On November 1st, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report on sexual violence against women in North Korea. They interviewed 54 North Korean émigrés. The interviewees revealed their experiences with systematic sexual violence under one of the world’s most repressive authoritarian regimes. This report is significant because it demonstrates how deeply embedded these human rights violations are in the lives of ordinary North Korean women.
The accounts are often harrowing, demonstrating both the mundaneness and pervasiveness of sexual assault in North Korea. In an interview with HRW, a woman recounted being raped twice in the police chief’s office. One night, near the end of her detention, she heard a sound coming from his office. The interviewee told HRW, “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.’”
HRW previously criticized the North Korean government for being complicit in a wide range of gender-based human rights issues. They reported that women were often punished on behalf of their husbands or relatives, tortured, raped, sexually abused and exploited. They also reported more common gender-related social issues, such as discriminatory policies based on restrictive gender roles. For example, in North Korea, it is more difficult for women to obtain the education and military experience required to acquire a position of power. These policies seem to contribute to what academics Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland deem a “male-dominated state and a “female-dominated market.” They suggested that North Korean women are more likely to have confrontations with authority figures due to their higher levels of participation in the market.
These conclusions are consistent with other reports on sexual violence in North Korea. In 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (UN COI) on human rights in North Korea. The UN COI concluded that the country was guilty of “systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations.” They also reported various accounts of gender-based violence, such as forced abortions, sexual assault and rape. They reported that it is common to see women being sexually assaulted or beaten in public. Women are frisked when they enter train stations to ensure they are not carrying items to sell.
Witnesses told the UN COI that they believe these practices are what sparked the sexual violence. This speculation aligns with Noland and Haggard’s argument about the “female-dominated market.” Witnesses also informed the UN COI that young girls are also frequently sexually assaulted and raped on trains. A former military office stated that there are many instances of rape and sexual abuse amongst officers. He then added that these incidents are common knowledge, which suggests that sexual violence has been normalized in the country.
HRW’s analysis suggested that factors such as deeply entrenched gender inequality and lack of education about sex and sexual violence are only minor contributors. Unfortunately, there are various underlying internal issues that contribute to widespread sexual violence in the country. North Korea needs to implement basic human rights, develop policies to balance the workforce, and apply the rule of law to protect men and women from all violence.
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