Sexual violence against women has been a long-standing problem in North Korea’s military. Recently, several victimized female soldiers have chosen to desert their military posts as an indirect protest at their abuse, rather than directly report the perpetrators.
“Three female soldiers who deserted from a training brigade stationed in a village in Pyongwon County wandered around for three months without returning home before they were eventually arrested,” a South Pyongan Province-based source told Daily NK. “During their interrogation, the women said the reason they deserted was due to sexual abuse by their male superiors.”
The source said that the female soldiers deserted their posts at the 3rd Corps 37mm Anti-Aircraft Artillery base in Pyongwon, South Pyongan Province.
Victims of sexual abuse in the military are often stigmatized in North Korea and often hide their abuse from others. Military leaders appear to be somewhat shocked that the women in question decided to act by deserting their posts.
“Military leaders used to just ignore cases of sexual abuse or harassment, but now they are thinking differently,” said the source. “The generation of female recruits that are entering the military now don’t believe that they should suffer sexual abuse to obtain political benefits.”
Past generations of female recruits could do little to prevent sexual abuse by superiors who also offered them party membership and promotions. The current generation, however, is far less accepting of such treatment.
The parents of military recruits also appear to be changing their attitudes from previously held beliefs.
“Parents used to feel sorry for their daughters who were victims of sexual abuse in the military and felt that they were powerless to stop it,” a source in North Pyongan Province said. “But now they think that female soldiers shouldn’t be placed in such positions to begin with [being subject to abuse].”
While there appear to be changing perceptions toward sexual abuse, the reality is that such abuse is rampant within the North Korean military.
“In the military, male officers still touch private areas on female soldiers’ bodies all the time,” the North Pyongan-based source. “Male officers promise promotions and party membership in exchange for sexual favors.”
Daily NK previously reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had handed down an order to crack down on sexual favors and abuse toward female soldiers in the military, but his words have had little impact.
According to the source, political officers in the military, who hold an enormous amount of authority, are the most serious perpetrators of sexual abuse.
“Political officers send their wives to their family’s houses and call in young and pretty female soldiers to clean and cook. The female soldiers are sometimes sexually abused. The abuse is so bad that female soldiers colloquially refer to victims as ‘somebody’s mattress,'” the source reported.
Political officers are in charge of party-related and political affairs at military bases. They have authority over operations and training regimens, and have a great deal of influence. The officers are called “political committee members” at regimental level military bases and “political guidance officers” at battalion and company-level military bases.
North Korea, meanwhile, has cut back on punishments of perpetrators of sexual abuse compared to the past.
North Korea’s 2009 criminal code stipulated that those engaging in prostitution, or those found guilty of the rape of an employee or sex with a minor faced a “reform through labor” sentence of two to five years . However, the authorities reformed the criminal code in 2015 and the punishment for all of these crimes was reduced to just one year of “reform through labor.”
In a review of the CEDAW report in 2017, the North Korean authorities argued that they had lowered the punishment for sexual assault of a female in a subservient position because women expected favors and permit such acts to take place, so a certain agreement between the two parties is made.