Conflict Profile

North Korea

North Korea

North Korea’s government has been enslaving citizens roughly 12 times longer than the Nazis held prisoners in concentration camps. Yet in most circles, the concentration camps run by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are far less talked about than the quirks and nuclear capacities of the regime. Due to a combination of distraction and difficult reporting, the systematic sexualized violence that occurs within those camps rarely garners attention. The information that does leak out from North Korea suggests a brutal campaign against inhabitants that entails mass rape, widespread femicide, and forced abortion for those caught defecting. Amnesty International estimates that 200,000 citizens are currently held captive within North Korea’s gulag. Testimonies of those who have escaped reflect inhumane conditions for children as well as adults. Inmates of all ages are tortured; young teens are regularly raped.

After North Korea emerged as a state following World War II and Soviet occupation, its first leader, Kim Il Sung, began waging war on its citizens. In addition to those who dissented politically, their children and grandchildren were to be destroyed. “Their seed must be eliminated through three generations,” the leader reportedly declared.

Several dictators later, the state continues to operate top-down, with aid groups and reporters given only nominal access to the region. Stephan Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific Program at the University of California, San Diego, and author of several books about and surveys of North Korean refugees, said that he and others who report on the regime are “struggling to figure out how these systems actually function.” Haggard told WMC’s Women Under Siege that the political party and secret police form some of the “very strong central institutions” controlling the population.  

Due to the highly concentrated nature of political power, it may be difficult for those at the top to receive unbiased information from underlings. In a one-leader, oppressive regime, Haggard points out, “nobody wants to deliver bad news.” He and others, including journalist Jasper Becker in his book Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, reported that widespread famine in the late 1990s—a famine that Human Rights Watch and other sources believe may have killed 1 million citizens—might have occurred in part because the leadership wasn’t aware of its extent.  

Starvation and the risk of persecution have pushed thousands of North Korean citizens to flee across borders in search of food, resources, and a safer environment, making them vulnerable to trafficking. Seen here is the border between the two Koreas. (Karl Baron)

Becker interviewed Lee Min-bok, a North Korean agricultural expert who defected to South Korea in 1995. “Everyone knew how to please the Great Leader—all you had to do was lie,” Lee told Becker. “Say a party official had to meet a target of 100 tons of grain, and the real harvest was 70 tons,” he explained. The official would simply lie and say that the quota had been met. But the lies were more elaborate than merely fudging numbers on paper. When state inspectors would arrive in person, the men who had falsely reported the yields would, for instance, display a barn with 100 tons of grain—30 tons of which would be borrowed from a neighboring district.  

Until the famine hit, Haggard said, the state was for many decades a kind of ward of the Soviet Union. Amid rhetoric of self-reliance, North Korea was in fact “very heavily dependent” on Soviet economic support. In addition, the market sector was suppressed until widespread hunger forced a change. Spurred by starvation and the fact that state-sanctioned jobs simply could not provide enough rations, informal vendors began to pop up. Haggard posits that most of the sellers in this nongovernment market are women—which in turn seems to create a disparity in gender among defectors. Because women over 50 are no longer required to report to the government for work the way men are, according to Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, it may be easier for them to flee across the border without being traced.

Despite the famine, it appears that North Korea’s concentration camps and detention centers have continued to function, if not grow in size. While both New York University’s Korea historiographer Henry Em and journalist Blaine Harden emphasize the difficulties of fact-checking and investigating reports of abuse in repressive nations, aid workers and the United Nation have gathered testimonies indicating decades of rape and other sexualized trauma, as well as trafficking, both within prison camps and at the Chinese border.

How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War

For political cleansing: Citizens are captured by veritable “thought police” and hauled off for any number of alleged crimes. Captives are “re-educated,” tortured, starved, beaten, and subject to death for breaking prison rules—including arbitrary whims of the guards. Due to their political “impurity”—be it direct or “passed down” from a political enemy in the family—any sexual contact between captives is punishable by death if not arranged or “approved” by the state. However, according to testimony from escapees, including Shin Dong-hyuk, rape by guards is the norm. Girls and women living in camps are frequently targeted by officials. If, however, a girl or woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape, the guard will murder her to prevent politically “impure” offspring from being born.

For ethnic cleansing: In addition to political cleansing, the regime reportedly commits sexualized violence against women carrying ethnically “impure” fetuses as well. North Koreans caught in China—or suspected of trying to defect—are arrested and detained. Women are by far the majority of defectors. Demick writes in the New Yorker that several factors, including the types of work women do in North Korea, the shortage of women in China, and the sex industry, contribute to the gender disparity. Other experts, including Haggard, told WMC’s Women Under Siege the same. When they are captured, according to testimonies collected by the Washington-based advocacy group U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, those who are visibly pregnant are ridiculed, separated out, and administered painful forced abortions while detained.  

