Illegal Abortions on the Rise

North Korean women face injury and even death from malpractice during the back-alley procedures.

nk-women-305.jpg North Korean women arrive at a concert hall in Pyongyang, Feb. 26, 2008.

A lack of access to contraceptives and an increasingly sexually liberated culture have led to more women seeking out illegal abortions in North Korea, with a growing number of them succumbing to complications, according to sources inside the “Hermit Kingdom.”

The sources, from the northern province of Yanggang along the border of China, say that illicit termination of pregnancies is increasingly common and that obstetricians are more likely to conduct the procedure because of a “decline in sexual morality” and “rampant prostitution” in North Korean society.

In addition, said the sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, it is extremely difficult to procure contraceptive medications and devices that are traditionally smuggled out of China because of an increased clampdown by North Korean authorities on the already illegal products.

As a result, they said, young pregnant women concerned by an uncertain future in the impoverished nation are forced to turn to bribery to bring medical professionals and midwives into their homes to carry out the illicit abortion procedures.

Often, these procedures can lead to severe injuries or even death because the medical practitioners conducting the abortions lack access to medical equipment and medicines already in short supply, thanks to North Korea’s inferior and overburdened healthcare system.

Recent death

One of the sources, contacted by RFA’s Korean service, said that a woman recently died during an illegal abortion at a hospital in Hyesan, the administrative center of Yanggang province.

“Some time ago, a pregnant woman died during an illegal abortion procedure performed by an obstetrician working in the city hospital in Hyesan,” the source said.

“The doctor was arrested by the prosecution authorities and the hospital is undergoing an inspection as well.”

Although many of these cases go unreported, the source said, this particular incident was investigated by the authorities because the doctor who performed the procedure had previously conducted another illegal abortion that led to an injury.

Another source from Yanggang said that this year alone, including the recent death, some 10 women had died during illegal abortions in Hyesan, based on information received.

The source said that beginning in January, authorities have been carrying out inspections of the hospital where the recent death occurred and one other hospital in the city because the two had been responsible for several injuries in connection with the unlawful procedures.

Additional dangers

In addition to the dangers for pregnant women seeking out an illegal abortion, he said, the cost of bribing a team to carry out the procedure had nearly doubled recently.

“To have an illegal abortion procedure done, you have to give 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of non-glutinous rice worth of money to the doctor or midwife,” the source said.

“It was only about 23,000 won not so long ago, but now that the price of rice has gone up, you have to give them about 40,000 won.”

The North Korean won officially trades at around 130 to the U.S. dollar, but is more commonly exchanged at about 3,000 to one.

And for the families of those women who were willing to brave the threat of arrest and spend their savings only to die on the operating table, there exists little recourse.

They can speak to no one about their tragedy because they will endanger their own lives, as well as the lives of those who carried out the abortion, for being associated with the “criminal act” and are ultimately ostracized by their communities.

Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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