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UN Highlights Abuses Against Women and Girls in North Korea

Creative Strategies Needed to Provide Justice for Survivors of Violence

A North Korean flag flies at the DPRK Permanent Mission in Geneva.  © 2017 Reuters

A United Nations report on the rights of women and girls in North Korea documents in devastating detail how prolonged Covid-19 border restrictions have pushed an already vulnerable population to the brink.

The report, released last week by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Elizabeth Salmon, describes the disproportionate impact of the restrictions on women and girls, who already have limited access to food, medicines, health care, and livelihoods. It raises concerns about declining economic participation for women due to Covid-19 restrictions and the effect on families’ livelihoods since women in North Korea are the main breadwinners. The report also flags possible increased domestic violence linked to the pandemic and resulting economic pressures.

The special rapporteur highlights continuing widespread discrimination and pervasive and routine violence against women and girls, noting that sexual violence and domestic violence are widespread and normalized. The North Korean government does not treat violence against women as a serious crime, and the stigma and victim-blaming associated with sexual violence and harassment prevent survivors from getting redress.

The special rapporteur notes that North Korean authorities subject women in detention to inhumane conditions that include torture, forced labor, sexual violence, and deprivation of food.

In February, a separate report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also focused on North Korea’s horrendous human rights record, the bleak prospects for criminal accountability for serious rights violations, and the need for “fresh, creative strategies” to address these problems.

Ten years have passed since the UN established the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, which documented crimes against humanity and other grave abuses.

The UN Human Rights Council sitting in Geneva this month should renew the mandate of the special rapporteur and other UN mechanisms intended to promote justice for victims of North Korean government abuses. The UN General Assembly and Security Council should also consider other steps to hold the government to account, including for failing to protect women and girls from violence and committing such violence with impunity. North Korea’s people have been waiting too long for justice.

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