Case of Ko Hyon-chol and Other Unsavory Tales of Sexual Abuse in South Korea

P 12.01.2019 U Konstantin Asmolov

Ko-Hyon-chol

Once the story criticizing a report on mass-rape in DPRK was published, its author has faced with a fierce backlash. Many people were unwilling to believe that by “presenting notorious stories not as exceptions but as examples of daily tactics, and by then employing a similar approach, it is possible to put together quite a fascinating report, with a far less dramatic title, but dedicated not to North but South Korea”.

In the text below, we will discuss sexual abuse defectors from DPRK are subjected to on route to “the promised land” and on arrival there. The author became interested in this subject after South Korean authorities demanded that ROK’s citizen Ko Hyon-chol be granted freedom on 15 July 2016. In 2013, the 53-year-old Ko Hyon-chol left North Korea via China (more precisely, he defected once an investigation into his smuggling activities had begun). The next year he arrived in South Korea, and on 27 May 2016, he was apprehended while crossing the border with PRC. Having crossed it in a rubber boat, he was arrested a few hours later in North Korean territory.

During a press conference, which South Korea labelled as stage-managed and used to distract the public from the case of “defected waitresses”, Ko Hyon-chol declared that his crime was unforgivable. But we are more interested in the crux of a crime, committed on orders from the South Korean intelligence services, which Ko Hyon-chol had been collaborating with from December 2015. His mission was to kidnap two orphan girls in exchange for 10,000 US dollars each.

According to Ko Hyon-chol, the girls were meant to be used for propaganda purposes but there are other plausible reasons. The simplest one is that the orphans had relatives who had paid Ko Hyon-chol to take the children out of the country. However, such relations failed to come forward. Hence, we have to consider yet another reason, that the girls were to be kidnapped and used as underage sex slaves. And Ko Hyon-chol happened to be one of typical (so-called) brokers – human traffickers, who the West chooses to portray as “noble smugglers helping DPRK residents defect from a totalitarian hell”.

China’s organized crime groups are engaged in such lucrative activities, and so are South Korean human smuggler organizations, disguised as human rights groups and often granted protections by Protestant sects. For obvious reasons, there is not much information about their activities, which is why the author is forced to rely on dubious sources. Hence, he is obliged to highlight that everything he will discuss further on, without supporting references, is comparable in trustworthiness to, say, notorious statements made by defectors about torture and horrors in DPRK. Only occasionally, do incidents related to these activities come to light, when yet another pastor is arrested in China or North Korea, and human trafficking is included in the list of charges against him.

Brokers have close ties to the military and state officials on both sides of the border and help female defectors cross it in exchange for payment. However, once in China, female defectors discover that they had already been sold, with any luck, into marriage with a Chinese farmer.  In 2009, prices for obedient wives were $3,000 for a young woman and $700 for an older lady.

It is not uncommon for a broker to pass on a woman to a local mafia that sells her on their black market to buyers in any part of the nation. Once in the criminal network, most women end up in Chinese brothels where price tags are $25 per girl.

Even if we peruse memoirs of female career defectors, such as Yeonmi Park or Lee Hyeon-seo, few kind words about Chinese brokers are mentioned in them. And if we are to look at selected terrifying tales of other female defectors, half of their horrors are not associated with life in DPRK, which is simply described in terms of hunger and ruin, but with what happened to them in China, and this includes sexual slavery.

According to data from 2005, 70 to 80 % of female defectors are forced into prostitution.

Rev. Chun Ki-won, of the Durihana Mission, states that “from the moment North Korean women defectors see the brokers pay North Korean soldiers on the crossing, they are at the mercy of the brokers…. Whether they knew it or not, or whether they wanted it or not, they are victims of human trafficking that has become a systemized method to defect from North Korea to China.”

In an interview on 17 December 2018, Chun Ki-won described how he had saved two North Korean women, who had been locked in a flat in China and had been forced to satisfy their clients’ wishes during a live stream on a pornographic website. They were 27 and 24 years of age, and their length of service in the sex trade was 5 and 8 years, respectively. A Chinese man, who had hired them, told them that he would free them if they “worked hard” for several years, but he did not keep his word. Some victims were younger than 13 years of age. They were separated from their parents after crossing the border.

