Sexual assault and harassment are rife across all sectors of North Korea's misogynistic society, according to a new report published Thursday, International Women's Day, based on testimony from more than 40 women who have escaped from North Korea.
"This is an epidemic across the state and the society," said James Burt of the London-based Korea Future Initiative.
"We knew it was pervasive in state institutions but we discovered that it is prevalent across society. It's a social norm and it hasn't been challenged," said Burt, who wrote the report "Us Too: Sexual Violence Against North Korean Women and Girls."
North Korea's human rights abuses, from everyday repression and denial of food to egregious cases of torture and lifelong internment in concentration camps, have been extensively documented.
But little attention has been paid specifically to sexual violence against women.
"The world doesn't know what's happening to North Korean women and girls," said Park Ji-Hyun, who was trafficked from North Korea and is now an advocate for North Korean women's rights. "North Korea says women enjoy equality, but it's not true."
When criticized about its human rights record, the regime in Pyongyang has previously said, "North Korea is heaven for women."
"There is no country in the world like North Korea where there are so many laws and regulations for women, and many social policies are endlessly enforced," the regime said in 2014, in response to a landmark U.N. report that documented widespread human rights abuses in the country, including the use of rape as a form of torture and forced abortions.
Sexual violence is so ingrained in North Korea that, when interviewing more than 40 women who had escaped, the researchers of Burt's report had to explain to the women what the term meant. "They thought it was just normal male behavior," Burt said.
Once they understood, all of the women interviewed had either experienced sexual violence directly or knew someone who had. Many reported that men in positions of authority used their power to take advantage of women.
"What I want to say is this: In North Korea, a woman's dream cannot be achieved without being raped or without selling her body," she said.
While women have gained more economic power in North Korea in recent years through the burgeoning private markets, they are not just selling food and consumer goods, but increasingly their bodies too.
There is a growing prostitution market inside North Korea, with women forced into sex work out of financial need, in addition to the steady market in northern China for North Korean brides.
One woman from the border city of Hyesan described to The Washington Post how she was sold, with the collusion of North Korean officials, to a Chinese man in the summer of 2016 for $12,000.
"I wanted to die. But I thought that if I killed myself, my parents would be really sad," she said in an interview in Thailand last year. "I feel so sad that this is our destiny as North Korean women. Our country is so poor that we can just be sold off and for such a small amount of money."
The women interviewed for the Korea Future Initiative report described a particularly high incidence of marital rape, which is not considered a crime in North Korea.
"North Korean men will have sex whenever they want, especially after drinking alcohol," another of the women said. "If the wife refuses, the husband will say: 'Are you having an affair with another man?' He will then beat her. It is not even perceived to be wrong."
In state institutions for children - such as detention facilities, schools and Communist groups - the forced sexual initiation of girls under the age of 15 is widespread, the researchers found. Fear, together with a sense that this is a cultural norm, stops the girls from reporting it.
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