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#MeToo Voices From North Korea: ‘They Consider Us Toys’

SEOUL, South Korea — Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, North Korea has eased restrictions on markets, allowing many families to make the bulk of their earnings from such economic activity.

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Choe Sang-Hun
, New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea — Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, North Korea has eased restrictions on markets, allowing many families to make the bulk of their earnings from such economic activity.

But the flourishing markets have a dark side: a prey-and-predator relationship between the mostly female traders and male officials who extort bribes and demand sexual favors from them, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Thursday.

“Having sex with men who have power over you, or letting them touch all over your body, is a necessity to survive,” a former trader in her 20s told the rights group. “It never occurred to me that I could or would want to do anything about it. It was just how things are.”

Human Rights Watch said it interviewed 29 women who fled North Korea after Kim took power, and who agreed to discuss the abuse they suffered at the hands of North Korean officials. They all used pseudonyms to protect their privacy and family members left behind in the North.

Since famine devastated their country in the 1990s, 32,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea, most of them women. Many reported widespread sexual violence in their home country.

In 2014, a United Nations commission documented systematic human rights violations in the North, including sexual violence. The Human Rights Watch report reinforced those findings, focusing exclusively on sexual abuse by men in positions of official power.

Since the famine in North Korea, many women have become the main breadwinners of their families, selling goods in the newly opened markets and visiting China in search of food and cash. Away from home, they found that those who were supposed to look after them were instead their predators: police officers, prison guards and inspectors on trains.

The former trader in her 20s said she was sexually assaulted several times by police officials and train inspectors between 2010 and 2014, when she fled North Korea to resettle in the South.

For traders, resisting such exploitation could mean losing their main source of income and jeopardizing their families’ survival. The officials could declare the women’s travel and trading illegal on a whim, confiscate their goods and even send them to prison, the report said.

“Market guards or police officials would ask me to follow them to an empty room outside the market, or some other place they’d pick,” said a former trader in her 40s. “They consider us toys. We are at the mercy of men.”

“Sometimes,” she said of the psychological torment from such abuse, “out of nowhere, you cry at night and don’t know why.”

The women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they seldom reported the crimes for fear of reprisal, and because of widespread stigma attached to rape victims. The coerced sex has become so common that the men don’t think their actions are wrong, and the women have come to accept such behavior, some said.

“Corruption is so rampant that anybody without power has no choice,” said the husband of the trader in her 40s. “Traders like my wife have to accept that sexual coercion is part of social and market dynamics. It is the only way to survive.”

“I know what I know,” he said. “But we don’t talk about it.”

Also vulnerable are women who enter China illegally to find work or smuggle goods. When they are caught and repatriated, they are exposed to widespread sexual and other abuse in holding centers and prisons, according to Human Rights Watch, whose report echoed earlier findings on that issue.

In a 2014 survey of 1,125 North Korean defectors by the South’s Korea Institute for National Unification, nearly 38 percent said that sexual harassment and rape were “common” in those facilities. Thirty-three of the defectors said they had been raped there.

“Every night, some woman would be forced to leave with a guard and be raped,” a former trader in her 30s who was detained in a holding center told Human Rights Watch. “Click, click, click was the most horrible sound I ever heard. It was the sound of the key of the cell of our prison room opening.”

Another former inmate said: “The idea that sexual violence is wrong, that it would not be my fault, that some ‘law person’ could be there to try to protect me could have never even occurred to me while living in North Korea.”

Last July, North Korean officials told a U.N. committee that just nine people in the country were convicted of rape in 2008, seven in 2011 and five in 2015, Human Rights Watch said.

“While North Korean officials seem to think such ridiculously low numbers show the country to be a violence-free paradise, the numbers are a powerful indictment of their utter failure to address sexual violence in the country,” the report said. “While sexual and gender-based violence is of concern everywhere, growing evidence suggests it is endemic in North Korea.”

The group said it also interviewed eight former high-ranking officials from North Korea who corroborated the victims’ accounts.

“North Korean women would probably say ‘Me Too’ if they thought there was any way to obtain justice,” said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. “But their voices are silenced in Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship.”

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