The need for a North Korean 'Me Too' movement: no justice for sexual assault victims

[As Heard in North Korea]
Lee Sang Yong  |  2018-04-03 13:36

"As Heard in North Korea" articles contain radio programming content broadcast by Unification Media Group [UMG], an independent multimedia consortium targeting the North Korean people.


One day an inspector and a division chief from the Ministry of Peoples Security (the police) sent the others out to do work, and then ordered me to prepare a meal. The point of this was to separate us, but I simply thought that it was my turn to make the food. When the other people left, I was put in a different room. Its hard for a woman to win against a mans aggression, try as she might. I tried everything I could to escape the situation, but I was unable to escape the division chief. I was raped then and there. 
  
-Kim Chan Mi, who escaped the North in 2009 (from Unification Media Group's radio program interviewing victims of human rights abuses in North Korea)  

"Lee Chang Ju, the political department chief in Ryanggang Province, Pochon Countys Ministry of State Security office, was investigating the wife of a fellow official, saying, 'If I wanted to, I could release you right now. If I did that for you, how would you repay me?' He the allegedly demanded a sexual favor, making numerous threats and then conciliations, resorting to sexual violence a number of times. After releasing the victim, he went to her house and continued to sexually assault her."

-Unification Media Group's program interviewing and broadcasting testimony from victims, still living inside North Korea, of human rights abuses perpetrated by the North Korean regime 

"It was the middle of January 2012, and I was taken in and imprisoned for a month by the Ministry of Peoples Security. Forty of us were crammed into a small, 350 square foot room that was pitch black. For a month, I just sat there. We mostly sat there, but sometimes they would order us to do some work. The work was not very difficult. The hard part was that MSS officers committed sexual assaults against us. I was brought out to a separate room to get my documents composed since I was a first-timer. Thats when they started touching me in places that they shouldnt and pushing me to massage them. It was sexual abuse. They also did this to other people as well. I think many people suffered from this kind of abuse. I was violated in this way about three or four times over the course of my month-long stay."

-Mrs. Son, from Ryanggang Province (NKDBs 2017 Human Rights White Paper)  

North Korean women are exposed to broad sexual abuse, including rape, molestation, and harassment. In particular, women who are in custody, including temporary detention, political prison camps, and labor camps are frequently subjected to unwanted sexual advances and abuse. 

North Koreas constitution has provisions referring to rape (Article 279) and assault (Article 275), while Article 46 of the Guaranteed Womens Rights Law bans and provides protections against domestic violence. 

However, these legal protections are not properly enforced. Violations are rampant, and the majority fall through the legal cracks. Corruption and bribery makes it difficult to enforce these regulations. For example, some party cadres demand that women perform a sexual favor in order to be placed in desired jobs. 

The absence of sexual awareness education is another prominent enabling factor. Female students are provided with practical education but the sexual portion of this only covers menstruation, said an inside source from South Pyongan Province during a telephone call with Daily NK on March 8. North Korea is a society that is unable to have an open discussion about sex. 

One time, during a town feast, I saw a man assault a thirteen-year-old by grabbing her breasts. I told the parents about this man, but they didnt consider it a big problem. In general, the awareness level regarding sexual harassment is very low, the source continued.

The social impulse to conceal such transgressions is another prominent factor. If a woman suffers sexual abuse at the hands of a close coworker, her accusations can be downplayed. Worse, sometimes the victims are blamed for spreading rumors. For this reason, the parents of victims are reluctant to submit sexual assault reports to the MPS. 

In North Korea, expressions like sexual violence or "sexual assault" don't even exist. The concept is only ever applied to rape and gang rape. Other forms of sexual harassment, violence, or assault are not considered crimes. 

Episodes of sexual violence are not reported in the North Korean media. It is seen as a social embarrassment and thus not reported by public means. That is why the Me Too movement has little chance of spreading in todays North Korea. 

The complacency of the authorities is another issue. As evident in the aforementioned stories, there are legal protections against sexual abuse in place, but the regulations are not enforced by the authorities. 

According to one source at the Seoul-based non-governmental organization Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), Sexual violence is habitually committed in North Pyongan Provinces Ministry of State Security preliminary detention center in Sinuiju. A defector testified that she was told, Youre so irresistible, it makes me more excited, as she was subjected to sexual assault. She reported this to the detention facilities manager, who forced her to do all the facilitys chores and maintenance as punishment.      

According to defector testimony, some people convicted of sexual violence in the past have been executed. In the early 1970s, a man in his 30s who assaulted over 40 women in Chongjin City was publicly executed. But after this, the problem was not dealt with proactively and it was no longer treated as a major crime.   

Investigative authorities go as far as to conceal sexual crimes, and the victims are often blamed, so they are forced to remain silent and suffer without recourse to justice. 

Due to this negligence, sexual predation is allowed to spread out into public life. In particular, the rights of inmates in kwanliso (political prison camps) and other detention facilities are not being protected by the authorities. The Workers Party, the Central Authorities, the prosecutors office, and the judicial branch are all deeply involved in promoting and sustaining an atmosphere in which these crimes go unanswered.  

That is why experts on human rights in North Korea suggest that the international community intervene to address the issue. The Kim Jong Un regime has shown that it is susceptible to external criticism. Pressure to reform and address the human rights problem could therefore induce some positive changes. 

"During the Kim Jong Il era, there were doubts about what sort of internal changes could be produced by a human rights investigation, but entering into the Kim Jong Un era, more and more people inside the country are using the phrase human rights violation. It is becoming clearer just how important it is for us to continue to work on the issue from the outside," one expert who has long focused on working to improve human rights for North Korean women said on condition of anonymity.

It is important to accumulate information from the victims, including the name of the attackers. If it becomes known that these transgressions are being recorded on the outside, its possible to build towards a more holistic social awareness of human rights."
 
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