A North Korean refugee has recounted how she was repeatedly raped by two South Korean spies, shedding a fresh spotlight on the widespread abuse of women during the dangerous process of defecting from the authoritarian North.
In an interview with Reuters, the woman, identified only by her surname, Lee, said she thought she had found a father figure when she was approached by a mysterious man called Dr Seong, who was a Defence Intelligence Command official.
Initially she believed Dr Seong could help establish her new life in the South after he began paying her for information and helped to reconnect her with her brother, who remained behind in the North.
However, her new life took a dark turn when Dr Seong and his colleague, identified as Mr Kim, began to sexually abuse her. This month they were both indicted by military prosecutors on charges of sexually assaulting and raping Ms Lee.
The young woman, in her early thirties, is not alone in facing a harsh new reality in a country she had hoped would be a refuge. According to a 2017 survey by South Korea’s gender equality ministry, more than 72 per cent of 33,700 resettled North Koreans are women and at least a quarter of them encountered sexual violence but less than 10 per cent sought help.
Ms Lee accused the two intelligence officials of abusing their power. “I was mad at myself, for being unable to resist when they did that to me,” she said. “After all, they were the first people I trusted, respected and relied on here.”
The assaults began after she pleaded for help when her brother was arrested in 2018 while trying to get information that Dr Seong had requested. He had been working at a military institute where she had also been employed before defecting in 2014 at age 26.
The abuse continued for nearly a year and a half and she was pressed to get two abortions and suffered severe distress to point where she was left suicidal.
The defence ministry and a lawyer for the two men did not respond to Reuters requests for comment but the military’s chief prosecutor, Colonel Lee Soo-dong, said the accused had consensual sexual intercourse with the woman but denied rape.
Ms Lee’s case highlights the vulnerable position of North Korean women at every stage of the treacherous path to defection.
Last year, a report by the London-based Korea Future Initiative, revealed how thousands of fleeing North Korean women and girls are being subjected to forced marriage, prostitution and sadistic abuse by trafficking gangs running a multi-million dollar illicit sex industry in China.
The KFI report, based on the accounts of 45 survivors, showed that the women ensnared by the gangs face the terrible choice of becoming sex slaves or being repatriated to the oppressive state where they face torture in bleak prison camps or possible execution.
One 14-year-old girl told of how she had been sold for marriage for £2,740. Others described being starved, imprisoned and abused live on camera in sordid cybersex dens that feed the world’s insatiable desire for online pornography.
Yoon Hee-soon, the report’s author estimated that the exploitation of North Korean women and girls generates at least £82 million a year for the Chinese underworld.
“Commonly aged between 12-29 and overwhelmingly female, victims are coerced, sold, or abducted in China or trafficked directly from North Korea,” she said. “Many are sold more than once and are forced into at least one form of sexual slavery within a year of leaving their homeland.”