North Korea: Human Traffickers and the Chinese Market for Brides

This book excerpt appeared in Newsweek International, August 20, 2012

Steven Kim, an American businessman from Long Island, New York, may be the world’s leading expert on the market for North Korean brides. He acquired this expertise accidentally. He likes to say it was God’s plan.

A decade or so ago he was living in China, overseeing the manufacture of chairs he sold to retail clients in the United States, when he heard about a secret church that catered to the South Korean businessmen who worked in the Shenzhen industrial zone, not far from his apartment. It wasn’t registered with the Chinese government, as required by law, so it operated underground, billing itself as a cultural association. There was no sign on the door and no cross on the roof. The 100 or so congregants had learned about the church as Kim had, by word of mouth.

Kim, a practicing Christian, became a regular attendee. One Sunday he noticed two shabbily dressed men seated in a corner of the room. After worship, he went up to them, said hello, and learned to his astonishment that they were from North Korea. They had escaped across the Tumen River to northeast China and traveled 2,000 miles south to Guangdong province, a journey that took two months. They hoped to find a way to slip across the border into Hong Kong. “They came to church asking for help,” he says. “But the church would only feed them, give them a few dollars, and let them go.”

Kim was outraged. “I asked the pastor, ‘Why do you let them go?’” “Because we’re afraid,” the pastor replied. “If we’re caught helping North Koreans, the church will be shut down.” Kim took the two men home.

That was the start. Kim began to assist North Korean refugees clandestinely. He provided safe houses, food, clothing, and money; eventually he organized secret passage across China to third countries. Before long, he gained a reputation along the new underground railroad as someone North Koreans could count on for assistance. Many of them turned out to be women fleeing from the Chinese men who had purchased them as brides.

Today he runs 318 Partners, a U.S.-based nonprofit dedicated to rescuing trafficked women in China. It’s named after Article 318 of the Chinese criminal code, the law under which Kim was arrested in September 2003 as he led nine North Koreans in a prayer meeting at his apartment. Convicted of helping illegal migrants, he spent four years in a Chinese prison. His home office now, on a quiet street on suburban Long Island, is a luxurious contrast to the Chinese prison cell he shared with a dozen felons. On the morning of my visit, his cellphone rings repeatedly with calls from South Korea, China, and Southeast Asia regarding a rescue operation in the works. It is not until lunchtime, when most of Asia is asleep, that his phone finally goes quiet.

Kim clearly has his hands full. The only practical escape route for fugitives from North Korea is through China, and human-rights groups say roughly 80 percent of those thousands of refugees are women and girls who have become “commodities for purchase,” in Kim’s words. The most popular marketplaces are in the three Chinese provinces closest to the North Korean border—Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang—but North Korean brides are sold to men throughout China. Many of the buyers are farmers. Some have physical or mental disabilities that make them unsuitable as husbands in the eyes of Chinese women. In almost every case, the men are buying the one thing they want most in life: a wife.

But why import brides from North Korea? The answer is China’s family-planning laws. Ever since the one-child policy went into effect in 1979, Beijing has enforced it through fines, imprisonment, forced abortion, sterilization, and even, human-rights groups charge, infanticide. The policy has had its intended effect of slowing the rate of expansion of China’s population. But there has been an unwelcome side effect: an unnaturally high male-to-female ratio.

Women may hold up half the sky, in Mao Zedong’s famous phrase, but they are treated as second-class citizens in much of modern China. Many couples still favor sons, both to carry on the family name and support them in their old age. In rural areas the birth of a son heralds the arrival of an extra farmhand as soon as the boy is old enough to hold a hoe. Not so long ago in China, an unwanted baby girl might be drowned in a bucket at birth or left unattended to die. These days abortion is the preferred method, and ultrasound tests let couples find out the baby’s sex early in the pregnancy for about $12, well within the means of most couples. There are laws against using ultrasound this way, but they’re widely ignored. “Sex-selection abortion accounts for almost all the excess males,” says the British medical journal BMJ.

The result is an epic surplus of bachelors. The Chinese have a euphemism for permanently unmarried men: guang gun—“bare branches” on the family tree. The unmarried men are often desperate—for companionship, for sex, for household help. In rural areas the bride shortage is exacerbated by young Chinese women’s preference for urban life and modern-minded husbands. Young women are fleeing the farm in droves, attracted by well-paying factory jobs and more comfortable urban lifestyles. In the three provinces closest to North Korea, the ratio of young men to young women is a staggering 14 to 1, according to an estimate from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

The situation was all but made for flesh traffickers. As Kim explains, a chain of “suppliers,” “wholesale providers,” and “retail sellers” has developed. Stage one, as he calls it, takes place inside North Korea, where the suppliers lure women from their homes with promises of a lucrative trip to China. These recruiters—either North Korean nationals or Korean-Chinese, and usually male—typically hang out around urban train stations in the border regions and chat up attractive young women who pass by. Their marks are often rural women who have come to the city to sell crops grown on an illegal private plot or scavenged from the forest. They make a tempting promise: you can come home after a few months with more money than you could make in a year here. For an impoverished young woman with no job prospects, it can be an irresistible offer.

