By Dacia Pajé
Edited by Rosa Park
“The Twenty-Year Review of implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action concludes that no country has fully achieved gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment,” states Mr. Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, Chair of the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women (UN CSW), which will take place from March 13 to 24, 2017 with the title of “Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work”.
But repression of women in North Korea is on a scale hardly seen in recent history. For the first time, North Korean women will be addressed as a UN CSW topic, and a parallel event will be held by the Working Group on North Korean Women entitled “North Korean Refugee Women: Destitution and Human Trafficking in China.” The situation facing North Korean women has gotten worse and solutions are hard to find. When it comes to human rights in North Korea, the international community is much more aware today of the severe abuses in the country, but it is difficult to intervene in search of redress in such a closed and repressive state.
The “Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” presented to the Human Rights Council on February 7, 2014, recognizes the great gender inequality throughout the country. Women are suffering egregious abuses and violence. North Korea is also facing an increase in domestic violence and the great economic crisis with consequent poverty and starvation “have resulted in women and girls becoming vulnerable to trafficking and increased engagement in transactional sex and prostitution.”
After the Great Famine in the 1990s, thousands of male soldiers starved to death and women from 17 to 20 years of age were required to enlist in order to fill the ranks. Now, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is composed of about half a million women. Even if joining the KPA for a woman means improvements in her social status, women face a completely different set of obstacles in life from that of their male counterparts, often ending up as sex slaves for their senior officers.
Moreover, high-ranking Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) officials can benefit from the so called “satisfaction” or “pleasure” squads (man-jok-jo)—a group of young women and girls expected to satisfy any request, from dancing and singing to becoming concubines—established by Kim Il-sung. In 2011, after Kim Jong-il passed away, the “pleasure” squad was disbanded, and now Kim Jong-un is believed to be reforming it. Soldiers are regularly becoming customers for prostitutes and in order to afford them, they raid civilian homes. The worst treatment is in the political prison camps, where guards and officials rape girls and women, and then kill them in order to conceal the crimes.
The objectification, abuse, and rape of women are also increasing the number of sexually transmitted diseases, which is becoming a serious issue among soldiers in the KPA. Inspections and restrictions have been imposed, but never truly implemented. “The Kim Jong-un regime is keeping quiet about the crisis of sexually transmitted diseases in the North Korean military. He does not ask for outside help because the existence of this kind of crisis among his soldiers is extremely embarrassing.” 
This insecure, dangerous, and humiliating life pushes woman of all ages to flee from the country, looking for a better life. According to statistics by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the number of female refugees in 2016 amounted to 1,119, in comparison to 299 male refugees.
While men, completely controlled by the regime, end up working for the government or the army, women normally stay at home after they have children and are not considered “important” in the patriarchal North Korean society, especially in the rural areas. According to Greg Scarlatoiu, the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), “Once they get married, North Korean women no longer have to spend as much time working in public mobilization campaigns, and they have more time to dedicate to the home front … so, it is primarily women who get arrested and imprisoned for having crossed the border without government approval, or for perceived wrongdoing at the markets.”
Since the Great Famine of the 1990s, women have become more involved in the black markets as well as the quasi-legal markets. They ended up becoming powerful, not only economically (controlling and dealing with the illegal markets to make a living), but they also engage in contact with the outside world—mostly China—to learn that a different life is possible once they cross the border. Unfortunately, they cannot know the extent to which the path towards freedom is distant and difficult beyond the dangerous crossing of the Sino-North Korean border.
What happens to them once they leave North Korea? Unless they are lucky and able to reach freedom, the possible consequences can be summarized into two categories: human trafficking or prison camps.
1. Human Trafficking
According to the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2016, sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking and the victims are predominantly women and girls. Sexual exploitation of North Korean women by the Chinese is a well-known international issue. Between 70 to 90% of the North Korean women crossing the border—of an estimated total of 100,000 to 200,000 North Korean defectors in China—suffer from abuses by the Chinese guards along the border and are targeted by Chinese marriage brokers. Chinese traffickers usually prefer young girls since they can be sold at higher prices to men in the Chinese countryside. The one-child policy (which is now a two-child policy) and the cultural preference for male babies have led to a shortage of marriage-age Chinese women.
