North Korean women are “uniquely vulnerable” to sex trafficking in China, according to a report released Monday by the Korea Future Initiative. The London-based nonprofit’s report, Sex Slaves: The Prostitution, Cybersex & Forced Marriage of North Korean Women & Girls in China, describes “systematic rape, sex trafficking, sexual slavery, sexual abuse, prostitution, cybersex trafficking, forced marriage, and forced pregnancy of North Korean women and girls in China.”
According to data in a 2013 report published by NK News, 68.7% of all defectors from North Korea to South Korea were women, and most defectors fall into the 20s and 30s age group.
Because China routinely repatriates North Koreans found within its borders, North Korean women there are particularly at risk.
According to the Korea Future Initiative report, exploitation of North Korean women generates profits of at least $105 million dollars each year.
“Victims are prostituted for as little as 30 Chinese Yuan (U.S. $4), sold as wives for just 1000 Chinese Yuan ($146), and trafficked into cybersex dens for exploitation by a global online audience,” the report says.
“Most of the victims were in the age between 12 to 29, and experienced human trafficking more than once,” said Michael Glendinning, CEO of Korea Future Initiative in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service prior to the report’s release.
Glendinning said that the number of victims being sold into cybersex is increasing rapidly, and that even a 9-year-old victim was used to make graphic content.
While in the past, forced marriage was the mechanism by which most victims were introduced to the trade, the report notes that prostitution has overtaken this as the most common path, with women and girls “enslaved in brothels,” mostly located in urban areas of northeastern China.
For the report, the Korea Future Initiative conducted research and interviews over a two-year period.
Survivors spoke of how they were sold into the sex trade after being deceived.
“I was 14 years old [and] my mother’s cousin [in China] arranged for me to work in a garment factory in Yanbian [China] (…) I crossed the river at night [with a broker] and was driven to a house,” said a survivor identified as Ms. Hwang from Musan county in the report.
“I realised that everything had been a lie when I arrived (…) A 36-year-old man bought me for 24,000 Chinese Yuan ($3500) (…) I escaped before his mother wanted me to have a child,” said Hwang.
Other survivors said they were sold into the industry after having an argument with a landlord, or by police that had threatened to repatriate them to North Korea.
Ms. Jeon from Sinuiju talked about being abducted and raped by a group of men before being sold.
“Three men abducted me [close to the border]. It was nearly dark and they put me in their car and drove me into the mountains (...) The oldest man raped me first. I became unconscious when the other [two men] raped me,” she said.
“When I woke up I was bleeding and they had tied me to a tree (…) The next day one of the men came back (…) [He] sold me to a broker,” said Jeon.
The report called out Seoul for remaining silent on North Korean human rights abuses, and called on ordinary South Korean citizens to hold their elected political representative accountable.
The nonprofit also recommended that all countries come to the aid of North Korean women in China and for embassies in the country to grant refugee status for North Korean asylum seekers. It also called for increased resource allotment for rescue organizations working with North Koreans in China to assist them in resettlement and rehabilitation.
The report made a particular point of avoiding the word “defector” to describe victims of sex trafficking, because the term “does not accurately describe the experiences of North Koreans who have been forced into exile by their government’s imposition of poverty, hardship, and human rights violations.”
But the North Korean regime may not make the same distinction. Sources in North Korea say that the regime’s State Security Department is cracking down on female Chinese language learners in provincial cities, labeling them as potential “defectors”.
“A few days ago, a private tutor who teaches English in South Sinuiju was called to the local security department office for questioning,” said a source from North Pyongan province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on Monday.
“The tutor graduated from a foreign language institute in Sinuiju and was a foreign language teacher at a high school. She quit teaching after she got married and began holding private Chinese and English lessons out of her home,” the source said.
“The questioning by the State Security officials was to find information on Chinese learners. They were not concerned with students who were learning English,” the source said.
“In particular, they wanted specific information on female learners in their 20s and 30s, including their names, home addresses and [perceived loyalty],” said the source.
The source said that the State Security department told the tutor to inform them how much each female student is paying for Chinese lessons.
“[They] said that learning Chinese secretly at a high price means they are preparing to run to China. They said Chinese language tutors are helping them with defection,” the source said.
A second source, also from North Pyongan, said the crackdown began after three families from the Sinuiju area defected last June.
“[After they defected], state security began questioning Chinese language tutors. They put pressure on the tutors to set up a reporting system so they could keep tabs on anyone signing up for Chinese lessons,” the second source said.
“State security calls in ‘suspicious’ women for questioning, but this is making people resentful. The Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] is emphasizing the need to improve foreign language skills, but these women are being punished for trying to do exactly that,” said the second source.
The second source said that learning Chinese isn’t only popular with people who plan to defect. Young North Koreans want to learn foreign languages to gain an economic advantage, or to show it off as a status symbol. But for most people, their options for studying are limited to private tutors.
“Young people want to learn Chinese and English, but there are no [state sanctioned] educational institutions specializing in foreign languages for ordinary people. Language institutions in each provincial area are open only to high-ranking government officials and children from the privileged classes.
“This is why there are increasing numbers of language programs run by private tutors. However, state security is accusing people who are spending their own money to learn Chinese of being criminals preparing to defect North Korea, so people are resentful about it,” the second source said.
Additional Reporting by Hyemin Son and Hee Jung Yang for RFA’s Korean Service. Translation by Leejin Jun.