Archives for : Korea

Female Soldier Reveals Terrifying Truth about Life in North Koreas Army

Jieun Baek, author of the book North Korea’s Hidden Revolution, told the BBC, “The famine in North Korea resulted in a particularly vulnerable period for women in North Korea. More women had to enter the labor force and more were subject to mistreatment, particularly harassment and sexual violence.” In Lee’s case, starting working life meant joining the army.

Baek counsels that evidence from defectors needs to be handled with circumspection. She points out, “There is such a high demand for knowledge from North Korea. It almost incentivizes people to tell exaggerated tales to the media, especially if that comes with [a] nice pay check.”

UIJU, NORTH KOREA – OCTOBER 11: A female North Korean soldier stands guard on the banks of the Yalu River, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong October 11, 2006 in Uiju, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. China could face an influx of North Korean refugees with an expected cut in already diminishing aid and investment following Pyongyang’s announced nuclear test, a US refugee aid group has warned.

“Many defectors who don’t want to be in the media are very critical of ‘career defectors,’” Baek continued. “It’s worth keeping this in focus.” But in the case of Lee, Baek says her story fits in with other accounts. And as the BBC did not pay Lee for her interview, it lends her account added plus AAA credibility.

Lee So Yeon’s first bid to defect in 2008 ended when she was arrested at the Chinese border. She served a year in a prison camp. But she succeeded on her second attempt, swimming the Tumen River to China before finally ending up in South Korea. Now Lee works with the New Korea Women’s Union, an organization dedicated to publicizing & exposing the plight of women in Kim Jong-un’s oppressive one-party state.

Female North Korean soldiers stand at a fence near Pyongyang on April 12, 2012. North Korea’s five-day window to launch a rocket opened with Asian countries on alert, as Washington told G8 world powers that the communist state was in flagrant violation of a UN ban.

In theory at least, the North Korean Army takes a serious view of rape. Anyone found guilty of the offense can be jailed for up to seven years. According to Juliette Morillot, though, the reality is much different. “Most of the time nobody is willing to testify,” she told the BBC. “So men so often go unpunished.”

Shockingly, female soldiers also had to put up with gross sexual harassment, including rape. Although Lee says she was not raped, many others were. “The company commander would stay in his room at the unit after hours and rape the female soldiers under his command,” she told the BBC. “This would happen continually over and over without an end.”

Meanwhile, the promise of bountiful food that had lured Lee into the armed forces was not all that it had seemed. Although there was a mouthwatering menu posted on the mess hall wall, it was far from the reality. “It was brilliant. Meat and tofu and those little rice cakes – and it changed throughout the week,” Lee remembered. “In reality, we just got bowls of rice with a little corn, over and over… I was always hungry.”

A woman in traditional Korean dress holds a dish of the Korean national dish Kimchi on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Cooperation (APEC) summit in Busan 16 November 2005. Asia Pacific leaders are set to tickle their tastebuds at a royal banquet here with the fiery taste of kimchi washed down by goblets of mushroom wine.

Lee recalled other details of her military service in an interview with The World. “I slept in a female barracks with about 30 other women,” she said. “We all slept on bunk beds. Each of us had a little cabinet with photos of [North Korea’s founder] Kim Il-sung and [his now deceased heir] Kim Jong-il on top.”

North Korean soldiers march during a mass military parade at Kim Il-Sung square in Pyongyang on October 10, 2015. North Korea was marking the 70th anniversary of its ruling Workers’ Party.

And when any of the women did menstruate, they were left to fend for themselves by the North Korean Army. Lee says that women on their periods frequently had no choice but to reuse sanitary towels. And some bases had no women’s toilets, denying the recruits the most basic of privacy.

Lee remembered, “After six months to a year of service, we wouldn’t menstruate any more because of malnutrition and the stressful environment. The female soldiers were saying that they are glad that they are not having periods. […] Because the situation is so bad if they were having periods too that would have been worse.”

