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
Half of the respondents from PSCORE’s interviews have experienced child abuse and 85% of them have experienced physical abuse.
Places of Abuses
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
Type of Abuse
Sexually inappropriate touching
The most widespread form of child sexual abuse in North Korea is sexually inappropriate touching.
Rape is also prevalent 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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
Why Victims do not report their abuse
Stigmatization and victim-blaming
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
No concept of “child sexual abuse”
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.
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.
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 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.
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 every day.
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.
– Kim Hak-Chu
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
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.
“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
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.
“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
Child’s inner circle
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 “became 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 refers to violence committed by a larger group of people, including the child’s classmates, the school system, or society as a whole.
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 shot 4 death-row convicts and blood splashed. I saw the convicts drop down. It was hard to eat anything that day.”
– Kim Jin-Joo