MANCHESTER – China's human-rights abuses against its own people are no secret. But its abuse of North Korean women who flee to China to escape human-rights violations at home has remained largely hidden. I, however, know the truth, because I am one of those women.
Since North Korea's great famine in the 1990s, human trafficking of North Koreans, especially women, into China has become big business. Women who had watched family members starve to death began to cross the border through brokers, in order to earn money to provide for their children. But these women rarely find the opportunities they seek; instead, they find only more misery, sold as wives to Chinese men.
There is plenty of demand for North Korean wives in China. As rapid industrialization has driven rural Chinese women to cities or even out of the country, the men who are left behind have found it increasingly difficult to find women to marry. So many are happy to pay the brokers for wives from North Korea.
If the trafficked women do not want to get married, the brokers threaten to report them to the authorities, who will send them back to North Korea. And, ominously, they say that they cannot promise to protect the women's families. Though such extortion, the women are compelled to marry men they do not even know.
My story of escape began in 1998. My brother was in the military, but had fled his base after he was caught dealing in gold illegally. With the military police waiting in our home to catch him, my father, who was very ill, said, "Take your brother. You must leave, you must go anywhere." I left him dying in a cold room. I don't know where he was buried.
My brother and I crossed the Tumen River, which forms part of North Korea's border with China. A broker told me that I would need money to save my brother, so I was sold to a Chinese man for 5,000 yuan ($800). I never saw my brother again.
Like other trafficked North Korean women, my new life was wretched. Women like me are forced to work like slaves and are often victims of sexual violence. Unsurprisingly, the men who purchase North Korean wives treat them as property or playthings, prohibiting them from eating at the dinner table and depriving them of basic needs and rights. If the women are injured or become undesirable, the men consider it acceptable to resell them.
Given their status as illegal immigrants, trafficked North Korean women have no recourse to ensure their security or improve their lot. They are in constant danger of being forced into prostitution. Women who become pregnant are advised to terminate the pregnancy. Those who decide to keep their babies, as I did, are not allowed to give birth in a local hospital. Our children are not recognized by the state, and thus are prohibited from attending school or receiving medical care.
The village where I lived had five North Korean women; all of us had been trafficked. As soon as we awoke, we would head straight to work in the fields. If we met one another on the street, we could not say hello. The neighbors were watching, and our "owners" feared that we would encourage one another to escape – a risk that they mitigated by refusing to give us proper shoes, even in winter.
I had spent six years as a slave to a Chinese man when, in 2004, the Chinese authorities discovered me and sent me to a detention center in Tumen, on the border, with several other North Korean women. Every day for the first week, 5-7 large male guards would enter our room and order us to strip naked and squat repeatedly, to ensure that we had hidden no money in our rectal or vaginal cavities. If women were menstruating, blood would flow down their legs, but the guards took no notice. Sometimes, the guards would follow the women to the toilets to try and find money.
After being deported, I spent six months in a North Korean labor camp. I was released when I contracted gangrene in my leg; the doctors did not think I would survive. I found myself homeless and helpless, begging on the street and seeking refuge at an orphanage. One day, a doctor saw me on the street, and offered to treat my leg secretly.
But my story was not over. I had to get back to China, through yet another broker, to find my son. In 2007, in Beijing, I met an American-Korean pastor, who helped my family obtain asylum in the United Kingdom, where I have finally found freedom.
Human trafficking is illegal in China (and under international law); but the law is clearly not being enforced adequately. And to take mothers, who have already been enslaved and abused, from their children, as the Chinese authorities did to me, is reprehensible.
People just like me – women fleeing a brutal dictatorship, only to be trafficked to a cruel one – are leading lives of perpetual victimization, utterly powerless. Unless the world pays attention, they will remain without protection – and without hope.
Ji-hyun Park, a trafficking survivor, is a human-rights advocate.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2016