Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The government criminalized rape of women. Conviction of Rape is punishable by reform through labor for up to five years; if the assailant “commits a grave offense,” a term of more than 10 years; and if the rape was “particularly grave,” a life term or the death penalty. No information was available on how effectively the law was enforced. The 2014 UNCOI report found the subjugation of inmates and a general climate of impunity created an environment in which guards and other prisoners in privileged positions raped female inmates. This was reconfirmed in OHCHR reporting on women who attempted to flee the country, were forcibly repatriated, and finally escaped for good. The women testified they had been subjected to widespread, systemic sexual violence while detained after repatriation. The 2018 HRW report You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why reported endemic sexual and gender-based violence and detailed cases of sexual assault or coerced sexual acts by men in official positions of authority between 2011 and 2015. When cases of rape came to light, the perpetrator often escaped with mere dismissal or no punishment. For example, HRW reported a 2009 case in which a woman arrested for illegally fleeing the country was raped by a police chief. After she told her lawyer, the lawyer refused to mention it during her trial and said nothing would be done and the woman could be punished more severely for bringing it up. As noted in the KINU white paper for 2019, the law prohibits domestic violence, but the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women expressed concern that the government was not taking any protective or preventive measures against such violence. Defectors continued to report violence against women was a systematic problem both inside and outside the home. According to the KINU white paper, in a survey of defectors conducted from 2013 to 2017, more than 75 percent of respondents believed domestic violence was “common.” It also stated that spousal rape was not considered a crime.
Sexual Harassment: Despite the law defectors reported the populace generally accepted sexual harassment of women due to patriarchal traditions. They reported there was little recourse for women who had been harassed. Defectors also reported lack of enforcement and impunity enjoyed by government officials made sexual harassment so common as to be accepted as part of ordinary life. According to the 2019 KINU white paper, authorities repeatedly stated there was no sexual harassment issue in workplace, suggesting willful ignorance on the part of the government.
Reproductive Rights: Obtaining accurate information regarding reproductive rights was difficult, as data supplied by the government is impossible to verify and international presence in country is severely limited. Although the country’s 2002 report to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women claimed couples and individuals made their own decisions on the spacing of children, independent sources were not able to substantiate this claim.
According to the 2014 Socio-demographic Health Survey, 92 percent of demand for family planning was reportedly satisfied, but contraceptive choice and access to counseling services were limited. According to the UN Fund for Population, the lack of essential medical supplies, equipment, and skills is the main barrier to quality reproductive health services. A 2020 white paper by the South Korean Institute of National Unification reported that, according to health personnel who worked in the department of obstetrics and gynecology, more than half of patients in North Korea sought abortion and the most common cause of maternal death during childbirth was excessive bleeding. There was no information on what sexual and reproductive health services, if any, the government provided to survivors of sexual violence.
Coercion in Population Control: NGOs and defectors reported state security officials subjected women to forced abortions for political purposes, to cover up human rights abuses and rape in particular, and to “protect” ethnic purity, and not population control. KINU’s white paper for 2019 stated that officials had in some cases prohibited live births in prison and ordered forced abortions as recently as 2013. According to a July OHCHR report on women detained who were forcibly returned, detainees were denied maternity protections mandated in legislation to protect women’s rights. Detainees reported being sent for forced abortions as recently as 2015 and that prison officials sought to force abortion through beatings and hard labor. Cases of infanticide were also reported.
Discrimination: The constitution states, “women hold equal social status and rights with men”; however, few women reached high levels of the party or the government, and defectors said gender equality was nonexistent. KINU reported discrimination against women emerged in the form of differentiated pay scales, promotions, and types of work assigned to women, in addition to responsibility for the double burden of labor and housework, especially considering the time and effort required to secure food.
Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship from one’s parents and, in some cases, birth within the country’s territory.
Education: The law provides for 12 years of free compulsory education for all children. Many NGO reports indicated that authorities denied some children educational opportunities and subjected them to punishment and disadvantages as a result of the songbun loyalty classification system and the principle of “collective retribution” for the transgressions of family members. NGO reports also noted some children were unable to attend school regularly because of hidden fees or insufficient food. NGOs reported that children in the total-control zones of political prisons did not receive the same curriculum or quality of education available to those outside the total-control zones.
Foreign visitors and academic sources reported that from the fifth grade, schools subjected children to several hours a week of mandatory military training and that all children received political indoctrination. In its 2019 report The Lost Generation: The Health and Human Rights of North Korea’s Children, 1990-2018, the HRNK characterized the national curriculum as prioritizing political indoctrination and unswerving loyalty to the regime, while punishing those who deviate from the curriculum.
