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NKHR Briefing Report No.7: Status of Women’s Rights in the Context of Socio-Economic Changes in the DPRK
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2015-04-08 21:01:00
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NKHR published its Briefing Report No.7—Status of Women’s Rights in the Context of Socio-Economic Changes in the DPRK—in May 2013 to highlight developments in women’s rights in the DPRK since the adoption of the DPRK Women’s Rights Act in 2010, and amid the ongoing socio-economic changes there. Our researchers conducted surveys of 60 women who left North Korea between 2011 and 2012, and supplemented those surveys with 20 interviews with defectors who, based on their own experiences or former positions in North Korea, could provide significant information about the trends identified in the surveys. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for the DPRK, Marzuki Darusman, quoted and cited Briefing Report No. 7 in his August 14, 2013, official report on the human rights situation in the DPRK. 

In Part I of Briefing Report No. 7, Associate Professor Andrew Wolman, from the Graduate School of International Area Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, analyzed the DPRK Women’s Rights Act under standards of international law.  In Part II, NKHR documented both positive and negative developments for women in seven areas:  the socio-economic system; education; family; health; the treatment of individuals with disabilities; and incarceration.  We also made recommendations based on our findings. 

Below is a summary of selected sections of Briefing Report No. 7.  A full version may be downloaded from the NKHR website.

Part I:  Legal Analysis of the DPRK Women’s Rights Act

The 2010 Women’s Rights Act is flawed in a number of ways.  First, the Act is too vague to be effectively implemented, as it fails to provide any guidance to state agencies and North Korean citizens. Second, the Act omits a number of important issues, including gender stereotyping, sexual harassment, and human trafficking. Third, the Act largely focuses on “negative” provisions (i.e. prohibiting discrimination) rather than “positive” obligations such as promoting gender equality, changing policies to reflect gender goals, or incentivizing individuals to improve the status of women.  Fourth, the Act creates a weak monitoring and implementation apparatus. For example, it formally addresses gender issues, yet fails to establish any independent body or institution to resolve those issues. A fifth possible flaw is that the Act may exist only on paper and was never intended to be implemented.  Nonetheless, if the DPRK were to follow the spirit of the 2010 Women’s Rights Act, the status of women in North Korea would improve.

Part II:  The Status of Women’s Rights in the Context of Socio-Economic Changes in the DPRK

1. Changes in the socio-economic system

The collapse of the rationing system in North Korea in the 1990s led to the creation of a de facto market economy that continues to this day.  Without food rations or wages, many people have been forced to barter goods they collected from their own homes, made by hand, or smuggled from China.  But because men continue to be required to register at their assigned places of work, women have been forced to take on the burden of economic activity and provide for their families.  They face severe barriers to entry, however, and often have to rely on bribes—sometimes in the form of selling their bodies—made to local officials. 

Bribery has become a major source of easy income, particularly among low and middle level elites. In some respects the rise of bribery has worked to the advantage of North Koreans, as some fortunate individuals may now use their economic success to bribe their way into party membership or a top university, while in the past North Korea’s discriminatory caste system prevented such social mobility. One’s background remains significant nonetheless, as those with power or connections can use it to their benefit.

On the other hand, greater mobility has created greater economic disparity and social issues. Having been abandoned by the state, people who are sick, elderly, disabled, and orphaned find themselves without care because they cannot afford social services.  And more men, who are often idle as a result of being forced to continue registering at their assigned workplaces, are increasingly committing social crimes.  In addition, as participation in the private economy grows, more women are having difficulty becoming successful due to oversaturation of the market.  Nevertheless, the majority of women surveyed reported that the overall standard of living has improved since the 1990s.

In the midst of these developments, it must be underscored that the situation faced by the most vulnerable groups remains unknown, as those groups often lack the financial means to defect.

2. Education

School attendance has improved since the 1990s and early 2000s, and children whose mothers engage in private economic activity regularly attend school.  However, some children remain unable to afford the cost of school.  Students are required to offer various items as payment—for example, scrap metal that can be turned into money—and parents must provide desks and other school supplies for their children. 