Human right advocates are also familiar with the story of Lee Kyeong Sil, who was 19 years old when she was tricked and sold to traffickers in China. She became a sex slave in the Chinese province of Shandong. After being mistreated for 7 months, Lee Kyeong Sil managed to escape and reach a settlement of Chinese Koreans, from where she then moved to Seoul.

The situation that people, transported to the South typically via Southeast Asia, find themselves in is similar. These journeys cost a certain amount of money, and if a woman does not come from a sufficiently rich family, or if her defection can not be widely promoted as “a flight towards freedom”, then she is left with the first option of paying the expenses with her own body. Women who are headstrong or are unable to pay remain in brothels in Laos or other countries, or end up at the bottom of the Mekong river.

The other option depends on how wide-spread sexual activity and “blood purification rituals” are among Korean pastors. In this context, the name of Sun Myung Moon comes to mind. He was sentenced to prison in DPRK for his proclivity for sexual depravity. But he only happens to be the most notorious enthusiast of raping underage youngsters during sexual rituals. The author has learned that some sects even performed special rituals to prompt DPRK’s collapse. The key feature of these cults was the presence of underage youngsters, taken from North Korea, in their ranks. Based on the principles of sympathetic magic, rape and torture of these young people was meant to cause a downfall of Kim Jong-un, inspired by magic. Victims had to die in the most agonizing way. And this was done with impunity as no one was going to search for a refugee, who had been illegally brought to the country.

A far less terrifying option is to end up in a golden cage of a pedophilic harem. Fortunately for criminals, underage female defectors can be convinced that “in comparison to DPRK, their new abode is heaven, which means these girls need to obey all the orders of the God’s emissary who had brought them there”. We can recall that Sun Myung Moon’s followers were not the only ones to have been accused of staging orgies with underage sect members, who were given direct orders to please the right people to ensure Korea prospered. According to, admittedly, unconfirmed sources, Ko Hyon-chol and his “kin” were involved in smuggling teenagers for similar purposes.

If we are to abandon the topic on pedophiles and return to the subject of old-fashioned prostitution or harassment, another point is worth highlighting. Women, ensnared in these criminal networks, often explain that talking about rape committed in the South is equivalent to “indirectly glorifying the North”, which is punishable by ROK’s National Security Law.  Hence, it may be worth posing the following question “How often do female defectors describing sexual slavery in the North actually refer to their experience in the South?”. Unfortunately, the author is not in a position tot answer this question.

Clearly, in any serious investigation, such stories will more often be dismissed as rumors, but we are discussing “mass-rape in South Korea” using the same approach, employed by the authors of the report on North Korea.  And if we are to choose different incidents, we can still select some notorious tales on the topic in question from the latest news.

In 2018 alone, South Korea was rocked by two notorious scandals involving sexual abuse (which could easily be construed as systematic rape in the context of what was described by the Human Rights Watch report) and two powerful politicians from the ruling party and the government (Ahn Hee-jung and Lee Jae-myung). In the incident with the former, the accuser was a secretary, while with the latter, an actress. Both of these scandals resulted in protracted trials, which ended with servile and misogynistic justices ruling that, since the cases amounted to “her word against his” (with no other evidence), the presumption of innocence was applicable and no rape had taken place. What is this if not a proof of the fact that the state chooses to close its eyes to the reality of rape culture, especially if people involved have power?

South Korean girls are subjected to systematic rape in schools, where the second wave of the “Me Too” movement began. Such scandals have been publicized since at least 2008. For example, the Miryang gang rape incident involved a gang of male students who systematically raped girls from lower grades, with these scenes filmed for subsequent use for blackmail.  And when the victims finally reported the crimes to the police, the response from law enforcement officials and parents amounted to the following: “the girls were the guilty parties, they had probably seduced the boys and then decided to ruin their lives”. In the end, the police were found guilty of neglect of duty, but no one was convicted of rape. Out of 41 alleged sexual abusers, only a few faced any form of punishment and were sent to a juvenile detention center.

