If North Korea’s women had the chance, they would also be saying #MeToo, according to a new report released on Thursday that documents endemic sexual violence against North Korean women and girls.
Sexual assault and harassment are entrenched in all sectors of North Korea’s “misogynistic” society, reveals the report by London-based Korea Future Initiative, based on the testimony of more than 40 female defectors.
The report’s author, James Burt, warns that human rights, and the widespread abuse of North Korean women, should not be overlooked in the current diplomatic thaw over Pyongyang’s nuclear and weapons programme.
“The current political climate on the Korean peninsula must not cause us to lose sight of our fundamental humanity. The government of North Korea is sanctioning and allowing sexual violence to run rampant through its institutions, public officials, and wider society,” he said.
North Korea’s human rights abuses, including the execution of prisoners and dire conditions in state-run gulags, have been well-documented, but scant attention has been paid to the everyday sexual violence against women.
The report highlights how class, age and status offer no protection for female citizens of the hermit kingdom and how laws designed to uphold their rights are repeatedly bypassed by men with power, money and political influence.
“A thinly disguised misogyny pervades all that the government touches, allowing perpetrators to find shelter in its institutions and society’s patriarchal conventions,” it concludes.
While North Korea is not the only society guilty of abusing its girls and women, the findings point to the “distinctive and oppressive social institutions and practices of the government of North Korea and its agents.”
It claims they “psychologically dominate women” to the extent that the authorities allow perpetrators of rape, sexual assault such as forced kissing, touching and groping to act with impunity.
According to eyewitnesses, girls as young as 15 are forced into sex work to supplement their family’s income.
“Lots of sexual violence happens around schools. Since the victims are children, teachers do try to protect them but protection all depends on one’s social class,” testified a defector.
“Some children cannot be protected. If the perpetrators of sexual violence are from the higher classes, they can get away from the law with just a phone call.”
Another woman described how sexual abuse was pervasive in everyday life, describing how she was raped at a mayor’s office when she sought help to find a house. “I was raped in his office and received a house in return. I could not tell anyone about what happened,” she said.
North Korea has previously denied such abuse exists, claiming that the kingdom is “heaven for women” after a 2014 United Nations report that documented widespread human rights abuses including rape as a form of torture.
However, one woman in the report describes how females incarcerated in camps were picked off by guards and molested.
“Younger and more attractive girls are often sexually abused. The guards take them out to the hall [of the detention facility] and sexually molest them. Other guards who are passing by pretend not to see anything,” she said.
Since 2002, exile testimonies have highlighted how women escapees have also been particularly vulnerable to rape, human trafficking, forced abortions, and sexual slavery.
More than 70 per cent of North Korean defectors are women and the journey to South Korea, normally through China, is fraught with dangers posed by mercenary traffickers who sell them into abusive forced marriages or subject them to extreme cruelty.
Sun-sil Lee, now in her forties, finally defected via China in 2007 on her ninth attempt, trying to find a better life for herself and her toddler daughter after they had been forced to beg on the streets.
But the traffickers overpowered her to steal her child and sell her.
“A trafficker tried to take my child, who was in my backpack. She grabbed my hand and said ‘Mum don’t leave me, I’ll never complain about being hungry again’. I can still hear her voice,” she said.
“I wasn’t strong enough, and right before my eyes, my baby was sold for 3000 yuan [ £336] and I was sold for 5000 [ £560].”
Lee wept as she told the Telegraph her story, but she said it motivates her in her job as a radio presenter, trying to broadcast a message of hope to anyone inside the country who can listen.
“I want to tell people that there is this world out there,” she said.