A recent sexual assault case involving a seven year old girl in Naju, an agricultural city southwest of Gwangju in South Korea, has elicited nationwide shock. The response has been urgent and vitriolic. It was all too much for one group of mothers in Seoul; they took to the streets to demand that the government and police do more to protect children from sexual abusers.
As is already the case in so many areas of the developed world, many parents are now becoming afraid to let their children walk to school alone, praying for the day to come where they are old enough to protect themselves. Indeed, some may even imagine that if their daughters were in the army, a place far from the dangers on the street, they might be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Alas though, that is not the case. Female soldiers in North Korea, who are some of the most enterprising people in society and among those most keen to get ahead, frequently fall prey to their superior officers. This is a serious problem in the North, even though it calls itself a country where 'sexual purity’ is a lauded virtue.
In North Korea, abusing authority for sexual gain is officially punishable by up to two years hard labor. The punishment can be up to five years when the offence leads to severe damage. However, it is particularly easy for political commissars in military units to skillfully evade the long arm of the law and commit forms of sexual abuse which go unpunished.
A lot of the North Korean women who graduate from middle school but do not go on to university enter the military in order to avoid being sent to work on farms or having to otherwise worry about how to make ends meet. They see the army as a way to turn their lives around, but North Korea appears to regard its female soldiers as a resource and does little to protect them from sexual abuse. As such, many are subjected to regular harassment from their own superior officers.
The most gratuitous abuse takes place when the time comes to join the Chosun Workers’ Party (KWP). To enter the KWP is akin to beginning a new life. It is a monumentally significant event, one which can determine the fate of not only oneself but one’s children as well. Though the privileges of Party membership are said to have diminished these days, it is still essential for anybody aspiring to university, a good job or life as a Party cadre when their time in uniform is done.
The process is one in which female soldiers literally risk their lives, with bribes and sexual favors exchanging hands left, right and center. How is a woman, a girl, really, who was in the army by the age of 17, supposed to repel the sexual advances of a superior officer, especially when that person holds the key to the Party?
One obvious result is pregnancy. Shortages of contraceptives drive up the risk of falling pregnant, and those who do often seek out unqualified civilian ‘doctors’ to perform abortions. When even that fails, for want of a better word, the punishment can only be dishonorable discharge from the military, something which stays on the woman's personal record for life.
For attractive female soldiers who get a lot of attention from those around them, these sexual advances have real consequences. Those who cannot adapt to the system are subjected to unseen discrimination and pressure. If a complaint is made to a higher office and the case gains traction it is technically possible for the commanding officer to be punished, but such cases are too rare to mention.
One defector, a former soldier in a Hamheung-based unit, told the following story, “The political commissar gathered all us women together to explain that ‘this month a few will be granted entry into the Party’. He told us that people are sure to get discharged as well, but that he didn’t yet know whom. Refusal or resistance would be met with punishment, we knew, so nobody could look the other way.”
Another defector who was once in 9th Corps told another interesting story along similar lines, saying, “I witnessed a brawl between two women who had been in a sexual relationship with the political commissar. They replaced the unit commander after that, but it didn’t stop the sexual liaisons at all.”
There are a number of chronic social factors underlying sexual abuse in South Korean society. It’s the same in North Korea; simply, the triggers are different. There, the murky and corrupt process of entering the Party is just one way in which the perfect conditions for the perpetration of sexual abuse are created.