North Korea's Pleasure Squad

Sitting stiffly behind her desk, ebony hair forming a shiny frame around her perfectly symmetrical face, North Korean schoolgirl Mi-hyang was engrossed in her studies when two men entered her bleakly utilitarian classroom.

The men, both in their 40s and wearing the crisp, bemedalled green uniforms of soldiers of the people's republic, scanned the room. They knew precisely who they were looking for: pupils who were comely, yet virtuous; girls who might fulfil the rigorous requirements of the country's Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-il. Suddenly, with a barely perceptible tip of his head, one of the guards signalled to Mi-hyang.

"You!" the man barked. "Come with us." The scared schoolgirl had just passed the first of many exacting tests required for selection into Gippeumjo - Kim Jong-il's infamous and, until now, highly secretive "pleasure squad". She was 15 years old.

"They made a detailed record of my family history and school record," said Mi-hyang. "I was also asked whether I had ever slept with a boy. I felt so ashamed to hear such a question."

The beautiful student had been set on the path of service to Kim Jong-il for at least the next 10 years. During that time, she would be refused any contact with her family. She'd devote each waking moment to servicing every pleasure and whim of the man known in North Korea as "Dear Leader". Refusal was not an option. Any attempt at dissent, or to defect, was an offence punishable by death.

But, after two years service, Mi-hyang did defect. She has told her story in a series of interviews for a blog called Nambuk Story ("the story of North and South Korea"), run by fellow North Korea defector Joo Sung-ha. The first account of its kind from a source close to the reclusive 68-year-old leader, experts say Mi-hyang's insights into life with the elite in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the world's most secretive communist regime, is invaluable.

Kim Seong-min, the head of South Korea's Free North Korea Radio, and a former propaganda officer in the North Korean army, says it's a credible account.

"There is so much detail about Kim Jong-il [and] it reveals information not previously known about the Leader," he states.

Seong-min says that while testimonies of North Korean defectors often appear in South Korean media, it's the detail in Mi-hyang's story and her access to Kim Jong-il that stands out.

Korea expert Aidan Foster-Carter says the Gippeumjo was established during the reign of Kim Jong-il's father Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. The squad consists of the Gamujo - a group who entertain Kim Jong-il and the elite with song and dance routines; the Haengbokjo ("happiness team") who are responsible for massages; and the Manjokjo ("satisfaction team") who provide sexual services to Kim Jong-il and his favoured associates.

To preserve her anonymity and protect friends still inside the pleasure squad, Mi-hyang doesn't specify which division she was assigned to, but insists she was never required to perform sexual services.

"Kim Jong-il displayed a basic sense of morality," she says, before conceding that when drunk, the leader could become "somewhat perverted". She adds: "He would touch my head and hold my hands, but he never called me for intimate moments because I was still a student and not over 20 years old. I think he would have done so if I had stayed a little longer."

Nevertheless, for two years, Mi-hyang travelled with Kim Jong-il, his favoured officials and other women in the pleasure squad, spending time in his opulent homes around the capital Pyongyang, or weekending in his country homes in the Kangdong or Yongsung provinces. Often, she shared a room with one of
Kim Jong-il's most favoured lovers, another recruit named Mi-ok.

"She thought I would be her successor," reveals Mi-hyang. "But she was never jealous of me and treated me as if I was her blood sister. She used to hold me tightly and tell me that I would follow in her footsteps. I was lonely in there, but she was lonely as well, so we became friends."

In keeping with protocol impressed on them at school, the women were supposed to refer to one another as "comrade" in private, says Mi-hyang, but "when we were alone in our room she had me call her sister. She often talked about her brother who she missed a lot. We both missed our families terribly."

Foster-Carter says that up to 2000 women are conscripted to the pleasure squad at any one time. They're aged between 18 and 40, yet most are under 25.

"You can equate a young woman's service in a pleasure squad to any other form of mandatory service in a communist regime," adds Foster-Carter, who writes the "Pyongyang Watch" column in the Asia Times Online. "She's an employee of the state just as a young man conscripted to the army is. The preservation of the Dear Leader's wellbeing through a social enjoyment program is just as important as maintaining military strength and, as such, is run as a vitally important state department."

Barbara Demick, the Los Angeles Times's Korea correspondent and author of Nothing To Envy: Love, Life And Death In North Korea (HarperCollins, $35), says the choice for women coerced into the pleasure squad is stark.

"A woman selected for the Gippeumjo will know she will be fed, she will be housed and she will be cared for. Plus, she'll be fulfilling her duty to the Dear Leader," she explains.

A document issued by the ruling Korean Workers' Party (in power since 1948 and established by Kim Jong-il's father) and carrying the unwieldy title The Project to Guarantee Longevity of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader is the Sacred Duty of all Party Members and Party Committees outlines the exacting standards required for selection to the hitherto highly secretive squad.

At the start of the school year, local officials visit all senior girls' high schools to check out prospective candidates. Of the most suitable girls found nationwide, a selection of 50 is made by The Fifth Section of the Organisation Department (the unit responsible for the pleasure squad) and sent to Kim Jong-il's Bodyguard Bureau (staffed solely by orphans chosen for their unwavering loyalty to the leader). Kim Jong-il then personally selects that year's intake of 15-20 recruits. He has exacting tastes.

According to Mi-hyang, "Those over 165cm are excluded because Kim Jong-il is short." As well, prospective recruits should have "skin unblemished by scars, her voice should be soft and feminine
and her medical history should be sound. She must, of course, also be a virgin."

Once chosen, the new recruits undertake a rigorous training regimen. For six months, each young woman is assigned to one of Kim Jong-il's many luxurious villas and palaces around the country
- including his lavish secret lair underneath Mount Baekdusan on the border with China.