Because, it seems, officials assume that the fathers are Chinese, and thus view the soon-to-be-mothers as women who “brought this on themselves” (see “Witness,” below), the women are tortured in sexualized ways and barred from entering the concentration camp system until any detected fetuses are destroyed. According to interviews conducted by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, methods to abort include targeted beatings, forced abortion, and induced labor followed by infanticide: anything to prevent part-Chinese offspring from becoming part of the population.

The U.N. defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” We are using the term here because ethnic cleansing not only makes women subject to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy "inferior" wombs with "superior" sperm, or forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of "inferior" groups) in order to end future reproduction. In some conflicts, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will.

To wield power: Captives of all genders and ages are given insufficient food and resources to live. Many brought or born into the gulags are at risk of dying from starvation, if not execution, according to Harden. Girls and women, however, are given access to extra rations during their tenure as a guard’s rape target. “It’s an awful game that they are forced to play,” Harden told WMC’s Women Under Siege. Girls are allotted more food and a better chance at survival if they “comply” with rape. Yet as soon as a guard moves on to a new target or discovers that his last one is pregnant, the young woman’s “fortune” may end in death.

Patterns of Violence

  • Sexualized violence in North Korea reportedly occurs both within the state’s government-run concentration camps and at detention centers where citizens who have defected are brought following capture. Commonly witnessed forms as described by defectors and former guards include rape (by camp guards), forced abortions (by officials at detention centers), and femicide or “disappearance” following rape and/or pregnancy.
  • According to Harden, girls raised in concentration camps begin to be targeted and raped by guards once they reach their mid-teens.
  • Widespread violence against North Korean women also occurs in the form of trafficking. Due to starvation and the risk of persecution that even those citizens living “regular” lives must battle daily, thousands of citizens have fled and continue to flee the country in search of food, resources, and a safer environment. Especially since the famine that hit North Korea in the mid- to late 1990s, experts tell WMC’s Women Under Siege, this migration over the border has been significant. Various researchers have found that some migrants intend to go temporarily, find resources, and return to North Korea, whereas others intend to escape for good.

Regardless, however, of their intended length of stay in China, women risk being trafficked. Some traffic themselves in the hopes of safe passage over the border to China or South Korea; some escape North Korea on their own only to be captured and forced into brokered “marriages.”

  • Some trafficked women are abused by the men they are forced to play wife to. As the Los Angeles-based Korea Policy Institute points out, whether women flee due to political oppression or, as the institute suggests, largely due to economic decline and hunger, they are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse once they reach China. North Koreans in China face deportation and torture if caught and brought back, yet may endure poverty, rape, and violence from their assigned “husbands” if they stay. A report from the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea that centers on the lives of trafficked women includes many testimonies from those who have been sold, often against their will after being tricked, kidnapped, or drugged.


As Harden writes in Escape from Camp 14, there are six known concentration camps within North Korea’s borders, visible via satellite photographs and described in more detail by the few who have escaped them. Pinning down the number of captives within those camps is hard to do; determining the number of women who have suffered sexualized violence over the last half-century, however, is at this time nearly impossible.

Amnesty International estimates that 200,000 citizens are currently held captive within North Korea’s gulag. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea suggests the 150,000 to 200,000 range as well, citing testimony from Ahn Myong-chol, a former guard, and Yoon Dae-il, a former prison system administrator, who states that 200,000 is “the minimum.”

In 2011, Amnesty reported that a “comparison of the latest images with satellite imagery from 2001 indicates a significant increase in the scale of the camps.” Whether or not more women are being raped as the camps grow in size is unknown. However, Harden believes, based on his work with escapees, that rape is an everyday occurrence.

A 2009 U.S. State Department report describes that the “large diaspora of refugees that began fleeing North Korea in the mid-1990s due to famine remains in danger, with many members living in a perilous, stateless existence in China.” The same document says that estimates of North Koreans in China range from “as few as 50,000 refugees to more than 300,000.” In addition, there are defectors who have migrated through China to South Korea; Haggard put this number between 20,000 and 25,000.

Cultural Gender Attitudes

“Just the mere fact that the vast majority of North Koreans crossing the border into China are women speaks to a kind of desperation and inequality within North Korea,” NYU’s Em told WMC’s Women Under Siege.

