More From Alder's Ledge

October 20, 2013

From One Circle Of Hell To The Next

Sexual Abuse Of North Korea's Women
(Part One)

For many North Koreans the life they live and that which the outside world imagines are rather different realities. A small percentage of North Koreans can be considered privileged and have access to the luxuries their South Korean neighbors enjoy daily. These lucky few are able to flaunt their wealth behind closed doors as they pretend to be serving their country's goals of a worker's paradise. For most there is the reality that many outside North Korea first think of... death, starvation, oppression, and state sponsored terror.

In North Korea everything the common Korean does is watched and monitored. Secret police can make anyone, at anytime, simply disappear. The very appearance of being an individual in state that idolizes conformity can be a fatal flaw. There just isn't any room in North Korea for self expression or individual thought. These two things alone are perceived to be the worst threats the state faces even as it's citizens continue to starve to death.

Citizens who are unlucky enough to be deemed an "enemy of the state" find themselves crossing from their current circle in North Korea's hellish existence to the next. These unfortunate souls join an estimated 200 thousand North Koreans in gulags across the country. The "great leader" (and his offspring) have operated these concentration camps for nearly 12 times as long as the Nazis had operated theirs. Yet unlike the Nazi camps, these souls, damned by the state, know that the work they will be doing will not "set them free".

Three Generations

North Koreans who are deemed to be a threat to the tyrants in Pyongyang don't just risk having themselves sent to death camps, but also have their entire families rounded up. North Korea's state policy is that three generations must pay in blood for the accused person's supposed offense. This policy is meant to stamp out the "seed" of the state's enemy.

The three generations policy creates a paralyzing fear in a society that is driven by terror. It creates within the household (a founding base for all civilization) a paranoia that never dissipates. Citizens are encouraged by this fear to monitor their family members. The fear that their brothers', sisters', or parents' mistakes could land them in a prison camp is enough encourage the worst acts of betrayal. Fathers are thus encouraged by the system itself to walk out on their families. Parents who can't provide for their children are encouraged by the system to abandon their children. It is this sense of defeat that chips away at the building blocks upon which North Korea's tyranny is balancing.

In camps the three generation policy is emphasized by a perverse system of bartering with prisoners by camp guards. Family members are told that they can receive rewards for reporting their family members for any given offense. Even though it is well known that many of these such reports will inevitably lead to the public execution of their family members, the rewards are often just enough to break the prisoner. Bribes of food and other vital necessities are the most common rewards. Other times the rewards are just lies and false promises.

This sadistic policy is also applied to the children of prisoners who are born into the concentration camps. Little is provided for the inmates in the way of medical treatment and provisions for raising a newborn. So it is hard to tell just how many children born into these conditions ever actually grow up beyond infancy. The practice of "infant executions" also culls the number of children born into the system the death camps are meant to uphold. But for those who survive their childhood the reality of life behind barbed-wire is all they may possibly know as they are slowly worked to death.

Sexualized Violence 

Once in the death camps the women of North Korea face a reality that is as close to a living death as many will ever come. Every prisoner in North Korea's concentration camps is considered to be less than human in the eyes of the state. Prison guards are trained to view them as animals with whom they can do anything they wish. For the women of North Korea this means they are openly and regularly subjected to rape and sexual molestation. No matter where they are in the camp, at any time, they are expected to subject themselves willingly to rape in all it's forms. There are no exceptions. 

Women who cooperate are raped routinely till the guard or guards move onto their next victim. Yet for many, no matter how well they managed to remain silent during the attacks, this departure of their assailant can mean a sudden execution. For those who appear to have resisted in any way, real or perceived, these victims are often immediately executed. All of them will afflicted with physical, mental, and emotional torment before they are made to "disappear" or suffer in silence. 

Women who survive rape have an added concern if they become pregnant. It is common practice in North Korea's prison camps to force rape victims to have an abortion. These abortions are done without proper medical treatment and are rarely done by a trained doctor. If the woman survives the torment of a crudely performed abortion she must endure the added insult of being refused the right to clean herself afterward. Instead of being given even a shower, forced abortion survivors are left to worry about infection or complications of the procedure itself. 

There is no mercy shown to North Korea's female inmates. They are among the most common victims of public executions, public displays of punishment, and sexualized violence. Girls are targeted for rape from the moment they are old enough to satisfy the guards' lust for virgins and new victims. From that point on the rapes and molestations are a daily threat for female prisoners. 


Childhood in North Korea's concentration camps is almost unimaginable. Husbands and wives who are imprisoned together know that these camps are no place to get pregnant. Yet there is no access to prevention methods of any sort. And as mentioned above, victims of rape are not given access to preventatives either. So any child conceived is at risk from the moment of conception. 

Carrying a child to full term is near impossible. Expecting mothers have to endure severe malnutrition and starvation on a daily basis. Hard labor adds to the stresses of being pregnant in one of North Korea's death camps. Rape and barbaric molestation brings on even more trauma with which the pregnant mother must endure. Then there are the beatings guards use to cause miscarriages in pregnant women.

