WASHINGTON—North Korean women who cross the border into China fleeing hunger and repression in their homeland frequently fall victim to human traffickers who sell them to Chinese men in search of wives, a U.S.-based rights group said Thursday, calling on China to stop repatriating the women and grant them legal protection.
North Korean women in China are "victims of trafficking in the way that term has come to be defined by international law," according to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, which conducted in-depth interviews with trafficked North Korean defector women in China.
"Contrary to stereotypes, however, most of the North Korean women in China are not trafficked into sexual slavery. More often they are trafficked into forced marriages," the group said in its 64-page report, Lives for Sale: Personal Accounts of Women Fleeing North Korea to China.
...There are others whose unspoken stories are so much worse."
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
The report builds on previous eyewitness interviews with North Korean women who have described being sold as "brides" to Chinese men, who often put them to backbreaking labor and subject them to constant fear, physical assault, and sexual abuse.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea also called on Beijing to prosecute human traffickers and allow thousands of North Koreans access to asylum screenings by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The report, which contains interviews with 53 North Korean women in China, recommended that Beijing use its influence with North Korea to press Pyongyang to treat returning refugees humanely.
Abuses 'spill over'
It also called on the United States and other countries and international organizations to pressure China to do more to protect the North Korean women living within its borders.
The report said China should also help by ensuring that marriages between North Korean women and residents of China are consensual rather than coerced, and legalize as Chinese nationals children born to North Korean women married in China.
Human rights abuses in North Korea, widely seen as one of the world’s most repressive countries, "do not stay in the confines of North Korea but spill over into neighboring countries, and inflict pain on the lives of North Korean citizens outside their borders," the report said.
The thousands of North Korean women in China, along with their children, “remain trapped in this maze of inhumanity,” the report said, adding, “As troubling as the testimony of these eyewitnesses is, it is important to note that these interviewees are, in many respects, among the fortunate women of North Korea."
"As bad as their stories are, we can only imagine that there are others whose unspoken stories are so much worse. They may be imprisoned in homes across China, unable to leave, unable to speak out, unable to find health care, unable to talk with anyone in their own language, and certainly forbidden from talking to outside interviewers," the report said.
Since famine struck North Korea in the 1990s, large numbers of women—mainly from northeastern North Korea—have fled across the border into China, where ethnic Korean Chinese constitute a large proportion of the population, and where men outnumber women by almost 14 to one in some regions.
Market for brides
According to victims interviewed in 2007 by RFA's Korean service, North Korean women aged 17 to 40 are trafficked in China, and the men who buy them are Chinese nationals between 37 and 58.
North Korean women said they were being sold in China for between 2,000 yuan (U.S. $260) and 20,000 yuan (U.S.$2,600), depending on their age and appearance.
The traffickers, mostly ethnic Korean Chinese citizens, operate a well-defined hierarchy and division of labor: There are “merchandise” scouts, distributors, brokers, and transporters.
The scouts identify vulnerable North Korean women who seem to be “marketable” and lure them into crossing the Chinese border, with promises of well-paying jobs and a better life.
The distributors match the women with potential buyers, based on the women’s age and looks and the buyers’ purchasing power, and the brokers complete the sale. Once the deal has been closed, the transporters take the women to their final destination.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea also called on China to use its influence with North Korea to press Pyongyang to treat returning refugees humanely.
Chinese authorities regard the women as economic migrants rather than genuine political asylum-seekers, and they often send them back to North Korea—where they can face punishment as political traitors.
The report also urged North Korea to take steps to aid women without husbands or fathers, grant U.N. access to returnees, and implement farming and economic reforms.
The 21-member Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, based in Washington, includes former U.S national security adviser Richard Allen, former U.S. Representative Stephen Solarz, former ambassador James Lilley, former USAID administrator Andrew Natsios, and National Endowment for Democracy president Carl Gershman.Original reporting by RFA's Korean service. Director: Francis Huh. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han. Edited by Luisetta Mudie.