No protection under law: The unchecked prevalence of violence against women in North Korea

The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, commonly referred to as North Korea, has found itself under international scrutiny and condemnation once again as the subject of a recent Human Rights Watch report.

Photo by Wally Gobetz (Flickr)

The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, commonly referred to as North Korea, has found itself under international scrutiny and condemnation once again as the subject of a recent Human Rights Watch report.  The report, entitled “You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why,”documents the sad reality faced by many women in North Korea.  Women are routinely raped, abused, and mistreated by men—many of whom are government officials—with impunity.  The crimes all too frequently go unpunished and unreported, as rape is typically not investigated or prosecuted unless significant injury or death have also occurred.  In North Korea, there are no services, safe houses, clinics, resources, or other forms of aid for victims.  As a result, sexual violence and abuse is a widely tolerated and unaddressedpart of daily life.


Women are often subjected to demands for bribes—usually in the form of sexual favors—by the police and other officials.


The women who are most frequently victimized are those who engage in marketplace activities and those who are sent to jail or other types of detention facilities.  Women became pioneers in the marketplacebeginning with the famine of the mid-1990s.  During this time, the Public Distribution System essentially failed, leaving those outside the elite ruling class with few options for food or valuable income.  Called jangmadong, these open markets were technically illegal at first, as they provided for a form of income outside of the command economy.  In North Korea, men and unmarried women are obligated to work at government-established workplaces.  Thus, these markets have allowed married women to become the chief breadwinners for their families, selling food and other items smuggled from China. Today, some of these markets are permitted to operate under government approval.


Since women play valuable roles in North Korean marketplaces, they are subject to greater abuseand exploitation by guards, the police, and the secret police (bowiseong).  Unauthorized travel within North Korea is strictly prohibited, and women caught traveling to and from markets are often subjected to demands for bribes—usually in the form of sexual favors—by the police and other officials.  Similarly, women who set up shops in marketplaces are frequently harassed, abused, or violated by men in positions of power.  Women who refuse are typically required to close their shops or have their goods and money confiscated, jeopardizing the well-being of their families.


Many North Koreans, especially those who reside near the border regions along the Yalu or Tumen Rivers, flee into China.  Although some plan to return with money, food, or other goods for their families, many intend to leave the oppression felt in North Korea permanently, seeking resettlement in either South Korea or the United States.  China does not tolerate North Korean refugees, officially classifying all of them simply as economic migrants.  As a result, they are not permitted to apply for asylum or receive the protections granted under the UN Refugee Convention. As a result, North Korean refugees are frequently rounded up and repatriated back into North Korea, where they face harsh punishments and torture at detention facilities and forced labor camps.  The women who are repatriated are forced to strip in front of prison guards, and they are then subjected to rape, sexual abuse, or body cavity searches.  Those who refuse may face longer detention, torture, or harsher punishment.


Women who successfully evade the Chinese police, however, may not fare much better.  Since they are not protected under Chinese domestic law or international law as applied in China, North Korean women regularly become victims of human trafficking or brokers involved with the bridal market.


Abuse and violence towards women is so common and public that it has been accepted as a part of daily life.


The results of the report conducted by the Human Rights Watch are consistent with findingsfrom the UN Human Rights Council, as well as with the findings by the Korea Institute for National Unification(KINU).  Through their studies, each group concluded that sexual violence towards women in North Korea is rampant, widespread, and largely unchecked.  According to the UN report, rape, forced abortions, and sexual violence are so prevalent that it amounts to a crime against humanity. Furthermore, the UN report stated that abuse and violence towards women is so common and public that it has been accepted as a part of daily life.


There are several reasons for this.  First, gender inequalityis deeply embedded in the fabric of North Korean society.  Young girls are taught that they are not equal to boys.  They are taught to adopt positions of submission, and they are blamed for the sexual violence, abuse, or rape that is perpetrated against them.  Next, the traditional purpose of marriage in North Korea is to further one’s social duty owed to the Workers’ Party of Korea.  Divorce is frowned upon and difficult to obtain.  Neither domestic violence nor marital rape are prohibited under North Korean law.  Finally, the laws of North Korea are not sufficient to protect women from sexual abuse or violence, as they are both vague and inconsistently applied.


There is no legal definition for “discrimination against women” in North Korea.  Additionally, in the form of Korean spoken by the people of North Korea (choseonmal), there is no word for “domestic violence,”nor are there words for “sexual violence,” “sexual harassment,” or “sexual abuse.” Although there is a word in choseonmalfor “rape” (ganggan), the law states that only females can be victims, and rape can only occur in certain, limited circumstances.  Consent—or lack thereof—is nota factor.  The acts that amount to rape are undefined, vague, and do not adhere to international standards, despite the fact that North Korea has ratified a number of international human rightstreaties that promise protections for women and children.


