See-Yeon Kim defected to China and hid in a mud hut, but later was repatriated back to North Korea. She escaped again in 2008 and settled in South Korea. She recalls the food shortages and famine that began in 1995 as the beginning of human trafficking.
Human trafficking began between North Korea and China when little boys and girls were spotted in the streets in search of food. If someone is reported ‘sold’ or ‘escaped,’ village security forces go around each house to investigate who is missing . The government had ordered officials to record ‘missing’ or ‘dead’ for those not present in the house, even though the police were well aware that these people went to China.
Human trafficking smugglers emerged ever since traders along the China-North Korean border area asked to bring North Korean women in return for money. If the smugglers spotted woman who dressed up, they would approach pretty North Korean women and offer to buy them food. These smugglers often would put drugs or mix sleeping pills into the food to put women to sleep. There were instances when these women would wake up, not knowing how they ended up in China.
The living condition of North Korean men became harder as the society became poorer. It was easier for women to survive by selling goods in markets, by selling their bodies or by depending on their husbands. But once men fell into hard situations, women did not have other ways to survive. When these men hit the streets to try to look for ways to survive, Chinese human traffickers targeted them, offering work in lumber yards or mines. In reality, these men were sent to either mines or lumber yards and got paid very little. To the Chinese, North Korean men were cheaper to manage.
North Korean men were exploited, earned little to no money and faced the threat of being reported as defectors. Those without relatives were sold, exploited and overworked with no pay. Word of mouth spread as the time passed by about the suffering people go through after being sold. Ever since 1998, people started to demand a ransom first to financially support their families before getting sold. They were able to send money back home before being sold.
Those who wanted to get to China crossed the Yalu River or the Tumen River without any knowledge of the conditions there. The crackdown wasn’t as bad in 2005–there were no barbed-wire fence or guns. Many women took this opportunity to blindly cross the Tumen River with no help. As soon as these women reached China, they began knocking on random doors whether it was a Korean-Chinese household or a Chinese household.
Many Korean-Chinese were living along the frontier. Women who ran away were able to settle down if they met good people. However, there were also a lot of North Korean smugglers living near the frontier who knew the situation of these women very well. North Korean smugglers would take this chance to sell these women to earn more money.
Many times, women defectors were sold without their knowledge. Then they would meet ignorant, old men whom these women had no interest in. These unmarried old men would buy North Korean women and force them to bear children. At first, women denied and complained but they had no idea how to escape and nowhere to run to. They didn’t even know how to speak Chinese so they had no choice but to stay.
There are still North Koreans out there who either defected or were sold, living in this condition.
These North Koreans who are still living in Chinese households do not know anything about the outside world. They don’t know how the country is run, and they don’t know how to get out of their situation right now or where to go. They are unsure if their lives will be any better. They have no choice but to live their lives like this.
Many of these people are still indicated as ‘missing’ or ‘dead’ back home in North Korea. However, the families still have hopes that they are alive.
Reported by Won Hee Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated and written in English by Jackie Yoo.