Jang Hye-won(University of North Korean Studies doctoral program graduate) North Korean New Year’s event © Yonhap News It is almost New Year’s. It is also a special day for North Koreans. At times, North Koreans have celebrated the solar new year, and at other times they have celebrated the lunar new year, and currently they have a “Solar New Year” and a “New Year Holiday” for lunar Calendar too. Of course people look forward to every holiday, but there is something special about New Year’s, when calendars are changed and [Korean] people add one year to their age. It’s the same for women soldiers in North Korea. Women soldiers usually have full work schedules with training and labor until Saturday, so holiday vacations are very welcome. Even though Sunday is a holiday, they often have useless tasks that deprive them of their precious time of rest on sunday. Such is the life of a soldier, but it makes the minimum of peaceful rest that they get on the bigger holidays more welcome. This joke is common among North Korean soldiers: “If the military has no work to do, they dig up the trees on the left and move them to the right.” Perhaps it is human nature for soldiers to feel sometimes that a job is inefficient even if it is necessary. In the mid-2000s, during my military service, our division included several women’s ‘gu-bun-dae,’ which is the North Korean term for a unit smaller than a squadron. Positions often held by women include telephone operators, records keepers, nurses, etc. The telephone operators responsible for connecting calls and the nurses who work at military hospitals or military clinics usually work on 24 hour rotations every 3 days. Records keepers generally work on a daily schedule. Records keepers monitor and record the movements of enemy planes, and often train repeatedly for hypothetical situations. After finishing work in the evening, I could see new recruits sequestered at the main office building of the command memorizing morse code. Once I caught a stolen glimpse of superiors scolding one or two soldiers who were slow learners and I burst out laughing, and I resented the severe close-order drills when our sweat flowed, but now these times have passed into memory. North Korean women’s artillery shooting match. Yonhap News stock photo At the time, the New Year Holiday was the biggest holiday of the year. Solar New Year and the New Year Holiday were not long holidays and we could only rest one day, but I enjoyed the chance to laugh and frolic with friends my own age. I also liked the New Year because we could rest more comfortably than the various political holidays like Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il’s birthdays. Before the New Year, each gu-bun-dae (squadron) made plans for holiday games. They weren’t big plans, just preparing food, buying cards, making the pieces for the game of yut so we could eat well and enjoy ourselves. The problem with preparing food and games was money. At the time, a sergeant got a monthly salary of 180 won, and low, middle and higher ranked privates received between 70 to 120 won. A bowl of naeng-myeon noodles at the market was 120-150 won, so the salary was really worthless. Thus, all the members pooled their salaries together before the holidays and spent 20% to prepare games and 80% to buy food. The most important thing about the food at the time was the quantity, so we couldn’t think of making bread full of white flour, sugar and milk, but we just bought steamed bread made with coarse, dark flour and saccharine. However, since our rations never had any proper treats, that steamed bread was really delicious. In a way, there were some benefits that the women soldiers got that the male soldiers didn’t. Each month they got a pack of ten disposable menstrual pads, so by saving them and selling them to vendors at the market at a wholesale price, they could get 80-120 won. Instead they could use cloth pads and make the effort to wash them. Even after selling menstrual pads, the money was still only enough for the dark colored steamed bread. Students at the "2019 Peaceschool" played the North Korean card game Sasaki. ©Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People, Uijeongbu Diocese *Peaceschool : Peace Education Workshop for Youth of Uijeongbu Diocese in 2019 Of the North Korean card games, one called ‘Sasaki’ was definitely the most popular. Sasaki is an intricate game in which players are on the same team or the opposing team in each round, but until the end of the game you don’t know who is on your side, and I’ve heard it is still popular. It is actually a gambling game, but without money we just used pebbles. Even now, when I gather with other North Korean defectors, many people stay up all night playing Sasaki. During North Korean military service there were few days off to visit family. Women soldiers typically spent 5-6 years in military service if they were privates. During that difficult, lonely time dark-colored steamed bread and card games were the best comforts. As the COVID-19 pandemic becomes protracted, they say that the conditions in North Korea are becoming more difficult. There’s nothing to say about North Korean citizens and and soldiers situations these days. Maybe things are more difficult for North Korean women soldiers. During my service time, there were three or four soldiers per troop who were weak from lack of nutrition. What I heard from people who experienced North Korean military service more recently is that the situation is worse now than it was then. I am worried about the cold this winter.