Child Abuse

Children in North Korea suffering under systemic neglect and exploitation in all levels of society. Since there is no concept of child abuse in North Korea, a culture of violence permeates which has long-lasting effects on North Korean children and their development. 

“If the stick would break, the beaten student had to make a new stick.” – Kim Hye-Sook

PHYSICAL ABUSE

Half of the respondents from PSCORE’s interviews have experienced child abuse and 85% of them have experienced physical abuse.
WHO definition of physical abuse

The physical abuse of a child can be defined as the intentional use of physical force against a child, and can involve methods such as hitting or beating.

Places of Abuses

Home

In the private sphere, physical violence is commonplace in North Korea. Several defectors reported that it is a commonly accepted practice for parents to be physically violent with their children.

The testimonies indicate that the degree of violence inflicted upon children vary between parents. Surveys show that 52% of low social status participants experienced physical abuse, whereas only 25% of high social status participants have experienced such abuse.

It also seems that there is a differentiation in the use of violence based on gender. 47% of the male respondents attest to have experienced physical abuse compared to only 40% of female respondents.

(Illustration by Dominic Bugatto)
(Illustration by Dominic Bugatto)

School

Physical violence is accepted in school in the same way that it is in the private home. Corporal punishment seems to be part of the daily life of students.

State facilities

The commission found that the majority of perpetrators are not held accountable. One terrifying story was told by a father of a victim. In August 2011, agents of the State Security Department arrested his son for watching South Korean movies. He was tortured while held in detention. “His left ankle was shattered and his face was bruised and grossly disfigured.” The parents had to give substantial bribes so that the SSD would release him. Unfortunately the boy died a few days after as a result of the torture that he endured, which caused a brain hemorrhage.

“Your hands are handcuffed behind your back. And then they hang you so you would not be able to stand or sit.”

– Jeong Kwang-Il

Political prison camps
Orphanages 

The state is guilty of enforced disappearances into these camps that officially do not exist. Entire families are sent there including children.

Purges of political, ideological or economical “class of enemies” extend to the descendants up to the third generation of original wrongdoer.

One witness said she was only 13 years old when she was arrested on her way back from school. Her entire family was also arrested without the reason being divulged. Worse, they were told if they should enquire about the reason or talk to other inmates about it, they would be executed.

The witness stayed 28 years in the political prison and she never knew why until her release. Then, she found out that because her grandfather had fled to the Republic of Korea during the Korean War, her entire family was arrested.

Humanitarian agencies do not have access to these facilities (UN Committee of Information (COI) collected North Korean defector testimonies)

 A girl was caught and sent to a facility for street children against her will. As she arrived she was beaten with a leather belt as she was made stand on a chair.

 In addition to the lack of food, the children were to sit all day long and go outside only once a week to empty the toilets.

 Children are exploited for labor by working in the fields during school hours. North Korean defector testimonies reported children having to harvest crops, loading trucks, and participating in strenuous labor. The North Korean children were constantly beaten if they were unable to complete the forced labor tasks.

SEXUAL ABUSE

Children, especially young girls, are at a high risk of being sexually abused by a wide range of perpetrators. 25.6% North Korean refugees experienced sexual abuse. 43.9% have experienced two or more types of abuse (sexual, physical, economic, and or emotional abuse).
WHO definition of sexual abuse

Sexual abuse can be considered the subjection of a child to sexual activity that they cannot fully comprehend, consent to, or are undevelopmentally prepared for. Sexual abuse can be occur by either an adult or other children.

Type of Abuse

Sexually inappropriate touching
Rape

The most widespread form of child sexual abuse in North Korea is sexually inappropriate touching.

Rape is also prevalant in North Korea. Oftentimes, the children are so young that they do not even know what is occurring. Victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse are unlikely to report their abuse. Thus, perpetrators unusually face no penalties. 

