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SEOUL (Reuters) – When she first met a mysterious South Korean man who introduced himself as Dr Seong, the woman thought she had found a father figure to help her start a new life after fleeing from her home in North Korea.
It seemed a positive relationship, with Seong paying her for information and reconnecting her with her brother still in North Korea.
But things went bad when Seong and a colleague, identified by his surname Kim, began to sexually abuse her, according to the woman and military prosecutors who indicted Seong, a Defence Intelligence Command (DIC) lieutenant colonel, and Kim, a master sergeant, this month on charges of sexually assaulting and raping the woman.
More than 72% of the 33,700 North Koreans resettled in the South are women and at least a quarter of them encountered sexual violence in the South but less than 10% sought help, the gender equality ministry found in a 2017 survey.
Defectors have complained recently that the government of President Moon Jae-in, who has made improving ties with North Korea a priority, is failing to provide refuge by ignoring rights, stifling political activity and deporting some escapees.
In an interview with Reuters, the woman, who agreed to be identified only by her surname Lee, said the agents abused their power and turned her dream of a new life into a nightmare.
“I was mad at myself, for being unable to resist when they did that to me,” she said.
“After all, they were the first people I trusted, respected and relied on here.”
A lawyer for Seong and Kim did not respond to requests for comment. Defendants in South Korean criminal cases are customarily not identified by their full names.
The defence ministry, which handles public relations for the DIC, declined to comment.
The military’s chief prosecutor, Colonel Lee Soo-dong, told Reuters Seong and Kim said they had consensual sexual intercourse with the woman but denied rape.
The woman was 26 when she defected in 2014, disillusioned with her job at a military institute and harbouring dreams of South Korea gleaned from television dramas.
It was her link to the institute, as well as the fact her brother still worked there, that apparently made her an attractive asset for South Korean agents.
Seong told her he worked for the government and they developed what she described as a “father-daughter” relationship.
When she pleaded for help after her brother was arrested in North Korea in 2018, while trying to get information that Seong had requested, he and Kim began raping her, she said. The woman later learned North Korean secret police detained her brother. He has not been heard from since.
Lee said the abuse lasted nearly a year and a half and she was pressed to get two abortions and suffered severe distress.
Her lawyer, Jeon Su-mi, described her decision to file a complaint as her #MeToo moment. But the woman said military prosecutors victimised her during the long investigation, suggesting the sex was consensual and pressing her to drop the complaint.
She said at one point, she had to listen to an audio clip recorded by Seong during one alleged rape, which left her suicidal. She said she sought therapy.
Prosecutor Lee said his colleagues never intended to undermine her rights, though he acknowledged they should have been more sensitive.
Jeon blamed the system for enabling agents to take advantage of vulnerable defectors.
“The women can’t say ‘no’ because to them, these people have absolute power, like God.”
The president’s office declined to comment on the woman’s case but Moon has called on the security agencies change the way they conduct investigations.
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