Forced Abortions and Coerced Sexual Acts: North Korea’s Numerous Human Rights Violations Against Women

August 6, 2019 Updated: August 7, 2019

The world remains largely unaware of the extent of the many human rights violations that North Korean women face. Abortions forced upon women repatriated from China and demands by guards of bribes from female traders in the form of forced sexual acts or intercourse are some of the many widespread cases of abuse that few recent reports shed light on.

Oh Jung Hee, 40s, a textile merchant from Ryanggang Province, sold clothes in the market stalls in Hyesan city.

“I was a victim many times. … On the days they felt like it, market guards or police officials could ask me to follow them to an empty room outside the market, or some other place they’d pick. What can we do? They consider us [sex] toys. We [women] are at the mercy of men. Now, women cannot survive without having men with power near them,” Jung Hee, who left the communist Korean nation in 2014, told Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In a report (pdf) titled “You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why” released in November 2018, HRW reports 54 cases of “Sexual Violence Against Women in North Korea” by women who left the country in 2011.

Epoch Times Photo
A police officer checking to see if a trader has hidden “anti-socialist” material in her belongings. Police officers conduct searches in female traders’ belongings, which can be a prelude to a body search. (Choi Seong Guk for Human Rights Watch)

The report said the perpetrators of sexual violence against women are “high-ranking party officials, prison and detention facility guards and interrogators, police and secret police officials, prosecutors, and soldiers.”

Victims interviewed by HRW said they could do nothing when the officials demanded sexual favors, money, or some other favors from them. Most of the cases of abuse go unreported, and the North Korean government rarely publishes statistics or reports.

“The North Koreans we spoke with told us that unwanted sexual contact and violence is so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life: sexual abuse by officials, and the impunity they enjoy, is linked to larger patterns of sexual abuse and impunity in the country,” the report said.

Forced Abortions Against Women Repatriated from China

Another report released by the Human Rights Council in 2014 said that North Korean women repatriated from China are particularly targeted for forced abortions (pdf).

“The Commission finds that there is a widespread prevalence of forced abortion and infanticide against repatriated mothers and their children, in contravention of domestic and international laws,” the report said.

These forced abortions and infanticides happen mostly inside detention and interrogation centers and inside holding centers.

“Witness testimony points to DPRK authorities’ disdain for ethnically mixed children—specifically children conceived to Chinese men—as the driver of forced abortions upon pregnant women and infanticide of their babies,” the report said.

Epoch Times Photo
Male government officials and female traders sitting in a railway carriage, while a railroad officer checks a female trader’s ticket. In railway carriages, women often face harassment by male government officials and railroad officers. (Choi Seong Guk for Human Rights Watch)

“If you get pregnant in China, the assumption is that you have been impregnated by a Chinese man, therefore women returning to the DPRK pregnant are subjected to forced abortions,” a woman who had witnessed forced abortion on two repatriated women and has been repatriated many times herself told the commission.

The report said the idea of “pure Korean blood and ethnicity” makes these women vulnerable to such extreme violations.

“Forced abortion and forced murder of new-borns are carried out. North Korean defectors who got pregnant in China, if they are repatriated back, they are blamed for carrying the child of a Chinese national and they are put to receive forced abortion or, if they give birth, that child is killed,” Kim Young-hwan, who works with former DPRK nationals, including providing assistance to them in China, testified before the Commission at the Seoul Public Hearing, according to the report.

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