N. Korean Women Who Flee to China Suffer in Stateless Limbo
Many Are Sold Into Marriage

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.

"North Korean women living in marriages in rural China are protected by villagers who know how to deal with the local authorities, and the local authorities turn a blind eye to these people unless they cause trouble," according to "Lives for Sale."

But while their stomachs may be full, Lee said, their permanent statelessness and their lack of access to money isolates them in villages. The women she interviewed had been in China for an average of about nine years, but more than 90 percent of them did not have residency certification or an identification card.

At any point, Lee said, complaints to the police by an angry husband or quarrelsome neighbor could lead to the women's arrest and deportation to North Korea.

"Their irregular status also makes life difficult for their children," Lee said. The law guarantees that children fathered by Chinese men are citizens of China. But Lee found that only about a third of the children born to the women she interviewed had residency papers. Without the papers, it is difficult for them to attend school, or if they do go to school, to get textbooks.

Kim Young Ae, who fled North Korea in 1997 to look for food and for a job as a nanny, said she was led across the border by a guide who turned out to be a trafficker.

"The trip was well organized, and there was a truck waiting for me in China that took me to a family that bought me for their son," said Kim, 38, who spent eight years in China with three "husbands" before finding her way to South Korea.

Both Kim and Bang traveled recently to Washington, where they told their stories to members of Congress and gave interviews to the media.

"My parents raised me with the idea that there is only one, long-lasting marriage," Kim said. "I never imagined, even in my wildest dreams, that I would be married three times before the age of 30. With my first so-called husband, I became pregnant within a week."

She said the first child she had in China drowned in a creek at age 2. She ran from her first and second husbands but was caught both times by traffickers and eventually sold to a third man, with whom she had a son.

Kim was able to enter South Korea in 2007 but had to leave her Chinese-born son behind. "My son is still in China, and his Chinese family is not letting me see him or allowing him to come to South Korea," she said.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea says the lives of defectors in China -- and the status of their children -- could be stabilized if China would honor the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which it is a party.

China, so far, has refused to allow defectors, all of whom face criminal charges if they are sent back to North Korea, to make a claim for asylum with representatives from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Defectors who approach the UNHCR office in Beijing are sometimes arrested. The agency is barred from the areas where there are refugees.

In its most recent human rights report, the State Department said that in the run-up to last year's Olympics, China increased its efforts to find and deport North Korean refugees, including women who had been victims of trafficking.

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