In a new report from Human Rights Watch, 54 North Korean women who fled the country after Kim Jong-un took power in 2011 detail systematic, abhorrent sexual violence against women perpetrated by police and secret police, high-ranking party officials, prison guards, interrogators, and soldiers. The assaults described in the report took place while women were in custody (often for attempting to flee to China) and while women worked as market traders, thus coming across market guards and police in their day-to-day jobs.
Women in custody “risk beatings, sexual violence” and “longer detention” should they refuse the demands of a guard, which range from physical abuse and rape to money requests, the report found. Women market traders “risk losing their main source of income and jeopardizing their family’s survival, confiscation of goods and money, and increased scrutiny or punishment, including being sent to labor training facilities or ordinary-crimes prison camps.”
As Human Rights Watch reports, it’s impossible to know the extent of which women and girls are being regularly abused—“North Korean government rarely publishes data on any aspect of life in the country”—but these cases describe an environment in which men with positions of power regularly harm women as they operate with total impunity.
Oh Jung Hee, a textile trader in in Hyesan city, discusses assault as a almost common occurrence that she tried to ignore out of fear of retaliation:
“I was a victim many times … 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. What can we do? They consider us [sex] toys … We [women] are at the mercy of men. Now, women cannot survive without having men with power near them.
You never know how it starts, but [when you are in crowded areas] you always end up having a man’s hand or body part touching your breast, your back or some part of your body. I was scared of reprisals, so I’d act as if I didn’t notice and move away.”
Cho Byul Me worked as a smuggler and was sent back to North Korea after fleeing to China. She says she was raped twice by a police chief during the 12 days she was at a facility. “We are considered as less than animals, so there isn’t anybody that would stand up and protect any of us,” she says:
“I was raped twice in the Sinuiju holding facility by the police chief. One of the nights I was passing through and [the police chief] said, “Team leader, you are so firm. I like you, what can we do about it?” I could only remain there in silence. He took off my clothes, and [raped me] standing there. There was not even a place to sit or lay. [...]
I heard a woman that was being raped like me, exactly in the same place, making some noise. I just closed my eyes and tried to ignore it. I thought: “Poor girl. She should be quieter. Nothing good can come from others knowing about it.”
Of the 54 women interviewed, only one woman told the police. The authorities didn’t act on it, but news traveled fast in Lee Bom Ee’s community—her husband routinely physically assaulted her for being raped, and eventually they divorced. When a friend told her she had been raped years later, Bom Ee instructed her not to tell anyone.
As the Guardian points out, North Korea submitted a report to the United Nations in 2017 which claimed only five people were convicted of rape in 2015 and seven in 2011—a “socialist paradise free of crime.”
Read the full report here.