunts me today.” This has had a lasting impact on Kim’s life. She still struggles with mental issues, cannot have children, and has difficulty having a good marriage. All available evidence indicates that Kim’s experience is not an isolated incident.
Da-Eun Lee, a North Korean escapee living in South Korea, talks about her horrific experiences in the military in a video interview cited by Business Insider. When she was 18 years old, a 45-year-old major general asked to speak to her alone. He ordered her to disrobe, stating that he had to “[inspect] her for malnutrition, possibly to send her off to a hospital where undernourished soldiers are treated.” Lee recalls that “I didn’t have much of a choice,” assuming that “there’s a good reason for this.” The major general then ordered her to remove her underwear. When she refused and screamed, he brutally beat her until she was bleeding and had loose teeth. He also threatened her into silence by claiming he would make her life “a living hell.” The former soldier then explains how there was no one she could report her abuse to, and that many other women have also experienced this kind of abuse.
Female soldiers in North Korea’s military are subjected to serious human rights violations and abuse, including rape and forced abortions. According to witness accounts, sexual assault and the manipulation of women are commonplace. Women are unable to seek legal recourse. Because women are silenced, there is no justice. They have to live seeing their abuser go unpunished. Women may even experience continued abuse from their abusers due to the lack of accountability. This essay aims to highlight, once again, what happens to women in North Korea’s military and shed light on their testimonies to raise awareness of the horrific treatment they experience.
Julia Campbell is a junior at Indiana University Bloomington's Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, majoring in East Asian Languages and Cultures with a concentration in Korean.
 Choi Song-Min, “Mandatory Military Service Extends to Women,” Daily NK, January 28, 2015. https://www.dailynk.com/english/mandatory-military-service-extends/.
 Megha Mohan, “Rape and no periods in North Korea’s army,” BBC News, November 21, 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-41778470.
 Hyun-Joo Lim, “What life is like for North Korean women – according to defectors,” The Independent, September 7, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/world/north-korean-women-rights-kim-jongun-domestic-violence-sexual-harassment-a8525086.html.
 HRNK, “The Shocking Life of a North Korean Female Soldier: The Reality of North Korea!,” November 29, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCsbikKfWLc.
 Lorraine King, “North Korean soldier reveals horrific torment women face in Kim Jong-un’s army,” The Mirror, December 21, 2021. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/north-korean-soldier-reveals-horrific-25751688.
 The video interview, with English subtitles, can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbcxTJKJOVI.
Alex Lockie, “Female North Korean soldiers describe horrific sexual abuse from superior officers,” Business Insider, August 28, 2017. https://www.businessinsider.com/female-north-korean-soldier-horrific-sexual-abuse-2017-8.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.