Esther Choe is a North Korean defector who recently became an American citizen after resettling in the U.S. through the United Nations refugee agency. A poor seamstress, she had left her family behind in North Korea to seek out work in China after arranging passage with a handler. But dreams of making extra income to help feed her loved ones were shattered when she realized that she had been sold into marriage across the border by a human trafficker.
On April 18, 2013 she testified before the global human rights subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives, saying that ‘countless North Korean refugee women’ had been through similar experiences and worse:
I naturally thought that I was being taken to a place [in China] where the contacts would introduce me to a new job, but once we arrived at our destination, I realized that I was getting involved in a human trafficking situation, and I started to cry and plead with the people who had taken me in. I begged and pleaded with them that I was a married woman with a child and a husband, and that I needed to go back to my home, but they were cold and detached in their response. The human traffickers said that they invested money and 14 hours of their own time to bring me to my destination, so they needed to at least break even financially, and though they could not help me right at the moment, after I was sold, depending on the situation they would try to send me back home.
The place where I was sold to, in tears, for 16,000 yuan (U.S. $2,600) was to a Chinese man in his 50s who was still not married because he was so poor and had no money, and this man was living with his 80-year-old mother, in a very poor and destitute situation. Because they were afraid I would run away, I was followed everywhere, even to the bathroom, to the stream near the house—wherever I went; when they needed to leave the house, I was locked inside the house and could not leave.
For two months I spent the time just crying, thinking about my child and my husband and how to get back to them, and looking for the right moment to escape, and when I did barely escape, I went to look for and sought out the broker who had sold me. I cried and begged with the broker again to send me back home to my family, but this broker, who had no humanity in him, instead of showing compassion and kindness, looked at me as a way to make a profit, and instead sold me to another old, unmarried farmer in the countryside.
I really had no hope to continue living, and wanted to die, but I thought of my child back home and just barely survived, and succeeded in escaping again, and knowing that I had a distant relative who lived in China, I made inquiries in looking for my aunt and found her.
Other North Korean defector women have been caught trying to escape from the trafficking, and have been beaten mercilessly, and some women are locked up for months and mistreated and some are even forced to become pregnant so they cannot escape; there are countless stories like these, but I believe that God protected me and I was able to escape successfully.
The last place I escaped from, there were four other North Korean refugee women who had been sold and were trafficked into that location; among the four, the most pitiful one was a 15-year-old girl who was intentionally, falsely announced as 19 years old, and then sold. She was sold to a 35-year-old single man, and one day escaped successfully and she too sought out her broker who had sold her in order to try to go back home, but I heard that she too was sold again to another human trafficking situation.
I was sold twice by human traffickers, and in that time, I found God, and also found my relative, and through this relative’s help, was able to meet [Korean-American missionary] Pastor [Phillip] Buck, and then was able to find help from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees); I truly believe myself to be a woman who found great fortune and luck in finding help.
Even now, there are so many North Korean refugee women who are going through extreme difficulties and hardships and being sold in these human trafficking situations. My experience is nothing compared to what North Korean refugee women are still going through right now.
There are countless North Korean refugee women who are sold into Internet, online sex sites and into karaoke bars, and because they want to keep their chastity and virginity, some try to commit suicide. If caught, they are beaten and abused until literally bones break, and then handed over to Chinese police who then repatriate them.
In North Korea, at the hands of the bo-wi-bu (National Security Agency) agents, these women are then tortured and beaten as dirty women and prostitutes who sold their bodies, and many die silent deaths like this. Some women are forced to have babies with the men they are sold to, and when they are arrested and forcibly separated by the Chinese police, the North Korean refugee mother will cry out in broken Chinese, ‘I will come back for my baby’...
I really did not want to come here and testify today. Because, I too want to live a happy life, and because I also fear that harm may come to my husband and child whom I am separated for life, because I cannot return now to North Korea. However, I am here today because I want to tell the world about what is going on, and appeal to the world, and be a voice for the countless North Korean women, and the mothers of the North Korean children, who died and were killed in trying to keep their honor.