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North Korean women trafficked into sex trade in China

About 70-80 percent of female refugees are forced into sex slavery with no hope of justice, rights groups say

A North Korean girl is seen at the border fence in this file image. Thousands of North Korean women and girls have been trafficked into sex trade in a red zone in northern China, rights groups say

A North Korean girl is seen at the border fence in this file image. Thousands of North Korean women and girls have been trafficked into sex trade in a red zone in northern China, rights groups say. (Photo: Ed Jones/AFP)

Published: March 28, 2023 09:22 AM GMT

Updated: March 28, 2023 09:43 AM GMT

Thousands of women who fled North Korea have been trafficked into a multi-million-dollar sex trade industry in a border region in China, reports a rights group.

Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights documented more than 82,000 cases of violation of the rights of North Koreans including thousands of women.

These women became victims of a human trafficking mafia active in the “red zone” in the Yanbian Korea Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province of northern China, London-based iNews reported on March 24. The industry mints US$105 million a year for Chinese and North Korean crime networks.

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A woman said her forced marriage to her Chinese ex-husband in Yanbian was abusive and traumatizing.

“I was sold to a Han Chinese living in Yanbian. We lived together for one year and we couldn’t have a child, so he beat me,” she told the investigators from the rights group.

“He kicked me. He kicked my head… I have depression now,” she further added.

The female defectors fleeing from North Korea are trafficked into China’s notorious “Red Zone” border region and face a flurry of abuses including systematic rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, pregnancy, forced labor, and cybersex trafficking.

The trafficking of women and girls as young as 12 has become the new normal with Chinese agents and guards liaising to enable sex and bride trafficking with impunity, iNews reported.

It is estimated that around 70-80 percent of female North Korean refugees in China are condemned to the sex trade with no hope of escape.

An “information black-out” surrounding the red zone makes the task of identifying and saving victims difficult, says Sofia Evangelou, North Korea Lead legal advisor for the international rights group, Global Rights Compliance.

“A black hole of information currently exists around China’s red zone which means that many more North Korean women and girls are falling victim to China’s sex slave industry,” said Evangelou.

The group pointed out that their previous reports indicated the presence of an estimated 150,000-200,000 North Korean defectors in China.

However, the group alleges that the number of women in the red zone is far higher, reaching the tune of hundreds of thousands forced into the flesh trade.

It alleged that the border lockdown between North Korea, China, and South Korea during the pandemic has closed off any chances for the defectors to legally escape thus leaving thousands to be exploited by sex and bride traffickers.

The group also revealed the plight of those who are repatriated to North Korea after a failed attempt to escape.

These defectors who are repatriated forcefully or are caught by North Korean forces are labeled as traitors and subjected to inhumane treatment including invasive strip searches during interrogations and imprisonment without trial.

The group alleges that the North Korean government gives lucrative financial incentives to locals for reporting North Korean refugees hiding in the red zone.

Some of the defectors are handed down a death sentence on re-entry to North Korea, while others are sent to North Korea’s forced labor camps, reports say.

The North Korean forced labor camps follow a blanket policy of forced abortion for pregnant women, says the international rights group.

Lee Keum-Soon, a repatriated defector at the North Hamgyong Provincial Police Holding Camp in North Korea had hidden her pregnancy with a tightly-wrapped rope around her which was discovered by the guards when she fainted and fell into a river.

The guards allegedly ordered an immediate strip search for all the female inmates to find any pregnant ones and subjected them to forced abortion.

Evangelou called upon the international community to fight against the abuses meted out to women with utter disregard for international laws and treaties.

“The illegal sexual slavery of women and girls will not stop until a​ concerted international effort is mobilized,” Evangelou said.

She further added that “the international community can no longer turn a blind eye to the atrocities being committed against women and children, fleeing for their lives and – in too many cases – those of their unborn children.”

In March, Elizabeth Salmon, a UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea highlighted the perilous situation faced by the women in a report to the 52nd session of the human rights council.

“Many women and girls who attempt to escape are sold into forced marriages with Chinese men or driven into the sex industry.  Even before crossing, they are vulnerable to sexual harassment, sexual assault, beatings, and human trafficking by various perpetrators,” Salmon said.

She further added that China’s “war on human trafficking” would represent a risk to the victims in China as they are “excluded from protection, given that they are classified as ‘illegal immigrants’ with no refugee status.”


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