The trafficking story is a dangerous pursuit—but without more information and world attention, tens of thousands of North Korean women and girls are caught up as victims with no place to turn.
With the safe return of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee from North Korea, where they had been convicted of illegally entering the country, it behooves us to look at the story they were trying to cover when apprehended in March by North Korean officials. Whatever the details of their arrest—yet to emerge—the reported subject of their journalistic quest, human trafficking, is part of a growing global tragedy.
Proportionally, the trafficking of North Korean women into China is a small part of an enormous worldwide criminal enterprise (see sidebar). However, of North Korean women and girl refugees in China, an estimated 80 to 90 percent are victims of trafficking. This is likely the highest percentage of trafficking in a single population.
The trafficking of these women is tangled up in the thorny politics of the region. North Korean refugees began crossing into China in large numbers in the 1990s. North Korea considers such people defectors and treats them as criminals. It denies the existence of trafficking and treats its victims as corrupt and traitorous criminals for consorting with foreigners. China views the refugees as illegal migrants and, by longstanding agreement, deports 5,000 to 10,000 North Koreans every year. The UN withholds official refugee status, saying only that they are monitored as an at-risk population.
China has a long history of trafficking its own women and girls as sex workers or as wives for rural bachelors, so it’s no surprise that North Korean women became another “product” for traffickers.
In a previous age when European empires and settler nations like the United States engaged in the trafficking of Africans to the Americas, it was called the slave trade. The modern day slavery called human trafficking enslaves a wide range of people, including Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners, and Latin Americans, and victims can be trafficked within a country as well as trafficked internationally. An estimated 161 countries are involved as countries of origin, transit countries, destination countries, or some combination. The U.S. State Department estimates that 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. Estimates for the number of people trafficked domestically appear to be unavailable. About 80 percent of the internationally trafficked victims are women and girls. Estimates of the number of people worldwide who are currently enslaved through trafficking range from 4 million to as high as 27 million. Both domestically and internationally trafficked victims are coerced into labor, often sexual. An estimated 70 percent of all trafficked women and girls are sold into commercial sex work.
Whether legal as slavery once was or illegal as trafficking now is, enslaving human beings continues to bring in big money. Human trafficking generates an estimated $32 billion in yearly profits, according to the International Labor Organization. Nearly half the profits—$15.5 billion—is made in industrialized countries while another $9.7 billion is made in developing Asian nations.—Ji-Yeon Yuh Even as China cracks down on refugees, officials who are often in cahoots with traffickers and buyers turn a blind eye to women forced to work in karaoke bars and other commercial sex establishments. The wider world takes little notice of these victims, with mainstream media closely focused on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Estimates of the number of North Korean refugees in China range from the Chinese government’s low of 10,000 to activist organizations’ high of 300,000—some 70 percent of them women, aid workers say. With nowhere to turn for official assistance, they are particularly vulnerable. Even those who have lived in China for years remain in constant fear of exposure and deportation. Consequently, trafficked North Korean women are under the near-absolute domination of traffickers and buyers.
The available evidence points to a dramatic expansion in the trafficking of North Korean women over the past decade. Based on the aid workers’ estimate that 80 to 90 percent of the female refugees are trafficking victims, there could be as many as 168,000 trafficked North Korean women and girls in China, and thousands cross the border each year.
It is no longer a case of local Chinese gangsters tricking North Korean women already in China and selling them as wives to rural bachelors. It is now a systematic, albeit sprawling industry operating in both North Korea and China that lures North Korean women with promises of jobs and then sells them into commercial sex work or into servitude as personal laborers and sex slaves—”wives”—for men. While once North Korean women were sold primarily in areas bordering North Korea, now there is evidence that they are being sold throughout the area north of Beijing.
During a research trip to northeastern China in 2001, I was able to interview a number of North Korean refugees, both men and women. The most horrifying story, however, is an interview that never took place because the woman was kidnapped the night before our scheduled meeting. Traffickers pretending to be police raided the remote mountain cabin where she was hiding with her husband and young children, and seized only her. That incident shocked my friend who had arranged the meeting, an ethnic Korean and a Chinese citizen who helped refugees find shelter and work. Although he learned that this was the work of a local gang and that she would probably be sold to a rural bachelor in another province, he was unable to discover what happened to her, much less find and rescue her. Going to the real police, of course, was not an option, for that would immediately result in the forced repatriation and probably imprisonment of her family.
Women kidnapped while in North Korean have usually been approached by neighbors or fellow villagers, acting as scouts for traffickers, who promise transport and jobs in China. Once in China, the women are brought to a collection house and matched with buyers and transporters who take them to their owners. Along the way, they are abused, raped, and kept in isolation in order to make them compliant and fearful.
The on-the-ground traffickers are nearly always ethnic Koreans, whether from China or from North Korea. There have even been reports of North Korean refugee women working as traffickers with their Chinese husbands. A North Korean woman sells for between 2,000 and 20,000 yuan, hefty sums in a provincial economy where monthly salaries average between 1000 and 1500 yuan. But salaries are only for those lucky enough to have jobs. The economy is so depressed in northeast China that many local residents, both ethnic Korean and ethnic Chinese, have been going overseas as contract laborers since the 1990s. Many households are supported wholly or in part through remittances from overseas family members. The monetary lure of trafficking is strong.
Although activists operate an underground railroad to ferry North Korean refugees to countries where they can apply for asylum, these efforts are risky, usually fail to reach women trafficked into sex work, and often worsen the problem because it prompts China to engage in crackdowns on both refugees and activists. Since most activists are Christian and try to spread the Christian faith, China also has a handy excuse for hostility to churches.
With Chinese officials focused on deporting refugees—and border guards, military officials, police officers and other government officials colluding with traffickers—there is no clear picture of the trafficking organizations. Those visible participants—scouts and transporters—are the grunts of the operation. Who’s in charge making the big bucks and calling the shots? Large crime syndicates have become involved, but it is not clear how deeply. Nor is much known about the smaller organizations—how many there are or who are the ringleaders.
Perhaps this is the kind of information that Laura Ling and Euna Lee were seeking, or perhaps a simpler story about local traffickers. Their experience shows that investigating trafficking is a dangerous but also a necessary business. The world’s authorities need to do more than demonstrate the scope of trafficking and its human tragedy; they also need to crack down on trafficking rings and institute measures that provide all trafficking victims with basic protections. For trafficked North Korean women and girls, extending official refugee protections outlined under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and pressuring China to treat them as refugees would be a start.
Ji-Yeon Yuh is a board member of the Korea Policy Institute, a co-founder of the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea and board president of KANWIN, a Korean American women’s organization focusing on domestic violence. An associate professor of history and founding director of the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, Yuh was formerly a journalist, and has conducted numerous research trips to China and lived in Yanji City for most of 2002. She is the author of Beyond the Shadow of Camptown: Korean Military Brides in America, and serves as the historical consultant for Still Present Pasts—a multimedia museum exhibit exploring the legacies of the Korean War for Korean Americans that has toured the United States and Korea. She is currently working on Contested Nationalisms, a history of ethnic Koreans in China, Japan, and the United States during the 20th century.
The Korea Policy Institute thanks Ji-Yeon Yuh and The Women’s Media Center for granting permission to republish this article.