This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
North Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is one of the most repressive countries in the world (Human Rights Watch 2018). Ruled by the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) since 1948, with Kim Jong Un II currently holding the top position of chairman, North Korea is responsible for some of the world’s worst human rights violations (Engstran, Flynn, and Harris, n.d.). All civil and political rights are restricted, freedom is unheard of, and the state controls everything. Collective and public punishment are deployed to ensure that the inhumane rules of the regime are followed by its 25 million citizens (Human Rights Watch, 2017).
The Prevalence of Sexual Violence
North Koreans are taught stereotypical gender roles from a very early age (Human Rights Watch 2018b), which normalizes gender-based and sexual violence. The state uses sexual violence as a means to target defectors and to keep the population in check. In the 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry Report on North Korea, it was divulged that female prisoners routinely faced rape, torture, almost other acts of sexual violence (UNHRC, 2014). The offenders are often police officers, guards, secret police agents, and fellow detainees. Women are detained for several reasons. They are often subjected to the ‘family responsibility principle’ where family members of a convicted criminals are imprisoned. Women are detained if they are caught fleeing the country. Detained defectors face sexual humiliation, harassment, and verbal abuse. Women also exchange sexual favours for food or easier working conditions to increase their probability of survival in these prison camps (NK Hidden Gulag Blog, 2020).
Thousands of defectors, mostly women, face torture and death every year as they attempt to leave North Korea's authoritarian regime. Many people arrive in China with the intention of traveling to South Korea, but they are detained by Chinese authorities and sent back to North Korea before they can complete their journey (Engstran, Flynn, and Harris, n.d.). North Korean women are also trafficked into China for sexual slavery. The North Korean government claims that human trafficking is ‘inconceivable’ on its territory, but that seems to be far from the truth.
The Strategic Use of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence in North Korea takes place against a backdrop of structural violence that enables its prevalence. Institutional perpetration and apathy enable the crime. For instance, in 2017, the North Korean movement gave a report to CEDAW stating that only 9 people were convicted of rape in 2008, 7 people in 2011, and 5 in 2015. The government also mentioned that a few other men were convicted for forcing women to have sexual intercourse (CEDAW 2017). This statistic seems unrealistic and absurd based on the accounts of the thousands of North Korean defectors who have both reported facing sexual assault and rape and highlighted its widespread prevalence. It is also used as a mechanism to control women and citizens in order to prevent defection, while also pursuing an active campaign of “re-educating” individuals. It has also been used as a means of ethnic cleansing, on the alleged ground that women are suspected of carrying "ethnically impure foetuses" (Women under Siege, 2012). The crime prevails as a means of wielding power over women, in order to intimidate, humiliate, and control their bodies, mobility, and freedoms.
Human Rights Watch (2018a). “Human Rights in North Korea.” https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/06/05/human-rights-north-korea
Erin Engstran, Caitlin Flynn and Meg Harris. (n.d.) “Gender and Migration from North Korea.” https://jpia.princeton.edu/news/gender-and-migration-north-korea
Human Rights Watch, World Report 2018 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2017), North Korea chapter, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/north-korea.
Human Rights Watch. (2018b). “You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why” Sexual Violence against Women in North Korea. https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/11/02/you-cry-night-dont-know-why/sexual-violence-against-women-north-korea
UN Human Rights Council, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, UN Doc. A/HRC/25/63 (February 7, 2014), 14, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G14/108/66/PDF/G1410866.pdf?OpenElement.
Do Kyung-ok, et. al, White Paper of Human Rights in North Korea, 2015, (Seoul: Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), 2015), p. 369.
NK Hidden Gulag Blog. (2020). “In North Korean Gulags, Sexual Violence is Unremitting nd Goes Unpunished.” https://www.nkhiddengulag.org/blog/in-north-korean-gulags-sexual-violence-is-unremitting-and-goes-unpunished.
CEDAW, “List of issues and questions in relation to the combined second to fourth periodic reports of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Addendum: Replies of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” June 16, 2017, para. 48.
Women Under Siege. (2012). "North Korea." https://www.womensmediacenter.com/women-under-siege/conflicts/north-korea
Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 18 of the Convention: Democratic People's Republic of Korea (April 2016). https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW%2fC%2fPRK%2f2-4&Lang=en
Documented by Vasundhara Sharan