North Korean women face widespread sexual violations by state security and police officials if they are forcibly returned after a failed attempt to flee, the UN’s rights body said Tuesday.
Pyongyang imposes tight restrictions on freedom of movement for its citizens and those caught for illegal border crossing are subject to detention and prosecution.
But before the North locked down its borders to try to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, many travelled back and forth across the porous 1,400 kilometre (880 mile) border with China to engage in trade or to relocate.
The vast majority of border-crossers are female as women have more freedom of movement than men, who are all allocated state jobs in a traditionally patriarchal society.
The UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner interviewed more than 100 North Korean escapees who said they suffered sexual violence including rape, forced nudity and abortion after fleeing, being caught and subsequently being repatriated.
Back in the North, ministry of state security officials often carried out “invasive searches” at detention centres, said Daniel Collinge, the primary author of the report.
“They were subjected to body searches which required them to strip naked and then to squat and jump repeatedly to check for hidden items in their body cavities,” Collinge told reporters in Seoul.
The women’s rights to sexual reproduction were also violated, he added, with forced abortions rampant at detention centres.
Several interviewees detailed instances where abortions were performed medically or induced through severe beatings.
“There were two pregnant women, three months and five months pregnant, who were kicked very badly so that they would have lost their baby by the time they left the facility,” one woman recounted.
Rape by guards was widespread, the report said, but few talked about it as it would often lead to further punishment including starvation.
All the women were interviewed in the South, having reached the country after fleeing the North again after their unsuccessful attempts.
The nuclear-armed North already stands accused by the UN of “systematic, widespread and gross” human rights violations that range from torture, extrajudicial killings to running prison camps.
Pyongyang maintains that it protects and promotes “genuine human rights” and calls accusations of rights abuses by the international community anti-regime propaganda.