Traumatized Defectors: North Korean Women, Sexual Violence, and Depression

By | April 19, 2013 | No Comments

North Korean Women; image via JoongAng Ilbo

North Korean Women; image via JoongAng Ilbo

Since the end of February this year, mass media coverage of North Korea, while frequent, has focused only on reporting, analyzing, and conjecturing the brinkmanship of North Korea. Unfortunately, the story of the March 18 murder of a North Korean female defector living in South Korea involved in prostitution has completely slipped through the cracks of English-language media. It was barely covered in South Korean media as well.

According to Yonhap, the woman (Ms. Kim), 45, defected to South Korea in 2002. According to police in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, she was found dead by the manager of the motel at 11:20 p.m. The alleged killer (who has since confessed), a client of Ms. Kim, had checked into the motel early that day. Deeming it a tragedy (비극), what is interesting is that some the South Korean news sources have used it as a way to discuss the plight of female North Korean defectors in their own country.

So explains the remainder of the story by the Seoul Economic Daily:

The Yonsei University Graduate School of Social Welfare, commissioned by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, conducted a study of 140 female defectors aged 20-50 from March through August 2012. According to the results of the study, 26.4% of women showed signs of depression. This far exceeds the national average of 6.7% among adults (male and female) who experience depression, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The rate of PTSD is 57.6%, and the rate of attempted suicide is a staggering 45.7%.

The article claims that the reasons these female defectors experience these sorts of psychological and physical harm is by passing through a third country from North Korea to South Korean society, the process of settling can cause harm, including sexual violence. According to the survey, 14.3% (20 women) of the respondents said they were victims to sexual violence or molestation when they were in North Korea, 17.9% (25 women) in the third country, and 12.1% (17 women) experienced it after settling in South Korea.

Without any reference to the South Korean women involved in the sex industry, the coverage focuses on North Korean women. Indeed, most news coverage of prostitution in South Korea relates to men’s patronage, rather than women’s involvement.

A considerable number of female defectors are exposed to the dangers of prostitution. 11.4% (16 women) said they were victims of prostitution. The report revealed that in North Korea and South Korea, respectively, 5.7%(8 women) and 4.3%(6 women) had an experience with prostitution. The women not involved with prostitution who were urged to become involved with prostitution was 30% (30 women).

The reader is left to conclude that the defectors’ extraordinary circumstances are what expose them to increased exposure to sexual violence, depression, and prostitution. While this is certainly true, such phrasing, without any comparison to South Korean-born women or foreign women living in Korea, reifies the line demarcating the “our women” and the “North Korean” women.

Blog by: Darcie Draudt

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  1. What programs are being implemented right now to prevent North Korean women from entering the sex industry? I appreciate how you point out that some Korean news sources are implying that North Korean defector women, by being more susceptible to depression than other Korean women, are also somehow more prone to becoming victims of sexual abuse. Better questions to answer would be how North Korean defectors in South Korea enter the sex industry and what is being done currently to prevent them from doing so.

  2. The question you raise is spot-on: targeted programming is one key to providing structured pathways for the defectors living in South Korea. It’s not necessarily the depression that causes them to be more prone to sexual violence or entering sex industries. Some had been victim to such abuse in other countries while making their journey to settlement in South Korea. Regarding programming, some focus is turned on Hanawon, the government facility that provides training, including social adjustment and counseling, to the defectors arriving in South Korea. Unfortunately, according to the study commissioned by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family mentioned above, nearly one-third of the respondents said training provided by Hanawon did not help them settle in South Korea.

    The economics of surviving in capitalistic South Korea also presents problems. Upon completion, the South Korean government provides the defectors with a 20 million won (roughly 18,000 USD) settlement fee along with a small monthly stipend. (It’s important to keep in mind that real estate in South Korea is very expensive, and the initial deposit on a one-room apartment in Seoul is at least 10 million won [9,000 USD].) Reports have shown that barriers to North Koreans defectors settling in South Korea prevent sustainable employment, often related to impediments outside their control. Social barriers include South Koreans’ stigma or prejudice, as many South Korean firms are wary to hire defectors despite the two-year government subsidy of their wages. With these barriers to their survival, non-governmental organizations such as PSCORE and LiNK provide additional training and support to settlers after leaving Hanawon.

    With social exclusion and economic hardship, defectors who lack familial, social, or professional networks are prime targets for brokers in the sex industries. Facilitating belonging in South Korean society and ensuring steady places in the economy must be the targets of programming if the goal is to include the defectors, for whom South Korean citizenship is automatically given by law but for whom social and economic barriers are currently just too high.