Other recruiters travel from village to village, keeping an eye out for potential brides. They spot a pretty young woman and follow her home. Kim explains what happens next. “When they see a widow with a beautiful daughter, they say: ‘Why do you leave your daughter like that? If you send her to China, then she can get money and have an education. Why don’t you send her?’ They keep talking and gain trust, and then—‘OK,’ the mother says, ‘I trust you. Take her.’ Then he takes the girl into China and sells her. This is one of the tricks.” Kim shudders. “Horrible.”

Stories abound of girls who have gone to China and never returned. But many women are young enough, inexperienced enough, or desperate enough to believe “it won’t happen to me.” One former bride I interviewed—she called herself Naomi—described how she was befriended by a traveling salesman from China who offered to guide her to where relatives of her father lived on the other side of the border. She left home in the middle of the night. “I didn’t want my parents to know I was leaving,” Naomi told me. She knew she was taking a risk and didn’t want them to dissuade her. “I thought I would go for a few days and come back.” Only when she was delivered to a Chinese farmer did she realize that the salesman’s “wares” were human, and female.

If trickery fails, recruiters have been known to resort to kidnapping. Hannah, another former bride, was a teacher in Pyongyang until she accompanied the mother of one of her pupils to the border region, hoping to make a little extra money. The friend was planning to purchase fashionable Chinese-made clothing from a Chinese salesman for resale in the capital.

After they concluded the deal, the Chinese salesman invited the two women to dinner. The food was drugged. The two women woke up in a dark room, hands and feet bound, groggy from the narcotic. As Hannah struggled to come to, she heard her friend cry out: “Teacher, I think we’ve been sold!” They were inside China, destined for forced marriages. They never saw each other again. “I never knew such things happened,” Hannah told me.

The supplier’s job ends when he delivers the woman to the Chinese side of the Tumen or Yalu River. His fee, Steve Kim says, runs between $80 and $300 per woman, depending upon the quality of the “product” and the difficulty of the crossing. Out of that sum, the supplier is expected to cover any bribes he must pay to North Korean border guards for information about safe crossing points or an agreement that they’ll look the other way at a prearranged time.

Stage two begins there, where wholesaler providers are waiting to receive the women. The wholesaler’s job is to escort the women past Chinese ID checks to a safer place farther from the border. That is typically somewhere in the Yanbian area of Jilin province. The area’s full name is Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, and it is home to a large number of ethnic Koreans, making it a good place for North Koreans to hide in plain sight—or in the case of the North Korean brides, to be hidden. Some of the women are sold directly to Korean-Chinese men who live in the region. From the woman’s point of view, this is usually the better option. Life with a Korean-Chinese man, in a community where the Korean language is spoken, is preferable to life with a Han Chinese man who speaks only Mandarin and whose culture and food will be unfamiliar.

Other brides move on to stage three and are resold to retailers for between $500 and $800 each. The retailers in turn sell the women to their clients, usually Han Chinese in other parts of the country, for between $1,200 and $1,500 per woman, depending upon her age and appearance.

At some point the woman realizes what is happening to her. She then has two choices: go through with the marriage or try to escape. This is not really a choice. The woman is on her own in a strange country. She knows no one. She doesn’t speak the language. As she quickly finds out, in escaping to China from North Korea, she has exchanged one form of bondage for another. Most accept the inevitable and agree to be sold. They reason, not illogically, that life with a Chinese husband, even an abusive one, is preferable to arrest, repatriation, and automatic imprisonment in a North Korean labor camp for illegally leaving the country. Nevertheless, the couple’s living arrangement will have no standing under Chinese law. Because the woman has no official identity papers, the marriage cannot be legally registered.

Such pseudomarriages may be voluntary—at least in the sense that the woman has the theoretical option of turning down a man’s offer. But it is wrong to consider it a true choice. It is “a means of survival or livelihood,” says Lee Keum-soon, a senior researcher with the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. Lee has interviewed hundreds of North Korean women who have settled in the South. In many cases, she says, a voluntary marriage is indistinguishable from a forced marriage. The woman’s few alternatives may include prostitution or online stripping. A woman who cannot speak Chinese would not be able to work in a restaurant or a store. The North Korean woman “would quickly realize that there was no alternative but to establish a live-in relationship with a Chinese man to avoid a police roundup,” Lee observes. “She would have to choose to live-in as a relatively safe means of staying in China.”

