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North Korean women sold into 'slavery' in China

Like the thousands of women who fled North Korea before her, Kim Eun-sun made it into China and paid a woman to help her, only to discover she'd traded one form of captivity for another.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / May 11, 2012

North Korean women cross the road on a rainy day in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, April 25.

Ng Han Guan/AP


Seoul, South Korea

The price for a North Korean woman named Kim Eun-sun, her mother, and her sister to escape to China was 2,000 Chinese yuan, slightly more than $300.

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Like thousands of North Korean women before them, they crossed the Tumen River into China and met a woman who said she would help them escape – only to discover that they’d been sold to a Chinese farmer who wanted a wife.

“A lot of women come to China not knowing what they are getting into,” says Ms. Kim, who escaped the farmer with her family but was caught by Chinese police and then sent back to North Korea. “Women are secretly sold in China.”

After fleeing from North Korea to China a second time, Kim, her mother, and her sister eventually made it to Mongolia moving mostly on foot across the Gobi Desert. Mongolian soldiers found them and delivered them to the South Korean Embassy in Ulan Bator whence they were flown to Seoul.

Now a senior in college here, she has received a US government grant that gives her eight months of English-language training and another semester of study in psychology at a US university. Wherever she goes, she conveys the message of the suffering inflicted on North Korean women, generally estimated by officials and activists to make up at least 70 percent of the defectors who cross into China.

She believes that exposure of the plight of North Koreans, particularly women, is the best she can do to bring about change.

Campaigning for women’s rights

Lately, Kim has been campaigning on behalf of North Korean defectors held in China in demonstrations across the street from the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, protesting China’s policy of complying with North Korean demands to return defectors to the North. Once she was angry enough to grab the microphone and shriek out her sentiments in Chinese.

She also talks about the plight of North Koreans in meetings at college campuses – though she’s disappointed by the apathy she encounters among young South Koreans.

"I feel resentful there is small interest here, but I feel thankful for those who attend when I talk," she says. "I know I will work [to promote] North Korean issues when in the US."

Kim says “living in North Korea was impossible” as she discusses a book, “North Korea: The Nine-Year Escape from Hell,” that she wrote with French journalist Sebastien Falletti.

Mr. Falletti describes Kim's book as one way for her to raise awareness in South Korea and the world, considering how shocked she was by the reluctance of South Koreans to heed the daily life-and-death struggle endured by most North Koreans. 

Sold into slavery

Kim Sang-hun, director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, estimates 20,000 to 30,000 North Korean women are now entrapped in China in what many observers see as a form of slavery. "Most of the women," he says, "are forced into sexual slavery." 

Female defectors typically must choose between being forced into marriage, serving as a hostess in a karaoke bar or "massage” establishment, or escaping into forbidding mountains where life is a constant struggle for food and shelter. The last option means eluding Chinese police often working in tandem with North Korean security officials.

Estimates of the number of North Koreans, both men and women, living in China range from 100,000 to 200,000, he says, though there’s no accurate way of counting since they hide in obscure jobs, merging with a populace that includes a community of more than 2 million Chinese citizens of Korean descent.


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