'Ashamed and scared': Group details 'endemic' sex abuse in North Korea

SEOUL, Nov 1 (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 generalized 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.

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Kim Jong Un waves to the crowd as he attends mass games on the occasion of�he 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
People carry flags in front of statues of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung (L) and late leader Kim Jong Il during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People perform during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Soldiers march during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
North Koreans tour on a vessel on the Yalu river outside Sinuiju, North Korea, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, on the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jacky Chen
Soldiers march during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
A man cycles past a North Korean soldier in Sinuiju, North Korea, on the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation, September 9, 2018. Picture taken from the Yalu river which separates North Korea and China. REUTERS/Jacky Chen
Soldiers march during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Soldiers salute a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Soldiers march during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Soldiers march during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
People wave plastic flowers and flags during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
People perform during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Soldiers march during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Students perform during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Soldiers march during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
People wave plastic flowers and flags during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Soldiers march with the portrait of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of country's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
People carry flags in front of statues of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung (L) and late leader Kim Jong Il during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
People wave plastic flowers during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
A soldier salutes as he rides a tank during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
People carry North Korean national flags during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Soldiers ride a multiple rocket launcher during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Self propelled artillery roll pass during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Attendees lay a wreath during the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation, in this undated photo released on September 9, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
Attendees offer flowers during the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation, in this undated photo released on September 9, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
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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 modernize 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 favors.

"Ironically, many of the women who are at the center 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)

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A photo illustration shows corn powder-based rice cakes made by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye at her North Korean food store in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
A photo illustration shows North Korean sausage "sundae" cooked by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye at her North Korean food store in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
A photo illustration shows corn rice and rice displayed at a North Korean food store run by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
North Korean candy is seen in this picture illustration taken in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye demonstrates how North Korean people make rice cakes with corn powder at her North Korean food store in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
A photo illustration shows North Korean snacks at a North Korean food store run by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
A photo illustration shows "Injogogi", which means a textured vegetable protein, at a North Korean food store run by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
A photo illustration shows North Korean candy at a North Korean food store run by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
A photo illustration shows a dish of "Injogogi-bab", which means rice with textured vegetable protein, cooked by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye at her North Korean food store in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
A photo illustration shows packed North Korean powdered spices in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
A photo illustration shows North Korean candy at a North Korean food store run by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
A photo illustration shows a dish of "Injogogi-bab", which means rice with textured vegetable protein, cooked by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye at her North Korean food store in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
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