Children’s and Women’s Rights in North Korea

Nynke Krol - 17.03.2021

North Korea is one of the strictest and most controlled countries today. This leads to certain human rights concerns, especially for women and children. This includes the discrimination, abuse, and sexual assaults that women have to face. But one the most significant concerns is the labour, prison and the detention camps which the government uses for forced and unpaid labour from their citizens.

North Korea and International human rights

North Korea is a party to most United Nations Treaties that aim to protect human rights. This includes the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. But unfortunately, the state is known for not adhering to the rights within them.

Women and children as particularly vulnerable groups

Gender equality

Although the conditions for women and children have significantly improved over the last few years, they still face a difficult life. In addition to the difficulties that affect the entire population in general, such as the restriction of certain rights including the right to freedom of expression, women also face sexual assaults, discrimination, and gender-based violence.

North Korea is considered as a very patriarchal state. North Korea has predominantly held that they have been actively working on minimizing and removing gender role stereotypes, but they have not adequately done so yet.

After the Korean war, they campaigned for gender equality. However, not for the benefit of the women. They needed them to help rebuilt their economy. The women still played a significant part in the rebuilding of North Korea, and the state even handed out awards towards its female citizens. But once the economy improved to the point where the women were not needed anymore, North Korea stopped promoting gender equality.

As of today, men are still considered as the head of the household, or the “breadwinners”, and the women should stay at home. North Korea is considered as a male-dominant society. Starting in childhood, boys will mostly be favored over the girls. And unfortunately, this favoritism carries on into adulthood. Women are often deprived of education and job opportunities due to their gender. However, women should be given equal opportunities as men, as established in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women finds that North Korea is actively reinforcing their social and cultural views regarding women. The state views women as subservient to men, and they should be considered as the primary caregivers.

Because of these gender roles, women often do not pursue a higher education. And even if they do, they are often not accepted at universities, and their job prospects are limited. Therefore, Women are mostly limited to their household tasks, which include cooking and taking care of the children. Even if a woman is suffering mentally, emotionally, or physically, they are still responsible for the family and household.

Women are praised when they do a good job at cleaning the house, or when they cook a good meal. The men find that women should not get a high position or function in society, and if they do, this reflects badly on the household, including the husband.

However, Kim Jong Un seems to be taking a different stance then his predecessors regarding female leadership. He has awarded numerous women high-level positions.

Physical and Sexual Abuse of women

North Korea has adopted a law on the protection and promotion of the rights of women in 2011 which prohibits domestic violence. But women still are not adequality protected from such acts. Studies have shown that the majority of women today face domestic abuse.

North Korea has taken the position that such matters should be resolved within the family, even if the victim has reported the assault or abuse. Because of this, women often do not report the act at all. Women do not believe that they, as a victim, will be protected and that their assailant will face any consequence at all. Even if the man is reported, this only in exceptional circumstances results in a conviction. Because of these low conviction rates, North Korea has concluded that their state is nearly free of any domestic abuse or sexual violence. Furthermore, North Korea does not offer any form of victim-aid such as safe-houses or clinics.

The UN Human Rights Council has even stated that “abuse and violence towards women is so common and public that it has been accepted as a part of daily life”. Women are taught, starting when they are children, that they are not equal to boys, and they are blamed for the assault or abuse.

Women often have to endure sexual assault sexual harassment, and rape, especially in the workplace. The army is a good example of this. Many women want to join the “Worker’s Party of Korea” since this would lead to higher chances of a successful life. However, many senior male officials will see this as a way to harass and exploit young women, and they will threaten the women with blocking their chances to join the party if they attempt to report the abuse.


North Korea is also a difficult place for children to grow up. Almost the majority of North Korean citizens live in poverty, meaning that many children will grow up poor. This ultimately also affects their basic human rights, such as the right to food, as enshrined in article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The unique location of North Korea, which leaves the majority of the land infertile, makes it difficult to acquire enough food to sufficiently feed all citizens. This, in combination with the poverty faced by many families, often leaves children hungry and malnourished. However, the government does provide for food rations, but this is often not enough.

North Korea does provide for the education of children. All citizens must have completed at least 11 years of education. These 11 years are often completed when the child is 15 or 16 years old. However, North Korea is known to use the education to promote their political ideologies and to ensure that the citizens will be loyal towards his party. Students spend many hours learning about the Kim Jong Un and his family. Some mandatory courses include “Kim Jong-Un’s Revolutionary Acts”, “Kim Jong-Un’s Revolutionary History” and “Philosophy of the Juche ideology”. The education system seems to ensure that the citizens meet certain “political criteria”, rather than providing them with a sufficient education.

Furthermore, there have been many reports by former students saying that they have had to perform unpaid labour. For example, if a school would be close to a farm, children would often have to perform work such as harvesting fruit or planting trees. Many students have also said that they did not have any time to rest, since they would either be at school, or they would have to work, including the weekends. However, according to the North Korean constitution, children under the age of 16 are not allowed to perform such physical labour. But this is currently happening. Such labour also triggers article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child since that article seeks to protect children from economic exploitation, and work that would interfere with their education and their mental and physical health.


North Korea has a high maternal mortality rate, it is far above the global average. These deaths do not just stem from the birth itself. There are no conditions for postnatal care in hospitals, which results in women going home too soon after they have given birth. When at home, they could face complications from the birth, and there is nothing to be done about that. Furthermore, if a child is born with any sort of deformity or disability, they are often not fed which results in starvation or they are suffocated.