In North Korea, the legal systemexists solely to protect the government and those in positions of leadership.  Courts are not independent.  Law enforcement does not exist to protect citizens.  Instead, its purpose is to maintain social order and ensure the proper functioning of the political system.  In a public statement, Park Kwang Ho, the Councilor of the Central Court in North Korea stated that if a woman was compelled to participate in sexual relations to preserve her job, that was her choice.  What he failed to recognize and consider is that “consent” in the absence of meaningful choice isnotconsent.  “Consent” under duress is not consent.


Rape and other forms of sexual violence or harassment go unreported.


Since the laws are ineffective to define, prevent, or punish violence against women, rape and other forms of sexual violence or harassment go unreported.  Women are afraid of the consequences that reporting might have on them and their families.  One woman described the idea of reporting or speaking about rape in North Korea as “spitting on your own face.”  There are no social services to assist victims of sexual violence and abuse. There are no shelters or safe housesto protect victims of domestic violence.  There are no medical protocols by which victims of rape or sexual assault may be treated or evaluated.


In one case evaluated by the Human Rights Watch, a woman known by her pseudonym, Cho Byul Me, told researchers that one night, the police were called because she was being beaten by her husband so violently that it was disturbing the peace.  When the police arrived, however, they did nothing. Instead, they admonished her to simply bear the abuse more quietly.


In another case, the pseudonymous Cho Eun Byul told researchers that she was called in for questioning by the public prosecutor in her district for engaging in marketplace activities.  She was subsequently raped and beaten by prosecutor in a horrific assault lasting over four hours.  Despite the fact that she reported this abuse to higher-level officials, she was told that nothing could be done about the crime.  After reporting the rape, she was arrested and imprisoned for four days. The police threatened to send both her and her infant daughter to a political prison camp unless she retracted her statement against the prosecutor.  She withdrew her report and was permitted to return home to her daughter.


Research and studiesshow that stories like those of Cho Byul Me and Cho Eun Byul are the rule, not the exception.  For example, when KINU surveyed North Korean refugees living in South Korea, approximately 53.6% of respondents stated that sexual violence was either common or very common in North Korea.  Respondents identified assailants as being primarily police officers, with guards and members of the secret police also being labelled as common perpetrators of violence against women.


The most important part of the North Korean narrative is the people themselves.


To protect women, the government of North Korea must create clearly defined legal terms to describe all types of violence against women, including rape, sexual assault, sexual violence, harassment, and domestic violence.  The laws must be consistently enforced, and punishments must be commensurate with the crime.  There must be safety measures put into place that protect women who wish to report violence. Safe houses, shelters, and other social services should be established to promote protection and healing for victims. Women must have a way to describe acts such as sexual violence and sexual abuse, by incorporating these terms into the language.  North Korea should comply with the international treaties to which it is a party. The international community must urge its compliance.


People from all areas can support North Korean refugeesby empowering them and by helping them adapt to freedom through successful integration into their communities.  Organizations such as Liberty in North Korea(LiNK) help resettle refugees in the United States and South Korea.  LiNK also helps rescue North Koreans who are escaping through China.  The North Korean Freedom Coalitionsupports the victims of human rights violations in North Korea by partnering with political leaders.  By providing food and other forms of aid, Helping Hands Korea(HHK) also gives valuable assistance to North Korean refugees. Like LiNK, HHK provides transport and safe passage for these refugees through Asia.


There are many ways to help the people of North Korea, but before action, there must first be awareness.  The most important part of the North Korean narrative is the people themselves.  They must not be overlooked, and their stories should not be ignored.


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About Miranda Tarlton (6 Articles)
Miranda is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Charlotte, NC, Miranda attended Campbell University where she obtained a degree in history, with a minor in criminal justice. Before beginning law school, she worked for a number of years as an ESL teacher in Seoul, Korea. After her 1L year, Miranda worked in the legal department at Workplace Options. This past summer, she worked as a legal intern at the Law Offices of C. Melody Edwardo, PLLC. Miranda is currently a Co-coordinator for the Domestic Violence Advocacy Project, as well as the Vice President of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund. Miranda is interested in international affairs and advocating for international human rights, and she is pursuing an LL.M degree through Campbell's partnership with Nottingham-Trent University.