Many times, women who cross the border are sold as ‘wives” or start working as sex workers in boarding houses, living under physical, sexual, mental, and emotional abuse. There is no possibility for them to ask for help. Especially, after the decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system, the relations between the Chinese and the South Korean governments are worsening. China is intensifying the repatriation of North Korean refugees, considered “illegal economic migrants” in the country, in violation of its legal obligations under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 2007 Refugees Protection and International Migration document.
As a matter of fact, pursuant to these documents, North Korean refugees legally qualify as political refugees and refugees sur place, as they face a credible fear of prosecution and punishments upon their forcible repatriation to North Korea.
As a result, North Korean female refugees rely completely on their “husband,” having no access to health care or other State assistance, which puts them in an even more precarious situation, facing physical abuse or sexual exploitation. Many are forced to accept the slave-wife condition in disguise, or they can continue on the road of escape by trying to reach other countries in Southeast Asia, where they will, yet again, face inhumane conditions.
2. Prison Camps
North Korean women are overwhelmed by abuse: outside North Korea, where they are considered as sexual objects and bargaining chips, and inside North Korea, where they are deprived of every single human right listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the International Convention to Eliminate all Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which North Korea is a party.
Even if the Chinese police are easily corruptible, they have the power to repatriate North Korean refugees back to North Korea, where they are likely to face harsh interrogation, imprisonment, and even death in prison camps and other detention facilities.
According to HRNK’s report, “North Korea: Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, Jongo-ri,” that detention facility has increased its detainee population, from 1,500 in the late 1990s to 5,000 in recent years. Satellite imagery shows that in 2009, the camp was expanded, adding a women’s section, which means that the number of female prisoners is increasing due to repatriation from China. Defectors are punished with detention, tortured during interrogations and sent to kwan-li-so or kyo-hwa-so prison camps, where they undergo forced labor for the regime under terrible conditions.
In prison camps, women are not treated differently from men: they are given the same meager rations of food and forced to do the same hard labor. To make matters worse, the terrible living conditions lead to sexual exploitation, where women sell themselves in order to obtain more food or less work. However, if they become pregnant, they are punished with execution or forced abortion. “It is the rape survivor who is punished,” says Blaine Harden. The same happens to women who become pregnant in China. In order to prevent them from giving birth to half-Chinese babies, they are forced to have an abortion, or just as appalling, to commit infanticide.
Child marriage, forced abortion, rape, and sexual abuse are all main topics in the UN’s Agenda for Gender Equality, one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). North Korea clearly needs decisive interventions and significant help in this sense.
Women are persecuted both in their closed and isolated country and once they try to escape from it. They are victims of internationally recognized crimes against humanity and even once they reach South Korea, they have to spend a long period of time in isolation while undergoing significant psychological and physical rehabilitation before being introduced to South Korean society. Many feel unaccepted and disrespected in a country they believed would give them a better life.
North Korean women should be considered a target population by the international community for external information entering the country. During the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly, 93 Governments accepted the UN Women’s project, “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality,” which asks for national commitment and action in favor of gender equality. Clearly, domestic intervention is still unimaginable in North Korea and very difficult to expect under the Kim regime. However, with UN Women’s declaration that there is the need to listen to female refugees’ and migrants’ experiences and voices, North Korean women should not be forgotten or ignored. Their participation in the 61st session of the UN CSW would be a start.
The UN policy for Gender Equality should be directed at the Chinese government in particular. As a matter of fact, they have obligations towards the international community on the gender equality issue since they have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). For this reason, China should re-evaluate and improve its policy on its borders with North Korea and, above all, should stop repatriating North Korean refugees, which aids North Korea in its human rights denial.
Quoting Michael Kirby, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: “Last century, the world was faced with the Nazi ideology… It used terror, discrimination and extermination in concentration camps to achieve its ends… The world said ‘never again.’ It proclaimed the Charter of the United Nations. It declared universal human rights as our shared destiny… Here we are in the 21st century. And yet we are faced with a remaining and shameful scourge that afflicts the world today. We can no longer afford to remain oblivious to it, nor impotent to act against it.”
The international community set itself admirable goals to reach by 2030 and it is working hard in order to achieve them. North Korea must not be left behind while reaching for these goals.
