North Korean refugee went undercover to help Chinese authorities take down human trafficking rings.
In the spring of 2000, Park Ji-young (a pseudonym) crossed the Yalu river into China to escape a dire situation in her native North Korea, which was struggling to recover from a 1994-1998 famine that killed millions of North Koreans -- as much as 10 percent of its population by some estimates. But this was not the first time she had ventured across the border—she had made two trips previously and had become separated from her daughter.
This time the desperate mother was looking to reunite with her child and make a life for herself, possibly in South Korea, but she was again caught by Chinese police in Changbai, an ethnic Korean autonomous county across the border from the North Korean city of Hyesan. She fully expected to be sent back to North Korea again, when the authorities made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.
They wanted Park’s help in taking down several human trafficking rings that preyed on North Korean women escaping into China. In return they promised to help her find her daughter, and quietly send them back to North Korea. With nothing to lose, Park agreed and went immediately to work helping infiltrate and arrest bride sellers and their customers.
Trafficking of North Korean women in China was at or near its peak at the time Park got caught. Estimates place the number of North Koreans illegally in China at about 150,000 in 1999 according to a 2019 report published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
China’s one-child policy combined with a patriarchal culture had resulted in a widespread gender imbalance—there were far too many Chinese men and not enough Chinese women to marry them. With possibly hundreds of thousands of desperate North Korean women streaming across the border that year, conditions were ripe for their exploitation by brokers who sold wives to Chinese men.
According to Park, she lived up to her end of the bargain, but the Chinese authorities that recruited her went back on their word, handing her over to North Korea’s State Security Department once she had outlived her usefulness.
Again in North Korea, Park was not only charged with illegally leaving the country, she was additionally accused of espionage and had to serve a prison sentence longer than a year. Once she was out, she again went straight back to China to look for her missing daughter. She was caught for a fourth time and sent to what she described as a concentration camp in Tumen, a Chinese border city across from North Korea’s North Hamgyong province.
The US State Department this year designated both North Korea and China under Tier 3 – the worst category -- in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report. North Korean authorities have not made any efforts to prevent or eradicate the prevalence of human trafficking, failing to meet even the most basic standards regarding human rights, the department said.
In observance of the seventh annual World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, RFA’s Korean Service asked Park, now in her fifties, to tell her story. The exclusive interview was conducted in Seoul, where she now resides with the daughter she eventually rescued. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: Can you describe how the authorities recruited you?
Park: So I was caught and detained in [Changbai,] China as I was trying to locate my daughter, and this was the third time I had been caught. There is a saying in North Korea that goes, “One can be forgiven for the first or second offense, but never for the third.”
One day, the director of the local public security bureau personally summoned me in front of him. There were also non-uniformed officers who spoke Korean in the room.
They made this offer to me—they promised not to hand me over to North Korea as long as I would agree to work with them on a certain task. I questioned what the work was all about, and I was told that I would help them bust a Chinese human trafficking group notoriously known for selling North Korean women.
Basically, I was told to pick three or four women from among the other North Koreans detained with me, and we would be dressed in some poor looking clothes to seem as if we had just crossed the border, and we would try to gain entry into this specific house.
RFA: So you agreed? What happened next?
Park: I signed a contract along with my thumbprint. The contract stated that if I cooperate on their terms, they would eventually help me find my daughter, and would send us back to North Korea silently.
The operation began that evening. I handpicked three reliable North Korean women [to go with] me, and three or four plainclothes Chinese police tagged along. We then went to the house and knocked on the door shouting, “Please, help us! Please, help us! We are from North Korea and we are so hungry! Please, save us!”
The door opened up and someone said, “Come in quickly.”
When we entered, we were asked where we were from, and we answered, “We just crossed the border and we were told along the way that if we came to this house, we would be able to get help to be married to someone nice and rich.”
Inside that house, we took showers and they dressed us in new clothes, decorated our hair and even put makeup on our faces. They gave us a huge meal as well. It was then that they asked how old we were.
The other women answered that they were in their twenties, and I told them I was 30 years old. A little later, a Chinese man stood in front of us and made us stand in a single line, and started putting a price on each one of us. The young woman who looked very delicate and pretty was priced at 10,000 yuan [$1,400], but another woman who was 27 years old, was priced at only 5,000 yuan [$700], because [in his opinion] she was ugly.
RFA: Please excuse me for asking this, but how much did they say your price was?
Park: I remember my price was about 8,000 yuan [$1,100]. They said my face looked pretty but also old, so 8,000 was all I was worth. Also, they mentioned that it cost 1,000 yuan [$140] for them to decorate us, so those costs were deducted apparently from our prices (that were paid to the traffickers). Then they put us in a car together.
RFA: Where did they take you?
Park: With the undercover Chinese authorities secretly tailing us, the car went up over a mountain, and on the other side there was another car that came to collect us. The seller spoke in Chinese, calling out prices to the buyer and they seemed to be negotiating back and forth.
After the seller received the money from the buyer, we were told to get in the other car, the one belonging to the buyer. So we started getting in that car one by one, and the undercover cops stormed the area at that instant. All the sellers and buyers at the scene were caught that day.
On the next day, they sent us to another house for a repeat performance. We did this probably six times in total, bringing down group after group.
RFA: Can you describe the situation in the Tumen camp?
Park: There were so many North Korean defectors who were caught in different places and regions all over China, and not only women, but many men as well.
Many of these people were victims of human trafficking and got caught [by the police] as they tried to escape [their captors].
There were also people who were asking to be sent back to North Korea simply because they couldn’t find anywhere else to go.
Many people there had been treated as if they were animals or slaves, and had been forced into prostitution against their will. Listening to these horrendous stories from the other refugees made me feel humiliated and hopeless.
RFA: Did any of the other women in the camp tell you how they became involved in human trafficking?
Park: Some said they were lied to, and some said they did it voluntarily out of their sole desperation to survive. There were so many unfathomable stories that I heard while I was detained in that concentration camp in Tumen.
For instance, there was a story about how a mother and her daughter were sold at the same time and how they were separated in the process, and how some suffered constant sexual abuse by the Chinese.
There was one woman who married a Chinese husband only for his family members to take advantage of her as a sex slave, and so on.
There were so many stories where these women just could not bear the severity of abuse, and so they decided to escape after getting married. All of these stories were just so horrendous to listen to.
Despite North Korea’s Juche [self-reliance] ideology that constantly refers to canned tenets like “People come first in all things,” “We are the happiest people [on Earth]” or “The outer world has nothing that stokes our envy,” and so on, there is so much ongoing suffering everywhere in reality.
Many women in North Korea cannot survive the immense hunger so they end up separating from their parents, brothers and sisters to try to take hold of any economic opportunity there may be, whatever is available in front of their eyes. And most of the time, they are sold around as if they are some kind of an object, not a human being.
The sad thing is that despite this ridiculous situation they are in, some [who have not been through it themselves] think that it could be rather nice, as long as they can end up living in some type of normalcy. However, in reality, most of them are beaten almost to death, or are treated below the most basic human standards as if they are dogs.
When I hear more and more stories like these, I cannot stop but question, “How can such a failed socialist system still exist today?” “How in the world can this be reality?”
I thought once previously, that I would write my story and publish it as a book later on. But even today, I still think it’s just too terrible and creepy to recall such occurrences from my past, knowing that [human trafficking] is still prevalent today.
Reported by Jung Min Noh for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Dukin Han. Written in English by Eugene Whong.