North Korean female soldiers march during a military parade to mark 100 years since the birth of the country’s founder Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012. The commemorations came just two days after a satellite launch timed to mark the centenary fizzled out embarrassingly when the rocket apparently exploded within minutes of blastoff and plunged into the sea.

As well as these domestic duties, Lee and her comrades were subjected to rigorous physical training and drill regimes. Indeed, so grueling were the demands on the young recruits that many actually stopped having periods. Physical exertion, stress and poor diet combined to take a terrible toll on the young recruits.

Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldiers march on Kim Il-Sung sqaure during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017.

French author Juliette Morillot is a pro. on North Korea. She told the BBC, “North Korea is a traditional male-dominated society and traditional gender roles remain. Women are still seen as ttukong unjeongsu, which just translates as ‘cooking pot lid drivers,’ and means that they should ‘stay in the kitchen where they should be.’”

Lee was only 17 when she joined the army, and initially she was content with her new life. Small things, like the fact that she was given a hairdryer, were a real bonus. Unfortunately, though, regular power outages meant it was all but useless. And she discovered that women were expected to do domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning, while this was not required of the males.

Henry Sapiecha

100 Women: How South Korea stopped its people aborting girls

Daughters were traditionally valued less than sons in South Korea

For every 100 baby girls born in India, there are 111 baby boys. In China, the ratio is 100 to 115. One other country saw similar rates in 1990, but has since brought its population back into balance. How did South Korea do it? Yvette Tan reports.

“One daughter is equal to 10 sons,” was the message desperately being promoted by the South Korean government.

It was some two decades ago and gender imbalance was at a high, reaching 116.5 boys for every 100 girls at its peak. The preference for sons goes back centuries in Korean tradition. They were seen to carry on the family line, provide financial support and take care of their parents in old age.

“There was the idea that daughters were not regarded as part of their own family after marriage,” says Ms Park-Cha Okkyung, the executive director of the Korean Women’s Associations United.

The government was looking for a solution – and fast.

In an effort to reduce the incidence of selective abortions, South Korea enacted a law in 1988 making it illegal for a doctor to reveal the gender of a foetus to expectant parents.

At the same time women were also becoming more educated, with many more starting to join the workforce, challenging the convention that it was the job of a man to provide for his family.

It worked, but it was not for one reason alone. Rather, a combination of these factors led to the eventual gender rebalancing.

South Korea was acknowledged as the “first Asian country to reverse the trend in rising sex ratios at birth”, in a report by the World Bank.

In 2013, the ratio was down to 105.3, a number comparable to major Western nations such as Canada.

Rapid urbanisation

Monica Das Gupta, research professor in sociology at the University of Maryland who has studied gender disparity across Asia, says factors other than legislation are likely to be the most significant in accounting for this change.

A legal ban can “dampen things a bit”, but she points out that “seven years after the law [was instituted] sex-selective abortions continued”.

Rather she attributes the change to the “blistering pace” of urbanisation and industrialisation in South Korea.

While the country was predominantly a rural society there was great emphasis on male lineage and boys staying at home to inherit their fathers’ land.

But in just a few decades a large part of the population has moved to living in apartment blocks with people they don’t know and working in factories with people they don’t know, and the system has become much more impersonal, Dr Das Gupta says.

China and India, though, still have a stark gender imbalance, despite India outlawing, and China regulating against, sex-selective testing and abortions. So why is that?

Dr Das Gupta believes that in China this may be because until last year, the rule that your household registration – known as the hukou system – remained in the village where you were from, regardless of the fact that you might work in the city, meant that there was still an emphasis on male lineage and land ownership, but that this should now start to shift.

But she also stressed that the change is not always linear. As people gain economic advantage they have better access to sex-selective testing and have fewer children, which actually then puts greater emphasis on their gender.