 Video message from H.E. Mr. Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, December 21, 2016, http://www.unwomen.org/en/csw/csw61-2017
 The “Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”, 2014, p.8. par. 34-35: “[…] Discrimination against women remains pervasive in all aspects of society [...]”; […] Sexual and gender-based violence against women is prevalent throughout all areas of society. Victims are not afforded protection from the State, support services or recourse to justice […]”.
 Ibid, par. 36.
Burleigh, Michael, “Tyrant Kim's mini-skirted robot army: The tightly-drilled ranks of female soldiers who serve on North Korea's front line,” Dailymail, Published July 29, 2013, Updated July 30, 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2381052/Kim-Jong-Uns-mini-skirted-robot-army-North-Koreas-female-soldiers.html
 Fox News World, “North Korea reportedly recruiting women to join ‘pleasure squads’ for Kim Jong Un,” April 3, 2015.
 “Sex in the North Korean army,” NF - New Focus, April 13, 2013, http://newfocusintl.com/sex-in-the-north-korean-army/
 Reilly, Jill, “Raped by officials then executed so they stay silent: Horrific secrets of North Korea's gulags revealed - and the satellite images which prove secret camps are still growing,” Daily Mail, Publisehd December 4, 2013, Updtaed February 23, 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2518152/North-Korean-prison-camp-officials-raped-women-killed-secret.html
 “Sex in the North Korean army,” NF - New Focus, April 13, 2013, http://newfocusintl.com/sex-in-the-north-korean-army/
 As stated by the ROK Ministry of Unification, December 2016, http://www.unikorea.go.kr/content.do?cmsid=1440
 Power, John, “More Women Face North Korean Prison Camp: Report”, Diplomat, The, Semptember 02, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/09/more-women-face-north-korean-prison-camp-report/ “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons”, UNODC – Unite Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, December 2016, https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/2016_Global_Report_on_Trafficking_in_Persons.pdf
 Olivia Enos and Hayoung Yoo, “north Korean Women Live Desperate Lives, Even After Escape”, The Daily Signal, November 9, 2016, http://dailysignal.com/2016/11/09/north-korean-women-live-desperate-lives-even-after-escape/
 Overturned in October 2015, after 35 years.
 Lives for sale. Personal Accounts of Women Fleeing North Korea to China, (The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2009), 16.
 Insider, The Human Rights Factor: Changes Under Kim Jong-un, by Amanda Mortwedt Oh, August 15, 2016
 Jillian “JJ” Janflone, Graduate Director, “Women for Wives: State Enabled Exploitation in China and North Korea”, Human Trafficking Center Blog, February 24, 2016, http://humantraffickingcenter.org/women-for-wives/
 Being married to a Chinese man does not give them the Chinese nationality and they are still considered illegal.
 Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Mike Eley, “North Korea: Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, Jongo-ri,” The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, August 29, 2016, http://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/ASA_HRNK_Camp12_201608_v10_LR.pdf
 Russell, George, “Kim regime expands secret prison camp for women forcibly returned from China,” Fox News World, September 19, 2015, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/09/18/kim-regime-expands-secret-prison-camp-for-women-forcibly-returned-from-china.html Hawk, David, The Hidden Gulag: The lives and voices of “Those who are sent to the mountains”, (The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, second edition, 2012),34.,.
 Michele Lent Hirsch, associate editor, “The fine line between ‘obedience’ and rape in North Korea”, Women Under Siege, May 17, 2012, http://www.womenundersiegeproject.org/blog/entry/the-fine-line-between-obedience-and-rape-in-north-korea
 Ibid, 122-123.
 71st Session of the General Assembly, UN Women, http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/general-assembly
 Michael Kirby at the 25th session of the Human Rights Council, Geneva, March 17, 2014, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14385&LangID=E
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleague Katty Chi. A native of Chile and graduate of the London School of Economics, Katty became a North Korean human rights defender in her early 20s. Katty was chief of international affairs with the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in Seoul from 2010 to 2014 and worked with the Seoul Office of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) from 2019 to 2020. A remarkable member of our small North Korean human rights community, Katty brought inspiration and good humor to all. Katty passed away in Seoul in May 2020, at the young age of 32. She is survived by her parents and brother living in Chile. With the YPWP series, we endeavor to honor Katty’s life and work.