Ms. Lee So-yeon was brought up in North Korea, where she rose to the rank of Sergeant in an all-female company.
She defected to South Korea in 2008 (a female defector is very normal, some 70% of North Korean defectors are female, a number linked to the higher unemployment level of women).
In a rare interview, she reflects on life as a soldier in the North Korean army.
The all-consuming hatred of the imperial Yankees is a job requirement. All soldiers are taught that South Korea will turn into a “sea of fire” and America will become a “pile of ashes”.
“They taught us that Americans are jackals, devouring all other creatures. Americans are also vampires,” Ms. Lee says. “Oh, and barbarians, too.”
The hatred for America is something that they were taught from a very early age: “We learned to hate America. Why were we so poor? Why did we only get new clothes every two years? Why were we always hungry?”
“It’s because of America. They are the true enemy. How could we deal with this? We have to kill them with our guns. We talked about it all the time. Even in normal life, when we’d argue, we’d say to people, ‘You! You’re acting like such an American right now! You’re such a terrible Yankee!’”
According to her, the ordeal as a woman in the world's fourth-largest army was so tough that most soon stopped menstruating.
"One of the girls I spoke with, who was 20, told me she trained so much that she had skipped her periods for two years,"
For over a decade she slept on the bottom bunk bed in a room shared with 24 other women. Each soldier was given a uniform and two pictures. The first picture was of North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung, the second of his now deceased heir, Kim Jong-il.
"We sweat quite a bit. The mattress we sleep on, it's made of the rice hull. So all the body odor seeps into the mattress. It's not made of cotton. Because it's rice hull, all the odor of sweat and other smells are there. It's not pleasant."
Furthermore, showering is not really pleasant either.
"As a woman, one of the toughest things is that we can't shower properly."
"Because there is no hot water. They connect a hose to the mountain stream and have water directly from the hose. We would get frogs and snakes through the hose."