The rule of law—to the extent that it prevails in China and to the extent that a North Korean with no exposure to such a concept is capable of understanding it—doesn’t apply to North Korean refugees. If a woman has relatives in China, they often urge her, not without reason, to strike a bargain with a Chinese man who will feed and house her in exchange for her labor and sexual favors. If she contacts the police or other Chinese officials, she can expect worse treatment. If the police abide by the law, they will arrest her and send her back to North Korea. If they are corrupt, they will sell her to another bride broker.

North Korean brides are “thrice victimized,” says Ambassador Mark Lagon, former director of the U.S. State Department’s human-trafficking office. “They have fled starvation and human-rights abuses in North Korea,” he notes. “They are subject to abuse as undocumented migrants in China. And if they are sent back to North Korea, they face severe punishment, even execution in some cases.”

How bad can it get? Ask Bang Mi-sun. She crossed the Tumen River, motivated, she later said, by one thought: “I might find refuge in China.” Her husband had died of starvation in North Korea. Her elder daughter had disappeared, and her two younger children needed her help. She hoped to find work in China. Instead, she found Chinese police waiting for her, ready to send her back to North Korea unless she agreed to be sold. Speaking at a press conference in Washington, D.C., she described what happened next: “My first buyer sold me to another buyer, and then that buyer sold me in turn to another buyer, each buyer for additional profit.“

“I was being sold like a beast,” she said. “I remember these Chinese brokers would call us, those who were being sold, pigs. Well, I was the best pig they had. I was sold at top price.” Her first husband told her he had paid 7,000 yuan for her—then the equivalent of about $850. “He told me he would kill me if I did not listen to him.” But she soon got a reprieve of sorts: she was abducted and sold her to another man. “I found out that there are brokers who would take the people who had been sold and take them away and sell them again to a third party. I never knew that this buying and selling of people existed,” she said. “I was sold again and again.” Eventually she was arrested and deported to North Korea, where she was beaten and sent to a labor reeducation camp.

She finally escaped again to China and made her way to South Korea. At the Washington press conference, she stood on a chair, lifted up her skirt, and displayed the deep furrows in her thighs, scars where she’d been tortured. She asked, “Why do North Korean women have to be treated like pigs and sold like pigs and suffer these things?”

Many North Korean brides have asked themselves the same thing, and some have made it to freedom. Kim relies on them to tell the friends they left behind in China. After brides escape, “they tell us there are 10, 15 more women like them in their village,” he says. “And then they call them.”

He lifts his hand to his ear, playing the part of a rescued North Korean woman calling from Seoul to a friend in China. “‘Yeah, I’m here. It’s so-o-o good. Why don’t you come?’” The bride who has escaped then gives Kim’s phone number or that of a colleague in Seoul to her friends. “If they want, they contact us,” he says. “That’s how it happens.” The next step is a phone interview with Kim. Does the woman fully understand the risks of escape? Is she willing to take the chance that she could be arrested and repatriated? If she has children with her Chinese husband, is she prepared to leave them behind?

Some women decide not to leave. “Many women have adjusted to their new lives even though they were trafficked,” he says. They have enough to eat. Their living conditions are far better than anything they experienced in North Korea. Their neighbors help shield them from arrest when security officials come snooping. “The husband is happy, and they’re not complaining,” Kim says. “They’re taking it as destiny. They tell me, ‘Don’t bother our family.’ They are living peacefully.”

If a woman asks for help and Kim agrees, he goes to work quickly. He figures out how much the rescue will cost and begins to organize his network on the new underground railroad. If the woman is still living with her Chinese husband, the first step will be to arrange for her to get to a secure location from which she can begin her journey.

Then he sends out a plea for money to his email list of supporters. Typical is an appeal from a January 2010 newsletter: “We have received another call for help from three trafficked North Korean women in China,” the newsletter states. “They are all from the same hometown in North Korea. According to the older woman named Choi, they have escaped from the captors [and are] hiding in a northern city of Jilin province. We ask your support in prayers and financially.”

The basement price of one of 318 Partners’ rescues is $1,300. Most cost much more—$3,000 or above. Money is so tight that Kim sometimes asks the rescued women to pledge to pay back $1,000 of the costs once they get to Seoul and receive financial help from the South Korean government. There is a rough symmetry in that figure. After all, $1,000 is roughly what a Chinese man will pay for a North Korean bride.

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