STORY OF SE-JIN

At the age of 10, Su-jin stayed in the care of a man. He would touch Su-jin's body while she was asleep. It continued many times throughout her stay in the house, which lasted around a month. At first, he only groped Su-jin's body. But as time passed, the man also started taking Su-jin's small hand to rub and press against his own body. Su-jin still remembers the sensation vividly. At the time, she felt ashamed and confused. The feeling was unpleasant and gave her goosebumps, but she didn't know exactly why she felt those things and why he was doing what he was doing.

“I was playing with my doll and he said we’d play a different game. I just remember thinking it was painful and did not like it. He said, “Don’t worry, let’s just count, just ten more, ten, nine, eight…” […] I kept on crying and saying I did not like him, but my parents did not understand what happened to me. After the third time leaving me with him, they decided to keep me away from him.”

– Female North Korean student (escaped in 2014)

Places of Abuse

At home or at relative’s or acquaintance’s home is where children are most vulnerable to sexual abuse. Most often, children fall victim to sexual abuse at the hands.

But also school in North Korea is a hostile and dangerous place where children are often vulnerable to a wide range of mistreatment, including sexual abuse. Teachers are most often the perpetrators of sexual abuse in these incidents.

STORY OF KIM JI-YOUNG

One defector, Ji-young, told PSCORE that one night when she was 7 years old, as she was asleep wedged among the many people in her home, she awoke to an unfamiliar sensation. Her hand was inside one of the guest's pants, a man who was her mother's cousin. Ji-young was unsure of what was happening, as it was a completely unfamiliar situation for a 7-year-old. However, the unpleasant sensation remains stark in her memories to this day. At the time, all she could do was pretend to sleep and try to avoid her abuser for the rest of his stay. 

A year later, when Ji-young was 8-years-old, she spent some time in the care of her relatives. In that house, usually 5 or more people had to share a small room to sleep. Ji-young did not enjoy staying at this house and often cried. She was quietly sobbing one night when she felt someone climb on top of her. She felt a hand grope her bare skin under her clothes, but she did not dare open her eyes. Everyone was sleeping together in the room, and the perpetrator's wife was sleeping right next to them. Ji-young didn't want to wake them, or more accurately, she was afraid that even if they did awaken, they would pretend not to see. Ji-young did not think any of them would help her. Slowly, she turned her body as if turning in her sleep and fortunately, he quietly got off of her. Ji-young was very scared and felt devastated, but it occurred to her that for some reason, she shouldn't let the others find out that she was awake, so she did her best to stifle her sobbing. 

When she was 17-years-old, taller, and more mature, the sexual abuse occurred more often. Some days it was her uncle's friend, and on other days it was her father's friend or her aunt's friend and so on. They would touch Ji-young or put her hand inside their pants. She was always awake when it happened, but never made it known. The abusers would spend days at her home, and she had no choice but to face them during the day. 

One night, an uncle who was high on a drug called “pingdu” assaulted her. For the first time in Ji-young's life, she resisted with all her strength and pushed him off. The anger and sorrow she had been bottling up exploded all at once and she shouted at him, demanding him to explain himself. The uncle was still intoxicated, but he saw her tear-stained face and apologized. However, Ji-young could stand it no longer. She told her stepmother about her uncle's assault and her stepmother assured her that he would be punished by Ji-young's father. However, later that day her father and uncle came home laughing together. Far from being punished, her uncle was exchanging jokes with Ji-young's father. Ji-young felt devastated. Whether it was her stepmother who hadn't told her father, or her father choosing to ignore what happened, Ji-young felt like she was not being protected. 

After that day her uncle became violent. He slapped Ji-young for not serving his meal promptly and began to hit her constantly. And so, one day when her uncle again tried to hit her, Ji-young left the house with nothing but the clothes on her back. That was the day Ji-young left North Korea. 

More than 10 years have passed, but Ji-young still remembers each incident of sexual abuse, all the way back to when she was just 7 years-old. People tell her how fortunate she was not to have been raped, but one cannot help but ask, was she truly fortunate? 

