Bleak Tales of Army Life in North Korea

As a sergeant in the North Korean Army, Baek Yi followed a simple if harsh way of life: Don’t mix with civilians. Never speak to family. Be ready to relocate at any time with 15 minutes’ warning. To see Ms. Baek today, nibbling a doughnut at a Seoul cafe and sporting stylish jeans, one would not guess that by age 17, she had learned to fire the North Korean equivalent of a Soviet antiaircraft gun. Proud to be in an elite unit of female soldiers, the young woman had sworn to sacrifice all for the Kim dynasty. Baek trained on the West Sea border, and was discharged in the 1990s. She then stepped into a marriage arranged by her parents, both doctors.

“I showed that if a woman makes up her mind to be an officer, she can be one,” Baek says, telling her story for the first time. “It was very tough, but I liked it.”

But when the 1997 famine hit, Baek found her model-soldier status didn’t put cabbage on the table. After her middle child died of malnutrition, she sneaked into China to earn money. Several years later, she walked for 16 days through a Burmese jungle to Thailand. From there, she defected to Seoul.

Baek’s story is impossible to confirm, and it comes after two months of intensive deprogramming in South Korea. But since arriving in Seoul late last year, she has stood out among defectors for her unusual background and interest in North Korean refugee causes.

The Love of the Cause

For Baek, now in her late 20s, the North Korean Army meant status, and a cause she loved. “I was doing the real work of defending the nation and being a model example for others.” After she joined, Baek was no longer allowed to speak to ordinary North Korean citizens, on pain of being discharged. She was told that mixing with civilians might cause her to “go soft,” as she puts it. “Being soft is the worst thing that can happen to you in the People’s Army,” because it means you are not thinking from the basis of going to war.

During her time in the military, the USSR collapsed, and Baek was told this was because the USSR got soft. “The USSR wasn’t able to keep its discipline, and its mental and ideological strength,” is what her superiors told her.

By the first month, Baek remembers, no one in her artillery unit, including herself, “would do anything without orders. Comrades would not move from one place to another without orders.” For the full six years of her stint, Baek and her comrades could not go on leave, go home, or speak to their families. She missed her dad’s 60th birthday – an important date in Korean custom. There were no phones in the small barracks where she lived. Only two soldiers a year in her 80-member unit were rewarded with a week’s leave. Everyone strove to prove themselves worthy, “but in six years I was never one of the lucky ones,” she says.

Baek, of course, missed her family. She sent and received letters several times a year, and remembers being required to read the family letters in front of the other soldiers, an exercise designed to develop close relations in the unit.

In the People’s Army, she earned two North Korean won a month – the equivalent of 100 South Korean won, or about 10 cents. It wasn’t enough to buy a photograph of herself in uniform, she remembers. But no one thought of money or ease. All soldiers were taught to think only of serving the state. “We never felt the need of money, and there was nothing to buy anyway.” All her possessions were kept in a small sack, and when she was reassigned, twice during six years, she was given just minutes’ notice to collect her things.

“When I joined, I was sent to the West Sea, and I felt I was on the front line. Not many women were in artillery, and I was very proud.” Her days began at 5 a.m. She washed, did exercises, went to roll call, had inspections. Breakfast was from 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. Then it was a political education class every morning for two hours. She was taught that the Kim family – Great Leader Kim Il Sung, then Dear Leader Kim Jong Il – were the “sun of our solar system, and we were the orbiting satellites. All our devotion and energy belonged to Kim.”

She learned the US Army was the reason the two Koreas cannot unify. The US Army ruled South Korea, and the job of the North is to kick the US out. Baek says she was taught not to fight South Korean soldiers, only Americans.

From 10 a.m. to noon, she had military instruction. Tactics, equipment training, geography, war strategy. After a half-hour lunch, the soldiers went to their posts until 7 p.m., when they came back for dinner.

The best time, she remembers, came between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., before the lights went out. There was a TV with two channels. The standard fare were old Soviet films and newsreels of foreign dignitaries coming to Pyongyang to meet Kim. “We thought the whole world was coming to meet Kim,” she says.

For the recreation hour, the Army issued guitars and violins, and many of the women learned to play. There were also singing competitions, both solo and in choirs. “This helped us overcome the stress, and I spent a lot of time preparing for these.” Baek learned Russian and Korean songs. Her favorite was “My Hometown,” a North Korean ballad of a soldier who goes home after the war, sees his town in shambles, and works hard to rebuild it. The lyrics of every song included references to Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. Her posts had little electricity. Her first barracks were near an electrified railway; the unit tapped those power lines.

Dinners always combined the same four dishes: kimchee (pickled cabbage), rice or noodles, a vegetable. Her unit planted cabbages and preserved the kimchee. Eggs were a holiday treat. The only time Baek ate meat was on Kim’s birthday; but sometimes when comrades had a birthday, the unit used this as an excuse to collect money, apply for a special permit, and go to town to buy meat. Only pork was available.

She never ate beef until she came to South Korea; cows are a precious commodity in the North, and are owned by the state. As Baek puts it, “if a man is murdered, no one bothers. But if a cow is killed or stolen, there will be an investigation, and someone will pay a stiff fine or go to jail.”

As a gunner, Baek practiced shooting several rounds. She did this only one week out of four to save ammunition. Her weapon did not use radar, but visual sighting. Targets included a dummy boat set in the ocean or a target trailed by an airplane. “In the Army of the North, I was like a frog in a well,” Baek remembers. “The only thing I could see was a small bit of sky.”