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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Sexual violence against women endemic in North Korea, says Human Rights Watch

Over 100 testimonies paint picture of abuse at hands of high-ranking officials

A North Korean woman works at a silk factory in Pyongyang, North Korea. EPA
A North Korean woman works at a silk factory in Pyongyang, North Korea. EPA

Distressing accounts by North Korean women suggest sexual and gender-based violence in the secluded nation is endemic, a report by Human Rights Watch said.

Investigators with the human rights group interviewed more than 100 North Koreans who had left the country - including more than 50 who left since 2011 - and described unwanted sexual contact and violence as "so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life".

In a series of testimonies, women like Oh Jung Hee speak of powerlessness at the hands of high-ranking party officials, police, prosecutors and soldiers.

But the testimonies paint a picture of sexual abuse - including rape - that is so widespread that many of the women interviewed did not understand that coercive sex should not be an almost every-day occurrence, said one investigator who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the work.

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"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," Ms Jung Hee told HRW. "What can we do? They consider us [sex] toys … We [women] are at the mercy of men."

Ms Jung Hee, a former trader in her forties, admits she never considered that anything could be done to stop the abuse. But in an authoritarian country like North Korea where state surveillance is omnipresent, bringing officials to justice is no easy task for a woman.

Former farmer Park Young Hee fled North Korea in 2011 before being returned by the secret police an put under police jurisdiction. During her pre-trial detention, Ms Young Hee was sexually abused by the officer in charge of her questioning.

"My life was in his hands, so I did everything he wanted and told him everything he asked. How could I do anything else? … 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," she said.

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said there appeared to be little progress in North Korea, despite economic reforms and a stated intention to modernise under leader Kim Jong Un's authoritarian government.

"This is not a regime-threatening issue," Mr Roth told Reuters. "So that is why it is particularly appalling that the government is not doing anything to prevent sexual abuse by officials."

Those interviewed described abuse and rape by police, prison guards, and even officials who oversee some of the growing private markets, who exact bribes in the form of sexual favours.

"Ironically, many of the women who are at the centre of the economic opening that Kim says he cares about are the most at risk," Mr Roth said.

"Pervasive" social stigma meant many victims never discuss abuse, the group said.

"I was ashamed and scared," one woman who said she was raped told HRW investigators. "Everybody would have blamed me."