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Despite Oppression, Many North Korean Women are Agents of Change

North Korea presents the greatest, sustained humanitarian challenge of our time. - President George W. Bush

Article by Natalie Gonnella-Platts and Lindsay Lloyd December 9, 2016 //   4 minute read

In 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) issued a landmark report on human rights abuses in North Korea.  The COI grimly described the human rights situation in North Korea as unparalleled anywhere else on earth, declaring that its abuses rise to the level of crimes against humanity.  

While the COI described the horrific nature of human rights abuses faced by all North Koreans, women are especially disadvantaged.   The report pronounced, “Discrimination against women remains pervasive in all aspects of society. Indeed, it might even be increasing, as the male-dominated State preys on both economically advancing women and marginalized women.” 

While some women have made modest economic gains, thanks to the emergence of illegal, but tolerated private markets, gender-based exclusion and violence are an everyday reality for women in North Korea. 

From Pyongyang to rural villages, violence against women and girls is an accepted practice with assault prevalent throughout the country.  In the North Korean Army, where service has been compulsory for women since January 2015, abuse by senior officers is cited as a common occurrence for female soldiers.

The devastating great famine of the 1990s, which killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, fell particularly hard on women, who bore the brunt of the burden for providing food for their families.  The World Health Organization notes how the famine nearly doubled the infant mortality rate and increased the maternal mortality rate  from 83 to 120 per 100,000 during the peak of the famine.

Unsurprisingly, many North Korean women have risked everything in an attempt to flee.  The majority of the 30,000 known escapees are women and girls—perhaps as high as 70 percent.  As journalist and author Melanie Kirkpatrick notes in Escape from North Korea, “young women had – and continue to have – a grim advantage:  they are marketable in China as brides and sex workers.” 

The Committee on Human Rights in North Korea notes the precarious position of North Korean women in China, where their often forced marriages have no legal recognition, where they lack protection from repatriation back to North Korea, and where their children may have neither Chinese nor North Korean citizenship.

Those that are caught by Chinese authorities may be sent back to North Korea where they face detention, forced labor, and even execution.  Recent reports detail a considerable expansion of existing prison camps to accommodate an ever increasing number of women forcibly returned. The abuses they endure while imprisoned include torture, rape, forced abortions, and infanticide. 

Emphasizing the brutality of the North Korean government, despite the risk of further abuse and exploitation, those that survive imprisonment many times set out again for China in the hope of one day reaching places like South Korea or the United States. 

Reflecting on her journey to escape “the darkest place on earth” at 13 years old, author and advocate Yeonmi Park summarized the suffering she endured within North Korea and her arduous courage to get out: "They said if you are in China you have to be sold, you have to get married. And something that still saddens me is that I actually didn't care, I was so hungry.”

Despite all this, North Korean women should be viewed not as victims, but rather part of the potential solution.  They constitute a formidable force for change.  Moreover, most North Korean escapees are women.  As some of the most powerful advocates for reform, their voices play an essential role in raising public awareness and international support for solutions.  By empowering them, we can help foster change that will ultimately lead to a free and unified Korea.