WMC Women Under Siege

The fine line between 'obedience' and rape in North Korea

When Shin Dong-hyuk was 10 years old, he watched his mother be raped by her boss.

In an attempt to fetch her for dinner, Shin approached the office where he had been told she would be. The door was locked. Through a window he saw her kneeling as she washed the floor, then saw her boss approach and grope her. Shin’s mother and the man took off their clothes, and the boy watched the rest unfold.

Girls playing in North Korea. Teens around the same age suffer sexualized violence in the country’s prison camps. (Joseph A Ferris III)

But this was no ordinary case of sexualized violence in the workplace. Shin was born into a North Korean concentration camp, where he lived by the whims of guards and could be killed in an instant for any small behavior deemed wrong. His mother worked in a rice field within the camp, and her boss, one of the prison guards, did whatever he wished to as many women as he wanted. Shin’s mother “complied”—though by international standards, the term “rape” would apply—because she knew the alternative was death.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that up to 200,000 North Koreans are imprisoned in concentration camps—camps that are meant to stamp out every trace of individuality and destroy three generations of “impure” citizens. Citizens are first captured by veritable “thought police” and hauled off for any number of alleged crimes. Captives are “re-educated,” tortured, starved, beaten, and murdered.

Though there is no way of knowing how many prisoners are raped each year (just as there is no way of knowing how many prisoners are hung above a fire and burned, as Shin reportedly was), escapees report that guards attack women and girls frequently.

These attacks take place in a very casual, routine manner, says Blaine Harden, author of Escape From Camp 14, the recent bestseller that chronicled Shin’s life. Once girls reach their mid-teens, Harden told me, patrolmen begin to rape them. As in the Holocaust and in refugee camps around the world, North Korean inmates are often coerced into sexualized violence in exchange for food rations and other meager aid. During their days or weeks as a guard’s target of rape, Harden says, their abuse brings trauma, but also vital nutrients.

As if enduring repeated sexualized violence were not enough, Harden continues, teen girls and women are “disappeared” or murdered the minute they are discovered pregnant.

“It’s an awful game that they are forced to play,” says Harden. No matter how “obedient” a girl has been, no matter how many days or weeks she quietly suffers sexualized abuse in an attempt to survive and please the guards—it is the rape survivor who is punished.

“The theory behind the camps was to cleanse unto three generations the families of incorrect thinkers,” a former guard interviewed in Harden’s book recalls. “So it was inconsistent,” he explains drily, “to allow another generation to be born.”

In other words, because a prisoner is deemed to be of “impure” stock, she and her fetus are destroyed. This is consistent with what Women Under Siege has found in conflicts that utilize sexualized violence as a means of ethnic cleansing, from the Holocaust to Darfur—that women’s bodies are controlled to temper the threat their ability to reproduce poses.

All of this happens with a backdrop of physical austerity for prisoners. Harden writes that individuals held in camps may not so much as hold hands without threat of death. “Should sexual physical contact occur without prior approval,” goes one of the rules Shin had to memorize growing up, “the perpetrators will be shot immediately.” Even “conversing between the sexes without prior approval” is forbidden. As such, only those prisoners “rewarded” with arranged marriages can sleep together a few times a year. Children produced through these marriages are approved. All other births are not.

In a perverse twist, says Harden, a woman’s poor health can become an advantage. If she is malnourished enough to be rendered infertile, and can endure rape without pregnancy, her life is usually spared.

Many raped women, however, do not have such “luck.”

For more information on North Korea’s concentration camps, see the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea’s recently updated report.

More articles by Category: International, Race/Ethnicity, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Asia, Sexualized violence, Ethnic cleansing, Trauma



Michele Lent Hirsch
Associate Editor
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