The food crisis is also not helping with the already poor health system. A survey has shown that a third of north Korean women suffer from anemia. In north Korea, the most common cause for anemia is iron deficiency. Women are more susceptible to this, and it makes them especially vulnerable during childbirth. Anemia is therefore also a big contributor to maternal mortality.

Moreover, the health facilities are often inadequate and outdated. Many health facilities lack heating, running water, proper lighting and power cuts often occur. The medical staff is underpaid and there is little to no medicine to their dispense. The hygiene in the facilities is most of the time very poor, which negatively impacts the health of the patients.

Lastly, there is a country wide shortage of medicine. According to North Korea, medicine is provided for free at health facilities, and is not provided at pharmacies. Medicine is rarely available, and if it is, the patient must often pay for it. Because of the shortage, many procedures are often done without anesthesia.

It is accepted as common knowledge, that many times, doctors will sell the medicine to private vendors, to earn extra money, since they often work for little wage. This also means, that the doctors will usually require the patient or their family to buy the medicine from private parties.

Repatriated defectors

The vast majority of citizens fleeing North Korea are women. Thousands of women flee to China each year, with their ultimate goal of reaching south Korea, where they will be given citizenship, and where they can enjoy basic human rights. Because women face a harder life in North Korea, prone to more human rights abuses, there are not as many men fleeing North Korea as there are women.

However, their journey to South-Korea is not without dangers. Firstly, many women are sold and trafficked, mostly to rural Chinese farmers. There are many more men in china then women, this means that not all men are able to find a wife, and they often resort to buying one. The North Korean women are often also sold into the sex trade.

Furthermore, when the women are discovered by China, they will be sent back to North Korea where they face harsh punishments. Back in North Korea, the women are sent firstly to state security centers. After this, they will be sent to either labor-camps or short-term detention centers.

In these state security centers, they are physically and verbally abused. Sometimes for weeks at a time. They are starved, beaten, tortured, and subjected to invasive body searches.

If a woman is pregnant, they are treated harsher than women that are not. The guards often force abortions, these are performed without proper medical equipment, medical personnel, and anesthesia. There have also been numerous reports of women being beaten to induce a miscarriage. If the woman manages to keep their baby to the point where she has to give birth, the child is killed or abandoned.

Children are not treated any better at these centers. They are likewise subjected to physical and verbal abuse during the interrogation process. And they must furthermore perform forced labor without proper nutrition. However, there have also been some reports which have stated that the children were given an education and released after.

North Korean camps

One of the most important human rights concerns in North Korea is the forced and unpaid labour by the citizens. The government uses citizens detained in prison camps, labour camps and detention centers for such work. Such labour is also known as “Portrayals of loyalty”. Many citizens have been detained in such facilities at least once in their lifetime. An example of such a facility is Kwanliso 16 which is currently one of the biggest political prison camps in North Korea.

The conditions in these facilities are generally known to be harsh beyond endurance, as described by Amnesty International, especially during the winter. The citizens in the facilities have to do hard labour work in often extreme and dangerous conditions. Sometimes even without basic necessities such as proper clothes.

Especially the prison camps are problematic. Citizens can be detained for many things, including minor crimes such as watching an illegal DVD. Even such small crimes can be punished harshly. Citizens that have committed a political crime are punished particularly hard. Often, they are sent to brutal labour camps where they have to do work such as logging and mining. Furthermore, not even all the citizens have committed crimes. Due to the collective punishment policy, if one family member is found guilty, their whole family, including the women and children could possibly be sent to the prison camps.

These camps are horrible and not suited for children to grow up in. They have to endure torture, abuse, malnutrition, poor sanitation, to name a few. These conditions lead to a high mortality rate of the children that are located in these camps.

Women in the camps are also subjected to serious human rights concerns. This includes gender-based violence, sexual violence, torture, and ill-treatment and more. There have been many reports of women that were beaten during interrogations in order to extract information.

The conditions in the detention centers and prisons are furthermore also not sufficient. There have been many reports of overcrowding, sometimes there would be over 15 women in a 15-square-meter cell. Women have also reported that they had to sit still in a certain position for longer periods of time, and they would be punished if they dared to move. These punishments would range from beating to deprivation of food. The guards often also use collective punishments. For example, if only one woman would not be able to meet the required work quota for that day, all women would be punished.

The detainees are also routinely harassed by the male guards. Former detainees have said that they had to wash themselves whilst the male guards were watching them. Furthermore, international law requires women detainees to be supervised by female guards. But former detainees have said that this was rarely the case. The only exception would be that the initial body search upon entering the camp would usually be performed by female officials.

There have also been many reports of women who were raped or sexually harassed by guards whilst they were in detention. Rape is categorized as a criminal offence under North Korea’s criminal law; however, the women are usually not able to report the incident. And if they try, some women have stated that they would be punished even further. Women in labour camps have also reported that women would sometimes sexually exploit themselves in exchange for less demanding work, or for food.

Lastly, under international law, everyone should have access to healthcare, and especially prisons and other similar facilities should have a healthcare system in place. However, former detainees and other witness have said that usually there was no healthcare at all in these facilities, and if there is, detainees would often still not receive proper medical assistance due to their inability to pay for it.


To conclude, the situation in North Korea gives rise to numerous human rights concerns. Even though they are a party to numerous international treaties that aim to protect human rights, they do not always comply with the obligations that these treaties confer. Women and children, have it particularly difficult. Children often grow up poor which leads to malnutrition and there have been many reports of students having to perform forced labour. Furthermore, they often do not receive a proper education. Women have to face discrimination, domestic abuse, gender-based violence and sexual assaults. The prison and detention camps are especially concerning. The conditions in the camps are highly problematic, and the guards and officers routinely abuse their positions.