STORY OF SO-HEE

When So-hee was 16 years old, she and her family stayed at her relative's house, which housed two male cousins. Again, the incident happened when everyone had gone to sleep near each other in the same room. So-hee's eldest cousin, who had been laying next to her, wrapped his arms around her waist. Although it had woken her, So-hee thought his actions were done in his sleep. Then, she felt his hand thrust inside her pants. She sprang up and went to lie between her parents, but was so repulsed that she was unable to fall asleep. Day broke and she was faced with her cousin, who he greeted her smilingly as if nothing had happened during the night. 

Another night. So-hee awoke to find her other male cousin hugging her from behind. She could feel his stiff penis against her back. When So-hee slowly turned to look, he gave her a grin, which made her hair stand on end. 

The ultimate reason So-hee escaped to China in 2014 was because her boyfriend at the time tried to initiate sexual intercourse without her consent. In fact, So-hee had no knowledge of how reproduction worked at the time and was scared that she could become pregnant from intimate contact alone. The combination of shame regarding premarital.

As a teenager, So-hee frequently witnessed her PE teacher and school principal sexually harassing students. It happened on a daily basis, and because there was no sexual education or awareness on the part of the students, they didn't understand the significance and simply felt embarrassed. 

Whenever So-hee recalls her secondary school days, her PE teacher is the first thing that springs to her mind. The teacher would unashamedly touch female students during their PE classes. The scene of him fondling the breasts and buttocks of the female students hanging on the horizontal bars is still vivid in her mind. There was no way for So-hee or the other students to escape the teacher's groping hands come PE class. 

The school principal would constantly spit out comments like, “Why are your buttocks so large?” or “I see your breasts have become bigger”. The students simply took it as teasing, and because it happened so often, they thought nothing of it other than feeling embarrassed. It was only after So-hee came to South Korea did she realize the inappropriateness of such comments. 

sexual contact and the terror of being pregnant caused So-hee to flee to China like a fugitive. 

In addition, numerous sources reveal that sexual harassment on public streets is rampant in North Korea. The high rates of abuse committed by soldiers. If a soldier is found guilty of committing rape, he may be sent home before finishing military services depriving him of all chances to ever work in the party. Nonetheless, most cases of sexual violence are not reported to authorities and soldiers usually escape punishment. 

To survive, many North Koreans are forced to start trading, an action considered illegal if done without permission. They are at the mercy of abusive authorities,and often are sexually victimized and cannot speak out loud against it due to the risk of having their goods seized, and /or being arrested and/ or detained.

STORY OF EUN-YOUNG

Eun-young had to start trading when she was 14 in order to support herself and her family. While transporting goods to trade on crowded buses, men would grope her breasts and buttocks. This would happen on a daily basis. Even though her body was not yet mature, it seemed like it didn't matter to the men as long as she was female. Eun-young would twist her body or try to push their hands away, but that only gave her a moment's reprieve. As the men groped, they would stare into the women's eyes, daring them to cry out. It was the women who then had to avoid the men's eyes and turn their heads away in shame. 

It was not only on buses that sexual abuse occurred. There were numerous inspection points between Eun-young's starting and final destinations. Any time a security officer, guard, or police officer initiated an inspection, they would frisk each person's body to check for prohibited items. The authorities could grope as blatantly as they wished and no one could complain. It was a matter of survival. Getting through the inspection without incident was more important than thinking about the sexual harassment. Not a single woman complained about being touched. 

Sometimes, Eun-young would transport her goods via train instead of bus, but there were often multiple lengthy stops due to power shortages. When the trains lost power, the darkness allowed men to grope blatantly. It was as if they were just waiting for the trains to lose power and the lights to go off to begin their assaults. 

It was no use crying out when being groped. All Eun-young and the other girls and women could do was try to avoid them by hiding in a corner. 

