Tens of thousands of North Korean women and girls are trafficked and sold into the sex trade in China where they are forced to endure systemic rape, sexual slavery and cybersex trafficking, according to a new report.
The investigation, by the Korea Future Initiative, has uncovered new and disturbing patterns of horrific sexual abuse perpetrated against trafficked North Korean women and girls in mainland China. It found women are also being subject to sex trafficking, sexual abuse, prostitution and forced marriage there.
“Pushed from their homeland by a patriarchal regime that survives through the imposition of tyranny, poverty, and oppression, North Korean women and girls are passed through the hands of traffickers, brokers, and criminal organisations,” the report says. “Before being pulled into China’s sex trade, where they are exploited and used by men until their bodies are depleted.”
The piece of research found a “complex and interconnected network of criminality” accrues an estimated $105 million annually from “the sale of female North Korean bodies”.
Yoon Hee-soon, the report’s author and a researcher at Korea Future Initiative, said: “The exploitation of North Korean women and girls generates annual profits of at least $105 million for the Chinese underworld. Victims are prostituted for as little as ¥30 Chinese Yuan ($4), sold as wives for just ¥1000 Chinese Yuan ($146), and trafficked into cybersex dens for exploitation by a global online audience.”
She added: “Commonly aged between 12-29 and overwhelmingly female, victims are coerced, sold, or abducted in China or trafficked directly from North Korea. Many are sold more than once and are forced into at least one form of sexual slavery within a year of leaving their homeland.”
Ms Hee-soon said that prostitution had overtaken forced marriage as the “primary pathway” into the sex trade for North Korean women and girls.
“Enslaved in brothels that litter satellite-towns and townships close to large urban areas in northeast China, victims are mostly aged between 15-25 and are habitually subjected to penetrative vaginal and anal rape, forced masturbation, and groping,” she added.
Cybersex trafficking is a “small, rudimentary, but expanding component” in the trade for female North Koreans, she said. Girls aged as young as nine are forced to perform graphic sex acts and are sexually assaulted in front of webcams, she added, which are live-streamed to a paying global audience.
The researcher noted that forced marriages continue to be an enduring component of the Chinese sex trade and the issue is persistent in rural areas and townships – with North Korean women continuing to be “bought, raped, exploited, and enslaved” by Chinese husbands.
“Prospects for North Korean women and girls trapped in China’s multi-million-dollar sex trade are bleak,” she said.
“Many victims have perished in China, while small rescue organisations and Christian missionaries struggle to perform rescue work. Urgent and immediate action, which will run contrary to the prevailing politics of inter-Korean dialogue, is needed to save the lives of countless female North Korean refugees in China.”
The report argues that the fact the Korea Future Initiative – a small non-governmental organisation which gets no funding or support from governments, human rights institutions, or grant-giving bodies – was able to uncover abuses chiefly ignored by the international community should serve as an incentive to others.
The Korea Future Initiative is a London-based not-for-profit that helps North Koreans in danger and publishes reports on human rights abuses to support redress for exiles. The report’s findings are the result of long-term engagement with victims living in China and exiled survivors in South Korea and mark the first time the majority of interviewees felt able to talk about their experiences of sexual violence and sex trafficking.
A damning report by Human Rights Watch from November last year found North Korean officials sexually assault women with near total impunity and sexual abuse is so prevalent it has been normalised.
The report said women in the country are routinely forced to endure sexual violence by government officials, police, prison guards, interrogators and soldiers. The profoundly patriarchal society means many women are ashamed of the abuse they experience and feel unable to demand accountability – deciding not to speak out because of feeble law enforcement and support services.
Reports like these about the so-called “hermit kingdom” – the most secretive and isolated regime in the world – are rare.
The black markets that have become a crucial source of income for many families are an area where sexual violence is prevalent.
“They consider us [sex] toys. We are at the mercy of men,” Oh Jung-hee, a former trader in her 40s, told researchers. “It happens so often nobody thinks it is a big deal. We don’t even realise when we are upset. But we are human, and we feel it. So sometimes, out of nowhere, you cry at night and don’t know why.”