The Violence and Flight of North Korean Women


In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) released a summary of accusations against the North Korean government for its ongoing and wide-ranging crimes against humanity. In this 400-page document, the UNHCR compiled a list of policies established within the North Korean government that allowed and enforced abuses leveled against its people. The detailed report is disturbing, revealing a glimpse into North Korea’s cold indifference and willingness to allow extreme suffering to human life.

North Korea is a seemingly dystopian world made real. It is a place filled with violence against those who cannot defend themselves.

North Korean women live in a patriarchal society. This is due to lingering influences of Confucian values that are an essential part of East Asian history. North Korea’s lack of enforcement of human rights and abusive system of law has twisted gender inequality into a violent and sadistic part of many women’s lives.

“Sexual violence in North Korea is an open, unaddressed, and widely tolerated secret,” remarks Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Following 54 interviews conducted with North Korean refugees who escaped from the state after Kim Jong Un’s rise to power, Human Rights Watch released an 86-page report on sexual violence against women in North Korea. In it, they detailed the brutal abuses endured by North Korean women in public, in their homes and in imprisonment. Quoting the 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry, the report states that “domestic violence is rife within DPRK society... violence against women is not limited to the home, and that it is common to see women being beaten and sexually assaulted in public.”

It is currently estimated that approximately 200,000 North Korean refugees may live in hiding in China. Over 70 percent of them are women. In Crossing Borders’ analysis of over a thousand refugees who have passed through our network, it is not difficult to believe that over 80 percent of these women have been trafficked. Some of those who are in Crossing Borders’ care have been sold multiple times after their escape from North Korea.

It is not entirely clear why such a large percentage of the North Korean refugee population is composed of women. Hypotheses vary many of them not exclusive of one another but North Koreans’ ongoing vulnerability in China is all the more abusive and impactful for women. According to a report on North Korean human trafficking published by Korea Future Initiative, the demand for North Korean women and the network for trafficking them is still expanding rapidly in China.

Studies reveal that North Koreans are not only be sold into forced marriages, but in to sex slavery - including prostitution and cybersex trafficking. According to the author of the report, Yoon Hee-Soon, “Historically, forced marriage was the most common form of sex trafficking... But after speaking with victims still in China and particularly with our rescue teams, we soon realized broker-led sales of North Koreans to brothels had overtaken sales into forced marriages.”

North Korean women are still fleeing. The most recent statistics state that 969 North Korean women found refuge in South Korea in 2018. This is one of the lowest numbers seen for refugees who have successfully fled to South Korea in the past decade. This may be due to the increasingly dangerous route for North Koreans through the modern day Underground Railroad in Southeast Asia through Thailand or Laos. China and North Korea are reported to be increasing security along their borders to arrest fleeing defectors.

Currently, --- North Korean women have found safety and community in Crossing Borders’ network in China. Together, we are hoping, in the face of growing darkness, to provide counseling, care, compassion for so many who have been hurt and broken for so long. Please help Crossing Borders to reach the downtrodden and burdened. Please help us to continue our work to bring many women together in encouragement and  support. With love and faith, even in fear, North Korean refugees can find freedom.