Like robots, their feet rising and falling in perfect unity, hundreds of women soldiers of the North Korean People’s Army march across Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang to mark 60 years since the end of the Korean War.

In perfect ranks 24 across, they progress as though a slide rule has been used to place every regimented limb. Their toes, encased in laced-up, mid-height heels, point at the same angle as the front of each stride stretches out to within inches of the rank in front.

Such togetherness is the result of hundreds of hours of drills in soulless barracks, where the recruits perfect their marching formations either by linking arms, or even by being tied together at the neck with ropes.

It is a show of physical discipline that would be the envy of the corps de ballet at Covent Garden. But more than any sense of artistry, this scene at the weekend was designed to be a ruthless display of military power.

We are used to seeing this kind of muscle-flexing on old film reels from Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia. But it is the presence of so many regiments of female soldiers which is so fascinating.

Every woman has her hair cut to exactly the same prescribed length on the nape of the neck. Each woman has either one or two medals on her right chest depending on her service record, while they also sport ceremonial cords wrapped around each shoe.

The cap badge shows the red star that appears on the national flag, while the mini-skirted uniform is completed with short socks over flesh-coloured tights.

Though few outside this most secretive of nations are aware of it, more than ten per cent of the army is made up of women - indeed some reports from defectors suggest the figure could be as high as 40 per cent.

Given that the army boasts a total of 1.2?million troops, this means that, in theory, there could be close to half a million women in service. One of the main reasons is that thousands of male soldiers starved to death or deserted their posts during the great famine which devastated the impoverished nation in the Nineties.

As a result, the ruling party has turned to female soldiers to fill the gaps. Unlike their male counterparts in the armed forces, these girl soldiers undergo only selective conscription.

They have already been subjected to ideological brainwashing at school, where they learn how to conjugate English verbs with such phrases as ‘We are killing Americans’, or ‘We have killed Americans’, followed by 300 hours’ annual paramilitary training in the obligatory Red Guard Youth. Most of this takes place at school, or in a dedicated week-long summer camp.

North Koreans are drafted at the age of 17, though those bright enough to go to university join later and have to undergo six months in a military training camp, since they are more likely to be officer material.

Some facts of life in North Korea cannot be hidden from view, which is why recently the country had to reduce its military minimum height requirement from 4ft 9in (145cm) to 4ft 8in (142cm), to include shorter women unfortunate enough to have been born painfully undernourished during the terrible famines.

All conscripts have to serve for between three and five years, beginning with a month of intensive training in which corporal punishments are not unknown. The military day begins at 5am and does not end until 10pm. Meals are based on a daily ration of 650g to 750g of rice.

The women get a fortnight’s leave just once during their entire period of service, which can include ten days off to get married or for the funeral of a parent. And they are certainly not merely a ceremonial adornment to make national parades more eye-catching.

Female soldiers are increasingly present in front-line companies, though they are most heavily represented in psychological warfare units, hospitals and administration. Many of them guard fixed military installations near their home towns.

One female soldier, Kim Ok-Hee, who escaped to South Korea, was an instructor at North Korea’s so-called 4.25 boot camp, a mechanised division whose mission is to guard the coastline against attacks by enemy paratroopers.

She told a newspaper women were being deployed in frontline units. ‘Most of the artillery units along the North Korean coasts are manned with women, and there are independent women’s regiments and more women battalions,’ Kim said.

She claimed that propaganda songs have been written to attract more women into coastal artillery units, and that women fighters now guard nearly all tunnels and bridges in North Korea.

She recalled that in 1997, about a dozen of her school classmates volunteered for the army, and were supported by their parents because this would at least reduce the chances of them starving to death.

Certainly, North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, understands the need to recruit women to the military. Recently, he was photographed surrounded by smiling female soldiers clinging onto his arms, in what he presumably thought would be a bountiful public relations exercise.

But the life that awaits these women can be brutal. While those with good looks or family influence are deployed in more desirable postings, such as medical units, elsewhere sexual abuse is pervasive.

Though women stationed in barracks are separated from the men, this does not deter senior officers from seeking to exploit the young female recruits. The same exiles also report that because units have to be moved constantly so that the troops do not consume the limited food available in any one area, sexually transmitted diseases are rampant in the army.

Though life in the army for a woman may be less precarious than that of civilians, the conscripts know that if they step out of line, they and their parents face life sentences in penal labour camps.

No wonder they made so sure every stride in that parade at the weekend was inch perfect.–Daily Mail