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Living in the shadows

Jason Strother, Seoul
October 26, 2012

A large number of North Koreans in China are women, many of whom are trafficked there and forced to work as sex slaves. Missionaries in South Korea are helping to rescue them.

Image: picture alliance / Photoshot

Hannah fights back tears as she recalls her life as a sex slave. This young woman in her early 30s, who does not want to use her real name, is a North Korean refugee who now lives in Seoul. Like many other female defectors, she was once the victim of Chinese human traffickers.

"The man bribed border guards to let me cross. I thought I could trust him," Hannah says. "But later he became violent and beat me. He wouldn't let me leave his home."

Human rights groups estimate there are tens of thousands of North Koreans secretly residing in China. Women are believed to make up the majority of these escapees because they can be sold into brothels and as wives or concubines to Chinese men. Since they are regarded as "illegal economic migrants" by the Chinese government, they have no legal recourse and remain in the shadows.

While in captivity, Hannah went online and found help via Christian missionaries operating undercover in China. She fled the man's home when he left the house to run errands.

"I called the missionary and arranged a time and place to meet. He brought me to a shelter and then later to Beijing, where I entered the South Korean embassy," Hannah said.

Undercover rescue

The missionaries who helped Hannah belong to Durihana, a South Korean church that has over the past decade helped about 1,000 North Koreans resettle in South Korea, Japan and the United States. At risk to their own lives, they operate safe houses throughout China and covertly bring North Koreans to Southeast Asia, where it is easier to seek asylum. If caught by Chinese police, the missionaries face imprisonment and the would-be defectors an even worse sentence.

Pastor Chun Kiwon goes online to find North Korean women who have been forced to work for online strip shows; Photo: DW/Jason Strother
Chun Kiwon searches for trafficked women on the InternetImage: DW

"China does nothing to protect these women," says Chun Kiwon, pastor of the Durihana Church. "If they are sent back to North Korea, where escape is illegal, they could be punished by death."

Chun says he has heard stories of North Korean women who upon repatriation were tortured and even forced to undergo abortion if pregnant. From his office in Seoul, the 56-year-old pastor does whatever he can to help, including going on websites where North Korean women are forced to strip for paying clients. Once he makes contact with the women, he reveals his identity and connects them with his team of missionaries.

The South Korean government has little ability to assist these women. An official at Seoul's Unification Ministry, who asked not to be named, says since the escapees are not South Korean citizens, they cannot force Beijing to stop sending them back to the North. Instead, Seoul tacitly condones the work of churches and other civic groups that rescue and protect North Koreans in China.

"Seventy to 90 percent of North Korean women in China fall into trafficking," says Tim Peters, who heads Helping Hands Korea, a human rights group in Seoul.

Stateless children

Peters says a side effect of the forced repatriation of trafficked North Korean women is that children they have with Chinese men are left stateless.

A facility in northeast China where detained North Korean escapees are said to be held until they are repatriated; Photo: DW/Jason Strother
Detained North Koreans are said to be held at this facility in Yanbian, China before deportationImage: DW

"The children are in a perilous situation. Often the fathers are not very good parents," he says. "Many times these children slip through the cracks. If it's known the mother is North Korean, the father has to prove the mother has been deported back to North Korea, in order to register the child."

Of the 24,000 North Koreans who now live in South Korea, 70 percent are women. A study released this week by the Seoul government found three in 10 female defectors suffer from depression. Considering what most have endured, it's no surprise they have trouble adjusting to their new lives.

"Sadly, because of their experience, they don't trust anyone," says Pastor Chun Kiwon. "Even those trying to help them."