  3. 14.3% (20 women) were victims to sexual violence or molestation when they were in North Korea. Is this a low or a high figure compared to for example South Korea or Japan?

    When I was in the DPRK the female guide had to endure a lot of ‘jokes’ that we would consider sexual harassment from the male guide who clearly had a higher status (we assumed because of background). We once had to literally pull him off the woman after he got drunk. She was very upset, but told us she couldn’t do anything because of his background. It was very disturbing.

    Apparently North Korean women with lower status are helpless against sexual violence from men. Even filing a complaint is not possible.

  4. I’m curious as to why – as horrible as the fate of this woman is – only negative aspects of this situation seem to be considered. It would seem that rather than putting resources into anti-prostitution efforts, an effort to stop stigmatizing the sex work occupation would encourage woman in the business to report threats and violence to the authorities without fear of reprisals, punishments and embarrassment. The potential positive benefits of sex work, particularly (given the difficulties you rightly described defectors facing) substantial earning power, and resultant independence, self-reliance and self-worth, are inevitably going to attract those lacking in other lucrative skills, social mobility and position, connections, or applicable higher education. Even more so when considering how many women with some of those advantages and wider options nonetheless choose sex work as a full or part time occupation. At a more fundamental level, it hardly seems just or commensurate with the freedom and democracy that the South is supposed to represent and provide for its citizens, through their government, to either force some people’s personal moral or religious views down the throats of “traumatized defectors” or to attempt to deny them a potential means of independence from either government reliance, menial and low-paying jobs, or exploitation.

  5. I agree that Korea, regarding the issue of female sexuality, all too often divides women into two categories: “good women” and “bad women.” The demarcation is based on the ideal woman, which historically speaking is a desexualized good wife, wise mother (현모양처) who gains citizenship (and the resultant civil rights) through her relations to her husband and her son. Good women were, and arguably still, imagined as reproducers and producers of the nation. Bad women, on the other hand, fail to (re)produce the nation and are sexualized. The focus on a woman’s chastity in Korean society has been well documented. It was not until the 1980s that a shift in viewing women as sexual subjects, rather than objects, occurred (see Ueno 1998; Shim 2001).

    While sexual liberation for women outside of the sex industry certainly needs to be addressed in the case of South Korea, sexual liberation is a very different realm from normalizing prostitution. “To purport to promote women’s sexual liberation by abstracting prostitution and pornography from male supremacist and woman-hating sexual ideology and practice is disingenuous and exposes women to grave harm,” writes Hoffman (1997). “To be pro-sex is to oppose prostitution by reclaiming and reconstructing a sexuality that is life-enhancing, mutually respectful and beneficial, and if it is heterosexual, based on gender equality. This is by far the more revolutionary position; the pro-prostitution position is merely one of accommodation with the masculinist system in place.”

    The original article translated above did claim the North Korean women who enter the sex industry are “victims” of prostitution, which prima facie suggests a moralizing of prostitution. And that’s probably the way the South Korean author intended it. But, as you point out, this is not merely an issue of imposing morality. We should also look at the potential for economic empowerment and what you point out is the potential for “self reliance and self worth.”

    This short story alone doesn’t explain the way in which women in these situations are “victimized.” Globally, there are some caveats to the potential positive benefits of sex work. Previous research has shown that rather than improving the lives of the women employed, in some cases systematized and legalized prostitution might make the lives of prostitutes worse. In Farley et al.’s 1998 study of prostitution, violence and PTSD 475 prostitutes across five countries, three U.S. women who had left working brothels in legal locales preferred working on the streets:

    The women we interviewed who had left [legal] brothels stated that they were completely under the control of the brothel’s pimp/owners: they were not permitted to refuse customers; they were usually not allowed to leave the brothel for eight consecutive days; they were not permitted to choose their own physicians—and were regularly sexually assaulted by physicians who practiced in brothels…The women we interviewed who had left brothels stated that they were completely under the control of the brothel’s pimp/owners: they were not permitted to refuse customers; they were usually not allowed to leave the brothel for eight consecutive days; they were not permitted to choose their own physicians —and were regularly sexually assaulted by physicians who practiced in brothels.

    Farley et al. go on to suggest that:

    We do not think that legalization of prostitution—would improve the lives of women in prostitution—in fact, according to some of our interviewees, legalization makes their lives worse. Legalization of prostitution puts the state in the role of the pimp, and in the role of ensuring that customers are provided with people who are HIV- and STD-free.

