A recent report from The Washington Post detailed some of the grimmest experiences faced by escaped North Korean refugees: sexual abuse and human trafficking.
Through the vivid recounting of Suh, the Post captured a portrait of one female North Korean defector and her tragic sojourn from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to Thailand. Sadly, Suh’s escape from North Korea marked only the beginning of her trials—she eventually found herself resorting to online sex work just to make ends meet.
After initially escaping from North Korea, Suh fell into the hands of a trafficker and was sold to become the wife of a Chinese man. This is a common occurrence among North Korean female defectors.
Of the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 North Korean defectors currently in China, 75 percent are women. Of that 75 percent, between 70 to 90 percent are estimated to be trafficked. According to brokers and humanitarian workers, North Korean women between the ages of 15 and 25 are bought and sold as wives to Chinese men for about $10,000 to $12,000 each.
Last Tuesday, The Heritage Foundation hosted an event in which three North Korean female defectors—Kim Jeong Ah, Lee Young Hee, and Hwang Hyun Jeong—shared their own stories of coerced marriage to Chinese men and the gut-wrenching decisions made to leave their children in China when fleeing to South Korea.
As Kim recounted:
“Once they arrive in China, North Korean defector women are sold into human trafficking situations, where they often get pregnant … Because of the Chinese government’s policy of forced repatriation, these women make the heartbreaking decision to leave their children behind in China and seek freedom in South Korea.”
Many North Korean female defectors eventually try to locate and reunite with their children, but are unable to contact them or are denied access by their Chinese husbands.
China’s continued policy of forcible repatriation, the risks in returning to China are often too great for these women, even once they become South Korean citizens. Some women never see or hear from their children again.
That’s why Kim founded Tongil Mom, an organization dedicated to advocating on behalf of North Korean female defectors who are forced to leave their children behind in China.
As the State Department notes in its 2016 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” many of these women are “subjected to sexual slavery by Chinese or Korean-Chinese men, forced prostitution in brothels or through internet sex sites, or compelled service as hostesses in nightclubs or karaoke bars.”
North Korea itself has between 70,000 and 120,000 forced laborers in political prison camps. Kim Jong Un’s regime also exploits North Korean workers abroad, often sending them to countries in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East and seizing a significant portion of their wages to line their own coffers.
As a result, the DPRK is ranked Tier 3 in the 2016 TIP report. Tier 3 is the worst designation a country can receive in the TIP report, and the ranking signals that the host government is not making significant efforts to abide by minimum standards for compliance as outlined in the report.
China was also previously ranked at Tier 3 in the 2013 TIP report, and remains on the Tier 2 watch list today. China’s forced repatriation of North Korean defectors and perpetuation of human trafficking of North Korean female defectors led to its negative designations in subsequent TIP reports.
Roberta Cohen, nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, contended that North Korean defectors should be recognized as refugees sur place because like Suh, Kim, Lee, and Hwang, they fear that if caught by the police in China, they will be repatriated and subjected once again to persecution under the brutal Kim regime.
Heritage advocates for three policies that should be implemented to address sexual abuse and human trafficking in China and North Korea. First, the U.S. government should call upon the Chinese government to discontinue its policy of forced repatriation of North Korean defectors.
Second, the State Department should consider whether China merits a Tier 3 designation in the 2017 TIP report and maintain the DPRK’s Tier 3 designation. Reasons previously given for China’s Tier 3 designation in 2013 still stand today and include the detention and forcible deportation of North Korean women, as well as the government-instituted use of forced labor in drug detention centers.
Third, the U.S. government should use grants allocated in the North Korea Human Rights Act to provide support to legitimate organizations that smuggle North Korean refugees to freedom. This will decrease the likelihood that refugees are recruited by pernicious brokers and traffickers with perverse motives.
The testimonies of Suh, Kim, Lee, and Hwang illustrate the severity of sexual abuse and human trafficking in North Korea and China, and the need for U.S. leadership in tackling this scourge.