Watching footage of April’s military parades in North Korea — with soldiers marching in formation to patriotic tunes — Lee So-yeon recalls all the steps. She was once one of those soldiers.
The daughter of a university professor, Lee, now 41, grew up in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province. But when famine devastated the country in the 1990s, women — including Lee — volunteered for the military in droves, often for the food rations.
Since 2014, North Korean women have been drafted for seven years of mandatory military service. Men serve 10 to 12 years. For each gender, those are the longest conscription terms in the world.
In the military, Lee says, she witnessed sexual abuse and violence against female soldiers. She tried to defect but was imprisoned and tortured. Finally, in 2008, she managed to sneak across the Tumen River to China.
“I was shocked by freedom — that I didn’t need permission to do anything!” Lee recalls. “I couldn’t believe there was hot water, hair dryers! I could vote for whomever I wanted. And all the food!”
Lee has since become an advocate for female defectors as head of the New Korea Women’s Union, based in western Seoul.