Dancers perform in front of an image of Kim Jong-un

This is what life is like for Kim Jong-un's teenage pleasure squad

With food and electricity shortages, public executions and the overwhelming influence of aggressive propaganda, life for many citizens of North Korea is characterised by daily hardship. However, for a select few women, estimated to be around 30 to 40 in total, everyday life is very different. Known as the “Gippeumjo”, which literally translates as "happiness squad", they are provided with accommodation, are showered with gifts of money and household items, and set up for life of material comfort. 

But this life of comparative luxury comes at a great price, for these women are members of Kim Jong-un’s personal “pleasure squad”, carefully selected - if you can call it that - to provide the “Dear Leader” and his head honchos with entertainment, massages and sexual favours. Should they refuse, well, you probably don’t need me to tell you what happens next in a country known for executing entire families.

Pleasure squads were first introduced by Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung, in the 1970s. Although their existence was kept a closely guarded secret for decades, the testimonies of former pleasure girls have gradually seeped out of the country in recent years as they have defected from the country. Continued throughout the leadership of Kim Jong-il, they were suspended for around five years when Kim Jong-un came to power. While some took the decision to stop them as a testament to the Western influence of his Swiss education, it seems they were mistaken. Since 2015, they have been back in action. 

Kim Jong-un sat at a desk Credit: Getty/AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS'

In order to form the groups, girls are selected at a young age, usually between 13 and 15, by officials who travel the length and breadth of the country looking for the perfect contenders. Traditionally, they must have a beautiful face, a soft and feminine voice, and be 170 cm tall - which can’t be easy in a country where the average height for a woman is 151cm. As a non-negotiable prerequisite, if anything is negotiable in a dictatorship, they must be virgins, which is to be confirmed by medical examination.

In all, around 2000 girls are chosen, taken away from their families and sent for training, where they are taught how to sing, dance, play a musical instrument and even give massages. Educated in their leader’s every whim and quirk, their main purpose is to serve and entertain, in whatever form Kim Jong-un, or anyone he selects to use their “services”, may require that day. At the end of the process, the cream of the crop is passed on to Kim Jong-un himself.

For the women and girls of the pleasure squads, life is a very different kind of brutal to those who serve in the North Korean army. Once trained, the women live in the country’s capital Pyongyang or are sent to summer villas. During their service, which according to one former member normally lasts around 10 years, they are not allowed to contact their family and are required to write a pledge of allegiance to their master. In a 2010 interview with Marie Claire magazine, Mi Hyang, who served as a pleasure girl under Kim Jong-il, detailed how they were wheeled out at alcohol-fuelled parties which sometimes ended in the women’s pubic hair being shaved as a result of men’s drunken bets.

North Korean women dressed in pink perform a synchronised dance Credit: Flickr/(Stephan)

By 25 years of age, at a time when most women around the world are just getting into their career, it is time for the pleasure girls to retire. Once their time is up, they are married off to members of the elite and the leader’s inner circle including guards and military leaders; this close contact ensures that the secrets of the pleasure squad stay secret. It is believed that the previous pleasure squad were also given a financial reward of around $4,000 after Kim Il-sung died. 

While it is currently unclear what kind of master Kim Jong-un is to these women as they are still within their first term of service, his import records may provide hints as to where his interests lie. According to British newspaper The Sun, who quote figures from Trade Map, he spent over $3 million on importing lingerie - including corsets and suspenders - from China in 2016. Add this to his well-known penchant for expensive French wine and Russian vodka, and it seems unlikely the pleasure parties are a thing of the past. 

In the coming years, with the very real possibility of the end of North Korea as we know it, it is almost certain that the lid will be further lifted not only on what life in Kim Jong-un's pleasure squad really entails, but on many of the other dark secrets of this notoriously introverted regime. In the meantime, we can only wait, wonder, and hope for the best for the ladies involved.