If it appeared that the train would not move for a while, people would head to a nearby inn and all share a room regardless of gender or age. All sorts of things would happen in those rooms filled with strangers sleeping side by side. As it was a power outage that led everyone there in the first place, the inns were also dark, and it was difficult to even see the person next to you. 

A man climbed on top of the woman lying next to Eun-young. The man muffled the woman's mouth and told her he would kill her if she made a sound. His voice could be heard by Eun-young who was lying right next to them. Being so close, she could hear the rustling sounds of clothes being removed and the man moving. The woman didn't make a sound throughout the ordeal, and when it was over the man went back to his place as if nothing had happened. The only reason that man didn't climb on top of Eun-young was because she was with her aunt. It was something that happened frequently to women traveling alone without company. Her aunt whispered quietly, “if it didn't happen to you, then don't pay any attention to it. It happens all the time if you trade. You'll only invite trouble for yourself if you intervene.” That's probably what the majority of the people in the room were thinking, and why no one stopped him or intervened.

According to Eun-young, what she experienced was extremely common. Stories she heard of neighbors and family members were not extraordinary occurrences that only happened to certain people. Whenever she recalled those groping men on the buses and trains, it seemed to Eun-young that there wasn't a single man to be trusted in the entire world. How could she trust men who only saw women as bodies, and who groped her when she was still just a child? The more she ruminated over it as an adult, the more anger she felt: towards herself who hadn't cried out, and towards those men who had groped her when she was not even fully mature. These feelings tormented Eun-young in the form of nightmares for a long time.

(Illustration by Choi Seong Guk 최성국)

I’ve got goosebumps whenever I see a man, regardless of their age. That’s the only way any of them appear to me… I’ve had many nightmares of being chased by men.”

– Eun-Young

Why Victims do not report their abuse

Stigmatization and victim-blaming
No concept of  “child sexual abuse”

The institutionalization of victim-blaming and social stigmatization is so strong that even victims’ closest friends and family members discourage them from telling anyone, including the authorities, about their abuse.

“In our neighborhood a woman was gang raped by 3 soldiers. I heard what people were saying about her. No one talked about who the 3 soldiers were. They only discussed what they did to her. (In such an environment) how could women speak up that they are victims (of sexual abuse)? – Eun-Joo

Sexual abuse is deeply accepted in North Korea that it is not even understood as a criminal act. 

In school, there is no education about sex, contraception, or sexually transmitted diseases. There is no effort to make students aware that sexual abuse is a crime, and people are intentionally kept ignorant.

Even today, men in North Korea do not view female children as “underage” and have no feeling of shame or guilt as they sexualized them. The concept of “protecting the underage population” does not exist.

NEGLECT

WHO definition of neglect

The failure of a parent or other responsible adults to provide for the development or well-being of a child. Children may be neglected in areas such as health, education, emotional development, nutrition, or shelter.

Physical

Physical neglect can be described as a form of neglect where parents/ guardians or caregivers fail to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, supervision, or protection from potential harm.

Temporary
Permanent

Parents are often not at home for a long period of time.

40% of the population is unable to afford food. Therefore, children in North Korea experience physical neglect due to a lack of food and nutrition.

“There are cases of parents abandoning their children to extreme poverty” 

A defector stated that children of all ages are often abandoned if parents cannot afford to raise them.

“It can’t be helped. My child was 3 or 4 Years old at the time and there was no one to look after him.”

– Han So-Young

Medical

Medical neglect  can be described as a situation in which parents/ guardians or caregivers fail to obtain appropriate care for a child. In doing so the child is put at risk of further illness or death. Public healthcare in North Korea exists but is rarely sufficient or effective. 

Schools in North Korea regularly require students to undertake manual tasks for their teachers, such as farming. These tasks are often arduous and dangerous, and are undertaken with very little regard for the safety of the students. Teachers will often take children out of class for them to undertake such work.

