“Modern Day Slavery”: The Plight of North Korean Women in China

By | February 14, 2012 | No Comments

China’s decision to impose a one-child rule upon most families in 1978 has sprung a number of unintended consequences. The imbalance between men and women has created “thirty-million bachelors” and is stirring fears of future social unrest within China. But the consequences of the one-child policy are also beginning to spread beyond the border, and the number of women trafficked into China from around the region and globe is on the rise. In her second piece for SinoNK.com, Mary Soo Anderson, Analyst for Refugee Issues, investigates the tragic situation involving North Korean women trafficked to China as sex workers and unwilling brides. – Charles Kraus, Managing Editor

“Modern Day Slavery”: The Plight of North Korean Women in China

by Mary Soo Anderson

Modern day slavery, or human trafficking, claims hundreds of thousands of victims every year. Examples of this tragic problem can be found in all corners of the globe, from nations that appear to set the standard for human rights protection (there are between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. annually) to developing nations with poor governing infrastructures.

In its 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. Department of State categorizes North Korea as a “Tier 3” country, meaning it has failed to satisfy the minimum conditions required under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). For the seventh consecutive year, China was placed on the “Tier 2 Watch List” for failure to demonstrate “significant effort to address all forms of trafficking or effectively protect victims.” Among the U.S. Department’s areas of concern are the growing number of North Korean women trafficked into China every year.

Of the total number of North Koreans that flee into China annually, an estimated 80 percent  are women. The majority of these women become victims of sex trafficking.

North Korean women may be targeted by traffickers while still in North Korea or afterwards upon their arrival in China. Many are lured into China through promises of easy money and a better life. Some are aware of the dubious nature of these promises, while others are caught completely off guard once a broker has sold them as a wife to a Chinese man. The majority of the women trafficked from North Korea are sold as wives in the three northeastern provinces of China: Jilin Province (home to the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where over 800,000 ethnic Koreans reside), Heilongjiang Province, and Liaoning Province. All three of these provinces are poor and underdeveloped compared to the rest of China.

The three northeastern provinces of China, where the majority of North Korean women are trafficked into, are highlighted in yellow

Shandong Province also houses a considerable number of North Korean women, although many of them are sex workers employed to service South Korean businessmen.

The Demand for North Korean Women in China | A number of social factors contribute to the shortage of marriageable women in rural provinces of China, but China’s one-child policy, which was introduced in 1978, is at the heart of the problem. In a culture that generally favors sons over daughters, the policy has played a major role in the unusually high ratio of boys to girls. The national average is 119 boys to every 100 girls; in some of the more rural areas of China this number rises to an astounding 130 boys per 100 girls.

This severe gender imbalance is likely the main cause for the high demand for refugee brides in China. Clients for refugee brides are often elderly bachelors, widowers, or the disabled. North Korean brides are sold anywhere from 400 to 10,000 yuan ($50-$1250).

A North Korean woman may be seen as a particularly attractive marriage partner for Korean-Chinese men who live in Jilin Province, as they speak the same language and share a similar culture. Even if the husband shares a common ethnic background, however, the woman is still placed in a vulnerable position. As the Chinese government does not recognize these partnerships as legal marriages or the brides as legitimate refugees, the women are at constant risk of deportation back to North Korea. With no legal framework to rely on for protection, North Korean women trafficked into China are susceptible to various forms of abuse and exploitation. The following testimony, borrowed from the report “Lives for Sale” by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, exemplifies the unfortunate circumstances many North Korean women find in China:

In 1999, after I came to China at the age of 20, my older sister’s ethnic Korean husband introduced me to a Han Chinese man in Jilin Province to live with. Because I could not speak Chinese and I was too scared to do anything there, the Han Chinese man and his father used to yell at me and even beat me. Sometimes, they kicked me in my stomach so hard I could not breathe. They beat me so frequently that I thought I would die. After staying there for one year, I ran away in my bare feet.

Deportation back to North Korea | If reported to the Chinese authorities and repatriated back to North Korea, North Korean women are then turned over to the state security agency, which subjects them to physical abuse, degrading body searches, and intense interrogation sessions that can last anywhere between a few days to several weeks. Most will inevitably face a sentence in one of North Korea’s notorious labor camps or detention centers, but depending on the nature of their stay in China, some women may face even harsher penalties. If they were associated with a South Korean group or religious group in China, for example, the women will be sent to a political prison camp (kwanliso); some may even face execution.

In the detention centers and labor camps where most women are sent, they are forced to perform hard labor while subsisting off of watery corn soup and living in squalor. Agents and guards commonly demand sexual favors in exchange for privileges or basic necessities. Sentences usually last one to three months.

Women who arrive at the detention center or labor camp pregnant with a child from a Chinese man must undergo a forced abortion, regardless of the length of the pregnancy. Babies delivered at full term are reportedly thrown away and buried.

Combatting Trafficking | The Chinese government has begun to take action to combat the rampant human trafficking taking place within its borders. China has worked with several nations, including Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, the United Kingdom, and France, to halt cross border trafficking between their countries. In 2009, there were even three reported instances of Chinese nationals being arrested for trafficking North Korean women specifically, with one national being sentenced to prison for over 5 years. In 2010, Chinese media reported that eleven Chinese nationals were arrested for trafficking North Korean women for commercial sexual exploitation and forced marriage. Four of the eleven were sentenced to three to 11 years’ imprisonment.

Despite these efforts, Chinese authorities still treat North Korean women as economic migrants rather than as political refugees, and even those who are obvious victims of trafficking are repatriated back to North Korea. With the persistent fear of forced repatriation and no legal framework for protection, these women are ultimately defenseless to human traffickers. In order to earnestly alleviate the trafficking of North Korean women, China must not only continue prosecuting traffickers but also reevaluate its treatment of the victims themselves.


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