- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

SEOUL — Thousands of North Korean women fleeing famine in their homeland in recent years say they have been sold as “brides” to Chinese men, who often force them into backbreaking labor and subject them to constant fear, physical assault and sexual abuse.

Women who were trafficked into China, lured by the promise of food and a decent living, described their experiences in an unprecedented series of interviews by Radio Free Asia’s Korean service.

“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 from North Korea into China in March 2004.

“Before I even knew it, I was taken to a man’s house,” Mrs. Jeong said.

Paek Sun-joo was an 18-year-old on the street 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,” Mrs. Paek said.

“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.

Poor women targeted

Most women trafficked in China come from areas of North Korea close to the Chinese border, such as Chagang, Northern Hamgyong and Yanggang provinces. They often are destitute and socially marginalized — itinerant peddlers or street children.

Hoh Kyung-soon of Changjin went to China in September 1998 at age 17.

“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,” Mrs. Hoh said. “Next thing I knew, I was taken to a trafficking establishment in China.”

The victims say North Korean women ages 17 to 40 are sold to Chinese nationals ages 37 to 58.

North Korean women said they were being sold in China for 2,000 to 20,000 yuan ($260 to $2,600), depending on their age and looks.

The traffickers, mostly ethnic Korean Chinese citizens, operate a well-defined organization: There are “merchandise” scouts, distributors, brokers and transporters. The scouts identify vulnerable North Korean women who are “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 buyers, and the brokers complete the sale. Once the deal has been closed, the transporters take the women to their final destinations.

Chun Young-hee said traffickers had sold her 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 in China left North Korea from 1995 to 2001. In many cases, the women were desperately trying to sustain their families as the food crisis in North Korea worsened and thousands faced starvation.

What all of them hoped as they risked the Tumen River crossing into China was to return within six months with 5,000 yuan ($650).

Master-slave relationships

A severe shortage of younger women in Chinese rural communities has meant that bachelors must either head to the cities to find wives or buy a trafficked bride.

Most of the bachelors living in the rural areas are men in their 40s or 50s who are poor and in many cases suffering from some physical or mental disability.

Kang Sung-mi, 35 and a native of Northern Hamgyong province, 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.”

Mrs. Hoh married a Chinese man 12 years her senior 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. But North Korean women live with the constant fear of being arrested for having illegally crossed the border. Some have been apprehended after having lived in China for more than a decade.

Nowhere to turn

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 ending up disfigured or crippled 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 often are 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,” Mrs. Hoh said of her husband. “I’ve tried escaping twice. I was caught and beaten to a pulp.”

Mrs. Paek 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.”

Kim Young-ae, who left North Korea in 1999, said the women “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.

Mrs. Chun 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.”

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