North Korea isn’t turning a lot of people away from military service. Men are universally drafted for service around age 17. If you’re in the political elite, chances are good your kids are safe. The same goes for the opposite end of the spectrum. The lowest castes of the Korean hierarchy are also exempt – why would they fight for a system that hates them?
For women, the system is much, much different. The process is a little more selective and can be unsurprisingly horrifying.
Women are stationed exclusively with other women, sleeping 30 to a barracks. Like in U.S. military basic training, they sleep in bunk beds with only a cabinet to hold their belongings. Their cabinets, however, also contain small photos of the leaders of North Korea. Lee So-yeon, a North Korean defector whose job was to infiltrate the south and relay artillery coordinates in the event of a war, had photos of deceased ex-President Kim Il-Sung and then-living Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il.
When she first arrived to her duty station in the early 1990s, the chow halls actually had menus of food items to choose from. In reality, they were just for show. The troops got bowls of rice with bits of corn. For special events, they would get bits of meat and little candies. Troops like Lee would slip into apple orchards to steal their fill.
Still, life among the troops was a proud life. War with the U.S. and South Korea is the paradise on earth they are promised from day one. Then there are other, less traditional positions.
The North’s founding leader Kim Il-Sung created a women’s pleasure squad, the kippumjo. The pleasure squads, sole job was to perform for the Leader, the leadership of the Korean Workers Party, and even sometimes the country’s honored guests. The 2,000-strong unit was said to have been disbanded by Kim Jong-Un after his father, Kim Jong-Il, died in 2011.
One member of this unit was Mi Hyang, who provided an incredible trove of information on Kim when she defected to the South years ago. She described a much different man than the propaganda made him out to be. She was recruited based on her looks and her height. Kim Jong-Il was very short, so any woman over 5’5″ was excluded. Like any other conscript, she was recruited in high school. Officers visited her school and took the prettier girls aside, asking if they’d ever been with a man and inspecting their bodies for scars and blemishes.
After they’re drafted, they trained for six months before being interviewed by the Dear Leader, who would then decide if he liked them. If he did, they could serve him until they turned 25, a period of ten years.
Other conscripts must now serve until age 30 but get none of the benefits of the kippumjo, like new appliances and a stipend. No one knows if the unit exists in any form under Kim Jong-Un. For the regular Army, their lives were dirty (they had no real ways to clean themselves, save for a garden hose that was sometimes filled with frogs), and a bed made of rice casings, only to wake up and perform the manual labor of cooking and cleaning.