Siobhan Hobbs, Gender Advisor to the Commission of Inquiry
The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was mandated by the Human Rights Council in March 2013 to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular for violations which may amount to crimes against humanity. The Commission’s detailed findings were made public on February 17, and presented to the Human Rights Council on 17 March 2014. Below is a summary of the gender-related findings of the Commission. The detailed findings of the Commission are available on the Commission’s website.
The Commission found that gender-based discrimination is pervasive in the DPRK and intersects with the discrimination based on the state-assigned social class system (Songbun) resulting in many vulnerable groups. Discrimination against women in particular is prevalent in all areas of society. Although the State encouraged women’s participation in state-based employment in the early years, as the economy declined women were shed from state employment thus losing their right to state pensions and childcare facilities. Many women, survival-driven during the famine of the 1990s, began operating private markets. However, the State imposed many restrictions on female-dominated markets, including the restriction that only women over 40 can engage in trading and women are targeted to pay bribes or fines. There is recent evidence that women are beginning to object and to resist such impositions. Sexual and gender-based violence against women is prevalent throughout all areas of society. Victims are not afforded protection from the State, support services or recourse to justice. The male dominated state preys on both economically advancing and marginalised women extracting bribes and fines from those that can pay, transactional sex from the marginalised and perpetrating sexual and gender-based violence without fear of prosecution.
Discrimination against women also intersects with a number of other human rights violations, placing women and girls in a position of vulnerability. Violations of the rights to food and to freedom of movement have resulted in women and girls becoming vulnerable to trafficking and increased engagement in transactional sex and prostitution. These violations have also contributed to the malnourishment of women and children during the periods of food shortage. The complete denial of the freedoms of expression and association has been a large contributing factor to the generally unequal status of women vis-à-vis men. These limitations have, inter alia, prevented women from collectively advocating for their rights as women have done elsewhere in the world.
Trafficking in Women and girls
Since 2006, over 70% of DPRK nationals reaching the Republic of Korea have been women and as it is likely more women than men remain in China (due to trafficking), the ratio of women to men leaving the DPRK is likely higher than those recorded to have reached the ROK. Women are pushed into leaving due to the difficulties that women particularly face inside the DPRK, especially during times of famine, as well as on going challenges as a result of the political system; women have relatively more freedom of movement and can go undetected for longer; and traffickers disguised as brokers are more willing to assist the travel of a woman with the intention of selling her in China.
The Commission estimates that a large percentage of women and girls who cross the border from the DPRK to China unaccompanied become victims of trafficking in persons, mainly for purposes of exploitation in forced marriage, forced concubinage and to a lesser extent forced prostitution under conditions of control by others. Women and girls are lured to China by brokers operating within the DPRK with the intention of selling her to a Chinese household, or into prostitution once in China, with or without the woman’s knowledge and/or consent. Traffickers also approach vulnerable and desperate women and girls inside the DPRK promising to take them to another province in the DPRK where paid agricultural work is possible but instead take the women to China. Trafficking networks operate to pick up women that have crossed into China without the assistance of a broker, and those that may have escaped from traffickers, or husbands to whom they were sold too.
Inside China, victims of trafficking are at high risk of sexual and domestic violence; do not have access to basic services such as health and education; nor the protection of the state increasing their vulnerability. Fearing capture and forcible repatriation to the DPRK further increases their vulnerability and causes children they bear to become effectively stateless as registration of their birth would alert authorities to the illegal status of the mother.
Sexual violence against the forcibly repatriated
In an attempt to deter citizens from fleeing the country, the DPRK authorities subject those who were forcibly repatriated from China or were caught in the process of trying to reach China to torture, inhumane treatment and imprisonment. Among other things, the forcibly repatriated are subjected to:
- Forced repeated squatting whilst naked (also known as ‘pumping’) as a means to dislodge items that may be concealed in vaginal and anal cavities, and cause pain to persons concealing items in such a manner.
