A North Korean soldier stands guard at the entrance of a women’s prison near Chongsong, North Korea, May 31, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

(Geneva) – The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women should press the North Korean government to stop security officials and prison guards from physically and sexually abusing female prisoners, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 8, 2017, the UN committee will meet with North Korean government officials during its 68th plenary session.

In April 2016, the North Korean government submitted a combined report, encompassing its required second, third, and fourth reports, that covers the period of 2002 to 2015. Since North Korea ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2001, this is only the second time the government has reported to the CEDAW committee.

In written replies to the committee, North Korea claims that “all legal proceedings are carried out in full compliance with the law.… The process of investigations and preliminary examinations is tape-recorded or video-taped, interrogation of the examinee is conducted with the attendance of a clerk and if need be, two observers, thus preventing investigators and preliminary examiners from committing abuse of power or violations of human rights. Prosecutors exercise strict supervision of detention rooms and reform institutions to ensure that no human rights violations are committed.”

However, Human Rights Watch has interviewed eight women who experienced psychological, physical, and sexual abuse while in detention during the reporting period covered by the CEDAW committee review. Abusers include police interrogators from the People’s Security Agency (PSA), State Security Department (SSD, or bowibu) agents, and prison guards in detention facilities.

“The CEDAW committee needs to ask the toughest questions about North Korea’s whitewashing of the treatment of women in prison,” said Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights. “There is clear evidence that women are being physically and sexually abused with impunity, no matter how vigorously Pyongyang denies this.”

The flexibility of sentences for many offenses – which women said typically range from approximately six months at a short-term forced labor camp (rodong danryeondae) to five or seven years at a long-term “ordinary crimes” prison camp (kyohwaso), with the latter option involving a lengthy investigation and highly stigmatizing public trial in their hometown – increases the vulnerability of female prisoners to sexual coercion and abuse.

North Korean women told Human Rights Watch of abuses including:

  • A female farmer, who escaped North Korea in 2015, told Human Rights Watch that an interrogator from the SSD raped her in a pretrial detention facility (kuryujang), where she had been sent after China forcibly returned her to North Korea in late 2012 following a prior attempt to escape.
  • Another former farmer, who was sent back from China to North Korea in the spring of 2010, said that the PSA agent in charge of questioning her in a police pretrial detention facility near Musan city, in North Hamgyong province, touched her body underneath her clothes, raped her several times, and asked her repeatedly about the sexual relations she had with the Chinese man to whom she was sold. She said: “My life was in his hands, so I did everything he wanted and told him everything he asked. How could I do anything else?” She added, “Everything we do in North Korea can be considered illegal, so everything can depend on the perception or attitude of who is looking into your life.”
  • Other women who had been prisoners said that male SSD agents or police officers questioned them alone in closed-door rooms without witnesses, and touched their faces and bodies, including their breasts and hips, over or sometimes inside their clothes. The women often felt unable to resist unwanted touching because interrogators largely determined the women’s future; the next steps in their criminal case depended on how the interrogators reported their crimes in their file.

Women who escaped the country after 2011 following abuse in detention as well as former high-ranking North Korean officials told Human Rights Watch that women detained by authorities are sometimes sexually abused or raped by officials, who engage in these abuses with impunity. The North Koreans interviewed said that when government officials sexually harass or assault women in custody, the women have no effective way to demand accountability or stop the abuse, despite North Korea’s written claims to the CEDAW committee that “complaints and petitions machinery is put in place in reform institutions,” and that such institutions “are required to receive complaints and petitions” and “settle them in a fair manner.” The interviewees also said that if such abuse becomes publicly known, the women – not the abuser – face social stigma and shame.

The voices of women who have suffered these grievous violations provide an alternative to the delusional picture put forward by the North Korean government.

Heather Barr

Senior Women’s Rights Researcher

Human Rights Watch’s interviews with women who have experienced abuse in prison are part of broader research into gender-based abuses against women in North Korea. In 27 interviews, North Koreans described the prevalence of stereotyped gender roles, and the widespread acceptance of acts of violence against women and girls in the family and wider society. Interviewees also said gender-based discrimination forces many women to engage in quasi-illegal market activities to sustain their families, putting them at heightened risk of arrest and detention, as well as sexual coercion by government officials.

Women often face criminal sanctions after being forcibly returned by China to North Korea. Two former inmates at Chongori prison camp (kyohwaso), who left North Korea after 2013, told Human Rights Watch that by 2010, up to 80 percent of the 1,000 female detainees in their prison were being held for illegally leaving North Korea. Many of the women in the prison were forcibly returned from China to North Korea, after being sold to Chinese men in forced marriage arrangements in order to bear children, or trafficked into the commercial sex industry.

The North Korean government denies that women forced to return to North Korea are subjected to punishment: “Between 2005 and 2016, there were a total of 6,473 women who returned after travelling abroad without valid travel permits. It was found upon their return that the majority of them illegally crossed the border because of economic difficulties they were suffering at that time or as victims of plots of human trafficking groups. Therefore, they were not subjected to any legal punishment and are now enjoying stabilized life thanks to the all-embracing, benevolent politics of the State.”

“Lack of access to the country and the difficulties of escaping North Korea limit the number of interviews Human Rights Watch can conduct, but our research and the voices of women who have suffered these grievous violations provide an alternative to the delusional picture put forward by the North Korean government,” Barr said.

Human Rights Watch’s findings also echo those of a 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in North Korea that found crimes against humanity were committed against persons detained in political prison camps (kwanliso) and ordinary prison camps (kyohwaso), as well as women who had been forcibly returned by the Chinese government. Such crimes include torture and physical abuse, sexual molestation and humiliation, rape, and forced abortions and infanticide of women who became pregnant while in China. The COI also found that “sexual and gender-based violence against women is prevalent throughout all areas of society.”

The CEDAW committee is a body of 23 independent experts that reviews the compliance of each state party with its obligations under the treaty. The CEDAW treaty defines discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”

The convention is intended to provide the basis for realizing equality between women and men by ensuring women’s equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life, as well as education, health, and employment. States parties agree to take all appropriate measures, including legislation and temporary special measures, so that women can enjoy all their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

All states parties are required to submit an initial report one year after ratifying the convention, and regular reports every four years to the committee on how they are complying with the requirements of the convention. The committee examines each report, which is followed by alternative report submissions by civil society and national human rights commissions, a pre-sessional working group meeting, drafting of a list of issues, a written response from the state party, a plenary session to discuss all information with the state party, and concluding observations addressing concerns and recommendations by the committee at the end of the session.

“Women face dire abuses in North Korea, often at the hands of government officials,” Barr said. “The UN should pressure North Korea to respect the rights of women and girls, and not let Pyongyang get away with refusing to even acknowledge that abuses are occurring.”