Many pleasure squad ingenues are sent overseas to perfect their song, dance and massage skills and then typically, if they are chosen by Kim Jong-il for full admittance into the cadre, are required to sign a pledge of allegiance in their own blood. They are then inducted into one of the teams.

For ordinary North Koreans who revere - publicly at least - the country's leader as akin to a god, an encounter with the man himself is a momentous and terrifying event. For Mi-hyang, it was a bit of a letdown: "He looked so normal, like a next door neighbour," she reveals. "He has many brown spots on his face and his teeth were yellowish. My previous imaginations about the Dear Leader were shattered at that very moment, but he was very considerate towards me."

Kim Jong-il rechristened his newest recruit Mi-hyang - it means "beautiful scent" - as he considered her original name to be too provincial. The change was registered by the Central Party and all personal documents were altered to record Mi-hyang's new moniker.

"I believe the prefix 'Mi' means 'his woman', so most of us were rechristened in this fashion," she explains. Although he bestowed the name, the Dear Leader didn't always remember it. "After a couple of drinks, he would point his finger and constantly repeat questions, like 'Are you Mi-ok [meaning "beautiful skin like jade"] or Mi-hyang?'" she recalls.

Kim Jong-il, she says, could be a maudlin drunk. He loved Japanese and Russian music and would have the girls sing sad songs that often made him cry.

But as ruthlessly as he recruited his harem, when the women reached a certain age - usually about 25 - Kim Jong-il showed little sentiment in cutting them loose. Pleasure squad retirees are typically married off to other members of the North Korean elite, where their history of service to the Dear Leader is conveniently glossed over. Unlike their fellow citizens, who have suffered in decrepit dwellings through years of drought and famine, former members of the Gippeumjo are rewarded with homes in elite gated compounds with abundant power, paved roads and lushly landscaped gardens.

Of course, luxury is a relative concept in a nation where TVs and radios are modified to receive only government stations, literature and the arts are strictly state-controlled, and the average salary is about $40 a month. Along with these privations, a series of devastating natural disasters in the late '90s led to a complete breakdown of the nation's agricultural infrastructure. Barbara Demick says an estimated 600,000 to two million North Koreans perished over three years during widespread famines.

If the Dear Leader was moved by such hardship, he hid it well. As his country fell into rack and ruin and his comrades starved, Kim Jong-il led the life of an aristocrat with stables of thoroughbred horses, homes stocked with vintage French wines and cognacs, a bevy of international chefs at his disposal, as well as his troupe of female "entertainers".

Although he dined regularly on pheasant, which he hunted himself, and the finest sushi, the leader's favoured food was shark.

"Kim Jong-il once recommended a dish to me and asked if I knew what it was," says Mi-hyang. "When I replied that I did not, he said it was 'stuff' - meaning the genitalia - of a shark. When I heard that, I almost vomited." He believed adding shark genitalia to his diet would benefit his stamina and be good for his female cohorts' skin.

Mi-hyang's trips around the country with Kim Jong-il and his entourage were always taken by rail, as the leader, like his father, has a flight phobia. They would travel by armoured train, to which delicacies such as live lobster were airlifted daily, in order to spend time in the Dear Leader's numerous residences.

The most impressive of them, says Mi-hyang, is his estate deep under Mount Baekdusan. "We once travelled 40 minutes on an underground road to get to a villa," she recalls. "The road had only one lane. This is a very special place to him. The underground villa was especially fancy; to North Korean standards it was extremely luxurious, with a 50-metre swimming pool. One noticeable aspect of the pool was the big portrait of the leader on the bottom. The centre of the portrait was decorated with gold tiles," explains Mi-hyang. Kim Jong-il's subterranean lair - his planned retreat should the country come under attack - is large enough to store helicopters and fighter jets.

The lavish lifestyle is afforded Kim Jong-il in his "leader as deity" role, explains Foster-Carter. "Jong-il, like
his father before him, is at the very epicentre of an elaborate cult of personality in which he is central, like a religious figure, to the lives of ordinary North Koreans, and he lives accordingly. Even if most ordinary people were aware how extravagantly their Dear Leader lived in comparison to themselves, it's likely fear of reprisal would prevent any dissent."

And yet, Mi-hyang risked her life to defect, after her family was accused of treason and orders issued for their execution. A scared and confused Mi-hyang says, "I was told that Kim gave an order not to kill me. Perhaps I owe him my life."

For fear of reprisals against her extended family (whose fate she does not know) and friends left behind, Mi-hyang won't reveal when she was recruited or how and when she escaped, yet Barbara Demick says a trickle of defectors do make it out of North Korea each year.

"If they have the money or the connections, they can be smuggled into China and then, with fake passports, fly to South Korea. South Korea holds itself out as the rightful government of the whole peninsula, so if North Korean subjects can make it to the south, they're entitled to citizenship." Others who slip into China make their way to European embassies where they request asylum, adds Demick. "China's policy, out of loyalty to its communist ally, is to send North Korean defectors straight home, where they face incarceration in labour camps, or worse."

Even in South Korea- Mi-hyang now lives in the capital, Seoul - officials say it's possible she is being monitored by agents working for her former boss. The owner of the Nambuk Story blog, Joo Sung-ha, says he and Mi-hyang were warned by South Korean authorities not to publish her story, with Sung-ha revealing he receives death threats "all the time".

Despite the dangers, Mi-hyang's story has shone a light on one of the most sinister regimes in the world today. And she has no regrets.

"I was all alone in there," she recalls. "Mi-ok once said to me, 'You and I will live a very lonely life.' Her voice was sad when she spoke these words; she was a nice person. I miss her ... I worry about those I left behind."