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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.

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Kim Sang-hun says Chinese authorities view those whom they capture as economic migrants who have entered China illegally, preferring to appear oblivious to the issue of slavery. 

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The Chinese show little inclination to respond to demands not to return defectors to North Korea. Typically they are sent to North Korea by buses at night with curtains drawn and then placed in special camps for interrogation and indoctrination.

China’s policy outrages activists campaigning against a wide range of North Korean human rights abuses. "It’s a modern form of slavery where you’re being sold into a forced situation for a price,” says Frank Jannuzi, head of the Washington office of Amnesty International. Rather than do anything about it, he says, the Chinese have built "a brand-new detention facility where they would store 200 to 300 North Koreans."

‘A blot on South Korean society’

Human rights organizations blame South Korean gangs for some of the suffering. Working in cahoots with Chinese Koreans, investing in karaoke bars in China, they are said to hold women against their will while paying them just enough to survive.

"South Korean businessmen are their best customers,” says Tim Peters, director of Helping Hands Korea, dedicated to aiding North Korean children in China. “It’s a blot on South Korean society,” he says, blaming the Chinese for "doing nothing about a criminal system in violation of the rights of women.”

How well do you know China? Take our quiz

Ha Tae-keung, president of Open Radio North Korea, broadcasting into North Korea via short wave for one or two hours a day from Seoul, says informants in China report hundreds of North Korean women are forced to work in “chat rooms” selling telephone and Internet sex at high prices. 

“They are detained in a room all the time, talking to people in South Korea,” says Mr. Ha, elected last month to the South Korean national assembly representing a district in the port city of Pusan.           

Why so many women defectors?

The market for women may help explain why such a high proportion of defectors are female. “Women can sell themselves easily,” says Kim Tae-woo, president of the Korean Institute for National Unification. They sense they can hide within a forced marriage or brothel, he says, though they may not have quite imagined what they were getting into when they crossed into China.

“Men are more conspicuous, more active,” says Mr. Kim, as they move from job to job, earning very little for often onerous labor.  

Kim Eun-sun offers a more elaborate explanation for the predominance of women among North Korean defectors.

"Males do not do well under starvation,” she believes, reflecting on the death of her father before she, her sister, and her mother fled for the first time. “Men pass away more easily."

Then, too, Kim adds, “A lot of men are serving in the North Korean military and maybe worry more about betraying the regime and changing their ideology.”

In the end, the lure of relative freedom trumps the knowledge of the ordeal women are up against if caught.

Once back in North Korea, they face beatings and humiliation at the hands of prison guards even if they're not charged with crimes such as selling stolen goods or spying, both capital offenses. 

“Typically, 60 women are held in one room," she says. “When you first are there, you are stripped naked. They search every part of your body to look for money. If you want to go to the bathroom, you have to ask permission. You feel like the North Korean regime has stripped you of humanity.”

She predicts the numbers escaping are sure to increase. So far more than 23,000 North Koreans – some 80 percent of them women – have made it to South Korea, usually via Mongolia or Southeast Asia via Thailand or Vietnam. “The North Korean economy is not getting better,” she says. “Many more will escape."

Just how isolated is North Korea? 6 facts to consider


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