North Korean Women Who Try to Flee to China Encounter Abuse at Home and Abroad

For women like Bang Mi-sun, escaping to China often brings them the worst of both worlds. Many are sent back to face brutal retribution in North Korea; those who stay are often sold to Chinese men. Video by Blaine Harden/The Washington Post
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

SEOUL -- For North Korean women who run off to China, rules are rigged on both sides of the border.

North Korea regards them as criminals for leaving. China refuses to recognize them as refugees, sending many back to face interrogation, hard labor and sometimes torture. Others stay on in stateless limbo, sold by brokers to Chinese men in need of fertile women and live-in labor.

Bang Mi Sun, a former actress in North Korea, lived the worst of both worlds. After crossing into China in 2002, she was separated from her two children and sold into marriage to three men. She managed to get away from all three. When she ran for the third time, Chinese police arrested her and sent her back to North Korea, where a police beating mangled her left leg. Permanently maimed, she was sent to a labor camp for reeducation.

"I had to live the life of an animal," said Bang, who fled the North for a second time in 2004 and found her way to South Korea. "If I had a chance to meet with President Obama, I would first like to tell him how North Korean women are being sold like livestock in China and, second, to know that North Korean labor camps are hell on earth."

The home-and-abroad abuse of North Korean women who seek sanctuary in China was a story that American TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were sentenced Monday to 12 years in a North Korean labor camp, were working on when they were detained in the border area. The circumstances of their arrest remain unclear, though a North Korean court convicted them of entering the country illegally.

Mass flight from North Korea dates to the mid-1990s, when hundreds of thousands of North Koreans fled a famine that killed perhaps a million people. But a recent human rights report, based on interviews in China with 77 female defectors, details how their insecurity and statelessness can continue inside China as the price of escaping the North.

Forced marriage, abiding threats of deportation and a life without citizenship have become the norm for most female defectors now living in China, according to "Lives for Sale," which is based on the research of Lee Hae-young, a Seoul-based human rights researcher. Her work was funded and published by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a nonprofit group based in Washington.

The report is part of a growing body of social science research conducted inside China that shows that North Korean defectors are mostly women from working-class and farm backgrounds who fled because of hunger and poverty, not political oppression. Recent estimates say that as many as 300,000 North Koreans are living in China, almost all of them without legal status. Eight out of every 10 recent defectors are women, researchers have found.

Lee Hae-young's interviews, conducted between 2004 and 2006, paint a nuanced portrait of how women from the North live inside China. Contrary to some reports that say they are likely to be trafficked into the sex trade, most women are sold to farmers and laborers, she found.

"Chinese men in the three major provinces closest to North Korea are desperate for women, and they are willing to pay for them," Lee said.

"Many of these men are poor, and they fall into debt to buy a wife," she added. "North Korean women usually end up working for years to help pay off the debt."

Lee emphasizes that nearly all of the defectors she tracked down said the material circumstances of their lives "are much, much better" in China than they were in North Korea. If the women stayed with their "husbands" and bore children, they received abundant food, had secure shelter and were rarely bothered by Chinese police.

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