The gender dimensions of North Korea’s transition are a sadly overlooked aspect of the country’s transformation. Steph Haggard and I published a piece in World Development and Luisa Lim at NPR did a nice piece on the topic last December, but the issue does not receive its due. So it was a pleasant surprise a few weeks ago to receive a new report from the Citizen’s Alliance on North Korean Human Rights, “Status of Women’s Rights in the Context of Socio-Economic changes in the DPRK” (you can download a PDF of the report here).
In December 2010, North Korea enacted a Women’s Rights Act, the first legislation specifically aimed at gender issues since the 1948 Gender Equality Law. The NKHR report consists of two parts: a legal analysis of the law by Andrew Wolman, and an analysis of the current state of women based on interviews with 60 female refugees who left North Korea in 2011 and 2012, and interviews with an additional 20 men and women who due to their professions or positions in North Korea could provide additional perspective on the issues addressed in the analysis. The report concludes that “the Women’s Act was merely a façade created during North Korea’s [United Nations] human rights review when it faced international pressure….the North Korean state has recently been trying to reinforce through ideological education the traditional role women in a patriarchal society.” The report finds that there has been little improvement of the status of women in detention and that the interviews indicate, as discussed in Witness to Transformation, that forced abortion and infanticide on refugees pregnant when repatriated and suspected of carrying binational babies continues to be practiced despite a revision to the legal code proscribing the practice.
The most explosive allegations in the report actually don’t concern the status of women, but rather the treatment of the disabled. Stories of special places for the disabled or people with dwarfism have been heard since large numbers of refugees began leaving the country in the 1990s. One of the issues that the researchers surveyed the women on was the status of the disabled: were they visible, were they in schools and workplaces, were their special facilities for them etc. Roughly 40 percent of the respondents indicated that they believed that infants with disabilities were killed or abandoned and 43 percent believed that “there is an isolated area to relocate the disabled” which in the interviews was sometimes referred to as “an island.”
To follow up on these reports, the researchers interviewed former members of the People’s Safety Agency and the government. One of these respondents indicated that there is an island in South Hamgyong province with a “Hospital 83” to which “disabled persons are being sent for medical tests such as dissection of body parts, as well as tests of biological and chemical weapons.” This individual also claimed that there is also a special kyohwaso (roughly equivalent to a felony prison) for the disabled in Kaechon. A second interviewee with a police background reported that “a similar institution practicing chemical and biological tests on disabled and criminals is in a secluded mountainous area of North Hamgyong province.”
These allegations are effectively elaborations on those made by then-UN Special Human Rights Rapporteur Vitit Munttatbhorn on the basis of the KINU White Paper on Human Rights. Given both the historically poor treatment of the disabled throughout Northeast Asia, and the repeated allegations over the years of medical experimentation on prisoners, the accusations are not implausible. What can be said with certainty is that a significant number of women interviewed expressed beliefs that at best would inculcate a climate of fear for families with disabled members. Whether the allegations are accurate in their specifics, or amount the North Korean equivalent of “an urban myth,” they warrant further investigation by the recently established UN Commission of Inquiry.