On World Day against Trafficking, Let's Remember North Koreans
Today marks World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, intended to raise awareness about human trafficking and to promote solutions to protect the victims. While the movement against human trafficking has grown over the past few decades, there is still much to be done to combat this evil, especially in areas of the world we hear little about. For North Korean women like Jihyun Park, the day is a poignant reminder of past struggles.
Park fled North Korea and crossed the border into neighboring China seeking a better life. But instead of greater economic freedom, she was sold to a Chinese man by the broker who helped her escape. For five years, she was forced to work for him in exchange for nothing but rice. At one point, she contemplated suicide. However, it was when Park discovered she was pregnant that she found the strength to survive. She gave birth to the child in secret, despite being told to have an abortion by a local official.
Several years later, she was arrested by Chinese authorities in the dead of night in front of her 5-year-old child and sent back North Korea. After her return, Park faced the same fate of all defectors repatriated to North Korea — she was sent to a labor camp and severely punished. Despite this, Park held on to hope that she would be reunited with her son. A few years later, she managed to escape North Korea a second time and successfully reunite with her son in Beijing. It was there that she met the man she would later marry and managed to flee to freedom in the United Kingdom.
Sadly, Park’s heartbreaking story is common among North Korea’s female defectors; they are frequently sold into slavery or forced into marriage by the very broker they pay to help them escape to China. Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report labeled North Korea as one of 11 governments with a documented “policy or pattern” of human trafficking. Traffickers operate networks spanning from China into North Korea, offering them the promise of good employment. Often what awaits them is physical and sexual exploitation as women and girls are sold into forced marriages to Chinese men or trapped in a brothel. Korea Future Initiative estimates the 60% of female North Korean defectors in China are trafficked into the sex trade.
Desperate to leave tyranny in North Korea, these courageous yet defenseless women place their trust in anyone who offers help. Another North Korean defector, Lee Yum, was sold to a cybersex operator by the broker she worked with. She was held captive for five years, and all attempts to escape from her captor failed. She was only allowed to leave the apartment once every six months. In 2018, Lee was able to escape through a window via knotted bed sheets and with the help of South Korean pastors who have set up a network of routes and safe houses in China inspired by the Underground Railroad.
An often-overlooked aspect of this tragedy is the fact that the Chinese government plays a role in victimizing these women. When Chinese authorities forcibly repatriate North Koreans back to their country, they are sent to forced labor camps where they experience torture, forced abortions, and sexual abuse by prison guards — some could even face execution.
When it comes to dealing with regimes that abuse human rights, North Korea and China are among the most challenging. Yet, they must be held accountable, particularly China. With the myriad of other human rights crises occurring in China, it can be easy for the issue of repatriating North Korean defectors to be pushed to the sidelines. Yet, it should not be. Citizenship is awaiting any North Korean defector in South Korea, and China should cooperate to enable North Korean defectors to be diverted there instead. This would allow them to adjust to life in freedom rather than be sent back to certain punishment.
World Day Against Trafficking in Person is an opportunity to pause and remember the many victims of human trafficking suffering around the world. May we pray and work towards the day they are set free.
Arielle Del Turco would like to thank Andrew Davenport for his research that contributed to this piece.
Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, and co-author of "Heroic Faith: Hope Amid Global Persecution."