Women’s Rights in North Korea
By Seshni Moodley, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Carter Thompson, HRNK Research Intern, and Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor
August 5, 2021
Women’s rights violations are a global issue. Women are continuously disadvantaged in many spheres of everyday life. There are various social, political and cultural constraints that hamper the promotion of women’s rights in North Korea.
Amongst the various barriers that are hampering the promotion of gender equality in North Korea, the most prominent are the laws of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as these laws enforce the idea that women play an inferior role in society.
Women’s Rights Laws in North Korea 
The DPRK enacted the Law on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Women (LPPRW) in 2010. The law specifically states that an international treaty, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Form of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which the DPRK is a party, “shall have the same effect” as a domestic law. This law encompasses the fundamental rights of women, including social and political, educational, cultural, health, and labor rights. CEDAW is an international convention that calls for Party States to protect women from discrimination and provide for the adoption of various measures to prevent discrimination from occurring.
The Criminal Code (2012) punishes some acts of sexual violence. However, other forms of violence, such as attempted rape and sexual violence or marital rape, are not incorporated in these laws.
The Law on Socialist Labour Rights (2010) extended the duration of maternity leave in 2015 from 150 to 240 days. The DPRK further states that this extension has improved maternal health for women.
Although the above laws are supposedly written to protect the rights of women, testimonies from refugees indicate that these rights are not being enforced by the DPRK as these rights were written because of international press. 
Women’s Rights in North Korea
These women’s rights violations have been occurring since 1945, when women were assigned primary roles as child bearers and placed in a subordinate position in society. This is partly attributable to Korea’s dominant culture of Confucianism which is focused on men and preserves the idea of women being subordinate to men. Further, Korean Confucianism has been regarded as “the enemy of feminism.”  Nevertheless, the official governmental position is that women in North Korea have the same rights to the men in North Korea.
CEDAW is currently involved in the process of eradicating these violations. The North Korean authorities are unwilling to cooperate with CEDAW’s efforts. A possible reason for this is rooted in the DPRK’s conception of human rights in North Korea. This conception involves the understanding that human rights play an inferior role. North Korea does not perceive human rights as inherent to an individual but understands them in the context of a state and collectivism, and a trinity made up of the Supreme Leader, the Korean Workers’ Party and the public.
In order for the international community’s efforts to improve North Korean human rights to be effective, understanding how the North Korean authorities and their residents, the parties directly involved, perceive human rights as a priority.
Abuse of Women in North Korea
The abuse, including sexual violence against women is rife in North Korea and in areas where these women escape, such as China. Various accounts of abuse towards women have reportedly occurred not only in their homes, but also in public as assaults are rife throughout the country.
The North Korean law on sexual equality came into force in 1946, but since then, the situation for women has worsened especially in matters of sexual violence. The Kim government is trying to create a façade for the rest of the world. This façade aims at fooling the world into thinking that the North Korean government is protecting women’s rights.
The Report of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea illustrated that the women in North Korea are still being treated terribly.  Some human rights violations affecting women constitute crimes against humanity. The report mentioned that:
It has been stated that although statutory requirements were put into place for gender equality in the North Korean 1946 Law on Sexual Equality, the reality is contrary to these provisions.
A legal analysis of the 2010 North Korean Women’s Rights Act demonstrates the stated lack of true determination to enforce gender equality. The language is vague and there are no clear statements on the prohibition of sexual harassment. Without a clear policy in place, an additional barrier is placed on the promotion of women’s rights. This demonstrates how the actions of the Party are hampering the promotion of women’s rights in North Korea. 
Sexual Exploitation and the Abuse of Women
The institution of Kim Jong-un’s “pleasure squad” can be seen as a method used by the Party to encourage the sexual exploitation and abuse of women in North Korea. This follows in the notorious footsteps of Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfather. This indicates a long history of the Party encouraging such abuses.
Girls as young as 13 to 15 years old are recruited as members of the “pleasure squad.” This has a damaging and devastating effect on the youth in North Korea as many of these girls are abused and left without a proper education after the recruitment.
The girls are put through a rigorous training process, where they are taught to sing, dance, and ultimately “please” Kim Jong-un and his guests. Consent is rarely, if ever given by the parents or guardians of the girls since they are not of the appropriate age to give consent. There is no evidence that North Korean legislation specifies the legal age of consent, so one is required to assess the validity of the consent by the appropriateness of the age of the girl in question. This reinforces the idea that women play such an inferior role in society that their consent is disregarded.
CEDAW Committee Members have repeatedly inquired and requested detailed information from the North Korean delegation. Their requests for details on incidences of sexual assault and rape were met with indignant refusals. Once again, this demonstrated the utter lack of transparency and secretive nature of the North Korean regime.
Although it is prudent to note that North Korea has engaged with CEDAW, this is insufficient as North Korea is notorious for its closed society and borders. This prevents awareness of mass discriminatory practices that are occurring in North Korea from spreading to the international community.
In order to remedy these discriminatory practices, intervention from the international community is needed. To achieve the eradication of discriminatory practices, measures must be implemented to break down the barriers that enclose North Korean society and its borders.
There are various rights contained in the Constitution of North Korea. However, no one in North Korea has access to these rights because they are not given access to the document. It seems that these rights are only for show.
An important solution to the human rights violations would be for the international community to apply pressure on North Korea to comply with CEDAW. A multilateral rather than unilateral approach will be more effective in applying such pressure. Multilateralism involves like-minded UN member states working together as a unified body towards the eradication of human rights violations.
The status of women’s rights in North Korea is of growing concern and it is evident that stepped-up international intervention and cooperation is required in order to eradicate these violations. These violations are being perpetrated through acts of the Party. A restructuring of Party policies, legislation, and imposition of Constitutional principles by the Party is urgently needed. Considering the lack of will from the Party, this can be achieved through pressure applied by the international community, and this is only possible through multilateralism.
 Jina Yang, “Women’s Rights in the DPRK: Discrepancies Between International and Domestic Legal Instruments in Promoting Women’s Rights and the Reality Reflected by North Korean Defectors,” Cornell Law Journal 51 no. 1 (2018): 221-226.
 In-hua Kim, “Ask a North Korean: do forced abortions really take place in the DPRK?” NK News, November 13, 2019, https://www.nknews.org/2019/11/ask-a-north-korean-do-forced-abortions-really-take-place-in-the-dprk/.
 Eunkang Koh, "Gender Issues and Confucian Scriptures: Is Confucianism Incompatible with Gender Equality in South Korea?" Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 71, no. 2 (2008): 345-62, accessed July 29, 2021, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40378774.
 UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” (February 7, 2014), https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoIDPRK/Report/A.HRC.25.63.doc.
 Ida Samier, “The reality of women’s rights in North Korea,” The Borgen Project, 23 October 2020, https://borgenproject.org/tag/womens-rights-in-north-korea/.
 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Dec. 18, 1979, 1249 U.N.T.S. 13; 19 I.L.M. 33(1980), https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cedaw.aspx.
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HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.