Forced Abortions, Collective Punishment: Here’s What Happens to Women Who Try to Escape North Korea

A United Nations report reveals “heartbreaking” state-sponsored punishment for women who attempt to cross the border and are repatriated.
north korea
This file photo shows women wearing traditional Korean dress gathered on the outskirts of Pyongyang on September 11, 2018, to celebrate North Korea's 70th anniversary of the country's founding.
Photo by Ed JONES / AFP

Secrecy continues to shroud the hermit kingdom, but countless news reports and investigations have pointed to crimes against humanity and rife human rights abuses. On Tuesday, the United Nations published a report detailing systemic abuses specifically against women who attempt to leave North Korea.

The report was created through interviews of over 100 women, who were able to escape the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK), but were subjected to forced repatriation and detention from 2009 to 2019. The 100 first-hand accounts confirmed patterns of human rights violations during detention by State authorities, including physical and sexual abuse, torture, and collective punishment.


“It is heartbreaking to read these stories of women who fled their country looking to make ends meet, but who ended up being punished. These are women who have often been the victims of exploitation and trafficking who should be taken care of, not detained and subjected to further human rights violations,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in a statement along with the report. “These women have a right to justice, truth and reparation.”

Citizens of the DPRK who want to travel abroad must secure passports and permits, which in practice are given to individuals who are considered “loyal” to the DPRK, according to the report. So some irregularly and unlawfully cross the border for financial or social reasons— an action punishable by up to five years of imprisonment. They are labeled in the country as “traitors.”

The journey across the border itself is dangerous, and those who attempt the journey often fall victim to human traffickers for labor or sexual exploitation, as well as forced marriage.

But inside the centers back in North Korea, grim conditions also await them.

The report detailed how women were placed in crowded, unsanitary conditions where they were constantly watched by male guards. In the holding centers, they were given insufficient food, little access to daylight and denial of access to facilities and women’s hygiene products.

One woman said that during her time in prison, around six people died, most by malnutrition.


In pre-trial detention centers run by the State, women were required to sit completely still in a kneeling or cross-legged position from morning until evening, with short breaks for eating and interrogation, one woman detained in 2016 described.

“Since it was very painful to stay in the same position for a long time, I moved a bit. I was asked to do push-ups for 100 times as a punishment. I only managed to do 30 times. I then told the officer that I would rather be punished differently than doing push-ups. I was beaten two times with a steel rod,” the woman said.

“I was beaten with a club by a preliminary investigation officer and was kicked by the officer… If one is found to have gone to a South Korean church while staying in China, they are dead. I therefore tried hard not to reveal my life in China,” said another witness who escaped to China in the report. “I was beaten up as a result. I was beaten to a level that my rib was broken. I still feel the pain.”

Another former detainee recounted her experiences of collective punishment at a short-term labour camp in 2012. She said that if 100 people were working at a manual labor site, and only one did not meet the quota, all 100 were punished by doing rounds in the yard in the morning.

One woman said that in one center, guards ruled that detainees could not make eye contact with officers outside the cell. When she accidentally did so, all of the detainees were told to hold their hands behind their backs and stand up and down repeatedly. The interviewee passed out and then was beaten until she lost consciousness.


Some women told the UN that they were subjected to forced nudity and invasive body searches. Still others reported or witnessed sexual violence by guards.

One detained woman described being raped in an officer’s room during one of her first nights of detention. He said he could get her released early if she “did as he said,” and threatened her when she did not.

When another woman shared with officials her experiences of sexual harassment in a pre-trial detention facility, all detainees in her cell were denied food as punishment.

Pregnant detainees were also targeted by guards, who subjected them to beatings or hard labour to cause abortions, the UN wrote.

Because one guard knew that the returnee had Chinese blood and would give birth to a mixed-race baby, a woman was forced to abort despite her desire to keep the pregnancy, one interviewee recounted.

With late-stage pregnancies, some officers revert to cruel physical methods. One woman said that a pregnant detainee was forced to “fall on her hips” to force a miscarriage. Another interviewee said that the guards “put bricks on her back and forced her to walk around” in order to prompt an abortion.

North Korean human rights activist Jihyun Park—who defected, was repatriated, and then tortured in a DPRK labour camp before finding her way to the United Kingdom—took to Twitter to say, “It’s great that violations of #NorthKorea women inside North Korea are finally on the international agenda.”

The United Nations recommended that the DPRK Government “bring the detention system into line” with international standards, as well as ensure citizens are guaranteed freedom to leave and enter the country. They urged other countries not to repatriate North Koreans at risk of serious human rights violations.

Bachelet said that the United Nations must “keep seeking pathways to proper accountability,” and will continue gathering evidence to support a “process of criminal accountability.”

North Korea did not immediately react to the report but has denied any rampant sexual violence against women in the past.