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Girls & Women

North Korean Women Are Routinely Subjected to Sexual Violence: Report


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Unless governments fix their laws on rape and sexual assault, we won’t see an end to violence against women. Human Rights Watch hopes its new report on the daily sexual violence North Korean merchants endure pushes leader Kim Jong Un to protect and seek justice for women. You can join us in taking action on this issue here

North Korean officials are getting away with routinely committing sexual violence against women working in the country’s growing black market under leader Kim Jong Un’s regime, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released Wednesday.

The lengthy report details some of the human rights violations North Korean officials are carrying out, including public executions and detentions of suspected activists and people who oppose the government, the Washington Post reports. A majority of the predominantly male police officers, prison guards, soldiers, government officials, and prosecutors can assault female workers with relatively no consequences, the report found. The report didn’t mention whether high-level officials within Kim’s regime were also responsible for sexual abuse. 

Take Action: Tell World Leaders to Redouble Their Efforts By Amending Laws to Prevent Sexual Violence

Rape and sexual abuse are everyday violent occurrences affecting close to a billion girls and women in their lifetime — and in North Korea, women don’t have the framework to protect themselves against it. 

More than 50 women who have fled North Korea since 2011, when Kim first went into power, made testimonies to HRW about how the country handles sexual violence. They said there’s no official protocol for reporting abuse — reporting rape is considered extremely taboo. Only one of the testifiers filed a complaint to the police, according to the Guardian. 

Many of the women who testified are trade workers who were held by authorities and encountered sexual abuse within North Korea or while passing through the country’s border seeking employment on the black market. If an official in a position of power asks a woman to do something for sex, money, or other favors, women often feel they have no choice but to comply, the report stated. 

The graphic testimonies explicitly detail brutal abuse. A trader from North Hamgyong province using the pseudonym Yoon Mi Hwa, who escaped North Korea in 2014, told HRW a guard at a holding center in 2009 would pick a woman to rape every night. 

“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 the one to have to follow the guard,” Yoon recounted in the report. 

Read More: Beyond the Handshake: What Life Is Really Like in North Korea

Another woman, Seo Hyang-ran, told the Washington Post she was picked as a rape target at a detention facility in North Hamgyong province, then stripped and vaginally searched by secret police officials following her return to North Korea after being caught trying to escape to China. Many women become targets of sexual abuse on this route, according to the Guardian. Seo said she doesn’t remember exactly what happened to her but the experience was extremely humiliating.

Oh Jung-hee, a trader, told HRW market guards and police “considered us [sex] toys” and she often finds herself waking up in the middle of the night crying unexplainably. Sexual violence has become normalized in the country, Oh explained, yet less than 10 abusers have been convicted of rape in North Korea in recent years, according to data submitted from Pyongyang government to the UN in July 2017. 

“North Korean women should not have to risk being raped by government officials or workers when they leave their homes to earn money to feed their families,” Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch’s executive director, said in the report.

Roth said Kim and the North Korean government should acknowledge the problem and make an effort to protect women and seek justice for sexual violence survivors. 

North Korea doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to addressing its human rights violations. 

Human rights abuses in the country have been thoroughly documented and the UN estimates between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are being kept in four large political prison camps in North Korea, according to the Guardian. A UN report described torturous acts being carried out against North Koreans, including forced abortions, murder, gender, political and religious-based persecution, forced starvation, and more. 

The sexual abuse report comes during a time when President Trump and South Korea have avoided calling Kim out on human rights issues in an attempt to de-escalate North Korea’s nuclear program. The country is believed to have missiles capable of reaching long-range targets like the US, with whom it has had a tense relationship since the US supported South Korea during the 1950s Korean War. 

When the UN called for action on human rights violations in 2014, the regime in the capital city Pyongyang called North Korea a “heaven for women.” Researchers found sexual and domestic violence are discussed so infrequently in North Korea that they barely exist as concepts, according to the Guardian. “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,” Roth said in the report. 


If you have experienced sexual abuse, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access the 24-7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org. You can find international resources here.