From North Korea to Japan: Empowering Survivors of Gender-Based Violence
I recently had the opportunity to speak with activist and advocate Betsy Kawamura, founder of the non-profit Women4NonViolence in Peace+Conflict Zones. Ms. Kawamura has spent more than fifteen years working with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, particularly women who have fled the violent regime in North Korea and are now living as refugees around the world. For this article—and for the work Ms. Kawamura does—gender-based violence is understood as violence targeted at a specific group based on their gender; often manifesting in acts of rape, forced prostitution, sexual assault, sex trafficking, and other similar crimes. As a survivor of gender-based violence herself, Kawamura is able to enlighten us not only on the experience of survivors, but also why it is crucial to address sexual and gender-based violence as a matter of international politics and international law.
What follows is the transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Corrie Hulse: What gives you the confidence and expertise to work in the realm of non-violence, ultimately starting your organization Women4NonViolence in Peace+Conflict Zones?
Betsy Kawamura - I am a survivor of gender-based violence myself. I was in Okinawa, which is a tiny island south of Japan, and I lived there from when I was three to about 13 years old. And when I was about twelve years old—this was during the time of the Vietnam war—I was accosted by a caucasian man. He lured me into his car, and I was sexually assaulted by him. And it was not just a one time thing. He found out where I lived, so he continued to stalk me out of the house, at my parent’s house, and he assaulted me several days...I think about four days. On the final encounter, he paid me $5 for my so-called “services” and he said that he saw nothing wrong with what he did with me because he was having sex with his own daughter, and also pointed out to other places that he was sexually assaulting, or had relations with young girls in Okinawa.
As I grew older, I finally surmised that this person was probably with the U.S. military. There were a lot of problems with U.S. military bases all around the world. I think one of the biggest things that really upset me was the social injustice of the situation. During that time I could definitely say I was a victim, really a child victim of sexual violence. For other women who were victimized by U.S military soldiers, there was no recourse to justice. And I think there was such incredible, disparate differences, and humongous gaps in power.
And so that became, basically, the focus of my advocacy in a way. It’s not only the gender-based violence issue, but the lack of justice and the lack of social order in terms of any type of jurisprudence that was going to be able to put any sort of powerful light on the survivors, and also to be able to create some kind of justice. I saw very little evidence of such a system then in Okinawa.
So, how did you come to be involved with North Korean refugees, and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence?
In 2001, I attended one of the first international conferences on North Korean human rights issues held in Japan. It featured many of the original South Korean pastors and other activists who paved the way to create an underground railroad to assist the North Korean refugee women and men escape to China. I heard some incredible stories of the North Korean women and men, their testimonies. And you know, I heard one after another and it was just really, really awful. And this was, of course, one of my first exposures to North Korean issues at all.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, or my back, was when I saw on the walls these drawings by the children, of what they experienced being in the gulags. I mean, these children were forced to dig ditches; I don’t know if they were for mass graves or for anything else, I do not know, but they drew pictures of themselves digging these ditches and they were so tired one of them fell asleep in the ditch and there was a prison guard who urinated all over him. And that was just one of the drawings. I think when I saw that I said “ok, I’ve had enough.” Soon after that I left the corporate sector, and the pharmaceutical industry, and decided to use my life work and energy to providing empowerment to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
The more I discussed the stories with the North Korean refugee women I met, I realized that my own experience of surviving gender based violence as a child and also further violence as an adult—which led to periods of homelessness and institutionalization—I just recalled everything I experienced and I thought, you know what, as much as my experience was really bad, my experience was not like the percentage of women who went to the concentration camps, to these prison camps, and also went through sexual violence in the camps as well as human trafficking.
So I decided to work with them because I thought of them as one of the voiceless of the voiceless. They weren’t getting protection from the UN. China was forcing the North Korean refugee women and men back into North Korea, including with their kids, which kind of lends a certain persecution, whether back into the gulags, executions, or torture.
