Before the beginning of exam season I had the incredible honour and pleasure of being invited to attend the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea Conference on Addressing Violence against Women and Girls in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It was a very engaging, eye-opening and fascinating event with experts delivering presentations on women’s and girls’ rights, gender-based violence, human trafficking, North Korean governance, development reconstruction, international justice mechanisms and foreign policy. But perhaps most importantly, I remember the words of those North Korean women who we were fortunate to hear from on that day.
Living in Hong Kong for two years has strongly sparked my interest in the political happenings of the East Asian nations and studying at a UWC meant having visited many conferences and events on the DPRK’s nuclear weapons, Asia’s regional security concerns and even North Korean human rights. But rarely did those of us who attend these conferences hear from as many female voices — let alone North Korean female voices — as we did during that conference. I deeply wish for many more gatherings and political meetings – particularly those that deal with topics such as human trafficking – to give more opportunities for female and indigenous voices to be heard.
Following welcome speeches by James Burt, Fiona Bruce MP, and Deuk-Hwan Kim (Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of the Republic of Korea in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland), the morning sessions covered two important areas:
- Gendered violations and discrimination
The human trafficking of North Korean women and girls (a field I have a particular interest in due to my previous work with ictims of human trafficking in Hong Kong and Cambodia)
In our first session, the largely unknown and overlooked institutional and psychological structures of abuse were looked at in detail by Shirley Lee. I realized that this is an area that needs to be analyzed more often when addressing the issue of violence on a national level . We then heard of the direct and horrifying impact of violence against women from Choi Min Kyeong, a North Korean exile who broke down in tears while sharing her stories. She is an incredibly strong and brave woman and I cannot imagine how terrifying it must be for her to live in fear of her government and to overcome all the trauma she has experienced. The session concluded with an enlightening overview from Jane Gordon on how governments may address violence against women and girls through their foreign policies and international obligations. Mrs Gordon has great experience in this field and served as gender advisor and sexual and gender based violence investigator with the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic — to which there are parallels to be drawn with North Korea. At this point in the conferene I had almost filled up my notebook completely and was wishing that my BA degree at LSE would allow me to study and address these topics in more depth.
In the second session, James Burt provided an overview of the pulls and pushes of the human trafficking of North Korean women and girls in the realms of forced marriage and sexual slavery. We then got a more in depth insight into the the repercussions of human trafficking for North Korean women and the harsh lives of women and girls hiding in China through the testimony of Kang Mi Jin. Ms. Kang arrived in South Korea just six years ago and now works as a reporter for the Daily NK. We applauded her for her bravery and I still do so in my mind when thinking of her story. She survived human trafficking and forced prostitution, rape and violence…. I have no words to describe how strong and touching her speech was. Finally, Aidan McQuade spoke of the international tools that may aid the tens of thousands of North Korean victims of human trafficking and modern day slavery who remain hidden and vulnerable in China.
After lunch, session three honed in on the international legal mechanisms that may be able to improve the rights of North Korea’s women and girls. David Hawk, who has long worked in thisfield and produced extremely important research on North Korea’s prison camp network, assessed Pyongyang’s responses to the international community’s actions in international fora, to which the UN Commission of Inquiry has been an integral and motivating force. Shin Heisoo then described the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and other emerging human rights mechanisms that are, it seems, much needed to protect women and girls in North Korea. I strongly hope that the important messages of Ms. Shin are looked at in the South Korean National Assembly and by those who implement that country’s North Korean Human Rights Act. It would lead to an important and necessary change. Finally, Sir Geoffrey Nice talked us through the challenges connected to a referral of those suspected of crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court, but also of tantalising legal mechanisms beyond the ICC. We live in an incredibly cruel and complicated world… this is a topic I will take a deeper look at for one of my in-class essays and hopefully also write about in an upcoming blogpost.
In the following session, which was titled ‘Nothing About Us, Without Us’, the thoughts of two North Korean women, Park Jihyun and Kim Kyung Hee, were heard. Both now live in the United Kingdom and their thoughts on where they have come from, where they see their futures, and the future of their country were extremely important to hear and I think that listening to people in exile and getting a first-hand impression of the situation in a country rather than simply referring to books or the Western media is incredibly important. In the final session of the day, we heard of different paths that the international community can take to improve the rights of women and girls when fundamental and transformational change occurs in North Korea. I will now be dropping names that most likely do not mean much to many of you, yet I consider it important to name and thank those people I met and listened to during the conference and who gave me an indescribably beautiful amount of food for thought:
I want to thank Christine Chinkin for providing her thoughts on securing women’s rights in development reconstruction; K.C. Kim, who gave fantastic ideas on the spread and dispersal of information throughout North Korea and its borderlands; Jo Baker for sharing her insights on how truth and reconciliation commissions can account for gender; Kim Young Hwan, who enlightened us with his pointers on potential areas of conflict and cooperation in the transitional era; In-Sook Chappell for describing her novel thoughts on how art may become a bridge of understanding between societies in conflict; and Jang Jin Sung who illustrated his views on a human rights management system and the importance of identity. All of these inputs have reserved a very special place in my notebooks and my mind.
All in all it was a well organized event with fantastic speakers and a very open-minded and versatile approach to an important issue. The violation of human rights is a crime against humanity, and entirely unacceptable, not only in North Korea, but all over the worlds. Governments, the United Nations and all of us involved in fields concerning human rights and must take this issue with the seriousness that it deserves and work together for a better future for this world’s women and girls. I will be staying in touch with a few delegates from the conference and hopefully have the opportunity to attend a few more events of this kind and on this issue. Stay tuned!
All photos in this blogpost: © Human Atlas