The North Korean army’s rape problem, “Kangan” Province, and Gloria Steinem

It has been four whole days since I said I was done talking about Women Cross DMZ for a year. How foolish it was of me to write that. For one thing, I did not anticipate having this detailed history of Christine Ahn’s pro-North Korean views, which outdoes my own, to graf for you:

In late April, WomenCrossDMZ held a press conference in New York City. Ahn was not in attendance to respond to our question of why the group omits discussion of human rights. But Steinem was: she responded that this was a “bananas question … there are many sins on every side.” Ahn and Steinem’s co-organizer, theology professor Hyun-Kyung Chung, added that “when you go out on a first date, you don’t talk about all the bad things you did last summer.” Fair enough. Even Charles Manson has suitors. [Thor Halvorssen & Alex Gladstein, Foreign Policy]

For another, a horrible new report from New Focus International describes the “rape culture” that has developed among North Korean soldiers in Kangwon Province, or Kangwon-do, where soldiers rape civilian women so frequently that residents have taken to grimly calling it kangan-do. In Korean, kangan means rape:

The source explains, “Wherever you go in Kangwon Province, there are more soldiers than civilians. Because almost everyone you bump into is a soldier, you notice that as a major group they commit a lot of crimes. Mostly, the crimes are rape and sexual assault. In Kangwon Province, the soldiers move in large groups, and attacks have become so frequent that it isn’t even surprising to us anymore.

Even the police try to avoid them. This is because they try to contain the soldiers, but usually end up being humiliated. The soldiers in Kangwon Province are uncontrollable and virtually lawless. So the civilians of Kangwon Province have resorted to calling their hometown ‘Robbery Province’ or ‘Rape Province’.” [New Focus, Apr. 29, 2015]

The problem is impunity: the command and the security forces have made a decision not to prosecute rapes. This is same the impunity the U.N. Commission of Inquiry found, and which I quoted in my recent piece for The Weekly Standard. According to the report, witnesses reported that North Korean authorities don’t treat the rape of an adult woman as a crime at all.

Song Geum-bok, who escaped North Korea in March 2014, testifies: “There are army units everywhere in Kangwon Province. Eight of the ten people that pass you in the streets of Kangwon Province are soldiers. Put simply, there are more soldiers in this province than rocks. So naturally, when bad news circulates among the neighbourhood people, we presume that a soldier is involved in some way.

“The greatest victims of the soldiers are women. These youthful soldiers, who are in their prime both physically and sexually, are forced to serve in the army, and as time passes they become like uncontrollable wolves. When women become the target of a soldier, there is no stopping them. Soldiers usually loiter around dark places at night and jump on women passing by. Some women don’t even fight it – they just obediently adhere to the soldiers’ desires.

“Why? It’s because there is no use in fighting back. The women believe that by being compliant, they will at least be able to avoid suffering too many injuries.  [New Focus, Apr. 29, 2015]

If there are no prosecutions, there is no point in reporting rapes. North Korean women know how little their government values their safety, their health, their bodies. Imagine the circumstances of a low-songbun North Korean woman who becomes pregnant, or who is injured or infected with an STD, after she’s raped.

We came across an interesting anecdote dealing with the consequences of rapes committed by North Korean soldiers. North Korean exile Kim Yoon-seok tells us, “There was an incident where a soldier raped a woman at gunpoint. Obviously, he was never caught. As the father’s identity was unknown, the child that was born nine months later did not have a surname. The woman named the child Cho In-gun (the first letters of Chosun inmin-gun or ‘Korean People’s Army’. It is as if the baby was named ‘KPA’). The story spread like wildfire. That name, Cho In-gun, it is now used to mock the bastard children of the North Korean army.” [New Focus, 2013]

According to that same report, STDs are common in the North Korean military. For North Korea’s lower classes, there’s little or no medical care to be found. In North Korea, a poor woman has no one but herself. That’s why some women are learning to fight back:

A homegrown version of pepper spray has become the latest item carried by female merchants in North Korea, namely to combat sexual harassment and theft. For others, however, it plays an increasingly integral part in the perpetual struggle they face in trying to get by on a daily basis.

In most of the world, pepper spray, also known as oleoresin capsicum or OC, is derived from the same chemical that gives chili peppers their heat–but at much higher concentrations. North Korea’s version of pepper spray forgoes any complex chemical processes; in fact, instead of a spray, North Korea’s deterrent consists of pulverized chili peppers tucked into an easily accessible sack, which residents have coined the “chili powder bomb.”

“Women in Chongjin, Hamheung, Pyeongseong, and other cities are carrying around ‘chili powder bombs’ for protection,” a source from Hamkyung North Province told Daily NK on the 28th. “Women merchants as well as travelers are using bags of ground chili pepper as a means of self-protection.” [Daily NK]

North Korean soldiers often have long enlistments, and are not allowed to marry. Those who might already be married or have girlfriends seldom get leave. This doesn’t excuse anything, but it must be seen as another factor contributing to the problem that these young men are denied the option of love, marriage, and family until some of their best years are behind them.

In every station, prostitutes can be seen waiting for military customers. Working alongside security guards, private homes loaned out by their occupants are used as temporary brothels.

According to exile Kim Yoon-seok, “Women have to make a living too, and the best they have to offer is their bodies. Their primary source of income is the soldiers. As their sexual desires must be suppressed during military service, the young men are very bold and open about using prostitutes. The women receive food or cash for sleeping with them.”

To afford prostitutes, soldiers are said to raid civilian homes, from which they steal with impunity. Without even making an effort to hide themselves, they then make their way to stations or other red-light districts. [New Focus, 2013]

For years, guerrilla news services have reported that North Korean soldiers maraud nearby farms and homes to steal food and valuables. Sometimes, that violence even spills over the border, into China. Last year, Chinese media began to report that North Korean army deserters were robbing and murdering Chinese civilians. According to a new Chinese press report, three more deserters crossed into China and killed three more civilians, “a 55-year-old surnamed Chao, his 26-year-old daughter and a 67-year-old Sun.” When the victims of these attacks are Chinese, there is some chance that the crimes will be reported; there may even be a measure of accountability for the commanders. When the victims are North Korean, the state’s culture of secrecy and impunity almost assures that that won’t happen.

Would it be too much for Gloria Steinem to ask North Korea to investigate and prosecute the rapists in its ranks? After all, Steinem’s Feminist Majority has been outspoken on the subject of sexual assault in the U.S. armed forces. The organizer of Women Cross DMZ, Christine Ahn, has denounced “sexual violence by U.S. servicemen” in South Korea, even suggesting that it’s a greater threat to South Korea’s civilian population than North Korea’s nuclear weapons. (This is a hyperbolic falsehood, as I can testify from my four years as an Army prosecutor and defense counsel in Korea. If anything, the U.S. Army’s extreme sensitivity to bad publicity and political pressure causes it to overcharge alleged sexual assaults. Alleged assaults were overwhelmingly soldier-on-soldier; relatively few involved Korean victims.)

For purely demographic reasons, all militaries need to be concerned about sexual assaults, whether among soldiers, or against the civilian population. Every government’s command deserves to be judged by how it balances its responsibility to protect victims with how it protects the rights of the accused to a fair trial. Clearly, Pyongyang has made the decision that women’s bodies are not worth protecting from rapists. That’s a problem that any self-respecting feminist has a duty to speak out about. And if Steinem has the courage to call the North Koreans out on their own soil, she would earn our sincere respect for that. On her way from Pyongyang to the DMZ, Gloria Steinem should not bypass “Kangan” Province.

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