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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.
Natalie Gonnella-Platts serves as the Director of the Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. In this role, Natalie is responsible for research and programmatic efforts that empower women worldwide to lead in their communities and countries. This includes the work of the First Ladies Initiative, which aims to enable and support First Ladies from around the world in effectively using their platforms to empower women and children in their countries. Additionally, she is the host of the Bush Institute’s award nominated podcast, Ladies, First; the co-author of a first-of-its kind analysis on global first ladies, A Role Without a Rulebook; and served as a project lead on the development of the Bush Institute’s 2018 special exhibit, First Ladies: Style of Influence.
Natalie studied Communications and International Studies (Peace and Conflict) at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia. She earned an MA in War, Violence and Security studies from the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom. Prior to joining the Bush Institute, she held roles in New York City at American International Group (AIG), and in London at ConservativeHome USA, the Legatum Institute, and BBC Worldwide. She is a member of Akola Project’s Advisory Council; a co-founder of Each Inc., a non-profit that seeks to provide innovative technology tools to organizations that care for and protect orphans and vulnerable children; and has previously served as a project strategy advisor to Stop the Traffik’s Finance Against Trafficking initiative.Full Bio
Lindsay Lloyd is the Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, where he manages original research and programmatic efforts to advance freedom and democracy in the world. Lindsay currently leads the Bush Institute’s Freedom in North Korea project, which raises awareness of human rights violations in North Korea, proposes new policy solutions, and engages leaders to help improve the lives of the North Korean people. Lindsay is also responsible for managing the Freedom Collection, a multimedia archive that documents the stories of nonviolent freedom advocates from around the word.
Prior to joining the Bush Institute, Lindsay served for 16 years at the International Republican Institute (IRI), most recently as senior advisor for policy. Previously, he was IRI’s regional director for Europe and co-director of the regional program for Central and Eastern Europe, which was based in Slovakia. At IRI, Lindsay worked with candidates, elected officials, political parties, and civil society activists to develop lasting democratic institutions.
Before joining IRI, Lindsay worked for several members and the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives, as political director for a political action committee, and for Jack Kemp’s 1988 presidential campaign. He graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.Full Bio
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