Men in Power in North Korea Demand for Sexual Favors from Women-traders

Men in Power in North Korea Demand for Sexual Favors from Women-traders
Woman setting up a trading stall by Quang Nguyen Vinh, via Pexel, 2016/December 10th


Pauliina Majasaari

Human Rights Researcher 

Global Human Rights Defence


Oh Jung Hee, from the province of Ryanggang, North Korea, used to be a woman-trader in selling clothes to market stalls in Heysan city.[i] According to Oh Jung Hee, it was a common practice of the market guards or the police officials to pass by the market and demand for bribes, either monetary or in the form of coerced sexual acts or intercourse.[ii] She was a victim of sexual abuse and was frequently asked to follow them to an empty room and have sexual intercourse without her consent.[iii]

North Korea is a man-led state, where the relationship between a man and a woman is a subordinate one, the men hold the power, and the women follow the lead of the men.[iv] Especially men who are in positions of power, such as police officers, market guards, the secret police agents and high officials such as politicians use their power to act as they please towards women.[v] The women are often considered to be as ‘sex toys’ to the men, and therefore they face regular sexual abuse, such as men touching their bodies and demanding for sexual intercourse even in public places, such as the markets.[vi] The possibility of women to take part in unofficial market-trading became possible around 2002, which led to them becoming the main breadwinners for their families.[vii] However, this has exposed women to increasing amounts of sexual abuse, as the woman-traders make long travel to the markets and to collect their trading items, during which they can be subject to security checkpoints at the roads or facing market guards in the unofficial markets.[viii] In such situations sexual abuse normally takes place. Due to the societal norms present, sexual abuse or rape is not understood to be a wrongful act, neither from the side of the women nor the men.[ix]

According to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), article 5 (a) the State Parties should take all measures to amend, with the aim to eliminate, the existing social and cultural practices of conduct between a man and a woman, which are based on the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes.[x] As mentioned, in North Korea, the men are superior to the women, which results in the fact that the men can act and do what they please towards the women.[xi] Additionally, due to the social standing of a woman in North Korea, of having no social or political status, they must depend on the ‘protection’ of male officials or the high status of family members within the Songbun, the social class classification system and in case they are unable to pay bribes amongst others, women face sexual abuse on daily basis.[xii] The women do not have the possibility to resist or report such behavior from the men, due to fear of further punishment or being shamed before the community.[xiii] Therefore, the societal norms present in North Korea, setting the man as a superior to the woman, which within the unofficial trading scheme results to use of sexual abuse and coerced intercourse to hold power over women, is against article 5 (a) of the CEDAW.

Therefore, as concerns on the societal standing of women has been raised by the international actors, such as Human Rights Watch, The Committee on the Eliminating of Discrimination against Women, and the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry, North Korea is urged to amend its present practices by bringing the status of the woman to an equal standing with the man and thereby stop violating the women’s rights under CEDAW.[xiv] Additionally, in line with the research findings of the international community, North Korea is suggested to educate its people on different forms of sexual violence and abuse to raise awareness of such practices as well as stop protecting the men who sexually abuse women and amend the enforcement of the criminal code to bring the perpetrators before courts and thereby bring justice to the victims.[xv]


[i] Brad Adams, Phil Robertson, Heather Barr et al., ‘’You Cry at night but Don’t Know Why’: Sexual violence against women in North Korea’ (Human Rights Watch, November 1st 2018) <> accessed February 19th  2024.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] ibid.

[v] ibid.

[vi] Human Rights Council, ‘Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ (UNGA, February 7th 2014) A/HRC/25/36, 8.

[vii] JU-Min Park, ‘In North Korea, men call the shots, women make the money ’ (REUTERS, May 25th 2015) <> accessed February 21st 2024.

[viii] Brad Adams, Phil Robertson, Heather Barr et al. (n i).

[ix] ibid.

[x] Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (adopted 18 December 1979, entered into force 3 September 1981) 1249 UNTS 1 (CEDAW).

[xi] Brad Adams, Phil Robertson, Heather Barr et al. (n i).

[xii] Christian Davies, ‘Kim turns on ‘black market breadwinners’’ (Financial Times, January 12th 2022) <> accessed February 21st 2024.

[xiii] Brad Adams, Phil Robertson, Heather Barr et al. (n i).

[xiv] ibid.

[xv] A/HRC/25/36 (n vi), 16.