Public rapes by police at train stations are common. Sexual assault of adults is not a considered a crime. Beatings are thought to be deserved, and women are raped and murdered at prison camps, where they can be imprisoned for any reason. Female soldiers are forced to have sex or starve. The U.N. says violence against women is getting worse.
There’s an old saying in North Korea: “Women and rugs need to be beaten every couple of days.”
That was the experience of Daeun Lee when she served in North Korea’s military, when her commanding officer beat her to a pulp after trying to rape her. Defectors, the U.N. and human rights groups say that’s been the experience of scores of North Korean women not only in the army, but in society in general.
Military officers in charge of distributing food would often tell female soldiers they’ll have to provide sex if they want to eat, she tells Digital Soju TV, speaking about her first of six years in the North Korean military.
“I was in the early stages of malnutrition,” she says. “I weighed just around (81 pounds) and was about (5 feet, 2 inches tall). The Major General was this man who was around 45 years old and I was only 18 years old at the time,” Lee says. “But he tried to force himself on me. One day, he tells everyone else to leave except for me. Then he abruptly tells me to take off all my clothes,” she says.
The officer said he was inspecting her due to her condition of malnutrition, in order to determine whether she should be sent to a hospital or not. She simply did what he said, no questions asked.
“Surely there’s a good reason for this. I never could have imagined he’d try something,” she says.
“But then he tells me to remove my bra and panties as well. But there’s no reason I have to get completely naked. So then out of nowhere, he comes at me. So I start screaming and tell him to stop. And in a small tent like that everyone can hear the screaming. So then he covers my mouth and just starts beating on me. Just hitting me,” she says.
“Blood came out of my right ear. He hit me so hard that even some of my front teeth started becoming loose. I was bleeding everywhere, freaking out…So there I am, just wearing my undergarments, trying to crawl out of there. So then he grabs me by the hair… and says ‘If you tell anyone about this you’re going to get discharged and I will make your life a living hell,” Lee says.
The United Nations says brutality against women has gotten worse in recent years, not only in the military but throughout society, at a time when the world is watching the isolated state, and as tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are at a high point.
Abuse includes a widespread rape culture in a country where sexual assault against adults is not considered a crime. There’s also a general acceptance of domestic violence against women and girls, and it’s seen as normal – by both men and women – to punch, kick and choke a wife or girlfriend. It’s even ok to beat girlfriends with rocks.
At the root is that North Korea’s system is based on the individual having no rights at all, and the state being like God – a common theme of hardline Communist governments in history. Only senior people are allowed to make decisions, and those decisions must be obeyed without question in this hierarchical system.
The structure of the military reflects this, as there is no department where rape can be reported, and no military psychologist or counselor available to speak to, as in the militaries of many countries around the world, according to victims’ testimony.
“There wasn’t really anyone I could tell or report this to,” she says. “Many other women have gone through something similar. I don’t know whether he’s dead or alive, but if Korea ever gets reunified, I’m going to find him and even if I can’t make him feel ten times the pain I felt, I want to at least smack him on the right side of his face the same way he did to me,” she says.
She added that another common tactic that senior officers used to get sex from 18-year-old female subordinates was to send out a request for someone with good penmanship. Computers are not often used in impoverished North Korea, so people write reports by hand in many cases.
A young female soldier would arrive to write reports and get passed around as a sexual plaything from officer to officer. Many young women want desperately to become a member of the Worker’s Party (the only party allowed) as it will insure that they and their family won’t starve to death.
Joining the military is the only way to gain entrance for many young women, and their success depends on total obedience to officers. So, many women would go along with it, Daeun Lee says, and get on birth control to avoid getting pregnant.
RAPE HAPPENS IN PUBLIC – AND IN CONCETRATION CAMPS
According to a U.N. report, police who patrol marketplaces, train inspectors and soldiers are increasingly raping women in public places. While men who rape minors are prosecuted, the rape of adults is not considered a crime (download “detailed report” in link), according to North Koreans who testified to a U.N. commision.
The commission also received reports “of train guards frisking women as they travel through the cars, and abusing young girls onboard.”
One witness says women were “frisked as they entered the station [to check they were not carrying items for sale], I think this is how the sexual violence started happening. Guards also take young girls on the train for sexual acts, including rape. Everyone knows this is happening, it is an open secret.”
Such behavior has been observed as “the increasingly male-dominated state preying on the increasingly female-dominated market,” the report cites a witness as saying.
North Korea’s Communist system tags many women as immoral capitalists for starting small businesses. That’s because selling things is illegal in North Korea, since the state is supposed to supply most goods, and people are supposed to exchange government-distributed coupons for things like rice and cooking oil. In reality, the coupons don’t get to many people, so people have to fend for themselves.
Usually it’s women’s job to go out to find food for the family, as the men are required to spend all day at state-owned companies that have ground to a halt. They either make around $100 per month or are not paid at all.
Black markets are illegal but tolerated, since officials can collect bribes from sellers. But still, women working there are seen as immoral and tainted, for working at an illegal business. Most sellers are women and the U.N. says officials are known to regularly rape them in public places.
Rapes are also common in North Korea’s prison camps, where people could end up for the crime of leaving the country to look for food and supplies, as food is often scarce in North Korea. Women also end up in concentration camp because a relative committed a crime, under the so-called “three generations” rule, whereby three generations of an offender’s family are imprisoned for one relative’s offense. The subsequent two generations may die in prison without having committed a crime themselves. Crimes can include criticizing the regime to a neighbor or friend. Neighbors are pressured to inform on each other by security agents, and everyone is under surveillance at all times.
Teenage girls are a primary target for guards, and some sexual assault victims are murdered in a bid to hide the crime.
“The camp authorities made female inmates available for sexual abuse to a very senior official who regularly visited the camp,” a former guard told the U.N., adding that “after the official raped the women, the victims were killed.”
Indeed, political prisoners are considered to be nothing more than insects. Guards are often brainwashed by the state to believe that anyone who commits a crime is no longer a human.
This is corroborated by Park Ju-yong, 29, a North Korean grew up in a North Korean concentration camp, living there for over 20 years. Guards secretly kill women who’ve become pregnant by their rapist.
Guards often abuse their power and rape female inmates, who are given a lighter workload and more food in exchange for sex, the defector says.
In a report released Monday, Human Rights Watch says it interviewed eight women who claimed to have experienced physical and sexual abuse while being detained during the period that the U.N. did some reporting on the matter. Those allegedly committing abuse were police interrogators from the People’s Security Agency (PSA), State Security Department (SSD) agents, and prison guards.
One interviewee was a woman detained for leaving the country, as leaving North Korea is considered a crime. The woman, who was questioned by a PSA agent in a police pretrial detention facility near Musan City, in North Hamgyong province, says she was raped multiple times.
“My life was in his hands, so I did everything he wanted and told him everything he asked. How could I do anything else?” She adds, “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.”
In June, in a written statement to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women , North Korea contends that “all legal proceedings are carried out in full compliance with the law.… The process of investigations and preliminary examinations is tape-recorded or video-taped, interrogation of the examinee is conducted with the attendance of a clerk and if need be, two observers, thus preventing investigators and preliminary examiners from committing abuse of power or violations of human rights. Prosecutors exercise strict supervision of detention rooms and reform institutions to ensure that no human rights violations are committed.”
But Human Rights Watch calls those claims ludicrous, and years of evidence from the U.N., North Korean defectors, South Korean and U.S. governments, as well as human rights groups, strongly disagree with the type of claims North Korea’s government is making.
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