Us Too: Sexual Violence Against North Korean Women and Girls

  • March 8, 2018

The Government of North Korea has a problem with women and girls. Acts of sexual violence are perpetrated against females of every class, age, and status. Legislation designed to protect women and girls is not just inadequate and unenforced, it is repeatedly bypassed by men with power, money, and political influence. A thinly disguised misogyny pervades all that the government touches, allowing perpetrators to find shelter in its institutions and society’s patriarchal conventions.

In the face of extreme brutality, many North Koreans have escaped their homeland. In the first great exodus of 1998, nearly one-thousand refugees arrived in South Korea bringing news of a famine that had decimated towns and cities and a government apparatus that had violated human rights on a nationwide scale. In 2002, exile testimonies adopted an increasingly gendered aspect when, for the first time, more women than men reached freedom, harbouring experiences of rape, human trafficking, forced abortions, and sexual slavery.

Sexual violence is not unique to North Korea. It is pervasive in every society, culture, and nation. Estimates suggest that thirty-five percent of women globally have experienced either sexual and/or physical intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. Data shows that the first sexual experience of up to one-third of adolescent girls is forced. Women and girls account for over seventy-percent of human trafficking victims, and approximately three-out-of four victims are trafficked into sexual slavery.

Nor are North Korean men more prone to perpetrating sexual violence than men from other nations and societies. It is an enduring cross-cultural and cross-border problem that can exist independently of its social context. However, this report establishes that distinctive and oppressive social institutions and practices of the Government of North Korea and its agents physically and psychologically dominate women and girls to such an extent that the government increases the space for sexual violence and provides shelter to perpetrators.

Taking many forms — including rape and gang rape; sexual assault, such as forced kissing, touching, and grabbing of the body; intimate partner sexual violence, such as marital rape; sex trafficking and sexual slavery; and other violent acts, such as forced abortions and the refusal of contraception or measures to protect against sexually transmitted infections — the damage caused to survivors can last a lifetime and impact their physical, psychological, and behavioural wellbeing.

The extent of the problem in North Korea is difficult to estimate. The government does not release data on sexual violence and its reports on the protection of women are designed to obscure realities. Nevertheless, interviewees hailing from such geographically and socially diverse locations as Sinuiju, Wonsan, Kaesong, Pyongyang, Sinhung, Musan, Kumchon, Chongjin, Hamhung, and Sariwon had all either personally experienced sexual violence; had known of a family member, friend, or colleague who had experienced sexual violence; or knew exiled countrywomen who were survivors. Associating their testimonies with global trends indicates that North Korea is not a “heaven for women”, but is instead a theatre of extensive, although unquantified, misogyny and sexual violence.

North Korea’s survivors expect to encounter silence, not justice, from the authorities. The government retains power by violating human rights and withholding freedoms. Kim Jong-un and those few men who head the Organisation and Guidance Department know that the blood of millions of innocent lives can never be washed from their hands. Apologies to survivors or reforms of institutions would acknowledge fallibility and invite retribution from those who have suffered, signalling the beginning of the end for the Kim dynasty.

Regrettably, a silence has also pervaded the international community who have largely overlooked the suffering of North Korean women and girls. Determining an effective response is undeniably problematic, but it is clear that United Nations reports, resolutions, and condemnations have been insufficient to halt, or even reduce, sexual violence in North Korea. Inter-Korean dialogue has actively excluded human rights for the sake of ethno-nationalism and ideology, while foreign engagement with the Government of North Korea continues to be sought in vain.

The best chance for North Korea’s beleaguered citizenry will certainly accompany the removal of the Kim dynasty, but such forecasts are beyond the scope of this project. Instead, the findings in this report simply reflect what many, including the Government of North Korea and its supporters, wish to remain hidden — namely the experiences of survivors of sexual violence.