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An International Perspective on Human Security of North Korean Refugee Women

North Korean women on the streets of Pyongyang, Oct. 2018 | Image: NK News

Written by Kwon, Soyoung for the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. Translated by NKR Intern Haewon Son. Original Korean article can be found at

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the World Human Rights Declaration and the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry (COI). North Korea's human rights issues, which the international community has feared, have remained to show no evidential progress. There is a viewpoint that North Korea should be pressured and persuaded by the international community to change the North Korean regime's perception of human rights. However, it is unclear how and what must be done in specific. This year's international conference on "Human Rights Conditions between North Korean Women and the Ruling of Opposition Parties," co-hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (South Korean MoFA) and the United Nations Office on North Korean Human Rights, highlighted close cooperation with the United Nations. The main focus was based on specific and detailed human rights issues such as discrimination against North Korean women and girls, and the risk of human trafficking of North Korean defectors. Then, why has the human rights situation of North Korean women not been fully publicized to the international community as of now, and why has the human rights issue of North Korean women been excluded from UN measures? Promoting human rights and gender equality are key UN responsibilities. Declared at the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights laid out the fundamentals of human rights that should be universally protected and claimed that all human members should enjoy these rights without any discrimination such as gender or nationality. First introduced in the 1994 Human Development Report published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the concept of "human security" emphasized the understanding of human-centered security for human life and dignity. As a new paradigm in security that protects the globally vulnerable, human security gives multiple human-centered views on security and focuses on strengthening individual human dignity, protection, and capabilities. The category of human security ranges from personal safety to community, economy, politics, food, health, and environmental security. It is a powerful means of contributing to improving human rights, inequality, and human welfare.

As the UN system adopted the Human Security Agenda, the UN comprehensively examined freedom from fear and freedom from deprivation, and became more interested in the fundamental values of human security: human rights and inequality among women. Since 2000, the United Nations Security Council has actively adopted resolutions focusing on human rights issues and passed a number of resolutions on the theme of "Women, Peace, and Security (WPS)" to promote women's understanding and human rights. These WPS Agenda highlighted the need for a gentle understanding while answering to all sectors of peace and security, and re-examining human rights abuses such as sexual violence that can occur to women during conflicts. In addition, the United Nations selected gender equality and strengthening women's capabilities as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and proposed "discrimination in all forms against women and girls everywhere" and "extinguishing all violence against women and girls, including human trafficking and sexual exploitation" as detailed goals of SDG5. As such, the UN's efforts to achieve gender equality without women being violated have continued through the spread of normative values, international law, and various policies.

International efforts to guarantee universal human rights and basic rights in life, strengthen women's capabilities, and promote gender equality have been improved and expanded so that everyone can enjoy the benefits in the most feasible way in every possible environment. The slogan "Leave no one behind - not a single person is left out," the goal of achieving the SDG, is a promise of the United Nations and a message of hope for those exposed to a vulnerable environment. However, the perception and experience of North Korean defectors shown in various surveys, is far from the United Nations' grand promise. Regardless of location and circumstances, women's human rights and basic life rights should be universal and the basics of human security should be met without discrimination. Yet, the reality of North Korean defectors is alienated from the benefits of the protection system provided by international norms and legal frameworks. They cross the border to China in search of human rights and freedom but after escaping, they face various threats to human security including human trafficking, sexual abuse, and extreme poverty. In many cases, marriage to Chinese men is also forced. Above all, the issue of human trafficking of North Korean defectors is a serious issue of international security. Women who go to China to find work become victims of human trafficking through deception, fraud, or kidnapping. In North Korea, there are no legal provisions to prevent human trafficking or to protect victims of human trafficking, and after being returned to their home countries, they are subject to further human rights violations.

North Korean women must also live in fear of the Chinese government's forced repatriation. China is a party to the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees signed in 1951, and Article 8 and the Protocol on the Status of Refugees stipulate that "a Contracting State shall not apply such measures to refugees who are citizens of a particular foreign country on the grounds of their nationality alone in form with respect to exceptional measures taken against the body, property or interests of a particular foreign citizen." However, the Chinese regime does not recognize North Korean defectors as refugees or migrants. Therefore, children of North Korean defectors cannot register their births due to their mothers' illegal status. As a result, they are denied opportunities for education above middle school, and are placed in a blind spot in the social security network provided by the Chinese government at least. Children born to Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers who have defected will be deprived of valuable opportunities for social inclusion and capacity building during growth. In other words, the human rights issue of North Korean defectors is being passed on to their children born in China. Although the UN's human rights agreements on women and children, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, established in 1989, urge the guarantee of universal human rights, the majority of North Korean defectors and their children born in third countries are still exposed to the threat of human security in the process of defection and settling on new land.

As such, the special situation of North Korean women in the blind spot of international protection measures and the basis of the threats they experience to human security are the following problems. First, according to survey results, North Korean defectors do not exactly understand the human rights that should be guaranteed, so they are unable to voluntarily claim their rights or complain of damage caused by unfair violence. Second, human rights abuses experienced by North Korean defectors in China are related to a lack of international consensus on whether North Korean defectors can be recognized as refugees or migrants (the 1951 Refugee Convention) and inappropriate protection policies at the national level. Special circumstances that are not defined as refugees or migrants cannot be protected by international norms and legal systems. Third, citizens of the Republic of Korea or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea are not eligible for SDG programs for girls and women, nor are they considered victims of human rights violations and sexual abuse that occur during or after disputes under the PSW movement. The UN North Korean Human Rights Commission's report mentions discrimination of women in North Korea or women forced to return to North Korea from China. However, it does not mention sexual infringement, fear, and anxiety on their journey to South Korea through China after defection, which does not attract protection and attention from the international community.

An international symposium was held at the National Assembly under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and lawmaker Tae Young-ho's office to look at the human rights of North Korean defectors from an international perspective, and seek integrated solutions from the perspective of human security. Based on a survey to "realize gender equality as a universal human right and prepare directions for North Korean refugee women to adapt to Korea," the government looked at the poor environment in which North Korean women face settling in South Korea and the blind spot of human security. Then, the direction of human rights improvement was discussed. In charge of presenting the topic, I argued that the United Nations, which has implemented many policies to strengthen gender equality and women's capabilities, will recognize the seriousness of the problem and actively seek solutions only when it recognizes the experiences and difficulties of North Korean women in the framework of human security and human rights protection.

In order to understand the problems faced by North Korean defectors, it is first to inform the international community of the blind spots of human security through dialogue between stakeholders. It is believed that the UN system will encourage long-term efforts to change its perspective and seek comprehensive solutions to human security threats at all levels. The news that the South Korean government publicized the human rights situation of North Korean defectors in the international community for the first time at the UN Security Council in October last year is extremely uplifting. Institutional efforts to bring about positive change, and additional policy discussions and activities to strengthen the capacity of the vulnerable are needed. Above all, the South Korean government should actively communicate so that UN measures and programs can be applied to North Korean women.

*** Kwon, Soyoung is a Research Fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies and a Professor at George Mason University Korea. The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


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