Human Rights Watch: Sexual Violence in North Korea ‘Accepted as Part of Ordinary Life’

By Eugene Whong
nk-sexual.jpg Male North Korean government officials and female traders sitting in a railway carriage, while a railroad officer checks a female trader’s ticket. In railway carriages, women often face harassment by male government officials and railroad officers.
Human Rights Watch/Choi Seong Guk

Sexual violence is so rampant in North Korea that it has become an accepted part of ordinary life, according to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) based on interviews with women from the North who have taken asylum in South Korea.

The New York-based NGO’s 86-page report, “‘You Cry at Night, but Don’t Know Why’: Sexual Violence Against Women in North Korea,” accuses North Korean officials of using whatever power or status they have to coerce women into agreeing to unwanted sexual contact.

Firsthand accounts by survivors describe men using their position of power to choose victims who then have no recourse other than to comply with demands for sex or other favors or face harsh consequences.

The victims implicated high-ranking party officials, prison guards and interrogators, police, prosecutors and soldiers in the report.

“The North Koreans we spoke with told us that unwanted sexual contact and violence is so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life: sexual abuse by officials, and the impunity they enjoy, is linked to larger patterns of sexual abuse and impunity in the country,” said the report.

“The precise number of women and girls who experience sexual violence in North Korea, however, is unknown. Survivors rarely report cases, and the North Korean government rarely publishes data on any aspect of life in the country,” it said.

The report includes accounts from survivors, including Oh Jung Hee, a trader from Ryanggang province who left the North in 2014 and provided the quote from which the report gets its name.

“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. They consider us [sex] toys. We [women] are at the mercy of men.”

She said it was so common that the men don’t think what they are doing is wrong and that women have come to accept it, but “sometimes, out of nowhere, you cry at night and don’t know why.”

HRW also references a study conducted by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), a South Korean government think tank, with 1,125 North Koreans who re-settled in South Korea between 2010 and 2014. The respondents were comprised of 31.29 percent men and 68.71 percent women.

The KINU survey found that 37.7 percent of the respondents said sexual harassment and rape of inmates at detention facilities was “common,” with 15.9 percent saying they considered it “very common.”

Thirty-three women said they were raped at detention and prison facilities, 51 said they witnessed rapes in such facilities, and 25 said they heard of such cases, HRW quoted the South Korean survey as saying.

The study says that abuse is rarely reported because the government does not adequately investigate or prosecute, nor does it do anything to protect survivors, all while claiming that such abuse does not occur at all in North Korea.

“The women said the police do not consider sexual violence a serious crime and that it is almost inconceivable to even consider going to the police to report sexual abuse because of the possible repercussions. Family members or close friends who knew about their experience also cautioned women against going to the authorities,” said the report.

“I think that the North Korea situation is amongst the worst we’ve seen because we have a system that has made the abuse of women so pervasive that the women themselves believe that in fact there’s nothing that they can do about it,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of HRW’s Asia Division, told RFA’s Korean service in a telephone interview.

“We had a number of cases that where women were saying to us that they only realized that these things that happened to them were rights crimes when they reached South Korea, and that they had never told anyone else before [talking to] us.” Robertson said.

“They wanted to have justice of some sort. They recognize that what happened to them is a crime, and they are angry enough to basically say ‘we want somehow to have this information come out now so that what happened to us doesn’t happen to other people,’” he said.

HRW noted that North Korea “on paper … says that it is committed to gender equality and women and girl’s rights” and has officially criminalized rape of women, trafficking in persons, and other forms of sexual abuse. The country banned domestic violence in 2010.

HRW called on North Korea to issue orders to all police, security officials, soldiers, party officials and other authorities that rape and other acts of sexual violence be investigated and prosecuted, regardless of the status of the alleged perpetrators. The group also called for legal reforms to criminal all forms of sexual violence by government officials and launch a nationwide campaign to educate the public on the problem.

For the report, HRW interviewed 54 North Koreans who fled the country after Kim Jong Un took power in 2011. In addition eight former North Korean officials who left the country were also interviewed.

Additional reporting by Hee Jung Yang of RFA’s Korean Service.

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