Lee So Yeon volunteered to join the North Korea army in 1992, lured in part, she says, by the promise of a daily meal. While cautioning that stories of defectors like Lee have to be taken with a grain of salt, the BBC presents an interview with the now 41-year-old about a military experience that she describes as brutal on the body. Lee says she was 17 when she enlisted, and she was initially energized by the experience. That quickly gave way. "After six months to a year of service, we wouldn't menstruate anymore because of malnutrition and the stressful environment," she says. The training was tough—essentially equivalent to what the men underwent, just slightly shorter—and they had to do domestic chores that the men didn't.
Conditions were far from comfortable, she says: The women slept on mattresses made of rice hull that soaked up their body odor as they slept and sweated, making for an unpleasant smell. Showers were icy cold and compliments of a hose that pulled water from a mountain stream: "We would get frogs and snakes through the hose." She says rape was common (a statement she gave more detail about in this 2016 interview with the Korea Herald), though it's not something she experienced, and that access to sanitary pads for those who needed them was extremely limited. Lee got out in 2001 and successfully fled to South Korea about eight years later. The BBC notes that military service became compulsory for women in 2015; they must now serve from ages 18 to 25. (The most recent defector has regained consciousness in the hospital.)