Medical Care: There was no verifiable information available on whether boys and girls had equal access to state-provided medical care. Access to health care largely depended on loyalty to the government. In a December 2019 report on broader health and well-being trends in the country, the NKDB, using publicly available data and interviews of defectors who arrived in the South Korea during the year, documented widespread inadequacies in medical care for children.
Child Abuse: Information regarding societal or familial abuse of children remained unavailable. The law states that a man convicted of having sexual intercourse with a girl younger than age 15 shall be “punished gravely.” There was no reporting on whether the government enforced this law.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18 for men and 17 for women.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Because many girls and young women attempted to flee repressive conditions, poverty, and food shortages for their own survival or the betterment of their families, 2019 international media reports and the 2014 UNCOI report noted they were often subjected to sexual exploitation by traffickers. Traffickers promised these young girls jobs in other parts of the country or in China but then exploited them in forced marriages or domestic servitude or made them work in prostitution after being smuggled out of the country. In its November 2019 publication Inescapable Violence: Child Abuse within North Korea, the Seoul-based NGO People for Successful Corean Unification documented endemic child abuse, including child sexual abuse, in schools, homes, camps, orphanages, and detention centers.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Displaced Children: According to NGO reports, there were numerous street children. The HRNK reported in 2019 that while not all were orphans, some were abandoned due to economic difficulties or escaped abusive family situations. Displaced children were forced to survive by begging and stealing at local markets or in front of train stations.
Institutionalized Children: Guards subjected children living in prison camps to torture if they or a family member violated the prison rules. Reports noted authorities subjected children to forced labor for up to 12 hours per day and did not allow them to leave the camps. Prisons offered them limited access to education.
Daily NK, a defector-run online newspaper operating in South Korea, reported children at boarding schools for orphans received inadequate nutrition and that staff stole food to pay school debts.
In addition to children in detention facilities, the number of children living in orphanages and other institutions drastically increased following the famines of the 1990s. In 2019 the HRNK reported that Kim Jong Un directed that 40 child-protection facilities, including orphanages, elementary academies, and middle academies, be modernized to accommodate these children. The HRNK’s interviews of those who had lived in these facilities reported substandard conditions, including lack of adequate food, clothing, and shelter. As a result many were malnourished and in poor physical condition. While living in orphanages, children often received only one meal a day, leading them to compete and fight for food or run away from the orphanage to survive. Children living in orphanages were often subjected to forced labor instead of attending school. Several respondents explained how children were forced to perform “simple work” such as carrying stones rather than being cared for and protected in orphanages.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
There was no known Jewish population, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Although the government claims the law meets the international standards of rights for persons with disabilities, in a 2016 National Human Rights Commission of Korea survey, 89 percent of defectors said there was no consideration for persons with disabilities.
While the law mandates equal access to public services for persons with disabilities, the government did not provide consistent support for them. Traditional social norms condone discrimination against persons with disabilities, including in the workplace (also see section 7.d.). NGO reports, including KINU’s 2019 white paper, stated that while the government on balance treated veterans with disabilities well, escapees often described support for veterans with disabilities as inconsistent and only at a perfunctory level. The government reportedly provided no support to other persons with physical and mental disabilities. In some cases authorities sent persons with disabilities from Pyongyang to internal exile, quarantined them within camps, and forcibly sterilized them. Persons with disabilities experienced discrimination in accessing public life.
The UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities visited the country for the first time in 2017 and noted most infrastructure, including newly constructed buildings, was not accessible to persons with physical disabilities.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child repeatedly expressed concern, most recently in 2017, regarding de facto discrimination against children with disabilities and insufficient measures taken by the state to ensure these children had effective access to health, education, and social services. KINU’s 2019 white paper evaluated the provision of special education to children with disabilities as poor.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
There are no laws against consensual same-sex sexual activity between adults, but little information was available on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. NGOs expressed concern that decency and obscenity laws could be used legally to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2014 the Korean Central News Agency, the state news agency, denied the existence of consensual same-sex sexual activity in the country. According to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights group Equaldex, no legal mechanisms exist for LGBTI individuals to protect against discrimination in housing and employment. Same-sex adoption is illegal. Equaldex characterized legal protections toward same-sex sexual activity, the right to change legal gender, and gay and lesbian persons serving openly in the military as ambiguous.