The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea’s new report on forced labor is rightfully attracting media attention for calling out 18 countries — Algeria, Angola, China, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Malta, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates — for using North Korean slave labor. (In fairness, they might have included South Korea on the list, too.)
What reporters should not overlook, however, is the section of the report on slave labor in North Korea’s prison camp system. Within that section is a long list of witness accounts of rampant sexual violence they saw or experienced there.
“The guards called girls into a room and ordered them to take off their clothes. There were girls who were fifteen or sixteen years old and they started to cry. The guards would put on rubber gloves and push their hands inside their vaginas to check if they had money. The girls were still virgins and had not even started their menstrual cycles. They would bleed and cry. The guards kept doing this even though they didn’t find any money… …In the National Security Agency prison, the room was small and had a toilet to the side. The door had a hole through which the guards would send food. There were nine girls in the room. At 22:00, when we were ordered to go to sleep, a guard that stayed outside our room on patrol would call out for this nineteen year old girl to stand up and come close to the door where the hole was. He would tell her to come closer and then he would molest her and touch her breasts. I saw that when I was in the Sinuiju National Security Agency prison” [Kim XX, 40, Saebyul County]
“Sexual assaults are somewhat hidden, but if you find women whose workload has been lessened, that is probably because they have some kind of sexual relationships with the officers” [Suh XX, 43, North Hamgyeong Province]
“From China, when we were being repatriated back to North Korea, the guards from the Ministry of National Security stripped women naked to conduct examinations. They checked their vaginas to make sure there was no money hidden. If there were attractive women or girls, they were quietly taken away by the guards and sexually abused. These girls were unable to speak about what happened, because if they did they would be beaten further” [Park XX, 45, North Hamgyeong Province]
“Younger and more attractive girls are often sexually abused. The guards take them out to the hall [of the detention facility] and sexually molest them. Other guards who are passing by just pretend not to see anything. They do not report what they see to their superiors” [Kim XX, 49, Pyongyang]
This testimony is in addition to, and consistent with, what the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and the Korean Bar Association have already reported about the rape and murder of women prisoners in North Korea. At some point, evidence of a course of criminal conduct becomes so cumulative that it overwhelms reasonable doubt. It also strongly suggests that at a certain level, the state condones or tolerates this. I cannot, for the life of me, see how anyone can go to Pyongyang, take part in staged propaganda theater, remain silent about the worst abuses of women imaginable, and dare call herself a women’s rights activist.
As members of the U.N. Security Council consider what new sanctions to impose on Pyongyang if it tests a missile, they should consider clarifying that the financial due diligence measures in UNSCR 2094 apply to these arrangements, which have become an important source of income for Pyongyang. The Security Council should prohibit any use of North Korean labor — including labor within North Korea — that fails to comply with International Labor Organization standards, authorize the ILO to report to the Panel of Experts on any suspected violations, and designate any North Korean entities known to be involved in this slave trade. To assuage Chinese objections, this need not be any more explicitly about human rights than the luxury goods ban in UNSCR 1718 was.