A weeping market trader is compelled to bribe a market official outside the market administration office. Painting: Choi Seong Guk/Courtesy HWR
A weeping market trader is compelled to bribe a market official outside the market administration office. Painting: Choi Seong Guk/Courtesy HWR

Rape by government officials is endemic across North Korea, particularly as the marketization of the economy provides a field for sexual abuse on a vast scale.

However, many of the victims have become so conditioned to it, they accept the situation as a normal part of life in the closed-off state.

These are among the findings in a damning new report published on Thursday by prominent NGO Human Rights Watch, or HRW, entitled: “You Cry at Night, but Don’t Know Why.”

HRW said that contributing factors include deeply embedded patterns of gender inequality, a lack of sex education and awareness about sexual violence. In turn, these issues are exacerbated by a lack of rule of law and stigmatization toward victims of sexual violence.

Yet, HRW officials state that the problem is – unlike other human rights abuses in North Korea – easy to correct if the political will existed.

“Ending rape does not mean regime-change,” HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth said in a meeting with foreign reporters on Wednesday, prior to the report’s release. “This is something that the government can solve without jeopardizing itself.”

At a time when South Korea is emerging as North Korea’s main interlocutor in global affairs, HRW officials slam Seoul for failing to address human rights while it upgrades cross-border relations and seeks to denuclearized the hardline state.

Alleging that South Korean President Moon Jae-in is “accepting Kim Jong Un’s negotiating terms,” Roth said: “I have no trouble with engagement; I object to the Moon administration’s one-dimensional approach to the problem.”

Roth insisted that for both political and commercial reasons, the North Korean nuclear issue cannot be de-linked from human rights issues.

The HRW report was compiled over a two-and-a-half year period. Given the lack of data published by North Korea, the report relies largely on interviews conducted with 106 North Koreans and North Korean defectors, in China and South Korea. Of the 106 people interviewed, 76 were females.

While the hideous experiences of North Koreans who have suffered in labor, prison and re-education camps have been widely publicized internationally, HRW believes its latest report shines a broader light on North Korean society overall.

“This is a completely under-reported side of North Korea,” Roth said. “One way to enable [international empathy] is to describe the lives of average North Koreans. We think this is a good window into North Korea.”

Male officials take the seats while female market traders sit on the floor; one official fondles a women. Painting: Choi Seong Guk/Courtesy HRW

A culture of sexual abuse

Since the collapse of North Korea’s socialist-style distribution mechanisms in the 1990s, many state officials have been extracting not only official payments and taxes from citizens, but have also been forced to provide for themselves.

As a result, power abuse has suffused society. And with the majority of officials being male, sexual abuse has become a major subset in a vast sea of corruption.

”Female traders like my wife, workers and especially women in prison must do anything their superiors, like police, party officials, investigators or guards, ask them to do,” said a male interviewee, Kim Chul Kook. “Agreeing to whatever request will be followed by potential benefits, and denial by certain loss and unknown retribution.”

In a state where political power is paramount, and the rule of law for citizens is weak or non-existent, victims have no recourse when they are abused by government representatives.

“Having sex with men who have power over you or letting them touch all over your body is a necessity to survive,” said female interviewee Choi Dal Mi. “It never occurred to me that I could or would do anything about it.  It was just how things are.”

Nevertheless, victims suffer psychological torment. The testimony of one, Oh Jung Hee, provided the title for the HRW report: “Sometimes, out of nowhere, you cry at night and don’t know why,” she said.

Prisoners are the most vulnerable population. “Every night some woman would be forced to leave with a guard and be raped,” a former prisoner, Yoon Mi Hwa, who had been captured after trying to escape to China, told HRW interviewers. “Click, click, click was the most horrible sound I ever heard. It was the sound of the key to the cell of our prison room opening.”

Women in detention in a pre-trial facility fear to meet the eyes of their guard. Painting: Choi Seong Guk/Courtesy HRW

Sexual abuse is prevalent not only in prisons, but in everyday life.

A key development in recent years has been the marketization of the North Korean economy – a process that has been surging across the formerly communist economy since the mid-1990s. As it is a bottom-up force for change that promotes economic efficiencies, helps eradicate poverty and empowers traders and entrepreneurs, while further eroding the power of the state distribution system, it has largely been viewed as benign.

