By Kathryn Wernke, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor and Camille Freestone, HRNK Research Intern
July 23, 2020
North Korea’s prison system is a vast network used to punish disloyalty and maintain the iron grip of the Kim regime on its people. It is, however, also a system rife with exploitation of women, in which abusers have an unknown, limitless number of victims and virtually no risk of punishment. According to the 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on North Korea, female prisoners face torture, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence amounting to crimes against humanity. Due to the lack of sexual education, the societal stigma, and the unlikelihood of prosecution in North Korea, victims of this cruelty rarely report these crimes. This leaves the women incarcerated in North Korea’s penal camps in an unending cycle of oppression and violence.
It is estimated that North Korea holds at least 80,000 prisoners in its system of prisons and work camps, with a rapidly increasing number of women being imprisoned. The rise in female detainees is largely due to the increase in women forcibly repatriated from China, who account for up to 80% of female prisoners according to the testimonies of former inmates. Women imprisoned in North Korea’s camps face incredibly high rates of sexual exploitation, malnutrition, and mortality, all while engaging in forced labor. A 2014 survey, conducted by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) with 1,125 former North Korean prisoners, found that 37.7% reported that rape and sexual harassment of inmates was “common,” and 15.9% reported that it was “very common,” with the primary assailants, 77.2%, being police, prison guards, and secret police (bo-wi-seong) agents. They face this abuse in every level of detention, including local detention facilities (ka-mok), interrogation facilities (ku-ryu-jang), holding facilities (jip-kyul-so), long-term prison labor facilities (kyo-hwa-so), and political penal labor colonies (kwan-li-so).
Former detainees who have defected to South Korea have given harrowing accounts of the abuse faced by women in these institutions. Sexual humiliation in the form of strip searches, cavity searches, and naked jumping-jacks and squat thrusts are included in many testimonies by survivors of the camps. Sexual harassment in the form of groping and verbal abuse are everyday occurrences at all levels of the penal system. Due to widespread starvation and extreme conditions in these camps, many women exchange sexual favors for food or easier work, which is seen to increase their chances of survival. Rape perpetrated by prison officials is extremely common and women who become pregnant afterwards are frequently executed in order to cover up the officials’ crimes.
Perhaps the most shocking reports of cruelty are those of abortions forced upon women who are repatriated from China. North Korean women who are able to cross the border into China are often trafficked and sold into marriages with Chinese men. Upon often involuntary repatriation, women who have become pregnant are forced to have abortions due to a bias against biracial, half Han Chinese babies. A former repatriated prisoner, Kim Min-ji, stated in an interview with the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) that she witnessed two forced abortions in which “a pregnant woman was forced to take some medicine, after which the baby was aborted” and “holding center authorities had a baby surgically removed from the womb of a woman who was in the ‘last days of pregnancy.’ The baby was killed.” It is estimated that several hundred babies are killed in North Korean prison camps each year, allegations that the regime vehemently denies.
Although women are enshrined in North Korean law as equals to men, in practice, they are not protected from sexual violence and abusers are rarely, if ever, punished. This, coupled with the fact that North Koreans often have little to no knowledge about the country’s laws, let alone those that are meant to protect women, leads to a lack of reporting by survivors within the prison system and beyond it. According to the 2012 North Korean Criminal Code, “a man who rapes a woman by using violence or threats or by taking advantage of her helpless status shall be punished by reform through labor.” Likewise, the 2010 North Korean Law on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Women mandates similar protections against the abuse of women. North Korean officials often tout these laws as examples of how advanced their country is and even claim inmates receive top-notch medical care, plenty of food, and labor appropriate to their physical capabilities, which is categorically false when compared to prisoner testimony.
The image portrayed by North Korean officials is that of a country that is fair, equal, and protective of its people by law. The reality, however, is that women in North Korea’s prison system are not only unprotected, but also violated by officials meant to enforce these laws. While sexual violence and gender inequality are common in North Korean society, education about these crimes and resources for victims are nonexistent. According to survivor testimony, women do not trust the police because the police do not consider sexual abuse and rape to be significant crimes and, typically, the only cases that are investigated are those that result in serious injury or death of the victim. Therefore, those most vulnerable in North Korea are unable to come forward. The few victims and witnesses who have reported abuse by prison guards were punished instead of their abusers and sent to the section of the camp with the most strenuous labor (rak-hu-ja-ban). In an interview with Human Rights Watch, former prisoner and rape survivor, Cho Byul-me, testified that she “couldn’t imagine even the possibility of refusing [her abuser] because of how the system works there. There is nowhere one can complain about such treatment.”
As North Korea continues to deny allegations that they mistreat those interned in its penal system, reports from former detainees of sexual violence and exploitation by law enforcement and prison officials continue to mount. Numerous international organizations and world governments have documented and denounced the cruelty inflicted by the Kim regime upon female prisoners. The UN COI report urged North Korea to address the sexual abuse of women by agents of the state’s institutions, but without the acknowledgment of this issue by the regime, no action has been taken. Similarly, without education about sexual abuse, resources for victims, avenues for reporting, and prosecution of perpetrators of these crimes, women in North Korea’s prison camps, and the country at large, will continue to be sexually exploited and mistreated. As long as the current system remains, there will be no end to the sexual violence inflicted upon the female prisoners of North Korea and, therefore, no justice for these victims.
Kathryn Wernke is an MA candidate at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies with concentrations in International Economics and Relations.
 UN Human Rights Council, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, UN Doc. A/HRC/25/63 (February 7, 2014), 14,
 Human Rights Watch, “You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why” – Sexual Violence against Women in North Korea (November 2018), 45-46,
 David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag IV: Gender Repression & Prisoner Disappearances, (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2015), 9,
 Ibid., 16.
 Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Universal Periodic Review of the DPRK 2014-2018 Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, May 2019), 7,
 Human Rights Watch, “You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why,” 4.
 Ibid., 5;
UN Human Rights Council, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 12; David Hawk with Amanda Mortwedt Oh, The Parallel Gulag: North Korea’s “An-jeon-bu” Prison Camps, (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2017), 13,
 Hawk, The Hidden Gulag IV, 25-26.
 Human Rights Watch, “You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why,” 5.
 David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag Second Edition: The Lives and Voices of “Those Who are Sent to the Mountains,” (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012), 34,
 Ibid., 51.
 Ibid., 152-53.
 Hawk, The Hidden Gulag IV, 21.
 James Brooke, “N. Koreans Talk of Baby Killings,” The New York Times, June 10, 2002,
 Hawk, The Parallel Gulag, 127.
 Human Rights Watch, “You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why,” 36-37.
 Hawk, The Hidden Gulag IV, 13-14.
 Human Rights Watch, “You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why,” 4.
 Ibid., 7-8.
 Ibid., 47-48.
 Ibid., 52.
 UN Human Rights Council, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 17.
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.