In a 2018 incident, 11 students from middle and high schools were accused of systematically raping minors. Since most of the rapists happened to be underage boys, their punishment was limited to disciplinary measures.

The number of widely publicized stories in the media (and as you very well know, most of these do not reach court rooms) are indicative of an extremely high incidence of domestic abuse involving rape of adopted daughters or daughters’ friends. For example, a man convicted of systematically abusing his adopted teenage daughter for 5 years was sentenced to only six years in prison; a father who molested his 15-year-old daughter after he had drugged her with sleeping pills received a 5-year prison term, and a mother who aided and abetted her lover in raping her daughter got a 4-year sentence.

Notorious tales of fathers who rape appear practically every year. And if statistics released by the Prosecutors’ Office are to be believed, annually, approximately 500 children fall victim to sexual abuse by their parents, and, as a rule, these incidents involve systematic rape, which starts during childhood and not in their teenage years.

Still, on 29 November 2018 the Supreme Court of Korea upheld life sentence for an individual, who had strangled a 14-year-old girl after drugging and sexually abusing her. However, the harsh sentence, delivered in this case, stemmed from the fact that murder was committed and the accused became house-hold name after appearing in a TV show in 2000s.

On 29 November 2018, a special law was passed in South Korea that prohibits individuals convicted of sexual abuse or of cruelty to children from working in the delivery service sphere. If we were to use the same logic as the authors of the report on DPRK, the introduction of this law is indicative of the number of pizza delivery staff who turn out to be rapists.

We can also recall periodic scandals involving female teenage athletes who endured systematic physical and sexual abuse, used as punishment for underperforming, in training camps.

Other instances of abuse include acts committed against followers by members of totalitarian Protestant sects, in which ritualistic sex with a pastor is viewed as a norm within a congregation. Such stories are in abundance and the most recent involves the odious pastor Lee Jae-rock, who finally received a 15-year sentence not only for systematically raping his followers (7 cases of sexual abuse against him had been proven) but also for committing fraud. Nevertheless, the church, led by him, has more than 140,000 members.

“A hero” of yet another scandal is a 35-year-old pastor Kim from Incheon, who allegedly sexually abused at least 26 teenage girls. He gradually earned their trust, and then had sex with them. He made promises of marriage to his victims and claimed that engaging in sexual acts was a form of cleansing that helped rid him of memories of rape by his own uncle. Pastor Kim typically molested several victims at any given time. Church leadership was aware of his misconduct but chose to conceal these deeds for 10 years, as Kim was the son of the head of the congregation. And when these stories of abuse began to surface, victims were threatened, blackmailed and even accused of heresy.

Based on police data, more than 680 men of cloth were arrested for sexual assault from 2010 to 2016, but experts believe that many other crimes remain unreported. The head of a Christian counseling center on issues involving sexual violence against women, Chae Soo Ji, notes how prevalent such incidents are, as young Christian girls, especially those with family problems, regard their pastor as a second father, who they idolize and allow themselves to be brainwashed by. As a result they end up in a vicious cycle of “manipulation and rape”.

Sexual abuse victims face additional problems because society’s and law enforcement agencies’ reactions towards them are not that different from those in North Korea. Rapists, in the meantime, are free to share photos of their “heroic acts” online or buy “drugs for their sex parties” on the Internet.

The last story that the author is familiar with involves Ilbe Storage, a right wing website, whose 15 creators have been accused of posting sexually explicit photographs of women without their consent. All of them uploaded pictures of their naked girlfriends (in theory, after having had sex with them) in order to attract visitors and raise the status of their website. And this “flash mob-like” act was competitive in nature.

We would also like to remind our readers that adultery was decriminalized only a few years ago, but abortions remain illegal in South Korea. ROK introduced the anti-abortion law in 1953, and ending a pregnancy is only permissible in cases where a mother faces serious health risks associated with pregnancy or suffers from a genetic disorder, or if she is a victim of rape and / or incest. And even in such cases, abortion is prohibited after the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

It is therefore not surprising that South Korea is in 116th place (out of 147 nations) in gender equality.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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