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Open forum on North Korean womens rights held in Seoul

Kim Ji Seung  |  2017-07-05 18:10
An open forum on womens rights in North Korea was held at the Royal Hotel in Seoul last week to lay groundwork for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The forum held discussions on the abuse of women's rights and discriminatory practices. 
CEDAW will deliberate on North Korea's implementation of its recommendations at its 68th conference starting on October 23. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea and the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul have jointly hosted the forum to document human rights abuses suffered by North Koreas women. North Korea joined CEDAW in 2001 and submitted its first national report on the implementation of the Convention to the committee in 2002. The member states are required to submit a national report at least every four years, but North Korea has not reported to the committee since 2002.
At the forum, cases of public violence against women and violations of basic rights were discussed. Ji Seong Ho, the director of NAUH (Now Action & Unity for Human Rights) described human rights violations suffered by North Korean women in correctional labor camps.
"Of the 52 North Korean defectors whose escape we aided this year, 42 were women and three of them had come from correctional labor camps. We received testimonies stating that these camps do not provide enough food for the prisoners, causing some of them to die of malnutrition, as well as cases of violence in the camp," he said. 

"To handle the large number of prisoner deaths in the camps, the authorities have built crematoriums to dispose of the bodies. Some women were mothers and deserved happy lives after escaping to China, but were arrested and repatriated to North Korea, and executed. These reports made us realize that what we are doing (aiding North Korean defectors) is very important."
Ji also pointed out that North Korean women are largely shouldering the burden of providing for their families, with some driven to prostitution where they are vulnerable to further violence. He noted a case in which a North Korean security agent demanded a woman arrested for prostitution provide him with sexual favors in exchange for an early release in December last year. In the end, the woman was sexually assaulted after refusing the offer. Ji highlighted the fact that not only are women treated unequally, but the bigger problem is that the authorities are the root cause of these human rights abuses and are doing little to protect the vulnerable.
In addition, findings on health statistics for defector mothers and children under the age of 5 by North Korea's Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) with technical support from UNICEF, the WFP, and WHO, were released at the forum. Lim Ye Jun, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification presented the data.
Lim noted that according to research conducted in 2012 examining protein and energy deficiencies, more than 20% of individuals in every age bracket in North Korea are in a state of malnutrition. 
Although the nutritional status of the North Korean people has improved since the 2000s, the overall nutritional status of women of childbearing age is still not up to international standards, which is in stark contrast to that of South Korea. In addition, the research found that 31% of women in their 20s, 38.7% of women in their 30s, and 38.7% of women in their 40s have anemia, a dangerous condition for women of childbearing age, she said.
However, the North Korean authorities are showing some acceptance of UN recommendations, and announced a revision of maternity leave in 2015 for maternal health recovery and greater provisions for breastfeeding.
"According to an amendment in Article 33 of the Women's Rights Act, it is compulsory to provide female workers with maternity leave for 60 days prior to and 90 days after giving birth in addition to regular and supplemented holidays, regardless of the period of service, Lim explained.
The Act was revised in June 2015 as Decree No. 556 of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People's Assembly to allow maternity leave for 60 days before and 180 days after giving birth." Lim added that although North Korea is building legal foundations for human rights, the degree of actual implementation is questionable.
In regards to what the focus of the agenda will be during the deliberation in October, Shin Hye Soo (a CEDAW member) said, "North Korea has ratified five of the nine core treaties on human rights, which include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [CESCR], Convention on the Rights of Child [CRC], Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women [CEDAW], and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [CRPD]. Article 2 of UDHR and CESCR states that women will not be discriminated based on gender, and Article 3 includes provisions to ensure that women of the member state should be able to enjoy freedom and social rights equally with men. Therefore, the North Korean authorities must actively protect the rights of women."
Shin pointed out that the high rates of maternal mortality, forced labor for women, and sexual exploitation are the most common human rights issues faced by North Korean women. She also emphasized that the major issues to be tackled in the deliberation are trafficking of defector women in China and to neighboring countries, punishment for repatriated women, forced abortions, and the need to decriminalize prostitution.
Violence against women should also be examined in general terms, including the definition of rape, measures on domestic violence, victim protection, and punishment of the perpetrators, she added.
Yoon Yeo Sang, chief director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) followed by urging ongoing monitoring of North Korea's implementation of the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) recommendations of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
It is necessary to accurately verify whether the North Korean authorities are actually adopting the recommendations they accepted in 2014 to address human rights issues for institutional and practical improvements, he said, adding that verification of human rights and submission of national reports by North Korea must be upheld.
It is necessary to pressure North Korea so that it will take international agreements seriously and actually implement them, he added.

*Translated by Yejie Kim
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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