As we mark International Women’s Day, I am minded to reflect upon the recent conference in the House of Commons hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, of which I am Co-Chair. Titled Addressing Violence against Women and Girls in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the conference looked to a forgotten corner of Asia and a forgotten group of people: North Korea’s women and girls.
Notorious for its diplomatic belligerence, its disregard for international law and its nuclear programme, the DPRK (or North Korea) successfully concealed its widespread human rights violations from the world for decades. An era of silence ended in 2014 when a United Nations Commission of Inquiry reported, “The gravity, scale and nature of [North Korea’s human rights] violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.
The severity of this UN statement is worth repeating: North Korea’s human rights situation has no parallel in the contemporary world.
As the international community slowly awakened from its slumber, it was no longer farfetched to recognise North Korea as the largest concentration camp the world had ever known or to rank the horrors of Yodok, Hoeryong, and Pukch’ang alongside Auschwitz, Belsen, and Dachau. It became a fact that North Korean women have and continue to experience sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault and harassment in public and private spheres of life; human trafficking; forced abortions; slavery; sexual exploitation; psychological violence; religious and gender discrimination; and institutional and economic violence.
This violence in North Korea is neither occasional nor confined to certain quarters — it is endemic; it is state sanctioned; and it is perpetrated against women precisely because they are women. In every sense of the term, North Korea’s abuses are ‘gendered’.
Why has the international community been silent on this issue? We can look to many factors, but first and foremost is the discourse that surrounds North Korea. Dominated by talk of nuclear weapons, regional security, engagement, unification, and humanitarian aid, there has been little room for North Korean women. And, if truth be told, advocates have simply not been loud enough on this issue.
This year’s International Women’s Day marks an important phase for women’s rights. Just months after the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women, and fifteen years since the pioneering UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, this is the year that the world is developing the Agenda for Sustainable Development looking to 2030. The Sustainable Development Goals include a stand-alone goal to achieve gender equality and empowerment for women and girls.
North Korea’s female population should not be forgotten on March 8th. Gendered violence and discrimination are destroying lives and ruining families in North Korea. Women are enduring unimaginable suffering and the UK must use what engagement it has with the DPRK to push for real change. The APPG’s conference on VAWG in North Korea brought together North Korean victims, exiled DPRK Government officials and experts on gender and the rights of women and girls. Women’s and girls’ human rights is an area in which the UK exhibits international leadership. Let us draw from our knowledge and set out to challenge gendered violence in the DPRK just as we do in so many other countries in the world.