After Kim Jong Un rose to power in 2011, a study was conducted on 54 women who fled North Korea. Two of the women were Oh Jung Hee and Park Young Hee. Oh Jung Hee said that up until she left the country in 2014, guards would regularly pass by the market she worked at to demand bribes, sometimes in the form of coerced sexual acts or intercourse. She also reported that she had no power to resist or report the abuses, as it had never occurred to her that anything could be done to stop the assaults. (You Cry At Night But Don’t Know Why, Human Rights Watch).
Park Young Hee, left North Korea in 2011, and was forced back to North Korea from China. She said, after being released and put under the jurisdiction, the officer in the detention facility touched her body and penetrated her several times with his fingers. Park Young Hee said she never told anybody about the abuse because she did not think it was unusual, and was afraid that the authorities and would not do anything to help. (You Cry At Night But Don’t Know Why, Human Rights Watch).
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These two cases of sexual abuse are not isolated. Interviewees said that when a guard or police officer “picks” a woman, she has no choice but to comply with any and all demands. If a woman does refuse, she risks sexual violence, longer periods in detention, beatings, or forced labor.
Only one of the women that Human Rights Watch interviewed said she had tried to report the sexual assault. The other women said they did not report it because they did not trust the police and did not believe police would be willing to take action. The women said that police do not consider sexual violence a serious crime, and that the possible consequences of reporting outweigh the benefits. (You Cry At Night But Don’t Know Why, Human Rights Watch).
On June 9, about 22,000 South Korean women marched through Seoul in protest of “spy cams”, (tiny cameras used to spy on women) that are put in women’s bathrooms or up women’s skirts. Spy Cams are just one of many human rights violations against women in South Korea, which was recently ranked by the World Economic Forum as 116 out of 144 in gender equality. In a survey of 2,000 South Korean men, 80% said that they had in some way abused a female partner. (Korean Institute of Criminology). A 2015 survey of 500 South Korean women found that 78% of sexual harassment victims did not seek help, believing that nothing would be done. (Ministry of Gender Equality and Family). (South Korean Women Fed Up With Inequality, Human Rights Watch).
Abortion, which is often considered an important right to women, is legal only in cases of rape or incest, risks to the mother’s health, or if the parents cannot marry or have hereditary disorders or communicable diseases. Married women need their spouses’ permission for an abortion, and illegal abortion is punishable by up to one year in prison or fines up to 2 million won ($1,820). Additionally, healthcare workers providing abortions can be sentenced to up to two years in prison. (South Korean Women Fed Up With Inequality, Human Rights Watch).
Sexual abuse in South Korea does not just happen on the small-scale, either. Kim Ji-eun, former secretary to Ahn Hee-jung (governor of South Chungcheong province), accused him of repeatedly raping her. He then stepped down as governor and was prosecuted for abusing his supervisory power to force Kim Ji-eun into a sexual relationship. However, the court acquitted Ahn Hee-jung due to the questioning of credibility of Kim’s statements. (Rights Trends in South Korea, Human Rights Watch).
The recent protest was the latest of the demands for change. In April 2018, more than 200,000 people signed a petition demanding a ban in sales of hidden cameras and stronger punishments for doing so. In October 2017, more than 235,000 people signed a petition demanding the legalization of abortion. (A lawsuit on this issue is pending). The #MeToo movement swept the nation, with women demanding government action on sexual abuse and harassment. (Rights Trends in South Korea, Human Rights Watch).
- “South Korean Women Are Fed Up with Inequality.” Human Rights Watch, 14 June 2018, www.hrw.org.
- “World Report 2019: Rights Trends in South Korea.” Human Rights Watch, 17 Jan. 2019, www.hrw.org.
- “‘You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why’ Sexual Violence Against Women in North Korea.” Human Rights Watch, 3 Nov. 2018, www.hrw.org.
- You-Me Park. “The Crucible of Sexual Violence: Militarized Masculinities and the Abjection of Life in Post-Crisis, Neoliberal South Korea.” Feminist Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, Mar. 2016, p. 17. EBSCOhost, doi:10.15767/feministstudies.42.1.17.
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