Elizabeth Salmón, the recently-appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, submitted her first report to the UN Human Rights Council on March 9. The report is set to be discussed on March 20 as part of the Council’s broad human rights agenda in Geneva from February 27 to April 4.
Salmón was named Special Rapporteur for North Korean human rights in July 2022 by the UN Human Rights Council. The Peruvian legal scholar and university professor is the first woman to hold this position. It is also significant that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol named Professor Lee Shin-wha as ambassador for international North Korean human rights issues, also the first woman to hold that position. Two months ago in January 2023, U.S. President Joseph Biden nominated Julie Turner, a career State Department official to serve as U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean human rights. She is third person and the first woman to hold this position since the first U.S. Special Envoy was appointed in 2005. It is noteworthy that these three individuals, whose focus is North Korean human rights issues, are all women.
Appropriately, the current UN Special Rapporteur has focused her first report to the UN Human Rights Council on the current situation and the domestic legal framework for human rights of women and girls in North Korea. In preparing this report, Professor Salmón sought views of victims of women’s abuse in North Korea, met with civil society organizations focused on North Korean women’s rights, and consulted with specialists at the UN human rights office in Seoul. She organized a conference in Seoul in January 2023 to consider the human rights of women and girls in North Korea, which was attended by over a hundred experts, including the UN special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and officers of the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul. North Korean women who escaped from North Korea and are now living in South Korea also participated, giving first-hand accounts of their experience while living in the North. Professor Lee Shin-wha, the recently-appointed South Korean ambassador for International Cooperation on North Korean Human Rights, was a prominent participant in the conference.
Report to the Human Rights Council
The report of Special Rapporteur Salmón to the Human Rights Council (Report A/HRC/52/65)
discussed North Korean legislation on human rights that has a particular impact upon women, and she reviewed the international human rights obligations accepted by North Korea when it became a member of the United Nations and ratified international human rights agreements.
Although the text of North Korea’s legislation is reasonably positive in spelling out the obligations to protect rights of women and girls, Professor Salmón concluded, “the information the Special Rapporteur receives demonstrates a stark gap between these laws and their implementation” and a similar problem exists “with the implementation gap for the international human rights treaties the State [North Korea] has Ratified.”
The report provides specific details based on first hand reporting indicating significant gender-based human rights abuses. Women are subjected to “serious human rights violations occurring in detention facilities.” (I Still Feel the Pain, Report of the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul.) “Women are detained in inhumane conditions and deprived of food. They are subjected to torture and ill-treatment, forced labor and gender-based violence, including sexual violence by State officials.”
Women make up more than 70 percent of the refugees who have fled North Korea and resettled in South Korea. To escape North Korea, these women must cross the border from North Korea into China, which is patrolled by well-armed North Korean guards, and they face a high chance of capture and torture. In China they must avoid capture by Chinese police and then cross the well-guarded Chinese border into Southeast Asian countries in order to find a new life. Many of the women and girls who attempt to escape the North are sold into compulsory marriages with Chinese men or they are forced into the sex industry in China before they are able to escape.
Women and girls face serious abuses with regard to sexual and reproductive rights in North Korea, and conditions in many cases are worsening. The maternal mortality rate in North Korea has increased from 89 deaths per 100,000 births in 2017 to 107 deaths in 2020. (World Health Organization (WHO), Trends in maternal mortality 2000 to 2017: estimates by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, World Bank Group and the United Nations Population Division, p. 71.)
The Special Rapporteur noted the difficulty of getting information on gender-based violence against women in North Korea, but reported that escapees “have informed that many women in the country have faced sexual assault and rape, particularly by men in positions of authority with total impunity.”
Professor Salmón gave particular attention in her report to the role of women in the North Korea’s jangmadang, the informal markets that have played an important role the country’s economy for the last three decades. The development of these markets created opportunities for many women to become primary breadwinners for their families. This led to improved status of women and improving power relationships for women with their husbands and other men, and it has led to a reduction of domestic violence, according to Salmón. Recent government policies have strengthened government control of these markets, however, and this has led to a reduction in the role of women in this important economic sector. The Special Rapporteur suggests that for many it is reducing livelihoods, and it could lead to increased domestic abuse of women.