However, the prominence of female traders – who are not required to do military service – in the markets offers new opportunities for sexual abuse by officials.

“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,” Oh – a former North Korean market trader who said she has been forced to have sex multiple times – told HRW researchers. “What can you do? They consider us [sex] toys. We [women] are at the mercy of men.”

In this corrupt universe, a deeply sexist paradigm has taken root, with males complaining that while they have to pay substantive or monetary bribes, female competitors have an unfair advantage – their bodies.

“Many of our fellow male traders tell us that we [women] are lucky to have this weapon. They say ‘now, smart women must use this weapon as much as they can to maximize our advantage’,” said interviewee Lee Boom Soon. “I never replied. I just felt bitter inside.”

“It is ironic that women were the greatest beneficiaries of the economic changes, but have become more vulnerable as they encounter more officials,” said HRW’s Roth. “The culture of corruption fuels rape.”

A government official checks to see if a female market trader has hidden ‘anti-socialist’ materials. Painting: Choi Seong Guk/Courtesy HRW

Slamming Seoul’s silence

The timing of the report may prove uncomfortable for Seoul, which is now engaged in a fragile process of engagement with Pyongyang.

HRW Executive Director Roth visited Seoul to launch the report, but although he met with South Korea’s foreign minister and deputy unification minister, he was “disappointed” not to meet President Moon, saying it was common for him to meet national leaders. He cited a recent meeting with Germany’s Angela Merkel.

Moon has a background as a human rights lawyer, who actively resisted the authoritarian governments in South Korea during the 1970s and ’80s.

“Moon should know better. His thinking is solving nuclearization, then getting to human rights,” Roth said. “I think this is short-sighted, as the nuclear issue cannot be solved without the human rights issue.”

Calling North Korea “a poor country that diverts resources [to strategic weapons] and the people have no say,” Roth said that if human rights were respected by the regime, that situation would never have been possible.

Moreover, there are sound economic reasons for Moon to push North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on human rights, Roth stated, given that engagement by major, global South Korean enterprises is almost certain to become part of the cross-border engagement process at some point.

“North Korea can trade with Russia and China, but a South Korean company cannot build a factory in North Korea if their human resources are slaves, or if there are women being raped in a back room,” Roth said. “No company with a global reputation can afford complicity with human rights violations.”

A terrified woman is interrogated by a state security official. Painting: Choi Seong Guk/Courtesy HRW

A shift of course?

North Korea is, surprisingly, open to international pressure in some areas. For example, following international publicity about the human rights abuses committed there, it closed down the notorious Yodok Labor Camp and has accepted aid-monitoring demands made by NGOs, including the UN’s World Food Program.

HRW insists that if North Korea is truly serious about reforming and opening up to the mores of international society, sexual abuse would be an easy issue for the regime to start with.

“This is not like saying, ‘Everyone has a right to protest’,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “If they are going to reform, this is an easy one. I would like to see some reform on sexual abuse, and that could open space for other discussions.”

Even so, Roth anticipated a barrage of denial. “In North Korea, you face stigma if you complain,” he said. “So, they can claim there has been no problem of sexual violence in North Korea, because nobody complains.”

With neither Moon nor Trump apparently willing to ask the hard questions of Kim, who will champion the issue with Pyongyang is another question, Roberston admitted.

Across the region, he said he hoped Japan and Malaysia – which has been taking a more robust stance on human rights under the new Mahathir administration – would take the lead on the governmental front. ASEAN’s Committee on Women and Children might also take up the cudgel.

And with Seoul officialdom reluctant to raise human rights with Pyongyang, he suggested South Korean civil society – which features an active “MeToo” movement, and a parallel movement protesting against spy camera pornography – promote the cause, pressuring their own government to shift its stance and raise the issue with North Korea.

“I would hope that a number of women’s rights advocacy groups in South Korean would take this up,” Robertson said. “It is ready-made for South Korean women – conservatives and liberals.”

The full HRW report is available for download at: https://www.hrw.org/node/323617

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