Bleak tales of army life in N. Korea
A defector from an elite women's unit speaks of tight control and fear of 'going soft.'
SEOUL, SOUTH 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.Skip to next paragraph
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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 tobe 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.
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.