South Korea intelligence officers accused of raping defector from North

Korean women
More than 70% of North Korean defectors in South Korea are women

Two South Korean intelligence officials have been accused of raping a North Korean defector, with one said to have abused her dozens of times.

The alleged victim, who had been in the two men’s custody, was forced to have two abortions, her lawyers say.

The officials, a lieutenant colonel and a master sergeant, have been suspended and an investigation has begun.

North Korean women who defect are more vulnerable to sexual assault than South Koreans, human rights activists say.

Difficult economic circumstances can make them reluctant to speak out.

What are the allegations?

The defence ministry’s intelligence command is tasked with investigating North Korean defectors and gathering intelligence.

Early this year, the two suspects were assigned the woman’s custody, law firm Good Lawyers told BBC Korean.

According to the law firm, the first time the woman was raped she was unconscious as a result of drinking alcohol.

Lawyer Jeon Su-mi of Good Lawyers filing the lawsuit
Image captionLawyer Jeon Su-mi of Good Lawyers filing the lawsuit

The master sergeant is accused of raping her dozens of times while the lieutenant colonel is accused of raping her once.

The defence ministry said that its investigators had already looked into the allegations and had sent the case to armed forces prosecutors.

South Korean defence ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said the officials “would be appropriately handled depending on the investigation results”.

Why are defectors so vulnerable?

More than 72% of the 33,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea are women.

A human rights activist who advises North Korean women told BBC Korean that “many North Korean defectors experience sexual violence in China before coming to Korea”.

“They endured it and when they come to South Korea some have this notion that they are already defiled.”

Human rights group Korea Future Initiative says thousands of North Korean women and girls are being forced to work in the sex trade in China, and that many are forced into at least one form of sexual slavery within a year of leaving their homeland.

When the activist asked North Korean women what they thought of the MeToo movement in South Korea back in 2018, some replied by saying: “What good will it do?”; “It only brings humiliation”; or “They should just endure it.”

“They’re not used to speaking out, being educated about sexual violence, and demanding their rights,” the activist says. “They don’t know that when they are sexually assaulted it’s a crime and that people can be held accountable or be compensated.”

In fact, the biggest reason North Korean women keep quiet, human rights experts say, is because making a living is their foremost priority.

“They tell me: ‘I need to survive. I need to eat and I need to live. That comes first,'” the activist says.

Media captionNorth Korean defectors who had to escape twice

According to the Korea Institute for National Unification’s 2017 figures, North Korean defectors’ monthly average income is about 1.9m won (£1,220; $1,590), compared with an average for South Koreans of 2.4m won.

Their unemployment rate at 6.9% is nearly twice that of South Koreans.

In spite of this, a Database Center for North Korean Human Rights survey of about 400 defectors found that 61% had sent money to their family in the North and 58% said they planned to continue to do so.

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