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(Yonhap Feature) Journey to freedom by N. Korean victims of human trafficking

2017/12/22 09:00

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By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL, Dec. 22 (Yonhap) -- When Park Chun-mi (an alias) crossed the Yalu River into China one night in August 2009, she thought that she would not be hungry anymore and be able to make money to support herself.

Her dreams, however, were soon shattered.

At 23 years old, she was sold by human traffickers to a poor Chinese farmer in a rural area in Inner Mongolia just days later, an unexpected turn of events that upended her life for the next nine years.

"I was duped into crossing the border with China after being told by a North Korean woman that I can make money in China," Park said last week by phone as she was traveling on a bus across China to seek refuge in South Korea.

Park's case illustrated the cross-border trafficking that has become prevalent in China as North Korean women fall prey to traffickers in a country where unmarried women are in short supply due to a cultural preference for boys that has created a skewed gender ratio.

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington-based human rights organization, testifies before a House Foreign Affairs Committee's subcommittee hearing on Dec. 12, 2017, in a screenshot taken from the website of the Foreign Affairs Committee. (Yonhap) Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington-based human rights organization, testifies before a House Foreign Affairs Committee's subcommittee hearing on Dec. 12, 2017, in a screenshot taken from the website of the Foreign Affairs Committee. (Yonhap)

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington-based human rights organization, said up to 80 percent of North Korean refugees in China are women and they fall victim to human traffickers and other criminals due to the absence of protections.

"Many of those forced into sexual bondage under the guise of 'marriage' with Chinese men in run-down rural areas are often abused by the would-be 'spouse' and the entire family," Scarlatoiu said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee hearing on Dec. 12.

Han Ga-hee (an alias), a North Korean defector who works as an announcer at Free North Korea Radio, a small Seoul-based station that airs broadcasts into North Korea, said she is still haunted by the memories of her forced marriages to Chinese men after being sold three times by traffickers.

"I had a knife put to my neck and the choice was either that I get married to a Chinese man living in the countryside or else," Han said at the same hearing. "Those were the choices I had, and those are the fears that I still live with every night."

  

Han Ga-hee (an alias), a North Korean defector who works as an announcer at Free North Korea Radio, testifies before a House Foreign Affairs Committee's subcommittee hearing on Dec. 12, 2017, in a screenshot taken from the website of the Foreign Affairs Committee. (Yonhap) Han Ga-hee (an alias), a North Korean defector who works as an announcer at Free North Korea Radio, testifies before a House Foreign Affairs Committee's subcommittee hearing on Dec. 12, 2017, in a screenshot taken from the website of the Foreign Affairs Committee. (Yonhap)

In 2014, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea said in a report that many women are trafficked from North Korea into China or within China for purposes of exploitation in forced marriage, concubinage or prostitution under coercive circumstances.

North Korean defectors in China are in constant fear of repatriation, a precarious situation that, coupled with the language barrier, deters them from reporting abuses to the Chinese authorities.

"I was sold to China so that I would not be hungry anymore," Park said. But she ended up being abused while living there with a Chinese man who had bought her to act as his wife.

Signe Poulsen, head of the U.N. Human Rights Office in Seoul, said the severe situation inside North Korea and widespread human rights violations, including controls on freedom of movement, make people look for any possible way to leave the country.

"Women use trafficking routes to escape the DPRK, and many end up being sold into forced marriages with Chinese men or end up in the sex industry," Poulsen said, referring to North Korea by its official name.

Park arrived in Thailand's northeastern province of Nakhon Phanom on Dec. 17 and is expected to go through an array of legal and diplomatic procedures before being allowed to fly to Seoul.

"I would like to go back to China after resettling in South Korea to get my 8-year-old daughter," Park said in China before arriving in Thailand on a bus. It remains unclear whether the Chinese father of her daughter will agree.

In China, an estimated 20,000 children born to North Korean women are deprived of their rights to birth registration, nationality, education and health care because their birth cannot be registered without exposing the mother, according to the report of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea.

As Pyongyang's key ally, China does not recognize North Korean defectors as refugees and regularly sends them back to their home country, where they can face harsh punishment.

"I recall there was a woman who was repatriated from China. She was pregnant and the guards yelled that she was pregnant with 'impure blood' and she was beaten to the point where the pregnancy was terminated," Han said at the hearing of her 15-day stay in a North Korean prison for her failed defection attempt.

China has allowed North Korean defectors involved in high-profile cases or those who sought refuge at the South Korean Embassy and other foreign diplomatic missions to travel to South Korea in the past.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans are less fortunate and are believed to be in hiding, hoping to reach a third country before resettling in South Korea, which is now home to more than 30,000 escapees.

Choi Eun-ji (an alias) also said she ended up being sold into a forced marriage with a Chinese man in the village just across the border from her home in the northwestern city of Hyesan.

The 27-year-old said she was suffering from malnutrition and became very weak when she gave birth to a baby. Still, she said the Chinese family did not take her to a hospital for treatment because they did not want to spend more money on her.

"I thought I would die if I stayed in that house. I tried to run away without anyone knowing, but there was no place to go. I was sold to a Han Chinese man in Shandong Province after my previous husband's family discovered that I was trying to run away," according to Choi's personal statement seen by Yonhap News Agency.

"I could not eat or breathe properly in my second husband's home. They also did not take me to a hospital and treated me as nothing but a woman who was sold. I would like to go to South Korea to live like a human being and get medical treatment."

   But unlike Park, Choi was not lucky.

Choi has expressed her hopes to join a trip that can eventually take her to South Korea, though she cannot join right now as she is being watched by the Chinese family that bought her.

Many of the estimated 10,000 North Korean women and girls who have entered China illegally are exposed to dangers as traffickers reportedly lure, drug, detain or kidnap them upon arrival, the U.S. state department said.

"Others offer jobs but subsequently force the women into prostitution, domestic service or agricultural work through forced marriages," according to a report published in June by the state department.

Kim Yeon-mi, which is not her real name, also said she crossed the border into China in 2014 after being tricked by a Chinese merchant at an informal market -- known as "jangmadang" -- in Hyesan City. The merchant told her that she could receive more than five times the salary she made in North Korea.

Kim -- who is five months pregnant -- said she was sold to a Chinese man in Benxi, Liaoning Province.

"The Chinese person thought that I was a slave because he bought me with money. He forced me to work from dawn until late at night without a break. I had to work in the fields, take care of livestock and cook in the kitchen," Kim said in a personal statement.

Kim is scheduled to arrive in Nakhon Phanom, which could lead to her starting a new life in South Korea, if things go as planned.

North Korea, meanwhile, claimed last week that human dignity has reached the highest stage in its socialist system as it denounced the U.N. Security Council for discussing human rights situations in the communist country.

The U.N. Security Council discusses human rights situations in North Korea at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Dec. 11, 2017, in this photo provided by EPA. (Yonhap) The U.N. Security Council discusses human rights situations in North Korea at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Dec. 11, 2017, in this photo provided by EPA. (Yonhap)

This view is not shared, as many observers say the majority of North Koreans are suffering from miserable conditions living in a country long accused of "widespread, systematic and gross" violations of human rights.

"This is hell, is anyone out there? Please, hear our cries," Ji Hyeona, a North Korean defector who is a member of the Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, read her poem about the suffering of North Koreans in an emotionally charged voice at the hearing. "People are dying. My friend is dying also. I am calling and calling, why is there no answer? Is there really no one there?"

   entropy@yna.co.kr

(END)

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