In February this year the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea published its report. Its findings included large-scale sexual abuses, mostly directed at women, across all sectors of society.
“Witnesses have testified that violence against women is not limited to the home, and that it is common to see women being beaten and sexually assaulted in public,” the report officially said.
Regardless of who you speak to about North Korean women – researchers, activists, journalists, academics – one thing is clear: North Korean women are subject to abuse on a monumentally large scale.
This is not a new phenomenon in North Korea; rather this long-standing history of silent persecution of women’s sexuality is based on the strong foundations of a patriarchal system where women are expected to overcome any challenge at work or home with absolute loyalty towards the Great Leader, as mothers of the nation.
The social expectation and pressure exerted on these women, particularly in the post-famine period where the private economy has seen women enter into new realms of society, has created new problems and threats both in the home and workplace.
“Gender relations and the status of women have changed since the 1990s, mostly because of the economic trends of marketization and the empowerment of women through their increasingly important role as breadwinners in the market economy,” said Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea.
“This empowerment and rising status is of course a positive trend but is not yet enough to protect women from a high vulnerability to sexual exploitation.”
This appears to be a problem in both Koreas, rooted in their history.
“North Korea is a highly patriarchal society. South Korean society is also highly patriarchal and there are disappointingly high levels of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, with low accountability; North Korean society is even more traditional, even more patriarchal and has even lower accountability,” Park said.
ABUSE IN THE HOME
‘Issues like domestic violence, incidents of women being violently beat up or being assaulted is kind of accepted’
Betsy Kawamura, founder of Women For Non Violence, told NK News that she has learned of the danger that female North Korean refugees face in the home through conversations with them.
“If the husband is the main decision maker and he is not very happy with the behavior of his wife, apparently he will resort to physical violence,” she said.
She explains that this is a widespread phenomenon in North Korea.
“Issues like domestic violence, incidents of women being violently beat up or being assaulted is kind of accepted,” she said.
Additionally she explained that one of her contacts, a South Korean priest who helps North Korean families from the UK, would visit North Korean couples in holding cells and notice bruises on the women.
She is quick to point out that this behavior is underpinned by a strongly male dominant society that is pervasive across Far East Asia.
A 2011 Gender Equality and Family Ministry of South Korea report found that 85.2 percent of North Korean refugee families experienced some form of domestic violence between over the previous 12 months.
According to a 2007 Korean Institute for National Unification report, North Korean women in South Korea said that “the husbands’ habit of drinking and wife-battering became more frequent in many families as more women set out to earn bread for the family through peddling in the markets,” in a sense reversing the social norms within the family.
ABUSE OUT OF THE HOME
‘Sexual harassment’ is not even a defined term in the country
With women’s expanded presence outside the home, they are increasingly subject to other forms of harassment and abuse. Officers in the marketplace, conductors on public transport and other men in roles of authority are able to seize the opportunity to assault women.
Female entrepreneurs are often openly asked to provide, or are forced into providing, sexual services to civil enforcement officers. Although prostitution is illegal in North Korea and some North Korean women do willingly sell their bodies, many more are faced with difficult circumstances and very little options.
The UN COI reports that the rape of adults is not really seen as a crime and that in the “male-dominated state, agents who police the marketplace, inspectors on trains and soldiers are increasingly committing act of sexual assault on women in public places.”
In many instances, the male committing the act receives no punishment.
“Sexual harassment” is not even a defined term in the country, although “sexual violation” is talked about more commonly. It is, however, not prosecuted on a large scale, despite being recognized under North Korean criminal law and subject to five-seven years imprisonment.
In fact, changes to the Penal Code in 2012, outlined in the 2014 KINU Report, relaxed several sexual violence related penalties, including “sex violence against women who are in a subordinate relationship.” Additionally, the penalty for those convicted of a sex crime against an under-age woman was lowered from five years of correctional labor to one year of labor training.
Park has heard from North Koreans that “this kind of exploitation is sadly an almost inevitable result of a system where officials can wield such arbitrary power over citizens with almost zero accountability.”
‘In general, gender studies angles are very under-studied in North Korean studies’
Kawamura said that this kind of attitude and experience in North Korean communities does not simply stop once women flee North Korea. Instead, “the trauma carries with them even into a new country.”
She met a woman in the UK who sporadically showed the symptoms of a massive heart attack, but upon receiving medical checks no evidence of heart problems were revealed. Kawamura instead suspects that these episodes were brought on by PTSD.
“There are all kinds of issues that are not addressed properly in North Korea, or in a different third country (where refugees end up),” she said.
This is one of the issues addressed by Women For Non Violence, which campaigns for female refugees to have a have a platform from where they are able to talk about their experiences.
“I think it is really important to talk about physical violence against women because it is everywhere. It permeates North Korean society; it’s in the prison camps, it’s in the family and it’s perpetuated abroad,” Kawamura told NK News.
In the UK, the U.S. and in other countries where North Korean refugees are arriving, there is very little assistance offered. Kawamura believes that protection and immigration officers need to be brought up to date on specific North Korean issues.
Domestic violence, human trafficking and sex slavery among North Korean refugees must be dealt with by trauma councillors who are much more sophisticated and have experience treating prisoners of war and torture victims, she said.
NK News asked Jiyong Kang and So Young Ko, refugees who spoke at an EAHRNK event in London, what they felt the UK government could do to help North Korean refugees like themselves to come to terms with their trauma. Their response was clear: an English education for defectors and more psychological help for the trauma.
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) echoed this view, pointing to psychological counselling and group therapy as a means of dealing with psychological issues. He adds that later on vocational training should be offered in order to enable refugees to start a career.
However, there is still one major hurdle in creating these improvements: the lack of voices and advocates fighting for North Korean women.
“In general, gender studies angles are very under-studied in North Korean studies. Partly because the area is so male-dominated and there has been low sensitivity to such things,” Park said.
The UN COI echoes this problem in its mandate by explaining that there is still a stigma attached to discussing such issues. It is this stigma that must be removed from the discussion of sexual harassment and abuse in order make progress in North Korea and in the international community.
“We have to really create a paradigm shift,” Kawamura said. “We need to facilitate safer spaces for these women to tell their stories.”
Picture: Eric Lafforgue