Shocking Report Reveals How North Korean Women Are Really Treated Under Kim Jong Un’s Rule

It’s no secret the average life of a North Korean is far from glitzy and glamorous. With food shortages and strict rules all citizens must follow, life under Kim Jong Un’s eye certainly isn’t a cakewalk — and this is especially true for North Korean women.

Interestingly enough, many women in the country are the breadwinners in the family thanks to lucrative markets where they can sell their goods. But abuse and violence are still commonplace, despite their key role in the economy. Here’s what North Korean women say they’ve witnessed. We’ll also take a look at some other shocking rules citizens have to deal with.

1. One 26-year-old says Kim Jong Un snatched teenage girls from North Korean schools

North Korean military students marching in uniform.

Young Korean women are often at risk. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

A 26-year-old North Korean defector successfully escaped the regime — and she tells about the atrocities she’s witnessed. Hee Yeon Lim claims her father was a senior officer under Kim Jong Un’s rule, thus she has insider info. And Hee Yeon says Kim Jong Un takes teenager girls from schools in Pyongyang to be his sex slaves.

As for Hee Yeon’s life, her father’s high ranking offered her a privileged life. But she still saw terrible crimes committed by the regime, like the public murder of 11 musicians accused of creating a pornographic film.

Next: A former female soldier provides an inside look at cruel conditions.

2. A former female soldier says sexual violence is a problem in the military

A North Korean soldier looks through a camera.

Life isn’t easy for female soldiers. | Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Even the female soldiers aren’t protected from violence, it seems. The BBC reports Lee So Yeon was a part of the North Korean army for 10 years, and the conditions were less than desirable.

Like other soldiers, she was happy to be fed, especially when famine was rampant around the country. But rape, harassment, and sexual violence were commonplace for most women — especially when more and more women volunteered for duty. Lee also said the conditions were so brutal that many females stopped menstruating shortly after joining.

Next: These women face execution for pregnancy.

3. Imprisoned women say pregnancy is grounds for execution

An open jail cell.

Prisons are dangerous for women. | Luke Franzen/Getty Images

North Korean prison camps are uniquely horrifying, as prisoners must perform difficult labor and live through unsanitary conditions. And defector Park Ju Yong, who claims to have grown up in the prison camps, said guards frequently raped women. Not only that, but if a guard impregnated a prisoner, the guards executed her. And according to Park, sometimes prisoners had to participate in the executions as well, or risk dying themselves.

As for a guard’s punishment, they’re simply removed from their position in the camp.

Next: A former farmer says everything is considered illegal.

4. A former farmer says officials sexually assaulted her

North Korean countryside.

Women have experienced traumatic events. | Nyiragongo/Getty Images

Human Rights Watch describes one account of a former farmer who was sold to a man in China before she was sent back to North Korea. Upon her return, a PSA agent in a pretrial detention facility allegedly touched her inappropriately, raped her, and questioned her about any sexual relationship she had with the man who bought her.

She allowed such injustices to occur, for she notes, “How could I do anything else?” She goes on, “Everything we do in North Korea can be considered illegal, so everything can depend on the perception or attitude of who is looking into your life.”

Next: A famous defector says she watched her friend’s mother die.

5. A famous defector claims she watched her friend’s mother die

Yeonmi Park speaking in front of a podium.

Yeonmi Park has spoken publicly about her experiences. | One Young World via YouTube

Yeonmi Park is one of the more famous defectors to escape North Korea. The Daily Beast explains Yeonmi claims she watched her friend’s mother’s execution for watching a James Bond DVD. She also recalls her father being sent to prison for illegally selling gold and silver, and her mother’s subsequent arrest for it as well. Yeonmi then goes on to explain her journey through China and Mongolia until she eventually reached South Korea.

As terrible as it all sounds, skeptics point out inconsistencies in Yeonmi’s story, however — so perhaps she’s not telling us the whole truth after all.

Next: Human trafficking is a major issue. 

6. Another defector says human trafficking is a major issue

Ji Hyun Park speaking during an interview.

She has spoken courageously about her experiences. | Amnesty International UK via YouTube

Human trafficking is a major issue worldwide, and North Korea is no different. The South China Morning Post reports defector Ji Hyun Park left her country successfully — but it came with an array of challenges along the way. At one point, a Chinese farmer bought her for 5,000 yuan in 1998. And Ji said if at any point the Chinese men considered their North Korean “wives” as defective merchandise, they sold them off to others.

Ji escaped the man who purchased her, but human trafficking, particularly for women defectors from North Korea, is incredibly problematic.

Next: Women don’t dare report these crimes.

7. Gender discrimination makes it more difficult for women to find work or get an education

Two women walk together in an airport.

Making it as a woman in North Korea is anything but easy. | Editorial RF/iStock/Getty Images

It’s not just defectors affected by gender-based violence. Human Rights Watch spoke with 26 North Koreans, and they all said their country is deeply patriarchal in nature. Men are violent toward women at home and in all public spaces — and there are few repercussions. And when it comes to getting an education or joining the Korean Workers Party, it’s much more difficult for women.

Women don’t dare to report these crimes, either, as they fear retaliation by the government. Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson is calling for change — but we’ll see if it has any real hold.

Next: Men and women have style guidelines, but they get a break.

