First there was the case of a female university student in the provincial South Korean city of Seosan who took her own life after being sexually abused by her employer, and more recently there has also been the case of a girl who fell victim to sexual assault by a colleague.
Needless to say, sexual assault and abuse of authority for sexual favors take place in both Koreas in much the same way. Testimonies from defectors reveal that in most cases of sexual assault in the North it is also threats and blackmail that force victims to acquiesce, implying that people in power are abusing their authority on both sides of the 38th Parallel.
The phenomenon of sexual assault in North Korea grew in the mid-1990s following the famine. The protracted economic difficulties from that period forced many women into work in the market, often relatively far from home. This made the marketplace and long-distance trains particularly dangerous places for vulnerable working women.
North Korea’s myriad rules and regulations provide plenty of opportunities for abuse. Women who are found selling products from South Korea or other sorts of contraband regularly find themselves being extorted for sex by gate-keeper officials. Then there is trying to board a train with excessive luggage, being found in possession of controlled items or riding without a travel permit.
In the marketplace, groping and other forms of sexual molestation are so common that single cases don’t bear mentioning. Most incidences are dealt with on the spot; rarely are they punished.
Child abuse is equally common. However, if there is no complaint from the victim or her family then an investigation by the authorities cannot, or does not, take place. “In August 1996 the naked body of a 10-year old girl was found in the woods of North Hamkyung Province,” 40-year old defector Choi Seong Ho recalls. “However, there was never a proper investigation. There were people who said that they saw the girl being taken into the woods, but the authorities said they couldn’t conduct a proper investigation and closed the case.”
Silence is another problem. One defector who settled in South Korea last year, 45-year old Yeom Choon Wol commented to Daily NK, “When an unmarried woman falls pregnant to a married man, the young woman’s parents will demand money to have an abortion, saying that otherwise both families will suffer a loss of face. Even still, rumors tend to get out and the woman finds it hard to find a man to marry thereafter.”
According to Yeom, parents tend to be very strict on daughters for their safety, and try to make any issues that could adversely affect the family’s reputation go away quietly. In the case of unwanted pregnancies, this can mean spending a small fortune getting an obstetrician to come to the house to perform an illegal abortion. For those without money, however, it means becoming a single mother, with the stigma that this still entails in North Korea.
Another defector, Kim In Sook commented, “I don’t know if there’s a law in North Korea that is supposed to protect women, but the reality is pretty terrible. There is a more important issue than food in North Korea and that is human rights. Sexual abuse is a violation of human rights, and the human rights situation in North Korea is in desperate need of improvement."