Recent Information Suggests Continuing Problems with Women’s Rights in North Korean
International Women’s Day, a holiday recognized by the United Nations for the last half century, is celebrated on March 8. The nature of the celebration varies from country to country, but this year, themes highlighted in North Korean media only serve to underline the problem of women’s rights there. North Korean media editorials urged North Korean women to be “flowers of loyalty” devoted solely to supreme leader Kim Jong-un. Women should have many children, who should be raised to contribute to the country’s wealth and power. Women with many children who grow up to serve in the military were praised for acts of “greatest patriotism.” Women were also exhorted to take responsibility for care of their parents and husbands.
The reality is that women in North Korea live under a system that only occasionally seeks to acknowledge rights of women. For example, official guidelines for celebrating International Women’s Day suggest that North Korean men take an “opportunity to experience the housework.” If men only “experience” housework as a novelty once a year on International Women’s Day, this hardly suggests real movement toward equality. Women who work outside the home are also expected to carry out all household responsibilities.
Over the last several months there is one political issue that some observers have suggested indicates that a change may be occurring in the traditional male-dominated political system, which might suggest greater sensitivity for women and their needs and interests in the future. Kim Jong-un has generated intensive speculation because he has quite publicly indicated that he is grooming his daughter Kim Ju-ae as his successor. Kim reportedly has three children. His daughter Kim Ju-ae, the middle child, was born about 2013. On one very public occasion, Kim Ju-ae appeared with her father at the head table of a particularly significant military banquet. In recent months she has been with her father on a number of other important occasions, giving rise to questions about her being groomed as heir apparent.
The appearances of Kim Ju-ae with her father in recent months has also raised a broader question – does this reflect some significant change in North Korea policy toward women or does it suggest a new openness to women playing a more prominent and more equal role in North Korea? The answer is most likely “no.”
North Korea’s senior leadership in the past has included a few prominent women, who are exceptions to the general practice of very limited participation of women in political and government leadership. For example, Kim Yo-Jong, the sister of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, serves in a number of high-level positions in the Workers’ Party of Korea, and her actions and public role clearly indicate she is even more important than those positions would indicate. Choe Son Hui is another leading woman in the regime. She was appointed Foreign Minister in 2022, and she previously served in a number of very senior foreign policy posts. She is the daughter of Choe Yong Rim, former Prime Minister of North Korea and a long-term senior regime official. Kim Kyong-hui, Jong-un’s aunt, held key party positions before her nephew assumed leadership of the country. She is the daughter of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung and the sister of the second leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il. She was head of the organization bureau of the Worker’s Party of Korea. Her husband Jang Song-thaek was arrested in December 2012 by security officials and dragged out of a Politburo meeting. This police action was shown live on state television in 2012, and a few days later he was executed by firing squad. This episode occurred as Kim Jong-un was consolidating his position as Supreme Leader, and was likely related to that. Despite her husband’s violent removal from office, Kim Kyong-hui remained in the party leadership, though she has not been politically as visible since then. She has reportedly had health problems, and she was at the age that senior officials pull back from active government responsibilities. However, she has been seen at important events since her husband’s execution.
Women who have held senior leadership positions in North Korea do not reflect the usual practice. The few women in leading party and government posts have come from the very senior elite families of the North Korean communist leadership. These are not women who worked their way up through the ranks. While a number of women in senior positions has grown, “North Korea remains very much a patriarchal society and women have more obligations than rights.” The number of women members of the Workers Party Central Committee doubled between 2016 and 2019, but this appears to be window dressing. There have been few policy changes that have shown any increased sensitivity to women’s needs and concerns.
The focus on women’s issues in North Korea by the UN Special Rapporteur in her first report to the UN Human Rights Council appears to be particularly timely and relevant. Her report is an excellent beginning for her mandate. The prominent role played by women in leading the effort on North Korean human rights as the UN Special Rapporteur, the South Korean Ambassador for North Korean human rights, and the recently nominated U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean human rights gives this issue significant impact and credibility.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are his own.
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