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  1. ITV Report

Sexual violence by officials so widespread in North Korea it is part of women's everyday life, report finds

  • Video report by ITV News Asia correspondent Debi Edward

Sexual violence and harassment by officials is so common in North Korea that it is accepted as part of a woman's everyday life, a new report has found.

Those in positions of power in the country take advantage of the climate of fear and people's desperation to survive in the impoverished nation, "and for women, this creates a perfect storm of sexual assault and rape", Human Rights Watch has said.

The report, entitled "'You Cry at Night, but Don't Know Why': Sexual Violence against Women in North Korea", adds that abuse continues under the repressive regime as the government fails to investigate and prosecute complaints, fails to provide protection and services to victims, and even asserts that the country is implausibly free of sexism or sexual violence.

Moreover, much of the sexual violence is carried out by men within the regime, such as party officials, prison officers, police officers, and soldiers, as they wield a great deal of power within the system.

Yoon Mi Hwa, a former trader in her 30s from North Hamgyong province who escaped North Korea in 2014, described what happened when she was detained in in the Chongjin jipkyulso (holding center) in 2009, after a previous attempt to flee to China: "Every night some woman would be forced to leave with a guard and be raped.

"There was an especially horrible police guard, who, I later learned, was famous for his cruelty.

"Every day, whenever new inmates arrived, he’d find a reason to violently beat up one of the detainees, so everybody would know that you must obey him."

She continued: "Click, click, click was the most horrible sound I ever heard.

"It was the sound of the key of the cell of our prison room opening.

"Every night a prison guard would open the cell.

"I stood still quietly, acting like I didn’t notice, hoping it wouldn’t be me the one to have to follow the guard, hoping it wouldn’t be him."

The report also found that abuse is not just carried out on women who are incarcerated, but those leading ordinary lives too.

"When police officers are out on patrol, they see pretty women and try to find something wrong," Park Sol Dan who fled North Korea explained.

"Even if she has her ID, travel pass, all the necessary documents, they say: 'Oh, this or that is wrong'.

"Offering your body to a police officer is so common. There's nothing else you can do."

Because of this power, the penalty for not complying can be great.

"In North Korea the lightest punishment [for refusing a demand for sex] is causing the woman physical suffering," North Korean activist Lee So Yeon explained.

"For example, these women could be made to do more arduous work in the factory, they can be made to do all the hard labour.

"Then there is psychological punishment, including increased political surveillance and control.

"So, considering all this, women come to think its better to obey those with power."

Emma Daley, HRW Communications Director, added that women "know if they say 'no' and refuse a demand for sex, they are risking everything they have and are left with little choice but to comply.

"They might not just lose their jobs, but also their freedom, they could be sent to labour camps or prison camps."

Emma Daly of HRW said the climate of fear in North Korea 'creates a perfect storm of sexual assault and rape'. Credit: Human Rights Watch

As part of the report, HRW interviewed 54 North Koreans who had left the country after 2011, when current leader, Kim Jong-un came to power, and eight former officials who had also fled the country.

The women who had fled, said sexual violence is rife within the system and can be found in almost every part of life.

North Korea is one of the world's most impoverished countries.

The East Asian nation has a population of around 25 million people, of which 72% or 18 million people are not getting enough food, a UN report from 2017 revealed.

It is thought most North Koreans earn between £1.55 and £2.32 each month, meaning many women do what they can to earn a little more or make life easier for their families.

This might involve trading or smuggling, explained Ms Daly, and the women then pay officials to turn a blind eye.

However, for many, these "bribes" often come in the form of rapes or sexual assaults.

Yoon Suu Ryun, who fled North Korea after a stint in jail for smuggling, was freed from prison the day after she was sexually assaulted.

"The man who sexually assaulted me finalised the documents for my release," she recalled.

"I thought I was offering my body so that I could get out of jail and take care of my child.

"I wasn't upset, rather, I thought I was lucky."

The women know that if they say "no" and refuse a demand for sex, they are risking everything they have, the report found.

The women who refuse might not just lose their jobs, but also their freedom - they could be sent to labour camps or prison camps, the report found.

However, the issue of sexual abuse is so widespread in North Korea, that it is seen as part of everyday life.

"Unlike men, women can sell their body as a last resort," Park Sol Dan who fled North Korea explained.

"So the men say: 'Hey, what do you worry about? Your body is money. Men actually say that."

Moreover, due to a lack of punishment for sexual violence, many victims do not understand that it is abuse.

Lee So Yeon explained: "Almost every woman [I spoke with] experienced sexual violence in North Korea, but when they were in North Korea, they didn't know it was sexual violence."

HRW said that contributing factors to the widespread issue of sexual abuse include deeply embedded patterns of gender inequality and a lack of sex education or awareness about sexual violence within North Korea.

Other factors include the unchecked abuse of power, corruption exacerbated by socioeconomic changes, lack of rule of law, stigma toward victims of sexual violence, and lack of social support and legal services.

Oh Jung Hee, a former trader in her 40s, said sexual abuse in North Korea was so common that the men don’t think what they are doing is wrong and that women have come to accept it, but “sometimes, out of nowhere, you cry at night and don’t know why...

“They consider us [sex] toys. We [women] are at the mercy of men.”

Yoon Suu Ryun is one such example: "Now that I live here [in South Korea], [I know it's] sexual violence and rape."

“Sexual violence in North Korea is an open, unaddressed, and widely tolerated secret,” said HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth.

“North Korean woman would probably say ‘Me Too’ if they thought there was any way to obtain justice, but their voices are silenced in Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship.”

Sexual violence in North Korea is widely tolerated, Kenneth Roth said. Credit: AP

Following the publication of the report HRW is now calling on the North Korean regime to acknowledge the problem of sexual violence, ensure that police, prosecutors, and courts treat sexual violence as a crime, and promptly investigate and prosecute allegations when appropriate.

The charity continued that the government should establish reproductive health and sexual education programs, and provide services for survivors, including counseling, medical and legal assistance, and programs to help women to overcome stigma.

“North Korean women should not have to risk being raped by government officials or workers when they leave their homes to earn money to feed their families,” Mr Roth said.

“Kim Jong-un and his government should acknowledge the problem and take urgent steps to protect women and ensure justice for survivors of sexual violence.”