WASHINGTON – Driven by hunger, family debt, and hopelessness, countless North Korean women have sold themselves across the North Korea-China border as wives, servants, and sex workers in hopes of finding freedom and a better life outside the grasp of ruthless dictator Kim Jong-Il and his brutal army.
Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest newspaper, caught some of these desperate North Korean women on tape as they crossed the river to China to be handed over to their buyer. The Chosun Ilbo news team claimed it was the first in the world to see the "scale of human trafficking in the China-North Korea border."
The documentary, "On the Border," was aired for the first time in South Korea and Japan on Sunday.
On Monday, clips from the film were shown at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars in Washington, D.C., during a presentation with Ambassador Mark P. Lagon, director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. Department of State.
For 10 months, since May 2007, the film team witnessed the lives of North Korean refugees in five countries: China, Russia, Japan, the United States and Britain.
Mun Yun-hee, 26, is among the North Korean women in the film. She crossed the Duman or Tumen River into China at dawn on Oct. 22, 2007, guided by a human trafficker. Both Mun and the trafficker wore only panties while crossing the some 131 feet wide river.
Wearing only one's underwear is typical for those escaping by river because having on wet clothes at night near the river is a dead giveaway that one is a North Korean refugee. The women store their pants and shoes in bags to safely guard their dryness.
Mun was sold to a single middle-aged Chinese farmer into a kind of "indentured servant-cum-companionship," according to Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
When interviewed after she crossed the river, Mun explained:
"My father starved to death late in the 1990s, and my mother is blind from hunger."
North Korea in the latter half of the 1990s suffered a severe famine that killed an estimated 3 million people.
She said her family owed about 661 pounds of corn, beans and rice so she decided to sell herself for the sake of her blind mother and a younger brother. The middleman paid her 350 yuan or about $49 – equivalent to half of the grain debt.
Mun disclosed that she had been trafficked before to a Chinese man in Shandong Province. But six months later, Chinese public security officers arrested her when neighbors reported her status to the police.
She was imprisoned in China and then deported to North Korea where she was thrown into a North Korean State Safety and Security Agency camp for a month.
"They took a quantity of blood to check possible venereal disease. Undressing the women, they checked even inside the sexual organs with gloved hands," Mun recalled. She explained some women hide money inside their sexual organ so the guards now check that body part.
Furthermore, North Korean escapees are forced to repeatedly sit and stand 20 times so that they vomit up everything they ate. If male inmates resist they are forced to hit their heads against the steel door or are beaten with clubs, Mun said to Chosun. Pregnant inmates are forced to miscarry, with the North Korean government condemning them for bearing Chinese children.
"The meals of corns with one side dish served were so poor that we longed for the meals we were given by the Chinese prison," Mun recalled. She also remembered serving hard labor in 17-hour shifts.
But a few months after she was released, Mun was again crossing the river with a trafficker.
"There are some ways in which human trafficking is more profitable and less risky than drug trafficking," commented Ambassador Lagon on Monday. "A person can be sold and sold and sold over again. Sex trafficking victims can be sold in the sex industry many times over. It is not a consumable product like drugs."
While some North Korean women willingly sell themselves, others are kidnapped in China by traffickers and sold as wives or used in the sex industry.
In general, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the North Korea-China border, with more than 10,000 North Koreans now residing in South Korea, and an estimated 40,000 North Koreans living in third countries such as China. At least 500,000 North Koreans are believed to have crossed the border over to China in the past 10 years.
North Korean refugees are officially considered illegal economic migrants by the Chinese government and therefore receive no legal protection in China. They are harshly treated before being deported to North Korea despite the fact that the U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea declared that North Koreans who flee to China are "refugees."
The United Nations, the United States, and human rights organizations around the world have decried China's treatment of the refugees, especially because many countries welcome North Korean refugees to resettle in their land. These countries include South Korea – where North Koreans have automatic citizenship – and the United States. Human rights groups argue that China has no reason to feel burdened by the refugees and sends them back to North Korea where they face torture and possibly death. It is a state crime to leave the country.
"On the Border" is Korea's first global cross-media program on North Korean refugees produced by Chosun Ilbo in cooperation with leading international broadcasters.
The United Nations estimates conservatively that overall there are more than 700,000 people trafficked worldwide each year, generating revenue close to $10 billion.