If a woman under these horrific conditions does manage to give birth to a living child they then face yet another form of perverse barbarism: infant executions.

It was the first time I had seen a newborn baby and I felt happy. But suddenly there were footsteps and a security guard came in and told the mother to turn the baby upside down into a bowl of water. The mother begged the guard to spare her, but he kept beating her. So the mother, her hands shaking, put the baby face down in the water. The crying stopped and a bubble rose up as it died,” 
~ 34 year-old Jee Heon-a.

This story is just one of the tales of such barbaric acts committed by North Korea's prison guards. Not only did this guard attack the mother but then forced the woman to kill her own child. This sort of sadistic hedonism is a long standing undertone to the tales of barbarism carried out by guards who are rewarded for their savagery. The more grotesque they behave, the greater status they achieve in the eyes of a government that values loyalty to it over the lives of it's own citizens.

Ethnic Cleansing 
(Culling Of "Racial Impurities")

Forced abortions are a common treatment in North Korea (both inside and outside prison camps) for the state's policy of riding it's society of "racial impurities". Women are detained upon even the most remote suspicion of having an "impure fetus". At times the forced abortion are ordered by doctors while at other times they are demanded by guards and other agents of the state. In every case they are painful and risk the death of the victimized woman. 

One account of this was given to the United States Human Rights Council and tells of women who were detained for the purpose of causing forced abortions:

"A drug that in diluted form is used to treat skin wounds was injected into pregnant women’s wombs, inducing labor within hours. As there had not been the normal widening of the hipbones during the advance stages of pregnancy to enlarge the birth canal, the labor pains were the same as when delivering a fully grown baby. When the women moaned or cried out in pain as they lay on wooden and cement cell floors, they were hit with wooden stoves and cursed as "bitches who got Chinese sperm and brought this on themselves."'

The added insult in many cases is the brutal abuses committed against the victims while and after they are being forced to have brutal abortions. Physical assault is often applied along with verbal abuse as the women are being put through the agony of painful abortions. Yet at times physical assault is also the very tool used to cause the abortions themselves: 

"Mrs. Bang Mi-sun observed ten pregnant women in early 2002 taken to a hospital from the Musan An-jeon-bu detention facility for the purpose of aborting their "half-Chinese babies." Another seven-month pregnant woman adamantly refused to go to the hospital and guards compelled male prisoners to jump on her stomach until the woman aborted on the floor. The woman was then taken to the hospital where she died."

The children who do manage to survive are not afforded the basic dignity that any human life merits. Instead of being treated as a human being, these newborn babies are wrapped up in newspaper or bags and tossed into the garbage to die. In a state that supposedly values the worker and all his potential, entire generations of potential lives are discarded callously by an authoritative state.

While officially the state does not recognize the procedure of forced abortions (like all other abuses it commits), North Korea's obsession with racial purity helps to propagate this atrocious act. It's desire to create a society in which an "ideal Korean" worker exists only serves as a prop for the barbarism of it's corrupt military and political upper-class. In the end it is the upon the backs of North Korea's women that the burden of these disillusions falls. And it is the mother and child that pay in blood for a government that lust after the unachievable. 

Survival Sex

The act of forcing women to have sex for supplies of basic nourishment is an act so perverse that it's name alone seems lacking in it's ability to crudely fit it... survival sex. 

Taking advantage of women who are desperate to provide for their families or find that ever illusive next meal is abhorrent. It would be inconceivable if it wasn't such a defining trait across the spectrum of similar events to that of North Korea's prison camps. Survival sex was present in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. It showed up during the genocide in Bosnia. And has been seen in Sri Lanka's ethnic cleansing of the Tamils. So it is sadly of little surprise that survival sex can be found in the accounts of North Korean refugees. 

In camp inmates the use of survival sex is often applied when a woman or girl becomes the target of a guard's intent to rape. The victim knows that they have a greater chance at surviving if they cooperate with their assailant. Through not fighting back the victim hopes they will not be killed by their attacker. In addition there comes the hope that they will be shown some "mercy" and given access to food and/or clean water. It is a perverse "game" (as referred to by a camp survivor) that guards use to keep a rape victim under their control (since all rape is about violent domination more so than it is about sex).

The gaining of food or water through rape is not assured for North Korean rape victims. Survival sex for them is something that they don't always know they are being subjected to. Instead they are only treated to just enough resources to keep them alive as their assailants see fit. This highlights the brutality of their plight since it best demonstrates the absolute minimal value the state (and the guards themselves) place upon the lives of these female captives.

The Outer Circle Of Hell

In our next post on this subject we will be taking the journey out of North Korea's inner hell and venturing over the border into China. For many North Korean women this is a journey from one circle of hell to the next. It is plagued by human traffickers, forced marriages, and the ever constant threat of forcible repatriation to North Korea. Even with the hope of crossing over into a better life, many will find this journey a living hell as they are transformed into the walking dead.

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Source Documents
(note: not all sources listed)

A Safe World For Women

Women Under Siege Project

Russian Times

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