Human Rights Watch executive director urges pressure on North Korean human rights, criticizes ‘one-dimensional approach’

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, at a press conference in Seoul on November 1 on the widespread sexual violence against women in North Korea. Image: Yonhap News Agency

On November 1, Human Rights Watch (HRW),an international organization tracking human rights violations in over 90 countries, hosted a press conference at the Korea Press Center in Seoul to discuss its highly critical report on sexual violence against women in North Korea. The report, the most extensive assessment of sexual violence in North Korea published to date, was presented by Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director, and North Korean defector Lee So Yeon, director of the New Korea Women’s Union.  

The 86-page report entitled, “You Cry at Night, But Don’t Know Why: Sexual violence against Women in North Korea”, paints a dismal picture of life inside the hermit kingdom for women of all demographics. The report documents the personal accounts of 54 North Koreans and 8 former North Korean officials who fled the country some time after the current ruler Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.

According to the report, the diversity in age, geographic location, social class and personal backgrounds of the survivors suggests that sexual violence has become a growing epidemic across the entire country. Defectors that were interviewed asserted that unwanted sexual contact and violence is so common that it has become accepted as part of ordinary life.

Those who are subject to sexual violence often feel helpless, as police do not consider it to be a serious crime. Many find it almost inconceivable to even consider reporting sexual abuse to the police due to possible repercussions including further sexual violence, detention, beatings, and forced labor. Yoon Soon Ae, a North Korean defector, likened reporting sexual assault to “spitting in your own face,” because victims are widely blamed for what happens to them.

Lee So Yeon also talked about her own experiences during the conference recounting how girls in her middle and high schools were often sexually harassed by their male teachers. She referred to one of the cases in the report that claimed a student was raped and then forced to undergo an abortion afterwards. She then talked about another personal story in which three women she knew from her military unit were dishonorably discharged because they had been repeatedly raped by married superior officers.

The North Korean regime denies that sexual assault is a problem in North Korea, reporting to the UN in 2015 that only three people were convicted of rape nationwide (a number comparable to that reported in Liechtenstein each year, a country with a population of only 40,000 people). However, the lack of such convictions instead stands as a powerful indicator of the regime’s utter failure to address sexual violence in the country.

After the presentation ended, questions were directed toward the elephant in the room: why the current South Korean administration is choosing to remain silent in regards to the crimes against humanity being perpetrated on the other side of its border, despite South Korea’s current president being a former human rights lawyer.

Roth spent much of his time on the podium addressing these concerns while simultaneously voicing his extreme concern and disappointment in how the Moon administration has been handling these issues. Roth calls the approach of President Moon ‘one-dimensional’, questioning why “the South Korean government is accepting negotiations solely on the terms of the North Korean government” and why neither government seems to be to able to ‘walk and chew gum at the same time’ by taking a multi-dimensional approach to the problem.

Roth had some very choice words to describe President Moon’s approach to relations with North Korea, including “naïve and short-sighted” and “political cowardice.” He even went so far as to say that “Moon in many ways has turned himself into a public relations agent for Kim Jong Un”. Roth attempted to rationalize why human rights ended up taking a back seat to denuclearization, explaining that after rhetoric between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump last year, President Moon’s primary concern became avoiding a war, putting the focus on denuclearization out of necessity.

However, as tensions have eased between the United States and North Korea after the summit meeting in June, Roth stresses the importance of recognizing that human rights is a crucial part of the solution to the nuclear problem in North Korea, calling for an end to the ‘one-dimensional approach’ currently being taken.  

“President Moon wants to use persuasion, not pressure. That’s ridiculous. We need to use pressure, which could take the form of targeted sanctions against individuals, prosecutions, or public condemnations by the UN or individual governments, but we shouldn’t pretend that we’re going to just talk to Kim Jong Un and then suddenly he’s going to become a nice guy,” Roth concluded.

During his trip to South Korea for the presentation, Roth met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Vice Minister of Education and has also offered to meet with President Moon to discuss how to improve the human rights situation in North Korea. Although it is not uncommon for the director of HRW to meet with heads of state, having met with the Lebanese president earlier this year and several other heads of state in the past, President Moon denied this request.

One can only speculate as to why President Moon refused the meeting, but Roth intends to waste no time mulling over the reasons. During his trip he met with the National Human Rights Commissioner of Korea and several other South Korean politicians to lobby for the long overdue creation of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation, a principal part of the North Korean Human Rights Act that was passed over two years ago in 2016.