Unification Media Group (UMG): Human rights violations continue to increase in North Korea, as the regime seeks to maintain its authority. This series of reports aims to expose these systematic human rights violations as shared by the victims themselves. Reporter Yeom Seung Cheol recently learned from sources in North Korea about an incident involving the abuse of power by a local official.
Yeom Seung Cheol (Yeom): I spoke with sources in Hoeryong (North Hamgyong Province), who revealed revelations relating to Primary (low-level) Party Commission Chairman Ri Kyong Sop, 50, who is accused of repeated sexual assault and molestation of female employees.
The Primary Party Commission is in charge of many of the party’s local sub-organizations, including the Workers’ Alliance, the Youth League, and the Socialist Women’s Union. The Chairman of the commission holds the authority to approve the elevation of members in these organizations to full party membership. Chairman Ri has been accused of taking advantage of female employees of factories connected to these organizations.
Unification Media Group (UMG): What are the details of the scandal?
Yeom: The story first broke last April, but the source informed me that Chairman Ri was known to brazenly sexually assault female phone operators, threatening to fire them if they spoke out. Typically younger females in their 20s see these phone operator jobs as better than other work placements, but they must deal with an abusive boss and a system that does not offer any recourse.
The sources explained that Chairman Ri frequently molests and sexually assaults these operators, targeting the younger attractive ones, and threatens them. He often singles out a female employee (at the Hoeryong Coal Machinery Plant’s operator room) at the end of the day and requests they perform extra cleaning duties, so that he can sexually molest them and sometimes violently assault them. Testimony suggests a large number of incidents.
UMG: Why can’t the victims of these assaults complain to the police or anyone else?
Since the Party controls all other organs of power in the country, as long as a person holds significant influence within the party, anyone else under them or outside the party cannot enlist anyone else to challenge them. The victims cannot go to the police or state security because they would never receive approval to investigate or arrest such a high-ranking party member.
UMG: So Chairman Ri does not face any consequences whatsoever?
That’s right. Under the North’s political ideology, high-ranking party members are the purest members of society, meaning theirs is the first and last word in society.
The factory in question is one of the larger ones, in which Chairman Ri oversees more than 1000 workers. In addition, these workers are considered more trustworthy by the party than workers in other factories, giving it a more coveted reputation. Girls who complain about the abuses of Chairman Ri are themselves considered to be at fault in this environment – told that they were being careless with their bodies. Most would rather hide their experiences than incur even greater pain on top of the abuse itself.
UMG: It sounds like there is a fundamental problem with how the party selects these senior members, allowing this type of predator into the role. What is the process for selection of a local Party Chairman?
Yeom: The regional party heads typically select graduates of the provincial Communist University for local posts such as city or village party chairperson. The party essentially uses this same kind of top-down selection process for all major positions in political, economic, judicial, and other branches.
But there are of course many problems with the process. Bribes are thrown around at every stage and there’s no incentive for any person reaching a high position to do anything about it because they all wish to receive bribes. This largely political and bribe-laden selection process does not include any character requirements or ethics checks.
UMG: On December 23 last year, Kim Jong Un convened the first meeting of the heads of the primary Party organs, where he actually criticized the leaders for various mistakes and inefficiencies. But it seems that the problems still persist.
Yeom: Kim Jong Un did present his complaints in the meeting, detailing the aspects of their work which he thinks are hindering further economic development and the elements of society that are weakening the party.
But the high-ranking officials in the Primary Party Commission and all those attending the meeting were fine to just applaud and outwardly agree with his criticisms and directives as they know they must. They then go on continuing to abuse their positions, because there is no rule of law to stop them.
UMG: Can you provide an example of how these party heads are abusing their positions?
Yeom: Last November this very same coal machinery plant was directed by central authorities, indeed by Kim Jong Un himself, to hold an election for 100 workers to be selected for work positions abroad. There is quite fierce competition for these positions as the workers know that they can earn more money, despite much of it being siphoned off by the regime.
Once again, although the directions clearly state that there should be an election, Chairman Ri abused his power in the selection. One victim said that Chairman Ri sexually assaulted her, saying he “would select her father for the position,” thereby implicitly threatening the loss of the opportunity if she were to speak out.
UMG: Was her father selected for the position after all?
Yeom: No, he actually took her father out of the running entirely, claiming his songbun (societal class based on family background) was not good enough. Ms. Kang went to the local authorities to press the issue, but they simply said to her that she “had a family member who committed a political crime” in the past, disqualifying her father.
This is just an example of a larger trend, where party officials abuse their power and exploit citizens without fear of consequences. Article 11 of North Korea’s constitution states that “all activities in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea fall under the purview of the Workers’ Party.” In other words, the constitution explicitly creates an environment where the party holds exclusive power over all aspects of life in the country.
Under this structure, the situation for victims of crime and abuse is not likely to change anytime soon. The authorities will continue to justify mistreatment by pointing to a person’s “low” songbun or societal class, and those in power will continue to be free from any structural constraints on their abuse of power. The victims of these crimes keep quiet in order to survive, but their stories are emerging.