- Vaginal cavity searches in an unsanitary and degrading manner. These searches are conducted for the primary purpose of stealing items from detainees.
- Other forms of sexual violence such as forced nudity and sexual assaults.
- Humiliating treatment such as being asked derogatory and sexual questions and refused sanitary napkins.
The Commission finds that such acts against persons attempting to flee the country amount to crimes against humanity.
Forced abortions and infanticide against repatriated mothers and their children
The Commission finds that there is a widespread prevalence of forced abortion and infanticide against repatriated mothers and their children, constituting crimes against humanity. Forced abortions and infanticide are conducted to prevent the birth of ethnically mixed Korean children, seen as a contamination of the “pure Korean race”. They are also intended as an additional punishment for women who have left the DPRK and became pregnant in China, and are conducted in a number of brutal (and unsterile) ways without anaesthetic.
Sexual and Gender-based violence in the prison system
Inmates of political prisons are generally not permitted to form relations; on rare occasions “marriages” are arranged between model prisoners, the prisoners have no say in the choice of partner. Women who are not in authorised relationships and become pregnant are subjected to forced abortion and additional punishment including torture or execution. Rape and other forms of sexual violence is commonly perpetrated against women and girls in the political prison camps, particularly teenage girls and young women, by guards taking advantage of the coercive environment and climate of impunity within the camps. The Commission finds that such acts amount to crimes against humanity.
Rape and forced abortions are also common within the ordinary prison system. Largely due to the fact that the majority of those that flee to China and are subsequently repatriated are women, there is an increasing number of women in the ordinary prison system. While sexual contact between guards and prisoners is not condoned by the prison authorities, the power differential between guards and inmates makes it easy for guards to abuse and rape prisoners with impunity. The instances of rape include cases where guards demand sex in exchange for food or other essential goods that prisoners require to survive the ordinary prison camp, thus taking advantage of the coercive circumstances of the prison environment. The Commission finds that such acts amount to crimes against humanity.
The abduction of women from other countries
From the late 1970s, the DPRK abducted several women from other countries to be sexual partners for foreigners within the country and some of the leaders. In an effort prevent the birth of ethnically mixed Korean children, women were “given” to American army deserters as wives. The Commission finds that DPRK authorities have committed and are committing crimes against humanity against the victims of international abduction.
Slides from presentation may be seen here.
 Section IV.B.2 Discrimination against women [300-320], from page 85; Section IV.B.5 The impact of discrimination on economic, social and cultural rights [330-345] from page 93.
 Section IV.D. 1(f)(ii) impact of violations of the right to food on women [554- 560] from page 167.
 Section IV.C. 2(d)(i) trafficking in women and girls [455-471] from page 132. Forcible repatriation to the DPRK further increases their vulnerability and causes children they bear to become effectively stateless as registration of their birth would alert authorities to the illegal status of the mother.
 Section IV.C. 2(d)(ii) Sexual violence and other humiliating acts against women, in particular invasive searches [415 – 422] from page 117: (ii) Situation of children born to mothers who flee or are trafficked from the DPRK [472 – 477] from page 139.
 Section V.E. 1(c) Rape and other forms of sexual violence [1106-1107] from page 336.
 Section IV.C. 2(e) Forced abortion and infanticide against repatriated women and their children [424 – 434] from page 122.
 Section V.E. 1(c) Rape and other forms of sexual violence  336.
 Section IV.E. 3(d) Sexual violence in the political prison camps [763 – 766] from page 237; 4(a)(v) rape and forced abortions in the ordinary prison system [809 -813] from page 255.
Section V.B. 1(g) Rape and other forms of sexual violence [1054-1056] from page 327.
Section V.C. 1(c) Torture, rape and other grave sexual violence [1076-1077] from page 331.
 Section IV.F. 1(g) [963- 975] from page 304.
 Section IV.D Crimes against humanity targeting persons from other countries, in particular through international abduction, [1138-1153] from page 345.