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.
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.
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.”
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."