Sexual abuse by senior North Korean officials is ‘an open, unaddressed and widely tolerated secret’, rights watchdog says
- Those interviewed described sexual abuse and rape by police, prison guards, and even officials who oversee some of the growing private markets
- North Korean women caught fleeing the country to China or who are repatriated face severe punishment including torture, imprisonment and sexual abuse
North Korean police and other officials prey on women with near-total impunity, a rights group said on Thursday, in a rare report on sex abuse in the isolated nation.
US-based Human Rights Watch drew on interviews with more than 50 North Korean escapees to chronicle gruesome details of rape and other abuses perpetrated by security officers such as border guards, but also civilian officials.
The nuclear-armed North, which is accused of widespread rights abuses by the United Nations and other critics, is a deeply hierarchical and patriarchal society where traditional values of deference to authority still hold sway. But the vast majority of both defectors and market traders in the North are female. Many women have more freedom of movement than men as they are not assigned a state job from which their absence will be noticed.
North Korean women caught fleeing the country to China or who are repatriated from its neighbour face severe punishment including torture, imprisonment and sexual abuse, the report said.
“Every night some woman would be forced to leave with a guard and be raped,” said one abuse victim in her 30s who was once held at a border detention centre. “Every night a prison guard would open the cell. I stood still quietly, acting like I didn’t notice, hoping it wouldn’t be me.”
Park Young-hee, a farmer, was sent back to North Korea after she was caught by Chinese police, and during her interrogation she said the policeman “made me sit very close to him and touched me over my clothes and underneath. He also touched me between the legs and put his fingers inside of me several times during different days”.
She felt her life was in danger and her fate in the hands of the interrogator, and felt she had no choice but to answer his sometimes sexually explicit questions.
Traders who smuggle goods across the border with China to sell at state-sanctioned private markets are forced to pay “bribes” including sexual favours, the report said.
Perpetrators include managers at state-owned enterprises, and gatekeeper officials at the markets and on roads and checkpoints, such as “police, prosecutors, soldiers, and railroad inspectors on trains,” it said. But the concept of rape is different in the North, it added, where it is seen as applying only if violence is used. One anonymous former textile trader in her 40s recounted being treated like a sex toy “at the mercy of men”.
“On the days they felt like it, market guards or police officials could ask me to follow them to an empty room outside the market, or some other place they’d pick,” where they forced sexual encounters, she said. “It happens so often nobody thinks it is a big deal. We don’t even realise when we are upset. But we are human, and we feel it. So sometimes, out of nowhere, you cry at night and don’t know why.”
Some interviewees talked about rape victims in the North being expelled from university or beaten and abandoned by a husband for bringing shame to the school or their family.
North Korea attempts to portray itself as a socialist paradise free of crime, and in a submission to the UN last year said only five people were convicted of rape in 2015 and seven in 2011. But the Human Right Watch report paints a different picture. Eight women who were former prisoners described experiencing “sexual, verbal, and physical abuse” at the hands of authorities.
“After this report, North Korea can’t say sexual violence doesn’t exist, so they have to either change their tune or fix the problem,” said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Kim Jong-un could stop this, he could enforce the laws North Korea already has on the books.”
The issue is discussed so little in North Korea that researchers found that concepts such as domestic violence and sexual violence had no clear definition. The Korean language in the North relies on a host of euphemisms that often downplay the severity of the act.
“Sexual violence in North Korea is an open, unaddressed, and widely tolerated secret,” Roth said. “North Korean women would probably say ‘Me Too’ if they thought there was any way to obtain justice, but their voices are silenced in Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship.”
Kim is the third generation of his family to rule the country, where state surveillance is widespread and dissent not tolerated.
With the authorities imposing total control over the media the global #MeToo campaign against abuse of women has entirely passed North Korea by.
Pyongyang maintains that it protects and promotes “genuine human rights”, and says there is no justification for the West to try to set human rights standards for the rest of the world. It condemns international criticism on the issue as a smear campaign to undermine its “sacred socialist system”.
According to data submitted by Pyongyang to an UN panel on gender equality a total of five people were convicted of rape in the North in 2015.
The HRW report quoted another victim – who also used a pseudonym – who said she had been raped by a police officer after being denied food for three days in a dark room at a border detention centre.
Now that she lives in the South, she said: “I know it’s sexual violence and rape.”
Additional reporting by The Guardian