Interviews with 54 people who escaped from North Korea form the basis of a new report by Human Rights Watch which says sexual assault is so routine in the country that many men and women take it for granted. No one in North Korea is in a position to object to anything asked or demanded by a government official. You either do what you are told or risk a much worse fate. Naturally, this leads to plenty of men abusing their positions of power. From the Guardian:
Women remain particularly vulnerable in a country where the police, market inspectors and soldiers are predominantly male. While Kim has pledged to focus more on developing North Korea’s economy, the black markets that have become a vital source of income for many families are one place where sexual violence is rampant.
Oh Jung-hee, a trader interviewed by Human Rights Watch, described the prevalence of abuse where market guards and police “considered us [sex] toys”.
“It happens so often nobody thinks it is a big deal,” she said. “We don’t even realise when we are upset. But we are human, and we feel it. So sometimes, out of nowhere, you cry at night and don’t know why.”
Fox News reports another woman interviewed for the report said prison guards would pick women to assault nightly:
“Interviewees told us that 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 favors,” the report said. “Women in custody have little choice should they attempt to refuse or complain afterward, and risk sexual violence, longer periods in detention, beatings, forced labor or increased scrutiny while conducting market activities.”
Yoon Mi Hwa, who fled the hermit kingdom in 2014, claimed in the report that a prison guard sexually abused her.
“Click, click, click was the most horrible sound I ever heard,” she said. “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 points out that even the language to describe sexual assault is limited in North Korea as is the understanding of what constitutes rape and sexual assault. One North Korean woman, Yoon Su Ryun, turned herself over to the police after she was caught smuggling in 2012. She describes what happened next:
They didn’t allow food for me for three days. I was left alone in a dark room and nobody came to me or talked to me. On that day, a new officer came, and he raped me. He didn’t say “I’m going to assault you,” he just took off his pants and jumped on me. I was alone and there was no place to escape, nowhere to run. It was a small room, just enough for five people to sit. I couldn’t run away, and he was young. And I thought, “If I refuse this, what extra punishment would I have to get?” So, I just gave up … I was in a hard situation. I was [sexually] assaulted and couldn’t do anything about it…
Now that I think about it … they wear uniforms and have the law on their side, the way they treat women should not be like [sexual] toys. North Korea has the term “rape” as well, but I didn’t think what I experienced was a rape. Here, I came to learn that it was a rape. And it wasn’t just me. I thought that’s just what happens to female detainees.
The full report is here. Here’s a video produced by Human Rights Watch: