This article is the second part of a miniseries of interviews, conducted with two North Korean defectors. Part 1 can be found here. In part 2, Ji Yong (30, fake name), shares her personal experiences of life in North Korea as a female soldier in the National Security Department of North Korea and explains why she ended up defecting. (Featured Image © Uwe Brodrecht)
During my childhood, I often played pretend war with my friends. In our eyes, South Korea had to be freed from the US, the colonizer. Life was rather good in North Korea until Kim Il Sung died. Then the famine started in North Korea. Since my mother suffered from half body paralysis, I took on the responsibility of caring for her and my two younger siblings, while my father was serving in the army. At the age of nine, I was forced to search for food in the forest, since there was no food available in the city. Some days I had to walk up to sixteen kilometers in order to find something edible.
During high school, I was forced to join the army. Initially, I didn’t mind enlisting, because I thought this meant I would be able to eat every day. I never realized that life in the army would be so tough. During my training, I saw that most of the female soldiers stopped menstruating either due to harsh training or malnutrition. My task was to memorize 2.200 phone numbers. I was never given an explanation why I had to memorize then. I just followed the order without questioning it. I could only sleep two to three hours a day for six months.
During my training, I saw that most of the female soldiers stopped menstruating either due to harsh training or malnutrition
I was really scared during that time as rape and sexual assault was commonplace. Although we never talked about it, we all knew that it happened. When a woman ended up pregnant, she would be dishonorably discharged and ostracized. She would be blamed despite the fact that the man had committed the crime.
Being a female soldier in the North Korean army was hard. Women had to do all the chores. Outside working hours, I had to cook and serve people from higher ranks. I even had to clean their bedrooms. I often wanted to kill my superior. Nevertheless, most women were envious of me because people at least did not starve in my unit. For five years, I thought this was the only way to live and serve my country.
One day I received a letter from the commander that I was fired. I still had two years left to serve. In North Korea, leaving the army before completing the term is regarded as a shameful thing. I went to the officer to ask why I had been fired and he replied that it was due to my family. Apparently, my mother and sister had defected to South Korea, which was considered treason in North Korea. I became hateful towards my mother. Someone who had destroyed her daughter’s future was neither a mother nor a person to me.
Once I was discharged from the army, I kept thinking about how I did not have any food. This is why I started fishing, in order to survive. Back then there was a rule stating that only the fish caught during break time could be taken home, the rest had to be given to the nation. This rule was established during the currency reform. Due to this reform, citizens’ savings and income was worthless: we were given five hundred won which was enough for a couple of corn grains. More people were dying from starvation and many committed suicide because of the hunger. On top of the hunger, I carried several diseases, and I was often dragged to the intelligence service where they questioned me about my mother’s whereabouts. There I was regularly beaten. This is when I finally understood why mum had escaped from North Korea.
According to the North Korean state, my life was something that could be thrown away easily
One night, I heard something and went outside. There was a man standing there, claiming he had been sent by my mother. He gave me a phone with which I could talk to my mum. She told me that South Korea was heaven and that South Koreans even threw away meat, because they had so much food. When I first heard this, I no longer trusted my mother. I could not understand how people could throw out meat. Something that was hard to eat even once a year in North Korea.
I thought the capitalist state had brainwashed my mum. I refused when she asked me to come to South Korea. But then she told me that my sister had been accepted to university. My sister came on the phone and told me that the world was bigger than North Korea. University was something I had always wanted to attend, but never could.
That night I decided to try and escape, as I feared I may otherwise die of starvation. I tried to escape three times. I crossed China, Thailand and Laos to eventually arrive in South Korea. I had decided to defect in order to survive. According to the North Korean state, my life was something that could be thrown away easily. I, however, wanted to live.
Please note that this interview reflects a personal opinion and does not represent the general view of North Korean defectors. A third interview will follow soon.