The grim realities of life in the North Korean army were reinforced earlier this week with a video showing a soldier escaping to the South as his former comrades shot at him.

Indeed, another recent escapee revealed that for a woman in the military in North Korea, life can be even harder.

For almost a decade Lee So-yeon was a North Korean soldier, where she says rape was commonplace and diets were so bad that female soldiers stopped menstruating.

She served for most of the 1990s when Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-Il, was in control of the authoritarian and poverty-stricken Communist nation.

So-yeon signed up at 17 because, like many girls and women, she saw the army as the only way to guarantee a decent meal everyday.

But she soon found out that even soldiers go underfed.

"After six months to a year of service, we wouldn't menstruate any more because of malnutrition and the stressful environment," she told the BBC.

"The female soldiers were saying that they are glad that they are not having periods. They were saying that they were glad because the situation is so bad if they were having periods too that would have been worse."

So-yeon claims that women could not get access to tampons or modern sanitary products in the army and had to make do with cotton pads, which they would reuse daily.

In 2015, after So-yeon had defected, the army started issuing women with sanitary products to boost morale.

However, the news came at the same time as a much bigger announcement: all women would have to do seven years military service from the age of 18.

North Korea military parade images
Female North Korean soldiers parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War at Kim Il-sung Square, in Pyongyang Reuters

So-yeon was not raped but she said it was a fact of life for some women in the North Korean Army.

"The company commander would stay in his room at the unit after hours and rape the female soldiers under his command. This would happen over and over without an end," she said.

Korea experts say that the mistreatment of women in North Korea stems from its ancient patriarchal culture and that some of the issues raised by So-yeon would also be found in the South Korean army.

As well as malnutrition, hygiene is also a big factor for the women in the army, who sleep on mattresses made of rice husks, which absorbs sweat, leaving the dormitories smelling badly.

"As a woman, one of the toughest things is that we can't shower properly," she added.

"Because there is no hot water. They connect a hose to the mountain stream and have water directly from the hose. We would get frogs and snakes through the hose."