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North Korea: Kim Il-Sung’s Birthday No Celebration for Women

Government Should End Discrimination and Exploitation of Women

(Seoul, April 14, 2017) – North Korea is betraying the pledge to protect the rights of women and girls and promote gender equality made by its former leader and “perpetual” president, Kim Il-Sung, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch is publishing the full text of its March 2017 submission to the United Nations Committee to End Discrimination Against Women as a somber counterpoint to Kim Il-Sung’s birthday on April 15, which North Koreans celebrate as the country’s most important national holiday.

During his rise to power, Kim Il-Sung publicly pledged to empower and promote equality for women, calling them “a powerful driving force that pushes one side of the wheels of the cart of the revolution.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un takes part in a photo session with the participants of the 6th Congress of the Democratic Women's Union of Korea in Pyongyang. © 2016 KCNA

“On Kim Il-Sung’s birthday, the world should remember just how severe the North Korean government’s abuses against women are, and not be distracted by the annual camera-ready propaganda parade in Pyongyang where women wear fancy colorful dresses, perform public dances, and shout meaningless slogans of praise for a dead leader,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The harsh reality is that every day North Korean women face severe gender discrimination at work and home, and sexual harassment and violence that the authorities do nothing to stop.”

Human Rights Watch’s submission to the committee's pre-sessional working group meeting ahead of its 68th session review of North Korea between October and November 2017 detailed discrimination and exploitation, as well as physical and sexual violence faced by women and girls in North Korea. North Koreans who recently escaped from the country or keep in regular contact with people still in North Korea told Human Rights Watch that women and girls face gender-based discrimination starting from childhood at school, work, and home. They also said women frequently face violence from men at home, in public spaces, including the market, and there is virtually no official recourse or protection mechanisms for victims.

A total of 26 North Koreans spoke with Human Rights Watch about the deeply patriarchal nature of North Korean society today. They said that women and girls in North Korea are constantly exposed to and forced to comply with gender stereotyped roles that foster acceptance of acts of violence against women, and cast blame for violence on female victims themselves.

The harsh reality is that every day North Korean women face severe gender discrimination at work and home, and sexual harassment and violence that the authorities do nothing to stop.
Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

Gender discrimination makes it harder for women and girls to be admitted to university, to join the military, and by extension, to become part of the ruling Korean Workers Party, which is the gateway to positions of power in North Korea.

North Koreans interviewed by Human Rights Watch describe an environment where it is unremarkable for North Korean woman to experience gender-based violence. They said that domestic violence is not punished or checked in any way – but rather regarded by government authorities as a private matter in which the state and outsiders should not intervene. Female interviewees described to Human Rights Watch being subjected to unwanted sexual contact by strangers in crowded public areas such as workplaces, trains, or on trucks on the road, including men touching women and girls’ breasts and hips, and trying to place their hands under women’s clothing. Interviewees said that even when police and other government authorities directly observed this type of assault, they made no attempt to protect women and girls.

Female interviewees said North Korea’s current informal market economic system makes women traders vulnerable to sexual violence. Implementation of rules and regulations over market operations are arbitrary and government officials can demand bribes and sexually harass and coerce women with impunity. Women seeking to earn a living are at the mercy of government regulators who are almost all men and who can engage in sexual exploitation, including demanding sex in return for permitting women to pursue their livelihoods.

The women explained to Human Rights Watch that they do not dare report crimes of violence, including sexual harassment and rape by government officials, because they fear retaliation that could harm them and end their ability to sell in the market. They also stated that they lacked confidence the police would take any action to investigate and prosecute the men responsible.

“Kim Il-Sung’s birthday is nothing to celebrate for North Korean women who live with a daily nightmare of discrimination and abuse,” Robertson said.

Last month, the UN Human Rights Council passed without a vote a North Korea resolution recognizing “that particular risk factors affect women, children, persons with disabilities and the elderly” and stating there is a “need to ensure the full enjoyment of all their human rights and fundamental freedoms by them against neglect, abuse, exploitation and violence.” The resolution also strengthened the UN’s work to assess and develop strategies to prosecute the continued pervasive abuse of human rights by the North Korean government.

A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea reported that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations committed by the North Korean government had no parallel in the contemporary world. In addition to extermination, enslavement, torture, imprisonment of the North Korean people, the report also listed rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence as widespread, and found “sexual and gender-based violence against women is prevalent throughout all areas of society.”

“Our research and interviews show North Korean women face a host of awful abuses,” Robertson said. “It is time the world started paying attention and calling for current North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to address the country’s systemic discrimination and exploitation of women and girls.”

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