North Korean government officials met with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women last week to discuss the state of gender equality and women’s rights in the reclusive nation. The North Korean government claims that it is upholding and promoting gender equality and the rights of women. Human rights experts, however, dismiss this position and have amassed evidence detailing the abuse of vulnerable North Korean women both within and outside the country. These women are highly vulnerable because they lack any ability to hold perpetrators of abuse to account and, in the event that details of abuse become public, it is the women who are subject to social stigma and shame.
According to Human Rights Watch, women within the detention system are particularly vulnerable to abuse at the hands of security officials and prison guards. Instances of “psychological, physical, and sexual abuse” were reported by eight women with whom the rights group conducted interviews, with abuse occurring in both labour camps and regular prisons. Most of the women were sexually abused and raped by their interrogators (security officials from one of several government agencies), but felt in most instances that they were unable to resist due to their dependence upon these officials for a more lenient report in official crime files. Moreover, there are no mechanisms for reporting abuse or holding officials to account, and women are stigmatized in the event that details of abuse are somehow made public.
North Korean women in China are also highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Of the 50,000 to 200,000 North Koreans living in China, the majority are women, according to Lim Hyun-Joo, a U.K.-based academic. Many of these women are forcibly married to Chinese or Korean-Chinese men in rural areas after being drawn by the promise of work, or, in some instances, after being abducted. Lim reports that “many of the women forced into these relationships endure physical hardships, [are] forced to work in the fields and do endless household chores. Some are trafficked to households with several men, where their keepers take turns to violate them on a regular basis.” In addition, children borne by Korean women are not recognized by the Chinese state and denied basic entitlements such as education and healthcare.
North Korean government officials blamed international sanctions for undermining its work to uphold gender equality in their meeting with the UN committee. Han Tae Song, North Korea’s ambassador to the UN, told officials that “due to these inhumane economic sanctions, vulnerable peoples like women and children are becoming […] victims,” as reported by Reuters. It is the oppressive nature of the North Korean state, however, that is responsible for creating these vulnerabilities. Examples of these vulnerabilities include the lack of accountability for security officials at any level and the inability to report cases of abuse. Furthermore, it is the North Korean government that incarcerates its own citizens for political crimes and other actions deemed dangerous or subversive, forcing them into a detention system designed to harshly punish and deter.
The UN must continue to investigate instances of human rights abuses in North Korea and pressure the government to hold perpetrators of abuse to account. It is also important that they continue to develop strategies for recording human rights abuses with the hope of eventually holding those responsible to account. The international community should also seek to raise these issues with the Chinese government, which has consistently failed to protect the human rights of North Koreans who have fled to China. The rights of these vulnerable women must be upheld and protected.