The findings come amid a flurry of diplomacy on North Korea led by the United States and South Korea. Washington and Seoul have carefully avoided confronting Kim head-on over rights issues, opting instead for more-general talks in hopes of persuading Kim to dismantle the North’s nuclear program.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said at a news conference last week that he was “very concerned” about the absence of a human rights agenda in key statements after Kim’s separate summit meetings with President Jae-in Moon of South Korea and President Trump.
Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch’s executive director, said that “North Korean women should not have to risk being raped by government officials or workers when they leave their homes to earn money to feed their families.”
“Kim Jong Un and his government should acknowledge the problem and take urgent steps to protect women and ensure justice for survivors of sexual violence,” Roth added.
The regime in Pyongyang said that North Korea is a “heaven for women” in response to a call for action from the United Nations in 2014 on human rights abuses.
But testimonies by more than 50 female defectors from North Korea in the report describe a lack of judicial avenues to report sexual violence and a culture that places a social stigma on rape victims who come forward.
The report does not directly link the abuses to the highest ranks of Kim’s regime, but it suggests there are few controls on officials such as police officers and prison-camp guards to prevent assaults against women.
“When an official in a position of power ‘picks’ a woman she has no choice but to comply with any demands he makes, whether for sex, money, or other favors,” the report said.
A former market merchant who left North Korea in 2013 was quoted as saying that she could not report being raped, because “it is like spitting in your own face,” given the victim-blaming culture and apparent impunity allowed to men in positions of power.
Fewer than 10 perpetrators have been convicted of rape in North Korea in recent years, according to data submitted to a U.N. committee by the Pyongyang government in July 2017.
Most of the women who testified to Human Rights Watch had been in the custody of authorities or were merchants subject to sexual abuse by officials as they traveled across the border or within the country.
Yoon Mi Hwa, a former trader from North Hamgyong province who escaped North Korea in 2014, described to Human Rights Watch how a guard at a holding center in 2009 would pick a woman to be raped each night. Like all the women cited in the report, Yoon is referred to by a pseudonym to protect her identity and any relatives in North Korea.
“Click, click, click was the most horrible sound I ever heard,” Yoon was quoted as saying in the report. “It was the sound of the key of the cell of our prison room opening. Every night a prison guard would open the cell. I stood still quietly, acting like I didn’t notice, hoping it wouldn’t be me the one to have to follow the guard.”
One defector not cited in the report, Seo Hyang-ran, said she was stripped and vaginally searched by secret-police officials after being returned from China in a failed attempt to seek haven in the region.
She told The Washington Post she was “picked” as a rape target by a guard at a detention facility in North Hamgyong.
“I couldn’t make sense of what happened to me, but it felt extremely humiliating,” said Seo, who now works as a counselor for North Korean defectors at Chungnam National University Hospital in South Korea. “Now I know that it wasn’t my fault and I was unfairly subjected to sexual violence.”