The Differing Views of North Korean Women on Human Rights Activism

North Koreans in Seoul watching a presentation, “The Meaning of Human Rights”

Why is it that women who defect from North Korea and come straight to South Korea have a different attitude to human rights activism than those who lived for a while in third countries, especially China, before arriving?”

I have experienced this difference meeting and talking to these two groups of defectors and have been asking myself this question for three years.

When I became a journalist, I was put on the social news desk and was assigned mainly to report on North Korea-related human rights issues. I covered seminars and other such events and found that the speakers, as well as defectors among the activists, had one thing in common: most were women and nine out of ten of them had lived in China.

Why was this? Where, I wondered, were the defectors who came directly from North Korea? 

Here is what I concluded. Female defectors in particular went through experiences in China that were so bad that they are hard to imagine. They were traumatized. They engaged with NGOs through seminars and other activities and told their stories to heal and to help others. 

Their activism has had a big influence and has resulted in broad public awareness about human rights. According to a 2023 survey by the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, more than 70% of South Koreans last year had overall awareness of the various issues, including the United Nations’ Human Rights Resolution on North Korea.

With specific issues, 92% were aware of public executions, 85% knew about the forced repatriation of North Korean fishermen, and 80.3% knew about the political prison camps. These were all widely covered by the media. The fourth best known issue, with over 80% awareness, was human trafficking. 

Awareness of this would be zero if the women had not spoken up. In my opinion, the reason for the high awareness is due to the activists, as well as the fact that the international community embraced the victims as “courageous voices” and avoided shaming them.

“When I was interrogated by the Ministry of State Security, several women were squatting in a small space,” said a woman named Ji, who was arrested in Yanji, China, and repatriated to the North in 2015. “It was hot. Some of the women were menstruating. There was a smell of blood. I was beaten. I still have scars on my thigh.” 

Ji eventually made it to South Korea and was able to settle down and make a living. 

“That moment kept coming into my head,” she said. “When the opportunity arose, I didn’t participate in human rights activities with huge ambitions. But after telling my story once or twice, I was comforted to have someone to listen to my pain.” 

Another woman, named Song, fled to China during the Arduous March famine of the 1990s. She married, became pregnant, and was caught and repatriated.

“Someone asked me once, ’You were due to give birth in two months when you were sent back. You said you miscarried after being kicked in the leg. I read this kind of story in a book. Is it true?’” 

Song decided to escape once more. “The first time I defected to make a living, but the second time was to live as a human being,” she said. 

She succeeded in crossing into China and returned to her Chinese husband. There, struggling with guilt over losing her child, she decided to defect to South Korea. 

“I hated North Korea so much I didn’t even want to step on the shadow of any North Korean defectors,” she said. “But by telling my story, I was able to overcome the trauma of losing my baby and realize that it wasn’t my fault. I then felt a sense of duty to educate North Korean women living in China about what happens to them after forced repatriation.”

As her case illustrates, defectors who have lived in China participate in human rights activities to overcome their own trauma, as well as educate and warn others of the dangers women face in China.

This brings us to why fewer women who come directly from the North participate in these activities. 

The fact is that they tend to be cynical, not because the human rights situation in the North has improved, but ironically because most of them lived relatively comfortably. Often, they were financially supported by family members who came to South Korea ahead of them. Also, their escape is often managed by brokers hired by family members in the South. This way, they are less likely to be exposed to trafficking, labor exploitation, and forced marriages. 

A third factor is that human rights violations in China tend to be considered more important than those in North Korea. 

To truly improve North Korean women’s rights, we need the participation and voices of all defectors with their different experiences. The reality of North Korean women’s rights, both inside and outside the country, should never be underestimated.

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