In India in 1961, there were 976 girls for every 1,000 boys under the age of seven. According to the latest census figures released in 2011, that figure had dropped to a dismal 914 and campaigners say the decline is largely due to the increased availability of antenatal sex screening, despite the fact that both the tests and sex-selective abortion have been outlawed since 1994. They say that in the past decade alone, 8 million female foetuses may have been aborted in the country.

But she argues that several factors in India are slowly having a trickle-down effect on attitudes to women including media representation of women functioning in the outside world, and legislative changes enforcing equal inheritance rules and requiring one-third of elected positions be reserved for women.

What is 100 women?

BBC 100 Women names 100 influential and inspirational women around the world every year. We create documentaries, features and interviews about their lives, giving more space for stories that put women at the centre.

Other stories you might like:

The English girls’ school reborn in a Nairobi slum

Parents who regret having children

Who is on the BBC’s 100 Women 2016 list?

While South Korea may have rebalanced its population, this does not necessarily equate gender equality, Ms Okkyung argues.

“Even though Korea has a normal gender ratio balance, discrimination against women still continues,” the 47-year-old says. “We need to pay more attention to the real situations that women face rather than just looking at the numbers.”

Women in South Korea face one of the largest gender wage gaps amongst developed countries – at 36% in 2013. By comparison, New Zealand has a gap of some 5%.

“Nowadays women go to university at a higher rate than men in South Korea. However, the problem starts when women enter into the labour market,” Ms Okkyung explains.

Women are still expected to manage both work and family in South Korea

“The glass ceiling is very solid and there is a low percentage of women at higher positions in offices.”

One of the reasons it is harder for women to compete in the workplace is because they are expected to devote their time to both work and family.

“One example is that working mothers have a dilemma, as children in elementary schools come home early after lunch. Therefore, mothers who cannot see a sustainable future in the workplace tend to quit their jobs,” says Ms Okkyung.

Dr Hyekung Lee was one of the few Korean women in her generation that did find workplace success.

“I have been very lucky that I was brought up in a very enlightened family. My family had three girls and two boys, and all were given the same support for education,” says 68-year-old Dr Lee, who is the chairperson of the Korea Foundation for Women, the country’s only non-profit organisation for women.

“But when I became a full-time faculty member in my university, I had to be the only woman professor in my department throughout my 30 years there.”

Moving ahead

Generally, attitudes towards women have improved as today’s Korean men become more educated and exposed to global norms.

They also inevitably mix with women across all spheres of life, in workplaces, schools or social circles, something that perhaps was not so common decades ago.

Having children makes it hard for women to compete in the workplace, partly because of school hours for younger children

It is amongst the older generation that many still cling on to the preference for sons.

Emily [not her real name], 26, recalls that growing up as an only child, she was always treated equally by her grandparents – until her step-brothers were born.

“I only noticed the difference when my brothers came,” she said. “Then I realised that they would never do stuff like the housework.”

“My birthday is also one day before my father’s so my grandparents didn’t allow me to celebrate it because as they said: ‘How dare a girl celebrate a birthday before her father?'”

How long will South Korea’s women take to catch up?

“I think Korea is at that transitional phase that people are more aware now than previous generations, but it’s still not quite equal compared to Western countries,” she says.

“I’ve had friends tell me I can only keep my career if I stay single, and others tell me I’ve chased away men because I was too bossy on the dates and took the initiative.”

She also notes that there is also a substantial difference in attitudes towards women in bigger cities and smaller towns.

“Cities like Busan are more traditional. I’ve had friends from Busan get a culture shock when they come to Seoul,” she says. “In the capital, things are more progressive.”

Yet she believes change will eventually come.

“Women in Korea need to be aware that there is gender discrimination,” says Emily, who is now studying in Holland “I didn’t know until I left – I thought the way things were was just how they were.”

“It’s not until you expose yourself to other cultures that you start to question your own. I think things will change, but it will take a lot of time.”

Additional reporting by the BBC’s Geeta Pandey and Yuwen Wu.

Henry Sapiecha