A former soldier says life as a woman in the world’s fourth-largest army was so tough that most soon stopped menstruating. And rape, she says, was a fact of life for many of those she served with.

For almost 10 years Lee So Yeon slept on the bottom bunk bed, in a room she shared with more than two dozen women. Every woman was given a small set of drawers in which to store their uniforms. On top of those drawers each kept two framed photographs. One was of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung. The second was of his now deceased heir, Kim Jong-il.

It was more than a decade ago that she left, but she retains vivid memories of the smell of the concrete barracks.

“We sweat quite a bit.

“The mattress we sleep on, it’s made of the rice hull. So all the body odour seeps into the mattress. It’s not made of cotton. Because it’s rice hull, all the odour from sweat and other smells are there. It’s not pleasant.”

One of the reasons for this was the state of the washing facilities.

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