There is rising domestic and international concern regarding North Korean women defectors in China who live in the shadows of human rights. The Chinese government, however, is cracking down severely on groups that support North Korean refugees, blocking ways to actually help these people.
Victims of human trafficking fall into three categories - being targeted by traffickers even before leaving North Korea and handed over to Chinese traffickers upon crossing the river, crossing the river alone and eventually falling into the hands of traffickers watching the riverbank, and reaching inland cities only to be caught by traffickers at train stations or markets. There are countless human trafficking rings along the Sino-Korean boarder, with a rising number of them starting their nefarious acts in North Korea.
The victims are reported to be sold to old bachelors or widowers in the countryside for 3000 yuan (a little over US$400) each and forced into marriage. According to a North Korean women support group, in most cases a few men from the same village pool their money to purchase one woman. If five men buy the joint ownership of one woman, the woman is forced to have sex with all five of them by night and take care of all five households and farms by day. There are cases where brothers buy and share one woman. A woman caught and sold to a village becomes an important village property. And so all the villagers keep watch over the woman, making escape impossible. On top of this, marriage between North Korean refugees and Chinese nationals is not recognized by law, meaning that these women have nowhere to turn to for protection.
During the second International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees held in Japan in February, one North Korean woman defector testified to the slave-like living conditions of her compatriots thus, "If you're sold to a place like Shantung, you'll never make it out of there. They tie up your hands and feet, follow you even to the bathroom, and never let you out of the house. If you happen to escape and then get caught by the family you were forced to marry into, you'll be horribly beaten, and sometimes even killed. People like us can be killed and never discovered as long as the villagers keep their mouths shut."
There are about four to five hundred groups in China working to support North Korean refugees, but only a small minority of the North Korean women gets to receive help from such groups. This is because these groups must act in secret, away from the eyes of the Chinese government. Such activities cost a lot of money as well. Upon receiving information about North Korean victims of human trafficking, the support groups usually buy back the women, and the repurchasing price has steadily increased to about five times the original. Another thing these women direly need is a safe hiding place, but it is not easy to find such places in China. They barely manage to house one or two women at a time in a remote apartment or farmhouse.
Providing even such insufficient support has become difficult this year. Since the incidents where North Korean asylum seekers planned and staged the storming of foreign diplomatic establishments in rapid succession, Chinese authorities have expelled all the support groups and arrested and detained missionaries who had been helping North Korean refugees.
How can the problem of human trafficking and human rights violations faced by North Korean women defectors be solved? Some of the support groups suggest that a North Korean refugee camp be built in Mongolia. The refugees can avoid China's hard-line stance against them and turn instead to Mongolia, where they have relatively more freedom and can receive job training at the refugee camp. But workers in the support groups helping North Korean women refugees point out that this is an unrealistic solution, since it takes the women who have no means of transportation two months to reach Mongolia on foot, by which time they would be caught either by Chinese authorities or traffickers.
These women will never be safe as long as the Chinese government refuses to recognize that the North Korean escapees are 'refugees according to international laws.' Support groups stress that the most important thing for now is to use international public opinion to persuade Beijing to change. This means the international community raising one voice appealing China, currently quite sensitive to international criticism with the 2008 Beijing Olympics ahead, to recognize the North Koreans' refugee status, stop arrests and forced repatriation, and eradicate trafficking of North Korean women.
To this end, groups helping North Korean women defectors are planning to conclude the groundwork of their situation survey by the end of this year. They will send survey teams to the eight borderland areas to gather accurate data on the number of women defectors, their age and route into China, their suffering of human trafficking and so on. At the same time, the groups will continue pushing the issue at the UN and other international conferences in order to set it as an international agenda. As emphasized by UNHCR Ruud Lubbers on the occasion of the World Refugee Day on June 20, offering "adequate protection and assistance for refugees … halts rising crime, prevents new violence and can be crucial for global security."