Children in North Korea get injured because they often undergo rigorous physical training, either for propaganda events or for sports. The COI reports highlights an account where a child that was preparing for the Mass Games was subject to extremely intense training, and often fainted as a result. Sometimes children also die because of the training and missing medication.

Education

Labor time
Training

Students spending time outside of school during school time often, because children are used for child labor.

According to the defectors, laborers during school time are legal as long as the students are being fed the minimum of rice and vegetables. Students are often overworked.

The COI report explains that students will devote most of their time to such activities which are non-academic and are particularly common when students are preparing for The Mass Games and other compulsory mass propaganda events. 

For The Mass Games students miss 4-6 months of schooling to train, which is extremely grueling and lasts all day everyday.

(Illustration by Dominic Bugatto)

Emotional

The attitude towards bullying is that it is the fault of the victim, and that they therefore deserve it. This victim shaming creates emotional neglect carried out by family and teachers. Children develop the impression that they are not cared for and  are unable to receive any support from adults in a position of care. Victims of sexual abuse remain silent about their ordeal.The impact of this silence is that it in turn creates emotional neglect.

“When the underperforming student showed up to class, his classmates chased him out and told him to leave. A strong bond between the teacher and students puts further pressure on the underperforming student though complete isolation/ bullying.

– Kim Hak-Chu

PSYCHOLOGICAL ABUSE

WHO definition of psychological abuse

Psychological abuse comprises acts that may damage a child’s physical, mental, moral, or social development. This may involve the restriction of movement, blaming or discriminating, among others.

Self-directed violence

Psychological and emotional stress is mostly fuelled by traumas coming from other types of abuse (physical, sexual or neglect) which amplifies as time passes. Unable to process their emotions properly, the mental state of the child deteriorates and materializes in psychological abuse.

Anxiety and depression
Suicidal behaviors

The regime neither provides any help to the victims nor does it attempt to assess the psychological state of the children. Isolation, fuelled by fear and everyday practices, turns into a trauma that deprives children from sleeping.

At the very end of the spectrum, self-directed psychological violence can lead to suicidal behavior and suicide. Predominant cases of such behavior occur among disabled children. Rejected by both society and the regime because of their incapacity to meet North Korean standards, children with disabilities often die before reaching adulthood.

 

“Parents were apathetic on their kids when they practiced for long hours or corporal punishment. Children couldn’t even dream of speaking out that they don’t want to do this.”

– Kim Yeon-Ri

“The only way for disabled people is for them to live with their mothers until old age and death. I have rarely seen disabled people living until old age. They all died before then. Even my stepsister committed suicide by overdosing on medication after my father split with my stepmother. She was around 19.”

– Lee Hee-Eun

Interpersonal violence

Child’s inner circle
Community

In psychological terms, they constitute the worst form of abuse because they are the ones responsible for the child’s development and safety. The repercussions are additional stress and self-directed violence.

Teachers often engage in violent behavior to punish and control children. Beating and physical discipline is combined with psychological punishment. Teachers encourage the students to compete against each other, children who perform poorly within the groups “becames pariahs, or outcasts.”. Thus, the pressure that  the teacher wishes to put on children is carried out by the children themselves against one another.

Collective violence

Collective violence refers to violence committed by a larger group of people, including the child’s classmates, the school system, or society as a whole.

Social
Political

Verbal collective aggression is unfortunately common. This kind of group behavior is sparked with the group-criticism sessions which leaves an unbreakable mark on the child’s psyche.

The victims of such insults tend to isolate themselves from the rest of society, which often backfires on them because of the controlling system.

Public executions have proven to be an effective instrument in reminding the North Korean people of what happens to whomever attempts to oppose the dictator’s rules.

The impact of executions’ brutality on the child’s mind cannot be overlooked.

“10 gunners shor 4 death-row convicts and blood splashed. I  saw the convicts drop down. It was hard to eat anything that day.”

– Kim Jin-Joo

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