I had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Ji-Hyun Park, and it was a very interesting experience. I was at her house in Bury, Manchester, north of England, in 2009 and she immediately, or almost immediately, said that she would be interested in sharing with me her story. I was really taken aback. I mean I was very happy, but also very twisted or tormented because I felt guilty that I was going to...I didn’t want to force her to retell a story that was so traumatizing, but she agreed to. And that basically kick-started her interest in activism, and her English language capacity tremendously grew, and the happy story is that she was one of the key testifiers for the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) to the DPRK.
Human Rights Foundation will tell you, is that they chose to master the English language as soon as possible so that their stories can be told in coherent, cohesive ways to the Western world where they have engaged an actual campaign. I am proud of the achievements of Ji Hyun Park, Hyeonseo Lee and Yeon Mi Park and look forward to other North Korean refugee women advocating for survivors.There are now more North Korean refugee women telling their stories that have come out in the New York Times, Bookwitch, TEDTalks, one of them was speaking with Hillary Clinton, several of them are on book tours right now. And the amazing and wonderful thing, and I think Alex Gladstein from
So that was the sole focus of the organization I founded, to empower the survivors of gender-based violence, basically to teach them about various United Nations tools and conventions that support and protect the rights of women, especially against gender-based violence. Furthermore, I wanted to focus on survivors from northern Asia as they seemed to lack an international power platform.
I also wanted to strengthen the abilities of the refugee women themselves by teaching them media and journalism skills; about how to write about their stories, and to create a project where better known photo journalists and media professionals can train the refugee women and men about how to tell their stories in convincing and professional ways.
You have used the term “soul to soul empowerment” when talking about survivors sharing their stories. Why do you think it is so important for survivors of gender-based violence, particularly women in northeast Asia, to share their stories with each other?
The reason why it is so important is that, well, take my own story as an example. When I was institutionalized in the early 1990s, I went to your classic “clipboard doctors.” I called them clipboard doctors in white coats because that’s exactly what they were. They were all wearing white coats, they carried clipboards, asking whether I took my meds or did not take my meds, basically how I was feeling. However, none of them, or I don’t recall but one or two, took time to really listen to what caused me to experience so much grief and trauma.
And so when I start to talk about my own experiences of surviving adult gender-based violence, surviving and being sexually assaulted numerous times as a child….I found out that what was really important is that we understand each other’s pain, and that was an incredible healing moment. I mean, quite often there’s such a difference between talking to somebody else who survived something similar as you did, as opposed to speaking to a clinician in a white coat. And we are human beings, and I think that intrinsically human beings heal from another human person, not from a tablet, a pill. At least this was my personal feeling.
In a piece you wrote for Open Democracy, you said "gender-based violence is a weapon of mass destruction fueled by generations of grief and a 'conspiracy of silence' abetted by perpetrators." Can you take some time to explain what you meant by that? How is this particular form of violence a weapon of mass destruction?
Let’s take the examples of Congo, the Balkans, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and even historically speaking the South Korean comfort women. And there’s also Japanese comfort women, who were used by the U.S. military and the Japanese military for sexual purposes. Basically I said that sexual violence, rape and prostitution are designed to destroy the fabric of society. What it does is effectively shame individuals, which has an impact on society and their community. And this impact of shame and humiliation isn’t only on one generation; it follows multiple generations.
I can give you a concrete example. I met this Korean-American woman. This was about 10 years ago, and she was an American. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but her mother is from South Korea and apparently her mother was raped by a U.S. military person while in Korea. And so this women was the child of the South Korean mother and this American soldier. And what is amazing about this young lady is that she became a spokesperson, talked about her own experience of surviving human trafficking in the USA.
But what she said, and this is often manifested, is that her background - her mother being a survivor of rape - can be passed onto the next generation. This is a remarkable example, but even when we go to the conflict zone level, in the Balkans and around the Congo, you have situations where these women are sexually violated—whether it’s by the Lord’s Resistance Army, or whether it’s a former gang under Milosevic—and the soldiers are ordered to mass-rape the women and so they become pregnant and they give birth. And you know, guess what, these children are being known as the children born out of shame. The children born out of rape. And the perpetrators were their enemies.