8. Style guidelines do exist

a hairdresser poses in a salon in North Korea

Hair dresser Kim Hae Jong poses for a portrait at a leisure and health complex in Pyongyang. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

As this tweet from Jonathan Kaiman demonstrates, both men and women can choose from a limited menu of approved hair styles. But political science professor Katharine H.S. Moon said there’s more to the story. The Wasserman Chair of Asian Studies at Wellesley College said state-mandated beauty standards “have to be taken with much skepticism.”

“There’s no evidence that their hairstyles must follow totalitarian regulation,” Moon told Yahoo Beauty. “Even if posters of styles and models say it’s the ‘rule,’ it could be that private citizens — barbers, beauticians, storekeepers — came up with ideas but put them under the safe umbrella of the state. People using the state to make money, rather than the other way around.” She added, “It’s hard to find evidence that ‘state-approved’ [hairstyles] were implemented.”

Next: The government decides who gets this luxury we take for granted.

9. Government decides who gets a computer

a woman at a computer in north korea

A woman sits before a computer in a lecture hall at the Pyongyang International Football School in Pyongyang. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

According to The Telegraph, private citizens can own computers, provided they can afford them. The government also decides who gets one, and they cost as much as three months’ salary. Jong Un loves Apple computers, and the state modeled its proprietary operating system on one. The Korea Computer Center wrote Red Star OS, for all state computers. The country’s technology research hub has a staff of around 1,000 and offices in Germany, Syria, China, and the United Arab Emirates. It also manages the official web portal, Naenara, as well as a state-approved search engine.

Next: Citizens cannot leave without permission and face harsh punishments.

10. Defectors can face harsh punishments

north korea military members in uniform, with a south korea military member in fatigues

North Korean soldiers look South next to a spot where a North Korean defected crossing the border. | Korea Pool/Getty Images

Despite making it a criminal offense for North Korean citizens to leave the country without governmental permission, many try it every year. The Guardian reports that most try to cross the Yalu and Tumen Rivers on North Korea’s border with China. If caught, defectors face labor camps or execution. Government agents often still pursue defectors out of the country, and their families can face punishment for their crimes as well.

Next: North Korean citizens cannot open their own businesses.

11. Private enterprise is outlawed

women in white work on yellow fabric in an assembly line

North Korean women work at the assembly line of a factory. | Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Because of the emphasis on the state, the government officially bans private enterprise of any kind. Those caught trying to access or distribute black market food, medicine, and other supplies can face harsh punishment. That said, many citizens bribe officials to turn a blind eye in order to get the supplies the government does not provide.

Next: More than one generation suffers for a crime.

12. Labor camps are brutal on multiple generations

a north korean activist speaks in front of protest posters

Shin Dong Hyuk is the only person to have escaped from Kaechon internment camp. | Karen Bleier/AFP/GettyImages

The U.S. Department of State reports that the Kaechon political prison, or Camp 14, holds about 15,000 prisoners, all serving life sentences. Like all political prison camps in North Korea, Kaechon segregates “unredeemable” people it considers “enemies of the state” from the general population. Those prisoners include poorly performing officials, critics of the regime, and anyone who may have committed anti-government activities. Officials report that some Kaechon prisoners are victims of the regime’s “three generations of punishment,” in which three generations of a prisoner’s family are sent to the camp and may die there without having committed a crime themselves.

Next: Kim Jong Un even controls his favorite sport.

13. Kim Jong Un even controls his favorite sport

dennis rodman with the north korea basketball team

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman (C) poses with North Korean basketball players at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium. | Kim Won Jin/AFP/Getty Images

Dennis Rodman visited Jong Un in North Korea and made an interesting discovery. According to Slate, the hoops-obsessed North Korean regime rewrote the rules as early as 2006. Chinese media report that North Korea developed its own scoring system for the game. A dunk earns three points, four points go to a three-pointer that doesn’t touch the rim, and players net eight points for a basket scored in the final three seconds. A missed free throw loses one point.

Next: Only these people get to own cars.

14. Those with military ties may gain access, but not many

a woman in uniform directs traffic in north korea

A traffic cop directs cars in the capital city of North Korea. | Ed Jones /AFP/Getty Images

“You are more likely to know somebody with a private jet than a North Korean is to know somebody with a car,” Car and Driver magazine wrote in 2010. Some anecdotal evidence suggests the number of cars in North Korea has increased recently, but some experts attribute that to a spike in registering private vehicles under state enterprises, PolitiFact points out. The Associated Press reports, “It’s unusual to have more than a dozen or so cars waiting behind a red light at any time of day, in any part of the city. At night, the roads remain virtually empty.”

Next: Interracial marriages could have horrifying consequences.

15. Horrifying consequences

a maternity ward in pyongyang north korea

Although interracial relations are not illegal per se, human rights abuses on resulting children do occur. | Ed Jones /AFP/Getty Images

Due to its Juche ideology, or emphasis on Korean exceptionalism, authorities do not look kindly on interracial relations. In a letter to British Parliament, Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports incidents of repatriated female citizens forced to undergo abortions after becoming pregnant in China. The report also included the account of one witness who saw a repatriated prisoner giving birth to a baby, which North Korean nurses then smothered.

Additional reporting by Lizz Schumer.

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