The harrowing testimony of an escaped North Korean reveals the torment women face in Kim Jong Un’s army – including sexual abuse, abortions without anaesthesia and starvation rations.
The former soldier, who gave her name as Jennifer Kim, said female fighters also had to use soggy footwraps as sanitary pads, and endured cruel and unusual collective punishments.
One punishment involved dipping the hands in freezing water, then having to hang from an iron bar which froze on to the palms, causing the flesh to tear off when released.
She estimated that 70% of women in North Korea’s army had been victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment – including herself.
Jennifer said she instinctively knew what was coming when a political adviser ordered her to his office aged 23.
The former soldier, who gave her name as Jennifer Kim, demonstrates a punishment where women were forced to dip their hands in freezing water before being made to hang on a cold iron bar. Their hands stick to the bar so that when they take them away their skin is ripped off
Kim Jong Un is surrounded by female soldiers (file photo)
‘If I refuse his request, I can’t become a member of the Workers’ Party of Korea,’ she said. ‘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.
‘That means you won’t be able to get a good job and it will be a problem when you try to marry. What could I have chosen?
‘In the end, I was sexually assaulted by him.’
Surviving on no more than three of four spoonfuls of corn a day, Jennifer was so malnourished that her period came only once every four to six months. But that didn’t prevent a pregnancy.
After a while, I felt a weird change in my body,’ she said. ‘So I told the political adviser about my physical condition. A few days later, he said to me ‘go to the military medical office at 10 o’clock tonight.’
‘I went to the military medical office like he told me… a military surgeon was already waiting for me. He performed an abortion on me without anaesthesia.’
Attempting to describe the pain, Jennifer’s words fail her. ‘It still haunts me today,’ she continued, after a pause. ‘Because of that experience, not only do I still struggle mentally, but I’m also not able to have children.
‘So even now, it’s difficult for me to have a good marriage. The shame I felt back then still haunts me and will continue to do so.’
The former soldier revealed her ordeal in an interview with the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). She also recounted how, in her several years of military service, she only used four sanitary pads.
Instead she and her comrades were given gauze, typically used for dressing wounds, which had to be washed and reused.
The former soldier revealed her ordeal in an interview with the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)
The woman said her period only came once every six months because she was so malnourished, fed on a diet of just a few spoonfuls of corn each day
‘There were times when I took the used gauze left by discharged senior officers,’ she said. When even this was unavailable, they resorted to using footwraps, which soldiers wore in their boots instead of socks.
She said: ‘The thick and stiff fabric caused chafing, which in turn irritated the skin, and caused more swelling. Every time I took a step the pain was so bitter that I cried.’
Footwraps had to be washed and reused too, but wouldn’t fully dry in the unheated barracks, so were worn wet. Punishments were grotesque and would be meted out to the whole group, even if only one person was perceived to have done wrong.
Jennifer, who now lives in the US, said she was still haunted by the agony of her flesh peeling from her hands as she released the iron bar. ‘I can still feel the pain from thinking about it,’ she said. And starvation was never far away.
‘I counted each grain of corn while eating, so I could make it last longer,’ said Jennifer.
Many resorted to stealing to survive.
On one occasion, Jennifer and a comrade – both too hungry to sleep – stole from a cornfield, holding up the guards by wielding several ears of corn in the dark as if they were a rifle.
She recalled: ‘On the way back, we sat on the road and ate raw corn. There are plenty of delicious foods around me now, but nothing tastes as good as the raw corn I had then. It was the sweetest and most delicious food I’ve ever had in my life.’
Military service has been mandatory for all North Korean women since 2015, with each woman expected to serve from the time she graduates school until she is 23 years old (a file photo of women on parade in Pyongyang)
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of HRNK, said the mistreatment of women led all the way to the top of North Korean society. He said: ‘North Korea’s women soldiers are subjected to relentless abuse, induced malnutrition, cruel punishment, sexual harassment and sexual assault.
‘Their tragic plight epitomizes the criminal trajectory of a regime established 73 years ago, presumably to create a fair and equitable society.
‘Today, this regime only cares about preserving itself. It abuses and exploits the people of North Korea in order to ensure its own survival.
‘The abuse the nation’s daughters in uniform suffer at the hands of the regime’s henchmen reflects the deeply-embedded and incurable pervertedness and corruption of the party and the entire top leadership, all the way up to the top of the chain of command.’
Military service has been mandatory for all North Korean women since 2015, with each woman expected to serve from the time she graduates school until she is 23 years old.