Top Story

‘He told me that if I ran away he would report me to the Chinese police’

5 Min
‘He told me that if I ran away he would report me to the Chinese police’

When Park Eun Mi and Son Hye Young fled North Korea and stepped into China, they thought their troubles would be over. They were escaping widespread hunger, and expected that in China they could find decent jobs and piece their lives together away from the oppressive regime that had failed to provide for them and their families.

Instead they stepped into a world where they, like many others before them, were to be bought and sold like possessions, and their lives were under the control of the brokers who had promised them freedom.

About 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans live in China in areas close to the North Korean border and as many as 70% to 80% could be victims of human trafficking, a report released in March by the Dutch law firm Global Rights Compliance said.

The report said North Korean women are sold for hundreds of U.S. dollars, and the criminal organizations selling them collectively earn more than $100 million each year.

North Korean refugees who have fled to China without formal immigration status are especially vulnerable to trafficking, the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report said.

“Traffickers lure, drug, detain, or kidnap some North Korean women upon their arrival in the PRC and compel them into commercial sex in brothels and bars, through internet sex sites, or in relation to forced marriage,” it said.

Now both living in South Korea, Park and Son shared their experience as trafficking victims to Radio Free Asia’s Korean Service.

“You are just one of my possessions.”

Park Eun Mi was born in Hyesan, a city on the Chinese border in Ryanggang province. In 2007, during one of the worst food shortages in North Korea since the 1994-1998 famine, then 16-year-old Park crossed over into China with the help of a broker.

“My family’s financial life had become very difficult, so I sought a way out and that was defecting from North Korea,” she said. “I heard from people around me that there would be no problem making a living if I defected.”

The broker also promised her that she could also send money back from China to help her family.

“He said, there are many elderly couples without children in China, so when young girls go there, they are usually adopted as daughters. Then, through the work they give you, you can make a living and earn money to help your parents,’” said Park. “I didn’t even know the word human trafficking back then.”

She said she trusted the brokers, believing them to be kind people who helped poor North Korean children, but they turned out to be criminals who handed people over for money. She didn’t realize she had been trafficked until she arrived in China.

“I felt it when I arrived at my destination and I was handed off to another broker in the countryside,” said Park. “From then on, people came and saw me, and suddenly took my friend next to me out early in the morning and went out to sell her.”

Park said she feared retribution if she were to protest being sold when it was her turn.

“When people are too shocked, people become speechless. I felt like something terrible would happen to me if I said a word, so I was rather calm,” she said.

The day came when she was sold to a man seeking a wife. For the next six years her life consisted of sexual exploitation and constant threats from her buyer.

“He told me that if I ran away he would report me to the Chinese police,” she said.

She had no choice but to comply with the demands of her buyer and his family.

“I think I waited a long time to earn their trust because it’s pretty obvious what they’d do to me if I’d have given them any sign of running away,” she said.

“There were times when they went beyond my tolerance and insulted my personality. The most common insult I heard was, ‘You are one of my possessions. I can discard you when you’er no longer useful,’” she said. “It was hard to live hearing those words on a daily basis.”

‘My body is being sold’

Son Hye Young was born in the city of Tanchon in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong. Her parents died in the ‘90s famine and she found herself living on the streets as a kotjebi, a beggar child with no permanent place to live.

Eventually, in 2007, while in China, she and several other kotjebi were rounded up by a trafficker.

“When I was taken away, the woman said things like, ‘How much will you charge for it? And ‘how much will you sell it for? So, I said to this woman, ‘Please don’t talk like that in front of us. I know my body is being sold, but this doesn’t seem right.’”

The trafficker sold her for 36,000 yuan (about $5,000).

What followed was a life of misery, she said, living in a rat-infested hut with an incompetent husband who spoke a language she didn’t understand and who came from a culture she hadn’t yet adapted to.

“I got pregnant and gave birth to a baby but there was no formula. I had no money to buy formula, so I thought of an idea of buying a goat and mixing goat milk to make it,” she said. “So, I worked at a construction site for a month despite not being able to speak Chinese. I bought a goat and then I said I had to learn Chinese. So, I didn’t go out anywhere, locked myself up and watched TV at home.”

Son said that there are still many North Korean women who are involved in “human trafficking scams” in China.

“The reality is that North Korean refugees cannot earn money, so they are sold to families. Then they run away,” said Son. “There are many cases where the seller and the broker coordinate and instruct the North Korean refugee to live in the house of the buyer for 10 days and then come back. There are some caught doing that by the Chinese police.”

By 2012, Son had made a life for herself in China as the caretaker of her 3-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. But she was forcibly repatriated to North Korea one day after someone reported her to the Chinese police.

Back in her homeland, she was severely beaten and tortured by North Korean authorities, she was sent to a prison.

Two paths

Park explained that for North Korean women who escape to China, there are only two paths for them to avoid being trafficked.

“First … is getting a job through connections such as relatives. The second is that if you don’t have any connections, you literally have to sleep out in an open place you don’t know, but that itself doesn’t make sense,” she said. “The moment you are on the street, you are caught by the police and sent back to North Korea. In the end, you have no choice but to go through with being trafficked.”

Park, now in South Korea, works to help other victims like herself. She has learned English so she can discuss human trafficking with an international audience. She explained how she used to think that her situation was her own fault.

“I felt guilty. It’s as if I’d done something wrong to have this happen,” she said. “But now thinking rationally, it’s not my fault.”

Park said that she was afraid to speak about her situation because human trafficking involves sexual assault, and victim blaming is rampant.

“I thought that if I talked about it, everyone would point fingers at me. … But when I saw someone else [talking about it] I thought a lot … ‘It’s not your fault.’ And isn’t it the right thing to have a little courage?”

Park says that without help from the international community to ensure the safety of North Korean refugees in China, many more will become human trafficking victims.

“There are probably North Korean refugees still waiting for their repatriation date in Chinese prison,” she said. “I think the ultimate goal is for all residents of North Korea to enjoy the freedom and human rights we enjoy now. In order to do that, wouldn’t it be right to take steps to save North Korean refugees who are living in a third country right now?”

She said she will continue to advocate for undocumented North Koreans in China.

“All I can do is speak up for those people, and if someone says they will save them, I’ll be willing to join in as well.”

—RFA report, Aug 4, 2023