This is a very effective way to undermine generations of communities. And you can imagine what the husbands and partners of these women go through. They are also going through shame and humiliation. And this is something that’s not containable under just one family; it permeates the entire nation. So what happens is basically the “conspiracy of silence,” because many of these women, and their partners, and their children do not want to talk about this. This is exactly what the perpetrators want. This is a fantastic weapon that really does the damage, really inflicts the pain, and yet nobody really wants to talk about social justice so it is difficult to nail the perpetrators down. That’s why it is so difficult to achieve justice.
You speak often of desiring to work toward peace on the Korean peninsula. How does your mission for uniting survivors of gender-based violence coincide with peace on the peninsula?
Well, as I said, most of those people leaving North Korea are women [68.7%]. And that is because women are the ones in North Korea expected to provide for the kids. As the mother you have to make sure they’re fed, they’re clothed, they have some kind of health benefits, etc. Where the husbands are out working in factories or whatever assignments they have on the farm. So it’s easier for the women because they can be more mobile. It’s amazing that much of the time it’s women who can flee the country. They’re the ones that are taking the risk and going to China. But they are the ones, unfortunately, who go through human trafficking, and prostitution, and gender-based violence.
In peace-building you cannot exclude the voices of refugees, exiles, and defectors when you want to consider national and international peacemaking. Because of my own experience, I really believe in the credo “nothing about us without us.” If you’re going to try to create peace on the Korean peninsula, it would be absurd to exclude the voices of the North Korean refugee women and the men who understand on very deep levels what their personal challenges and sufferings are in North Korea. It’s like trying to diagnose and heal a disease without asking the patient. That is what you’re doing if you’re going to try to create peace agreements and everything without the voices, the opinions and the input of the North Korean refugees. It's like putting a band aid on a cancer patient and expecting 'healing'. It’s not possible.
President Park Geun-Hye of South Korea has recently addressed the issue of comfort women. How has her response in Korea compared to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s response in Japan? What is needed from leaders in the case of the comfort women?
I am really glad that President Park Geun-Hye has addressed the issue of comfort women. I think it’s one of the few times in my memory where I recall anytime that a head of state has brought up the issue of sexual violence as a very large topic for international relations and in international negotiation. The only problem I see with this, or not really a problem but a challenge, is the topic of Japanese comfort women (called the Pan Pan Women) whose voices are seldom heard. And these women were sexually used by the U.S. military during the post-World War occupation of Japan. And also very likely by the Japanese government. There was collaboration between the U.S. Military and the Japanese government to provide sexual services for the occupying U.S. military forces. This needs to be addressed.
The South Korean comfort women raise another challenge. It is a bit critical that the South Korean comfort women do not embrace the cause of North Korean refugee women who are going through sexual violence, being forced into marriage and human trafficking. I firmly believe that the issues of sexual violence in north Asia have to have a much more collective, common goal and to work together instead of partitioning yourself for your very own, very narrow political interests or purposes. Because I doubt that there is any country in north Asia guilt-free from sexual violence against their women.
Do you think that’s a political issue, or do you think that’s an issue of a politician not understanding the situation and what...?
It’s a combination of both. It would be very inconvenient, for instance, for the Japanese Pan Pan women to speak up about what happened to them because it would be undermining the military and strategic alliance between the U.S. and Japan. And if President Park Geun-Hye talks more about the South Korean women who have been raped by the U.S. military in Korea, that could also undermine South Korea’s strategic defense relationship with the United States.
So I really think, and I’m hoping in my lifetime, in the next five years or so, I would be able to make President Obama, or whoever follows him, understand the impact of not only the South Korean comfort women but also the Japanese Pan Pan women, who basically had to sexually serve the needs of the U.S. military presence under occupied Japan.
