Sexual Violence in North Korea: Giving a Voice to NK Refugees in the UK

With a renewed international focus on human rights in North Korea, female refugees are increasingly sharing their stories, giving us a greater understanding of sexual violence and in subsequent countries of asylum.

Sexual violence in North Korea is an epidemic; it's everywhere and it's not considered a big deal.

There are countless articles and reports that explain the hardships faced by women in the reclusive country. Sexual violence and abuse are an important element of these hardships, particularly as the assault and rape of adults in not really seen as a crime.

"Agents who police the marketplace, inspectors on trains and soldiers are increasingly committing act of sexual assault on women in public places," The UN Commission of Inquiry reported last year.

This violence, and the memories of violence, often follow women after they escape North Korea and settle in a new country.

It is only with a renewed international focus on human rights in North Korea, particularly with the UN COI report released in February 2014, that these female refugees are increasingly sharing their stories, giving us a greater understanding of sexual violence in North Korea and in subsequent countries of asylum.

A background

Harassment and violence in North Korea is rife, but they are predominant in situations where women are in a position of subordination. In a society much more patriarchal than the UK, that is quite literally everywhere.

Testimonies from North Korean defectors explain the abuse women face in their private and professional lives. There is almost no fear of punishment due to the climate of male dominance and patriarchal ideals encouraged across society.

That same society places a high value on the purity of women, and often vilifies those who do speak out, and so many victims do not feel that they can speak out for fear of repercussions.

One defector explained that she witnessed her sister being sexually violated by a secretary of the Worker's Party in the research institute where she worked. Her sister could not refuse or report these actions for fear of losing her job.

However, it is the domestic abuse faced by women that predominantly travels beyond the North Korean border.

A 2011 report conducted by the Gender Equality and Family Ministry of South Korea found that 85.2 percent of North Korean refugee families living in South Korea experienced violence between husband and wife over the previous 12 months.

The psychological toll of the violence

"Violence against women, in particular sexual violence, proved to be difficult to document owing to the stigma and shame that still attaches to the victims. The Commission takes the view that its inquiry may have only partially captured the extent of relevant violations," the COI report explained.

For most women living in North Korea, facing these issues head on is simply not an option. In fact, even if they tried to report domestic violence, the police would not take it seriously at all.

And what of those who arrive in places like the US and the UK?

These feelings of shame continue to affect North Korean women and often deter them from becoming more vocal about their experiences. Betsy Kawamura, founder of Women For Non Violence, works with female refugees and knows first-hand some of the problems they face.

"The situation of physical assault and aggression perpetrated by men doesn't stop when they leave North Korea." she explained.

"They are bringing with them the disparities of gender equality in North Korea."

Finding solutions

It is the hope of human rights groups focusing on North Korea that women gain a greater voice to face their own trauma and increase the quality of services on offer to refugees.

Additionally, creating safe spaces for women to speak about their experiences will open up a new dialogue on human rights issues in North Korea.

On 14th January 2015, The All Parliamentary Group will host a discussion with Betsy Kawamura and several female North Korean refugees to more openly discuss North Korean women and their potential to speak up about what they have experienced, as well as their potential to act as peace-builders in the Korean peninsula.

This discussion at the UK Parliament has the potential to inform and ignite the public and empower North Korean refugee women toward healing and peace-building.

In the UK, a country where sexual violence is typically seen as a big deal, isn't it vital that we create a greater platform for these women to do just that?

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