Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Federalist on August 17, 2020.
A recent United Nations human rights report exposes the horrors experienced by women brave or desperate enough to flee North Korea. Most North Korean defectors pass through or remain in China, a country whose government is responsible for many human rights violations of its own. But as trying as life is in China, there is a worse fate to be had — being caught by authorities and extradited to North Korea.
The new U.N. report reveals the abhorrent and abysmal ways North Korean female defectors are treated. The chilling and harrowing details of the report should act as a timely reminder that the United States must make every feasible effort to prioritize human rights during any negotiations with the Kim regime.
As they’re approached by those desperate to escape North Korea, traffickers and smugglers know that males will not turn a profit. Consequently, the majority of North Korean defectors are young women, and an estimated 60 percent of female defectors in China are trafficked. Most are forced into prostitution or sold into an involuntary marriage.
North Koreans living in China fear being discovered and sent back to the state from which they defected, a fear that is, sadly, all too well-founded. Defectors handed over to North Korean authorities are beaten and interrogated. Those suspected of having a political reason for leaving are sent to political prison camps — often, even for something as seemingly benign has having negative feelings toward the regime.
The U.N. report includes the testimonies of more than 100 North Korean female defectors, who detail horrific incidences of forced labor, rape, torture, and untenable living conditions in the camps. One woman recounted her experience:
I was beaten with a club by a preliminary investigation officer and was kicked by the officer. The treatment was particularly harsh at the Ministry of State Security. If one is found to have gone to a South Korean church while staying in China, they are dead. I, therefore, tried hard not to reveal my life in China. I was beaten up as a result. I was beaten to a level that my rib was broken. I still feel the pain.
Similar occurrences face the thousands of North Korean defectors who are forcibly repatriated by the Chinese government every year. As no religion or deity besides veneration of the Kim family dictators is allowed in North Korea, any suspicion that repatriated defectors encountered Christianity almost guarantees a harsher punishment in the camps.
Unfortunately, pregnant women have an even more heartbreaking fate. Because North Korea does not recognize “mixed-race” babies, North Korean women pregnant with half-Chinese babies endure brutal forced abortions.
According to the U.N. report, some women were forced to do hard labor until they miscarried, while others were “kicked very badly so that they would have lost their baby by the time they left the facility.” These cruel, racially motivated, forced abortions are grave offenses no civilized world should ignore.
Unfortunately, the North Korean human rights crisis is concealed by the Kim regime and easily forgotten by those in the West. Nevertheless, North Korea is the world’s worst violator of human rights, and that deserves our attention. New information about North Korean human rights abuses is rare, but these recently revealed details of what happens to repatriated female defectors add renewed urgency to the need for the international community to address human rights violations in the hermit kingdom.
Renewed talks between the United States and North Korea are a possibility in the coming months. In any such negotiations with the North Korean government, the United States must make religious freedom and human rights a priority.
The people of North Korea are effectively silenced by the repressive regime that rules them. It falls to the rest of the world to speak on their behalf. North Koreans deserve to have their basic human rights respected, and the United States should explore every available avenue to ensure their protection.