    Furthermore, such a work is a highly gendered phenomenon, and should be problematized as such. The gender line in South Korea is strong, certainly, and male North Korean defectors have gender-specific issues as well. But this case shows how sex work (in South Korea, as in many other locations) is seen as a gender-specific occupation, wherein women submit to objectification in order to survive.

    While there are some benefits to earning money through sex work in a situation where lack of relevant training, social position, or connections, it is a bit problematic to claim these women’s leverageable asset is their sexualized, objectified body. The stigmas of woman’s sexuality do need to be challenged, but that understands the woman has agency in her acts and attitudes. In the case of sex work, the question of coercion remains. The reality is the industry is not only gendered, but also related to issues of race, ethnicity and class. Writes MacKinnon (2009): prostitution is “a product of lack of choice, the resort of those with the fewest choices, or none at all when all else fails.” Moreover, this choice as an economic solution is not a sustainable one, nor does it provide the potential for more opportunities or to increase one’s economic or social position. The first step is to work with the defectors to decide how to best provide avenues for empowerment. If the goal is to provide North Koreans settling in South Korea with (1) agency, which had been denied in North Korea, (2) the freedom to choose to develop sustainable skills that does not objectify them, and (3) spaces for developing self-reliance and self-worth, then the focus of programming must be on awareness campaigns, training, and other forms settlement support.

  6. Regarding the quote from Hoffman, “disingenuous and exposes women to harm”, in fact sounds applicable to the criminalization and stigmatizing of sex work.

    I agree that legalized prostitution certainly has the potential to worsen conditions for sex workers, depending on what the system is and how codified. It is not surprising that the three research subjects noted by Farley preferred street work to the legal brothel system (as they were Americans in San Francisco, their legal brothel experience was presumably in Nevada). For a first hand perspective by an active sex worker and activist on working in Nevada brothels see here and here. In fact, opposition to Nevada-style legalization may be the only thing that Farley and sex worker activists – who generally favor decriminalization and for whom Farley is a bête noire (for some perspective on why, see this column ) – would agree on.

    Also on Ms. Farley’s sometimes-dubious methods, see this judicial opinion (later appealed) overturning Ontario’s bawdy-house law, in which case Ms. Farley appeared as an expert witness for the respondent:

    “I found the evidence of Dr. Melissa Farley to be problematic. Although Dr. Farley has conducted a great deal of research on prostitution, her advocacy appears to have permeated her opinions. For example, Dr. Farley’s unqualified assertion in her affidavit that prostitution is inherently violent appears to contradict her own findings that prostitutes who work from indoor locations generally experience less violence. Furthermore, in her affidavit, she failed to qualify her opinion regarding the causal relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and prostitution, namely that it could be caused by events unrelated to prostitution.

    [354] Dr. Farley’s choice of language is at times inflammatory and detracts from her conclusions. For example, comments such as, “prostitution is to the community what incest is to the family,” and “just as pedophiles justify sexual assault of children….men who use prostitutes develop elaborate cognitive schemes to justify purchase and use of women” make her opinions less persuasive.

    [355] Dr. Farley stated during cross-examination that some of her opinions on prostitution were formed prior to her research, including, “that prostitution is a terrible harm to women, that prostitution is abusive in its very nature, and that prostitution amounts to men paying a woman for the right to rape her.”

    [356] Accordingly, for these reasons, I assign less weight to Dr. Farley’s evidence.”

    I would argue that what is being sold is time and service, not one’s body – sex workers can and do say no, though their ability to do so is hardly helped by policies of criminalization. While a woman’s physical attributes are obviously a part of her work as a prostitute, so too are her work ethic, organizational skills, mental stamina and ability, etc.

    While certainly sex work does not and would not suit everyone, for some it is sustainable, for others it is a temporary or part time occupation to supplement income or to sustain while pursuing ways to gain or employ other skills or educational endeavors.

    It is exceedingly difficult to understand why an individual woman should not be free to choose whether or not she feels she is objectified (or potentially so) by sex work, whether or not she feels she is improving her self-worth and self-reliance by such means, and so whether or not to pursue it, and why others’ beliefs on such a deep question (which it seems somewhat bold to answer a priori on behalf of another) should constrain her. These assumptions, added to the exclusive focus on the body and bodily actions of the sex worker, seem to be quite objectifying in and of themselves, however unintentional.

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