North Korean officials were asked recently what measures have been taken to address the UN Commission of Inquiry’s 2014 findings that women forcibly returned from China had been abused and tortured. The delegation dismissed the findings as “unsubstantiated” and “politicized” like other, “anti-Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) human rights resolutions,” adopted by the UN.
The angry North Korean reaction was no surprise for regular DPRK watchers. Throughout a Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Committee session on November 8, committee members had to constantly repeat questions and requests seeking detailed information from the North Korean delegation. Requests for details on the incidence of violence against women, and sexual assault and rape, were met with indignant refusals. Questions over North Korea’s failures to provide equal and effective access to justice suffered the same fate.
At times it appeared the delegation had been told which answers to give and to repeat if necessary. The delegation stuck to a few messages – first, that equality between men and women had been achieved in North Korea; second, that CEDAW’s international standards had been integrated into domestic law; and third, that effective protection mechanisms were in place for women.
But delegation members also claimed, “women’s physical characteristics,” explained why there was gender segregation in some workplaces. One DPRK official didn’t understand what “marital rape” was and asked the committee to explain it. The same official also claimed that punishment for a superior coercing a woman into sex should be much less than rape involving use of violence – because, it was claimed, the impact on the victim is less.
Much has been made about North Korea’s engagement with the UN human rights treaty bodies monitoring the DPRK’s efforts. It’s easy to applaud the fact that North Korea engaged with the CEDAW Committee and says it cares about improving the lives of women, but it needs to be more than just talk. The government should make genuine reforms that promote gender equality in education, work, and society. When women’s rights are violated, the government has an obligation to provide effective mechanisms to protect and assist them and ensure justice. Until North Korean officials can provide real answers to how the country is meeting these obligations under CEDAW, it’s all just hot air.