The University of California’s Haggard added that, technically, the state, in its effort to be Communist, formally enshrines gender equality. Officially, women are encouraged to join the workforce. However, especially after the famine, when state-run jobs were no longer supplying enough and families were growing hungrier, women began entering a market sector. The state intends to control all employment and capital, but does not control this informal sector. It is the women of North Korea who have likely become vendors and participate in the non-state-sanctioned economy, Haggard explained.

“Since the famine, you've had a kind of re-genderization, a new gender division of labor where women are engaging in market-oriented activities,” he said.

Gender attitudes in North Korea can also be examined through the more accessible state to the south. Em says that South Korea, which has the same cultural origins as the North and which was previously part of the same government, is filled with very significant institutional biases and obstacles that create gender inequality. From macro-level state policy to the kinds of questions asked during interviews at large corporations, there is a bias against women. During the financial crisis in Asia in the late 1990s, he said, “women were laid off much more disproportionately precisely because of this idea that the man is the head of the family.” Although many households in South Korea are in fact headed by women, he added, the government’s “attitude or assumption” that men are the head of household throughout the nation continues to foster policies that further the gender gap.


A recently updated report by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea describes one former detainee’s testimony of painful forced abortions for women detained and thought to be carrying “impure” fetuses:

[A] drug that in diluted form is used to treat skin wounds was injected into pregnant women’s wombs, inducing labor within hours. As there had not been the normal widening of the hipbones during the advance stages of pregnancy to enlarge the birth canal, the labor pains were the same as when delivering a fully grown baby. When the women moaned or cried out in pain as they lay on wooden and cement cell floors, they were hit with wooden stoves and cursed as "bitches who got Chinese sperm and brought this on themselves."

Afterward, the women were not allowed to bathe, nor given so much as a tissue or towel to clean themselves. Their babies, the former detainee recalls, were “wrapped in newspaper and put in a bucket to die.”

The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea also reports the testimony of Bang Mi-sun, who was captured after having fled over the border and suffered through several trafficked “marriages.” What she recalls is not only ethnic cleansing through forced abortions, but the forcing of prisoners to attack their peers:

Mrs. Bang Mi-sun observed ten pregnant women in early 2002 taken to a hospital from the Musan An-jeon-bu detention facility for the purpose of aborting their "half-Chinese babies." Another seven-month pregnant woman adamantly refused to go to the hospital and guards compelled male prisoners to jump on her stomach until the woman aborted on the floor. The woman was then taken to the hospital where she died.

Bang Mi-sun was herself reportedly subjected to sexualized violence. After fleeing over the border, she was trafficked a total of three times. Horrifying as that may be, the last “husband” she was forced to be with before she was repatriated committed an additional form of torture:

Shortly thereafter, while her "husband" was out in the field, she was kidnapped by another gang of traffickers and sold a second time. She ran away but was again apprehended by traffickers who sold her "like livestock" she says for a third time to a 34-year-old bachelor who was still living with his parents. He demanded that Mrs. Bang, then 48 years old, bear him a child, a prospect she thought preposterous to begin with. She told her third "husband" that she had received an intrauterine contraceptive device in North Korea following the birth of her third child. Her "husband" and his friends held her, spread-eagled on the floor, while a "doctor" of some sort "rolled up his sleeves" and manually removed the "ring." Bleeding profusely she became infected, and could not walk or stand up. She spent a month on the floor recovering, mostly in tears, she relates, at the "cruelty and shamefulness" that enveloped her.


Until North Korea’s war against its citizens ends, women will continue to suffer through rape, painfully administered forced abortions, trafficking, and femicide in addition to the starvation and other insurmountable conditions the population as a whole endures. And until more investigation is allowed within the state, aid groups will continue to have only rough estimates as to what the damage has been to citizens and where help is needed most.

On an individual level, it is unlikely that women living in North Korea’s concentration camps or in China as trafficked wives are receiving support for the physical and psychological effects of sexualized violence. Escapees from the camps report only torture and brainwashing; meanwhile, women who are trafficked to men in China and suffer “physical, sexual, mental, and emotional abuse,” reports the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Lives for Sale, have “very little recourse because of their status.” As they lack legal protection in China, they are not only vulnerable to abuse, but stuck knowing that authorities can repatriate them to North Korea—where, upon arrival, they are subject to potential torture by border guards. Defectors in China “live in constant fear of arrest and deportation and are not able to turn to police when victimized,” Demick told WMC’s Women Under Siege.