AS a deeply militarised state, North Korea has long prided itself as a disciplinarian country, but the testimonials of women who defected after years of sexual abuse at the hands of men in power reveal a grim side to the hermit kingdom.
Since taking power in 2011, the country’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un has relaxed rules on trading for regular civilians, but a substantial number of women involved in economic activity has described sexual abuse, molest, rape and other forms of coercion as a norm in the reclusive state.
Oh Jung Hee is a former trader from Ryanggang province, told Human Rights Watch that up to 2014 when she left the country, guards would make their rounds at the market in Hyesan city where she sold textiles to demand bribes, some of which involved forced sexual acts and intercourse.
“I was a victim many times … On the days they felt like it, market guards or police officials could ask me to follow them to an empty room outside the market, or some other place they’d pick,”
“What can we do? They consider us [sex] toys … We [women] are at the mercy of men. Now, women cannot survive without having men with power near them.”
Jung Hee, who is now in her forties said she was powerless to resist or report these abuses as nothing would have prevented these assaults. Instead, she had to be vigilant in avoiding unwanted situations by moving away or hiding.
Her testimony was part of a recently released report by Human Rights Watch, which is based on interviews with 54 North Koreans who fled the country after 2011. Eight former North Korean officials who defected also gave their accounts of sexual abuse by men in official positions of power.
Jung Hee’s depiction of her home country is not an isolated one, and while sexual and gender-based violence is a global concern, HRW says there is growing evidence that it is endemic in North Korea.
Another former trader, Park Young Hee, also in her forties and from Rynanggang province says she was violated by officers while detained for attempting to flee the country in the spring of 2010.
She claims the officer questioning her in a detention facility near Musan city in North Hamgyong province touched her body underneath her clothes and penetrated her several times with his fingers.
Young Hee also said the officer had repeatedly asked about the sexual relations she had with the Chinese man who she was sold to while in China.
“My life was in his hands, so I did everything he wanted and told him everything he asked. How could I do anything else?” she asked
“Everything we do in North Korea can be considered illegal, so everything can depend on the perception or attitude of who is looking into your life.”
Young Hee said added the abuse went unreported as it did not seem unusual then and that little would have been done by the authorities if she complained.
The report mentions high-ranking party officials, prison and detention facility guards and interrogators, police and secret police officials, prosecutors, and soldiers as among the perpetrators of the abuse.
According to most of the abuse victims, the cases occurred while they in the custody of authorities or during times market traders came across guards and other officials while travelling to open their businesses.
Interviewees told Human Rights Watch then when a guard or police officer “picks” a woman, she has no choice but to comply with “any demands he makes, whether for sex, money, or other favours.”
However, the exact number of women and girls who experience sexual violence in North Korea is unknown as many cases go unreported, while the government does not release any statistics on the abuses.
Only nine people in all of North Korea were convicted of rape in 2008, seven in 2011, and five in 2015 the North Korean government told the UN committee that monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in July 2017.
“While North Korean officials seem to think such ridiculously low numbers show the country to be a violence-free paradise, the numbers are a powerful indictment of their utter failure to address sexual violence in the country,” the watchdog said.
“North Korean women would probably say ‘Me Too’ if they thought there was any way to obtain justice,” said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch.
“But their voices are silenced in Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship.”