The evils of North Korea are well-chronicled: from its political prison camps to the needless and preventable starvation deaths of between 450,000 and 2 million people. That latter estimate comes from an exhaustive report by a U.N. Commission of Inquiry, which found the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
What is less well-known, however, it that it is North Korea’s women — particularly those on the low rungs of the songbun system, which categorizes North Koreans by their fealty to the regime — who suffer the most. Many are forced into prostitution by extreme poverty. Due to the unavailability of medical care and drugs, some have turned to opium in the false hope that it can prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Thousands more flee to China as refugees and fall prey to traffickers.
Women also suffer the worst cruelties in North Korea’s prison camps. A woman named Kim Hye-sook told the U.N. Commission that “the women who worked in the mines of Political Prison Camp No. 18 feared assignment to the nightshift, because guards and prisoners preyed on them on their way to and from work and rape them.” Another witness “reported that the guards of Camp No. 18 were especially targeting teenage girls.” A former guard told of “how the camp authorities made female inmates available for sexual abuse to a very senior official who regularly visited the camp,” and that “[a]fter the official raped the women, the victims were killed.” A former guard at Camp 16 told Amnesty International that “several women inmates disappeared after they had been raped by officials,” and concluded “that they had been executed secretly.” Indeed, the Commission found violence against women to be pervasive in North Korean society:
318. Witnesses have testified that violence against women is not limited to the home, and that it is common to see women being beaten and sexually assaulted in public. Officials are not only increasingly engaging in corruption in order to support their low or non-existent salaries, they are also exacting penalties and punishment in the form of sexual abuse and violence as there is no fear of punishment. As more women assume the responsibility for feeding their families due to the dire economic and food situation, more women are traversing through and lingering in public spaces, selling and transporting their goods. The male dominated state, agents who police the marketplace, inspectors on trains and soldiers are increasingly committing acts of sexual assault on women in public spaces. The Commission received testimony that while rape of minors is severely punished in the DPRK, the rape of adults is not really considered a crime.