A North Korean flag flies at the DPRK Permanent Mission in Geneva. 

© 2017 Reuters

(Seoul) – The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child should press the North Korean government to protect children who are victims of sexual abuse and harassment, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 20, 2017, as part of its 76th plenary session, the committee will convene a hearing with North Korean government officials to discuss the country’s record in protecting children’s rights.

The North Korean government claims no one has been punished since 2008 for raping or sexually abusing or exploiting a child because “such acts are inconceivable for the people in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] who regard such acts as the most disgraceful.”

However, Human Rights Watch documented four cases of child sexual harassment or abuse in North Korea during the period between 2008 and 2015, the current reporting period under review by the committee, and three other cases that took place in the early 2000s. North Koreans who recently escaped to third countries or maintain contacts in the North told Human Rights Watch that when girls are sexually harassed or abused, some guardians refuse to formally complain to police or other government officials because they believe government officials will not investigate, and the girl and the family will face stigmatization.

“North Korean girls really have nowhere to turn to when they are victimized by sexual abuse,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The Committee on the Rights of the Child should debunk the claim that there is no sexual abuse and demand that Pyongyang take immediate steps to ensure real, substantive protections are in place for victims.”

The Committee on the Rights of the Child is a body of 18 independent experts that reviews the compliance of each state party with its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the human rights treaty that protects the rights of children. North Korea ratified the convention in 1990. The committee also monitors implementation of the convention’s Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography, which North Korea ratified in November 2014.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child should debunk the claim that there is no sexual abuse in North Korea.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

Governments that ratify the CRC must submit regular reports to the committee on how they are implementing their rights obligations under the convention. States must submit an initial report two years after acceding to the convention and then periodic reports every five years.

In May 2016, the North Korean government submitted its fifth report, due in 2012, combined with its sixth report covering the period between 2008 and 2015. The CRC convened a pre-sessional working group meeting which was held in February, and the committee will conduct its plenary session with North Korea on September 20.

Eyewitness Accounts of Abuse
A total of 26 North Korean adults and children who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch between January 2015 and February 2017 described how it is unremarkable for North Korean woman and girls to witness or experience gender-based violence.

North Koreans interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that domestic violence is usually not punished or checked, but instead government authorities view it as a private matter in which the state and persons outside the family should not intervene. Five of the witnesses from urban areas in North Hamgyong, Ryanggang, and South Pyongan provinces said it was common for children to see men verbally or physically abusing women in public. Reasons received by Human Rights Watch for these abuses varied, but included showing what a man perceived as an “arrogant” attitude, staring at a man at the wrong moment, failing to reply fast enough to a man’s question, and having a business disagreement with a man.

Interviewees also described how the state fails to protect children from common types of unwanted sexual contact, such as men groping women and girls’ breasts and hips in both public and private spaces and trying to reach under their clothes. Such behavior usually happens in crowded public areas such as official and neighborhood celebrations, on trains, or while traveling by car or truck on the road.

Both adults and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch said victims do not dare report crimes of sexual violence because they don’t trust the authorities to seriously investigate, and they fear repercussions and stigma if it is found out they have been sexually abused, while the perpetrators would remain untouched by stigma or the justice process. Survivors of sexual abuse said that their family members and close friends who knew about what happened discouraged them from going to the authorities.

Each of the North Koreans interviewed told Human Rights Watch that the police and security forces do not consider violence against women a serious crime. A former State Security Department (SSD) agent who received all criminal reports that took place in two provinces for a decade until the late 2000s said in December 2016 that he never saw a single instance of a woman filing a rape complaint about an incident where there were no third party witnesses. In practice, he said the police and the SSD only investigated alleged sexual assault or rape cases when the woman suffered severe injury or death, or if the victim was connected to a powerful family.

The former SSD agent and two former high-ranking party officers said that although there were some cases in which authorities acted against perpetrators of violence against women, those cases were usually brought for ulterior motives, such as political gain when the perpetrator faced loss of their position at the instigation of an opponent wanting that position, or for reasons of personal revenge. The officers said the punishment in such cases rarely included imprisonment, but would more likely entail demotion, or sending the perpetrator to a less desirable posting in the countryside or working in a mine. They added official interventions did not lead to support for victims, who suffered stigma because of publicizing the attacks, and were left vulnerable to possible retaliation, without support or assistance.

Although the number of persons interviewed is not large enough to reach conclusions on overall conditions inside the country, they did provide a consistent picture of abuse based on the interviewees’ personal experiences. The interviewees provided disturbing accounts of sexual harassment and rape of children, and lack of child protection.

Survivors Speak
In 2015, a female North Korean student in her 20s (who escaped North Korea in 2014) spoke with her aunt who lives in Ryanggang province. Her aunt told her that her 5-year-old cousin had been raped by a family friend who was supposed to be taking care of her. “Somehow, she managed to describe what she went through, so they did not let him near her anymore,” she said. But the victim’s parents decided not to tell anybody about the rape. They didn’t believe the police would do anything about it. They also doubted the perpetrator would be punished and thought that if others in the community knew about the incident, it could ruin their daughter’s future and make it harder to get married when she grew up.

The student told Human Rights Watch in February 2016 she was surprised her aunt told her about the case because most adults in the community had told her that rape of a child is an unimaginable crime. But the student said she believed rape of children was more common than what adults talked about. She added that when she was 15 years old, her parents warned her not to pass near the house of an old man who had been disowned by his family for raping his granddaughter and leaving her badly injured. At that time, her mother explained to her what rape was and she realized she had been raped by a neighbor who was babysitting her when she was 6 years old. “I was playing with my doll and he said we’d play a different game. I just remember thinking it was painful and did not like it. He said, ‘Don’t worry, let’s just count, just ten more, ten, nine, eight…,’” she recalled. “I kept on crying and saying I did not like him, but my parents did not understand what happened to me. After the third time leaving me with him, they decided to keep me away from him.” After realizing what happened, the student decided not to reveal her experience to anyone because she feared being stigmatized and facing problems in finding marriage prospects.

“The North Korean government needs to move past its denial of sexual abuse of children in North Korea, and ensure that survivors have access to comprehensive health, legal, and social services without fearing stigma or retaliation,” Robertson said. “The Committee on the Rights of the Child should call out Pyongyang for allowing these horrific abuses to continue, and demand it puts a priority on the protection of North Korean children.”