World Perspectives on Women
Thousands of North Korean Women Sold as Slaves in China
By Han Min
SEOUL—Thousands of North Korean women who fled famine in their homeland in recent years are believed to have been sold as “brides” to Chinese men, who often put them to backbreaking labor and subject them to constant fear, physical assault, and sexual abuse.
In an unprecedented series of interviews by RFA’s Korean service, women who were trafficked into China, lured by the promise of food and a decent living, described their experiences on air.
“A woman from our village, who said she’d been to China, told me that we could make some money there, so I followed her and crossed the Tumen River,” said Jeong Soo-Ok, who was caught and sold by trafficking rings after crossing the border into China from North Korea in March 2004.
“Before I even knew it, I was taken to a man’s house,” Jeong said.
Paek Sun-Joo was an 18-year-old street child when she was sold to a 38- year-old Chinese man more than two years ago.
“[The traffickers] would gather people wearing rags, appearing to be compassionate and pity them, giving them something to eat and telling them that in China they would be able to feed and clothe themselves adequately,” Paek told RFA reporter Han Min.
“It is easy to be tricked when you are starving, and somebody gives you some food, telling you that there will be plenty more for you if you go with them,” she said.
Most women trafficked in China come from areas of North Korea close to the Chinese border, such as Chagang, Northern Hamgyong, and Yanggang provinces. Often they were already extremely poor and socially marginalized—itinerant peddlers or street children.
In September 1998, at age 17, Hoh Kyung-Soon of Changjin decided to go to China.
“Somebody in North Korea had told me that I could make money working in China, and all I wanted to do was to work there for a month and then return to live with my parents,” Ho said. “Next thing I knew, I was taken to a trafficking establishment in China.”
Price pegged to youth, appearance
According to the victims, 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.
Chun Young-Hee said she had been sold by traffickers twice. “The bride’s price tag depends on her age and looks. The youngest and best-looking ones sell for up to 20,000 yuan. A bride that’s worth only 3,000 yuan is tough to sell.”
Most of the women who are currently in China escaped North Korea between 1995 and 2001. In many cases the women had shouldered the burden of sustaining their families, desperately striving to ensure their survival as the food crisis worsened.
What all of them hoped for as they risked the Tumen River crossing into China was to return within six months with 5,000 yuan (U.S.$650).
A severe shortage of younger women in Chinese rural communities has meant that bachelors seeking wives are faced with either heading to the cities themselves, or with spending large sums to buy a trafficked bride.
Most of the bachelors currently living in the rural areas are men in their 40s or 50s, poor, and in many cases suffering from some physical or mental disability.
A native of Northern Hamgyong province, Kang Sung-Mi is 35, and was sold a year ago by ethnic Koreans in China. Her husband is 47. They work on the farm together, but he thinks of her as a worker, rather than a wife.
“My husband is 47 years old, has no particular work skills, and is quite ill. I am not the only North Korean woman living in this area. As I was talking to some of the others, we came to realize that we had been sold into this kind of marriage. Last time my husband hit me, he even said: ‘You, do you have any idea how much I paid for you?’“
“Chinese men who live in poverty and have no professional skills cannot get married. That is why they buy North Korean brides for a very low price,” Kang said.
Nowhere to run
Hoh Kyung-Soon married a Chinese man 12 years older than her, nine years ago. “They buy us for very little money and then make us work as slaves on their farms. My husband makes me work all by myself, the entire summer.”
In rare cases, such relationships prove to be successful, and the Chinese rural bachelors and their North Korean brides live as husband and wife. However, the North Korean women live with the ever-present peril of being arrested by Chinese law enforcement authorities for having illegally crossed the border. Some of them are apprehended even despite having lived in China for over a decade.
The jargon that human traffickers use to name their North Korean victims is “pigs,” a degrading word that evokes the treatment these women receive in China.
They describe nightmarish living conditions. Despite their relative youth, their faces are dark and stained and their hands prematurely wrinkled. To prevent the North Korean “bride” from fleeing, the husband’s relatives take turns watching her.
Bullying and physical violence are common, with some women deformed as a result. Unwanted sexual advances from other Chinese men are hard to refuse for fear of retaliatory deportation to North Korea, where returning defectors are often sent to labor camps.
“He hits me every day, for any trivial reason. It’s not that I want to live here, but I have nowhere else to go,” trafficking victim Hoh Kyung-Soon told RFA. “I’ve tried escaping twice. I was caught and beaten to a pulp.”
Paek Sun-Joo said she too had been beaten repeatedly after failed attempts to escape. “I tried to run away, but I was caught and brought back. I was beaten and kicked so brutally that my bones broke, and my face was bruised all over.”
According to Kim Young-Ae, who left North Korea in 1999: “We are treated worse than animals.They take care of their animals better, as they’ll make money selling them some day, but North Korean women are locked up inside the house, sometimes forced to live with three widowers in the same household, constantly facing the contempt of those surrounding us.”
The women rarely speak enough Chinese to get by even if they were to escape, and many have children still in China who they fear would be killed if they succeeded.
Trafficking victim Chun Young-Hee summed up the plight of many.
“I ran away once but came back after three days. I couldn’t speak the language, I had no money and there was nothing for me out there, except for the constant danger of being caught. I came back to this destitute life and apologized profusely to my husband.”
Original reporting in Korean by Han Min. Researched and translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Edited by Hyunju Lee and Sooil Chun. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.
Copyright © 2006, RFA. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036. http://www.rfa.org.