The life of the women of the North Korean Army
An insight into female soldiers in the Korean People’s Army, where lack of personal hygiene and objectification are major women’s issues.
There are about 12,000,000 military officers in North Korea at present. Of them, 40% are female. Men must commit to the military for twelve years, and for women, seven years.
Female soldiers receive the same training as their male counterparts. While this may seem fair, women also suffer disproportionately, because their health and safety needs are not met.
For example, in times of crisis, male soldiers usually look for shelter among the area’s residents. Women, on the other hand, rarely do this, usually because they don’t believe that it is safe. In an attempt to avoid sexual harassment or assault, they must stay at supply centres that are guarded by higher-up authorities. Female soldiers have appealed for better conditions in the supply headquarters, but with little success.
One defector, An Jung-ran (31) was a previous captain of the 7th general department situated in Pyongyang, before escaping to settle in South Korea. She said, “The life of a woman in North Korea is already so chaotic. Female soldiers in particular will find, upon defection, that their basic women’s rights were violated on a regular basis.”
Commenting on the issue of women’s health, An testified that, “Firstly, supply bases lack the things that women need the most for their basic health and hygiene. In fact, some supply basis don’t lack these things at all – we are simply denied access to them. At these times, many women wish they had not been born female. It is because that we are female that we experience this type of discomfort.
“But on the other hand, some female soldiers receive special treatment from the higher-ups, and upon entry to certain privileged supply bases they are given free access to goods and supplies.”
While this sounds good for some, what An wishes to stress is the underlying issue of female objectification within the military. “Military elites have ulterior motives when giving certain female soldiers special treatment.”
In a country where the women’s rights record is sub-par, there is little that women can do except go along with it. This becomes somewhat an issue of women’s agency in North Korea:
“Some female commanding officers hear that a higher-up military elite will be visiting their base. At these times, the commanding officers only dispatch the most attractive female soldiers to work in the sentry, dining area, and infirmary. They post these soldiers in places that are typically visited by elite officials. In some special cases, detailed instructions as to how to speak to or act in front of the officials are given, depending on the official’s personal taste. Commanding officers even bribe officials to somehow bring better-looking soldiers to their bases. A few days later, the conditions at that base may change dramatically. Supplies could start flooding in without the need to appeal for resource replenishment.”
The commanding officers know that they are using the male objectification of women to get what they need. But if at least one conventionally beautiful women is present at an all-female base, the fate of that base could be changed dramatically, making life a little easier for the others.
Reporting by Lee, Chulmu.
Read in Korean.