North Korea released its own 'report on human rights abuses by the United States and the West' on September 7, claiming that "the U.S. should be the first to be punished as the biggest violator of human rights in the world." The argument seems to be the communist state's desperate response to the increasing international criticisms of its human rights issue, including those brought up during the meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The human rights situation in North Korea is the worst in the world, as described in the 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (COI), which stated "Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity." In particular, human rights abuses against women, including discrimination, sexual violation and trafficking, are far worse than known, but the issue has not been in the spotlight. This is because North Korean women are rarely allowed to participate in international meetings, even those among socialist states, and there is no objective literature written by North Korean scholars or experts on women's human rights except the state's official announcements.
The North Korean regime claims that "North Korea is unparalleled in the world in terms of its generous and sustained support for women, including a diverse range of laws, legislations and social policies." The state also stresses that "(North Korea is) the heaven for women. Gender equality is accepted as the norm so 'discrimination against women' just sounds strange." Despite such arguments, conservative patriarchy still exists in the country, leading to social discrimination against women. The current status of women in families is radically different from what the state's laws and institutions claim to stand for.
Food shortages, economic hardships and destitution, which were triggered by the Arduous March (North Korean famine) and have been persisted since, have aggravated the human rights situation of North Korean people except a few privileged elite. The human rights of women and children, in particular, have been further worsened. Their rights, especially the rights to food, health and physical protection, are severely violated. In the male-dominated society, women are suffering serious human rights violations, as they are forced to work for their families and subsequently suffer ill health or subject to trafficking, domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Numerous North Korean women are exposed to such sexual discrimination, violence and abuse without any protection. Under the patriarchal social order, female victims of sexual violence take all the blame, and there is no specific measure or law on prevention or punishment of sexual crimes. It is reported that sexual violence against North Korean women has become more egregious due to escalating economic distress, which has forced them to work to support their families. It is also known that the number of women trafficking and forced prostitution is markedly on the rise.
Trafficking of North Korean women is committed in the form of violent abduction and enticement or even voluntarily for reason of family support. Trafficking committed in the border area of North Korea and China is especially notorious as a grave human rights violation against women.
Meanwhile in North Korea, there is a 'pleasure group' called Gippeumjo. Women with a good appearance, personality, voice and background are recruited to be Gippeumjo members who provide 'pleasure' for the leadership. The members provide entertainment with dancing and singing while staying close to the supreme leader. Once recruited, every decision about their lives is made by the Workers Party, not by their own choice or wish. Their movement is limited, and they should even occasionally entertain distinguished guests sexually. Parents of Gippeumjo members cannot oppose the recruitment of their daughters into the squad, and some even think it is an honor to offer their daughters to the party.
In North Korea, there is no explicit and lawful prostitution industry, but the state is forcing and promoting prostitution behind the scenes. Indeed, some North Koreans think positively about prostitution as a way of success for women, and there are many rumors and talks about it.
The recently increasing number of female North Korean defectors shows the grave situation of human rights violation against North Korean women. The international society is paying greater attention to the issue, and one of the examples is the U.S. State Department's initiative that is urging the release of female political prisoners in North Korea. Yet, there is no practical measure that has been brought up for improvement of human rights of North Korean women. As a member of the international society, we should take more practical actions to give the women a glimpse of hope.