Those who have benefitted from private economic activities are also increasingly sending their children, including young women, to college, in hopes that it will lead to party membership or other benefits.  But young women from low income families tend to forgo college to help their mothers with their private economic activity.

3. Family Environment

The spread of information from the outside world about the status and treatment of women has inspired some North Korean women to demand more rights at home.  Although some men have responded positively by taking on some domestic responsibilities, others have responded with violence.  Reported instances of violence are high. 

Women face a disparity in their ability to get help when they are in an abusive relationship, and divorce is not equally available to all women.  Most often, the police refuse to intervene, but women with connections and money may be able to have their husbands detained, which results in an automatic divorce. Because the procedures are complicated and often require bribing a judge, only women with economic means obtain a divorce through the judicial system.

4. Health Issues

Medical services in North Korea are centrally managed by the state. However, the shifting socio-economic environment has made free access to medical services virtually impossible.  Because patients are required to provide the doctors with payment—money, food, or goods—access to hospitals and treatment is limited to the wealthy or privileged.
There is also a general mistrust of medicine, due at least in part to the prevalence of ineffective phony medicine.  In addition, women prefer to offer medical treatment to their sons rather than themselves or their daughters.  Preventive care for female diseases and breast cancer is nonexistent, and treatment is substandard. 

With respect to childbirth, almost half the women surveyed reported never seeing a doctor throughout their entire pregnancy.  Awareness of potential complications is very low. Access to contraceptives is also limited, and troublingly, a common form of birth control is abortion.  Awareness of sexually transmitted diseases is also lacking. 

Additionally, the use of narcotics—opium and methamphetamine, in particular—is becoming widespread. 

5. Persons with disabilities

Traditional social norms in North Korea allow for discrimination against the disabled, including disabled women and mothers with disabled children. Women who give birth to a disabled child tend to be seen as “cursed” for crimes committed in a previous life, and parents often kill or abandon the child. 

Many severely disabled people are confined to their homes. Others are sent away, never to be seen or heard from again. They are rumored to be sent to a completely secluded island.   A former DPRK police official reported that at least one such island does exist, where the disabled are used as test subjects for biological or chemical weapons, or eugenics. 

6. Women in detention

The number of women who are repatriated from China and then detained in North Korea appears to have decreased, likely due to improvements to the system of bringing relatives to South Korea.  Punishment, however, for illegally crossing the border has increased since the amendment of the DPRK Criminal Code in 2009.  While women had previously been incarcerated in short-term detention centers, they are now being sent to long-term detention centers where they are forced to perform manual labor. 
The former inmates surveyed reported being detained with, on average, 1,000 to 1,200 other inmates, of which 90% had illegally crossed the border. Many inmates suffer from disease and are denied appropriate medical care. Detainees are also required to pay for their own provisions such as transportation to the prison, food, and clothing. 

Among inmates, the proportion of women has decreased, and women are beaten less severely than men, unless they are alleged to have committed a more serious crime such as coming into contact with “South Korean religion.”  By law, pregnant women are to be deferred from incarceration until after giving birth.  That law, however, does not protect women who became pregnant in China.  They are subjected to forced abortions or infanticide. 


1. A request should be made by the international community that North Korean authorities address the treatment of individuals with disabilities.

2. Information should be collected by the international community about the alleged detention facilities for the disabled and any tests conducted on disabled individuals.  North Korea should be strongly condemned for any such practices.

3. The international community should supply medical supplies and training programs to all regions of North Korea.

4. The international community should again condemn North Korean authorities for imposing harsh penalties against those who cross the border.
5. The DPRK People’s Safety Agency should be trained to address reports of sexual harassment and domestic violence.  It should also eradicate the inhumane treatment of inmates.

6. The North Korean government should draft a separate law regarding violence against women and provide nationwide training about violence against women.

7. North Korea should abolish any policies based on a caste system.  Policies should be implemented to protect vulnerable groups that, due to the de facto market economy, have no access to education or medical care.