North Korean Bride Trafficking: When Escape Becomes Bondage

Kristin Butler | Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer | Wednesday, May 06, 2009

North Korean Bride Trafficking: When Escape Becomes Bondage


May 7, 2009

The translator could never capture the experience behind Young-Ae Kim’s emotional words, but he tried.

“She was raised with the idea that you have one lasting marriage – never did she imagine that she would be married three times by the age of 30, and treated like an animal.

North Korean defector Young-Ae Kim told her story publically on April 29, along with Mi-Sun Bang, another woman whose account bears tragic resemblance to hers. Both women told reporters at the National Press Club a story that is becoming all too common among North Korean women. Both women were victims of “Bride Trafficking” – being bought and sold as wives for single Chinese men along the border between North Korea and China.

Mark Lagon, former U.S. Ambassador at Large for Combating Trafficking and now executive director of the Polaris Project on Human Trafficking, says that these women are “thrice victimized” – starved in North Korea, sexually exploited once they escape to China and tortured if they are repatriated to their home country.

Brides for Sale

Human trafficking “the fastest growing criminal industry in the world,” according to the Polaris Project. In China, years of the one child policy combined with centuries of disregard for girl-children has led to a literal market for refugee women.

Back in the mid-nineties, Tom Hilditch’s article, “A Holocaust of Little Girls,” captured the essence of a country where girls don’t matter.

“The birth of a girl has never been a cause for celebration in China,” he wrote, “and stories of peasant farmers drowning new born girls in buckets of water have been commonplace for centuries. Now, however, as a direct result of the one-child policy, the number of baby girls being abandoned, aborted, or dumped on orphanage steps is unprecedented.”

It’s not hard to connect the dots to where all of this has ended. The shortage of women in China is nothing less than a national disaster – in some rural areas Chinese men outnumber women by a 14 to 1 ratio, according to the U.S. Committee on Human Rights in North Korea. It is into these rural border areas that North Korean women, desperate to escape the starvation in their homeland, are arriving. For human traffickers, the situation could not be more ideal.

Translating Tears

Mi-Sun Bang cries as she tells of the day that she and her son and daughter attempted an escape from North Korea. The Tumen River ends the lives of many refugees – numerous bodies have been found along the shore. But for Mi-Sun Bang, there was no choice. Her husband had starved to death in 2002, and making the river escape to China was her only hope for survival. “We entered holding hands,” she recalls, “but we were all separated.” Miraculously, they survived the crossing.

But her troubles were far from over. Upon entry into China, Mi-Sun Bang fell prey to human traffickers operating on the border. She was sold for $585 to an older, disabled Chinese man, the first of several “husbands” that she would be sold to. The string of abuses and heartache that followed would be enough to crush anyone’s spirit. Her final husband, fourteen years her junior, demanded that she bear him a son. Soon afterwards, Mi-Sun Bang was turned into the authorities and arrested. She was sent back to North Korea, to the horrors of a labor camp.

Mi-Sun pauses at this point in her story, reflecting, trying to restrain her emotions. “There, people gave up on being human,” she says finally. She was beaten severely. She asks through her translator, “Would anyone like to see my wounds?” Small person that she is, Mi-Sun stands on a chair in the front of the room. She pulls up her skirt, revealing where literal chunks of flesh have been ripped from her leg. She walks with a limp today.

Driven by Desperation

A new report released by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea captures the firsthand accounts of over 70 trafficking victims. “The women who cross the border, more often than male refugees, tend to do so in the company of others,” the Lives for Sale report states, “Eighteen percent of those interviewed crossed the border with people whom they later came to realize were traffickers.”

But what about the women who made their escape without the “aid” of a trafficker? The Committee’s report emphasizes the likelihood that these women will be solicited immediately. “Almost from the moment they cross the border – and sometimes beginning in North Korea – refugee women are targeted by marriage brokers and pimps.”

The report concludes with a host of recommendations for China, North Korea, the United States and the international community. While calling on China to cease the repatriation of North Korean refugees, and North Korea to “undertake economic and agricultural reforms” and “decriminalize movement across the border,” the report urges the United States to “launch new initiatives to provide protection and assistance to North Korean women” along the border.

The plight of North Korean women sheds light on the larger issue of trafficking around the world. According to the U.S. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, over 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. Trafficking occurs in 170 countries, all of which are profiled and ranked in the Office’s annual report. And in many cases, the victims themselves have recommendations. Mi-Sun Bang pleads for President Obama to ensure that no more North Korean women are sold like she was, “sold like livestock in China.”

With trafficking – modern day slavery – claiming nearly a million victims a year, each woman, man, and child has a story to tell. And the plight of North Korean brides-for-sale is no different. Each one has a unique and tragic tale of enslavement.

“They would not allow me to leave the house,” recounts one North Korean woman, “then someone from Yanji came to take me to Heilongjiange Province by train. Only when we arrived in a village in Heilongjiang did I hear I was going to be married.”


Kristin Butler has visited with Christian communities throughout South Asia and the Middle East. She is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com and covers religious freedom and human rights issues at BreakPoint.org. For further articles, visit her blog at kristinbutler.wordpress.com, or email kristin.wright.butler@gmail.com.

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