NEW YORK, March 13 (UPI) -- A defector who says she was raped in a North Korean prison camp and was a victim of human trafficking in China said most North Korean women who work with brokers have experienced some form of rape.
May Joo, 37, who resettled in the United States after leaving North Korea in 2005, told UPI on Monday that even rape victims do not know the act is categorically a crime.
"That's because [North Koreans] do not have a concept of human rights," Joo said. "The violation of women's rights, they don't know what that is.
"Rape victims just think, 'Well, I guess that happened.' It never occurs to them to speak up, or seek justice."
In the era of a global #MeToo movement, where women are increasingly vocalizing their anger and naming perpetrators of sexual abuse, the lack of rights protection for North Korean women is a reminder the Kim Jong Un regime -- which stunned the world by offering to talk with U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in -- has yet to address what may be the most pressing issue in the country.
Yoonseo Lee, 32, whose hometown is in North Korea's South Hwanghae Province, said sexual violence is a serious problem in North Korea, but incidents of rape are more common in China.
"Getting raped is preferable to arrest in China," said Lee, who resettled in South Korea. "Because the minute you alert the authorities, you are arrested."
Arrest was the most dreaded consequence for Lee, who left North Korea in 2010. Arrest was a prospect so terrifying for the young woman she said she carried poison with her as she left the country, in case she was caught.
Joo was less fortunate.
Speaking before an audience gathered to hear her speak at a Working Group on North Korean Women event in New York, Joo said she was raped by a North Korean "political officer" when she was arrested, after trying to slip back into the country with money she earned in China.
Joo had left for China to earn enough money, or about $1,300, that she could use to pay for her son's surgery, after he suffered third-degree burns and was unable to properly use his fingers.
The defector said she hid the money inside her rectum because she had heard the security agents would inspect a woman's uterus.
After rape in detention, her guards ordered her to defecate, and eventually found her hidden funds, she said.
"I begged for forgiveness, saying the money was for my son's surgery," Joo said, adding the guards later beat her with a wooden bat and pulled her hair until "clumps" fell out.
"They were like a pack of hyenas fighting with each other to take my money," the defector said.
The thorny issue of North Korea human rights was not addressed in South Korean officials' meeting with Kim in Pyongyang last week, and Trump agreed to talks, planned for May, because denuclearization appeared to be on the agenda.
But Joo, who described North Korea's rocket launches as the "shooting of North Koreans' rations into space," said Kim cannot be trusted.
"A hyena can never transform itself into a lamb," she told UPI. "The North Korean leader is definitely not someone who will ever give up nuclear weapons."
The U.S.-North Korea summit had not been mentioned in Pyongyang's media statements by late Monday, but that is not unusual, Joo and Lee told UPI.
"North Korea never reports in advance major summits between leaders," Lee said. "That's how the North Korean system is, not telling the population of the important event."
Events are reported only after they take place, so that during a "meeting with a Trump or a South Korean president, you don't hear about it," Lee said.
Joo suggested that the regime's avoidance of preliminary announcements of major developments, like a decision on a Trump-Kim summit, is an indicator the planned meeting may not be in the best interest of the North Korean leader.
"No, [the summit] is not something Kim Jong Un wants," she said.
"Even among results of a major event, only the points that are advantageous to the state are reported afterward."