Sexual Abuse of Children: a Common Problem in NK

The South Korean public has recently had its attention grabbed by the sexual abuse of minors following a number of high profile, disturbing cases. These crimes have given rise to disputes over punishments for sexual offenses, some even calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Which naturally raises a point of interest: how severe is the sexual abuse of minors in North Korea?

These are some real cases from North Korea;

Case 1: Chulwon, Gangwon Province, sometime in the mid-1980s. A girl of nine was discovered in a hillside cave long after her corpse had gone cold. She was just a third-grader at the time. Her clothing was strewn about the cave, and not a shred of fabric was covering her naked body when a military search party found her.

That day, she had gone to meet her father who was working in the military, and was searching for his unit when she was attacked. The incident shocked not only her family but also her father’s unit, for the man responsible for the attack was a soldier from the same unit. The soldier had dragged the girl to the hillside and sexually abused her, before killing her and abandoning the body in the cave.

He was court marshaled and sentenced to death for murder and having sexual relations with a minor. He was publicly executed.

[This is the testimony of Oh Soo Yong (pseudonym), who defected from North Korea in 2000]

Case 2: Chongchu, North Pyongan Province, sometime in the mid-1990s. A girl, aged 12, had gotten a stepfather, but the occasion was not as joyous as it may have seemed. In 1995, during the March of Tribulation, her mother often left the house in search of food, and it was her stepfather who stayed at home since there was no work for him at his company. He would tell her she was pretty and often call her close. From the age of twelve, she suffered sexual abuse and rape at his hands for three years, until the abuse resulted in pregnancy when she was just fifteen. Her stepfather was put on public trial in Chongjin in 1997 and sent to a reeducation camp.

[This is the testimony of Kim Kyong Sam (pseudonym), who defected from North Korea in 2002.]

Defector testimony is consistent regarding the issue of sexual abuse of minors: due to the closed nature of North Korean society, they say, disclosure of such incidents is the exception, not the rule. Kim Soon Hee (42), a former school teacher from North Korea, agreed, telling The Daily NK, “Sexual abuse of minors is really common, but everyone is very hush-hush about it.”

“There are always three or four cases of female students being raped each year,” explained Kim, who worked at a school with roughly 300 male and 400 female students prior to her escape, “Once there was a case where a seventeen-year-old girl in my class was raped by her own brother.”

Even though the details of such sexual crimes against children and adolescents are disclosed in full, the overall problem of the sexual abuse of minors has yet to be openly discussed in North Korea. Rather, it is the victims who bear a sense of guilt in this particularly closed off and male-oriented society that encourages the concealing of such incidents.

Nevertheless, the existence of sexual abuse against minors in North Korea can be verified in the penal code. Article 295, regarding “sexual relations with minors,” stipulates that anyone who has sexual relations with someone under the age of fifteen should be sentenced to a period in a labor reeducation camp not to exceed five years. For repeat offenders, the sentence increases to a period of between five and ten years.

Seoul National University law school professor Lee Hyo Won gave his take on Article 295 in an interview with The Daily NK, saying, “Given that penal codes reflect existing conditions in a society, the fact that sexual abuse against minors is outlined in the law suggests that it occurs fairly frequently.”

The inadequacy of both sex education in schools and official policies geared toward the prevention of sexual abuse is also considered to be an instigating factor in the violence, according to another former school teacher from North Korea.

“In North Korea there is no sex education for males, so they do not know what is immoral,” she explained, “Acts of sexual harassment, such as touching female students’ breasts as they walk by, occur endlessly in daily life.”

Sex education in North Korea does target female students on topics such as menstruation and pregnancy, but there is no curriculum related to sexual harassment, sexual violence, or the harmful effect it has on its victims.

Director of the Korea Institute for Sex Education Sung Kyung Won explained in an interview with The Daily NK that these are serious deficiencies. “If there is no sex education at home or at school, it is difficult to form a proper outlook on sex,” she said. Furthermore, “If one acquires distorted knowledge about sex through abnormal ways, one cannot conduct oneself properly, which can have a negative effect on sexual attitudes.”