As I said, this is both a political and a social phenomenon because the women have not been encouraged to talk about this. It is rather bizarre because I’ve been working as an activist for the past 15 years and I still have not met a full-blooded Japanese woman who has come out working internationally on higher levels to create awareness of gender-based violence as a survivor.
Do you find them on the local level? They’re just not internationally focused?
They’re not so much internationally focused, but perhaps they’re too shy to talk about it. They don’t seem to understand the importance of campaigning on an international basis by traveling outside of Japan. This could be a language barrier and lack of empowerment platforms. So I would have to correct myself; I’m sorry if I haven’t given enough credit to those in Japan who are trying their best. So my solution to this, if I have the funding or the budget, is to spend more time in Japan to help give a platform to those voices.
Lecturing in England and different parts in the west on the issues of gender-based violence, I meet various Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students, women students, who come up to me and they talk about their own experience of having been sexually violated—whether it was domestic violence, or rape, or incest—and they basically say that they cannot even talk about this in their home country. And they feel safer to tell me when they’re away from home.
Despite China, Japan, and South Korea being economic powerhouses, there is no indication of real gender equity. High GNP does not equal gender equity, and I really want society to understand this. I mean, the porn industry, the red light district, the sex industry in Asia are phenomenal. I think I read a report by the U.S. State Department saying that of the number of women and men under human trafficking, two-thirds are from Asia? So imagine. This is the basic setting: that two-thirds of the population of those being trafficked are Asian.
You gave a presentation recently at UCLA on the connection between gender crimes and the international criminal court. How do you envision the ICC addressing these crimes, and what role do you expect the survivors can play in it?
Well, I’ve had several visits to the International Criminal Court and I spoke with the section of the Trust Fund for Victims. I do believe that the ICC and the Trust Fund for victims have devoted an enormous amount of energy to look more, and to elucidate more, the issues of sexual violence. They realize that sexual violence—in contrast to other types of violence—is something that is extremely difficult to be verbal about, to prove because the whole proving and the testifying process is so painful, and the burden of pain and the burden of trying to tell the truth is carried by the survivors or the victims. This is one of the biggest challenges. This is the reason why we need more of the positive actions of the ICC, and other more national and local centers of justice, to assist and encourage the voiceless survivors, so that the burden of responsibility and pain and shame will not only rest on them.
The International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims is working at the community level. I find it really fantastic that they actually go down to the community at the grassroots level to also educate the partners of the women or others who have gone through sexual violence to try to make the partners and husbands understand that it’s not the wives’ fault. The wife is not dirty. They are educating the men, and it’s so important, even if we’re not talking about being in the DRC or Rwanda.
I was in Thailand some years ago when I visited the UN compound and there was a smaller-sized NGO that works specifically with reintegration of women who have been sex trafficked. I was told of a Thai woman who was sex trafficked into Japan, and then finally escaped, and now she was basically trying to go back with her husband, but her husband absolutely rejected her saying, “I don’t want to be with you. You’re dirty. How many men have you had to sleep with?” But through this NGO, they were able to educate and make the husband understand that this was not something that she had wanted and that there was still a genuine love in their relationship for each other. And so the good news is that he became an activist, an advocate on human trafficking issues himself. So now they’re doing well.
Finally, is there anything we didn’t touch on that you wanted to speak to, or any additional thoughts you had?
I really wish that there would be more academic sources, and I wish that the American government would understand better the history of the Pan Pan women during World War II days. San Francisco voted to have a memorial of the South Korean comfort women. What about doing a memorial for the Japanese comfort women who were used by the U.S. military in Japan?
This is what happens when you have a lack of historical understanding, or when you don’t have a holistic view of what happened. So I’m urging states to have a much more holistic view of sexual violence, and not focus on those that are politically convenient. I hope those who read this article will help and empower women and men who survived gender-based violence, and their supportive partners or spouses. They are all heroes in my book!