By Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) - Sexual abuse by North Korean officials appears to be "endemic", a watchdog group reported on Thursday, as activists complain the isolated country's rights record is being ignored as an international push is made to improve relations.
Investigators with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed more than 100 North Koreans who had left the country - including more than 50 who left since 2011 - and described unwanted sexual contact and violence as "so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life".
Gathering information in North Korea is notoriously difficult, and HRW acknowledged its survey was too limited to provide a generalised sample.
But the testimonies paint a picture of sexual abuse - including rape - that is so widespread that many of the women interviewed did not understand that coercive sex should not be an almost every-day occurrence, said one investigator who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the work.
The North Korean delegation to the United Nations in Geneva issued a statement to Reuters in response to the report, "strongly rejecting" the allegations as "trite" and "fictitious".
"This is yet another futile attempt by some dishonest and hostile forces, who feel uneasy with the ongoing trend toward peace, reconciliation, prosperity and cooperation on the Korean peninsula, to hinder the rapprochement by raising the so-called 'human rights' issue of our country with unfounded and fictitious stories," it said.
The global #MeToo movement has pushed to end sexual abuse, but HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said there appeared to be little progress in North Korea, despite economic reforms and a stated intention to modernise under leader Kim Jong Un's authoritarian government.
"This is not a regime-threatening issue," Roth told Reuters. "So that is why it is particularly appalling that the government is not doing anything to prevent sexual abuse by officials."
Those interviewed described abuse and rape by police, prison guards, and even officials who oversee some of the growing private markets, who exact bribes in the form of sexual favours.
"Ironically, many of the women who are at the centre of the economic opening that Kim says he cares about are the most at risk," Roth said.
"Pervasive" social stigma meant many victims never discuss abuse, the group said.
"I was ashamed and scared," one woman who said she was raped told HRW investigators. "Everybody would have blamed me."
The Korea Future Initiative rights group said of North Korea in a March report that "a thinly disguised misogyny pervades all that the government touches, allowing perpetrators to find shelter in its institutions and society’s patriarchal conventions".
As South Korea and the United States focus on diplomacy with North Korea, rights and defector groups in the South have said they are struggling to raise money and are facing pressure to avoid criticism of North Korea.
U.N. investigators have reported the use of political prison camps, starvation and executions in North Korea, saying security chiefs and possibly even leader Kim himself should face international justice.
Up to 120,000 people are held in political prison camps, the top U.N. North Korea rights official reported last year.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)