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Human RightsNorth Korea

North Korean girls exploited in China's 'Red Zone' – report

Julian Ryall
March 27, 2023

Activists urge China to protect hundreds of thousands of North Korean women and girls who fled into Chinese territory. Many of the refugees are reportedly being trafficked, raped, and forced into sexual slavery.

People in South Korea are looking at a screen showing a North Korean missile launch
South Korea is now pushing for more accountability over Pyongyang's human rights violationsImage: Kim Hong-Ji/REUTERS

Around half a million female North Koreans, some as young as 12, are hiding in border regions of China, according to a new report by an international human rights law firm Global Rights Compliance. Activists warn that women and girls remain at critical risk of exploitation even after fleeing their homeland.

Working with multiple NGOs and human rights organizations to comply evidence and testimony from refugees, Global Rights Compliance found over 4,340 documented cases of human trafficking of North Korean women from China in the last decade and at least 80,000 reported abuses of human rights. 

'Staggered and moved' 

Sofia Evangelou, the law firm's lead legal advisor on North Korean human rights and global rights compliance, said many accounts are harrowing to read.

"I have read some of the testimony and I find myself staggered and very moved at what these women have gone through," Evangelou told DW. 

"Many of these women, even after they have reached safety in South Korea, say they are still suffering from feelings of anxiety, of shame, or post-traumatic stress disorder," she said.

"Each of these women has had a different experience and is coping with it in their own way, but there is a clear pattern of women suffering physically, emotionally and psychologically as a result of their experiences."

North Korean defector: 'We are not traitors'

The report states the women are not safe even after completing the perilous journey over North Korea's heavily fortified border with China — where Pyongyang has introduced a shoot-to-kill order for anyone suspected of attempting to flee the country.

They are still forced to hide after reaching the so-called "Red Zone" in eastern China, as the Chinese authorities hunt defectors before sending them back to the North. Reports suggest that first-time escapees can get away with a spell in one of the North's brutal prisons, although the punishment for repeat offenders can be far more serious, including execution.  

Lockdowns introduced on the Chinese side of the border to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus have made the situation even more risky. Typically, the defectors have little money, no access to food and cannot continue their journey to safety in a third country. 

Organizations such as the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights and the Transitional Justice Working Group have been collecting data on the situation in border areas. Statistics compiled by the Korea Future Initiative indicate that as many as 80% of female North Korean refugees fall into the hands of people traffickers and are sold into sex trade, which is estimated to generate more than $105 million (€97.5 million) a year for Chinese and North Korean organized crime networks.  

'Black hole' of silence around abuse

Within the Red Zone, women and girls are reportedly often subjected to systematic rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, unwanted pregnancy, forced labor and cybersex trafficking. Such mistreatment has become "normalized” in the region, the report claims, with women beaten in public and being sold for as little as a few hundred dollars.  

"I was sold to a Han Chinese living in Yanbian," one woman said in her testimony, according to the report. "We lived together for one year and we couldn't have a child, so he beat me. He kicked me. He kicked my head a lot." 

A woman who was caught and sent to a prison in North Korea witnessed another prisoner, who was concealing her pregnancy, collapse while she was performing hard labor collecting rocks from a river. She drowned, but when guards realized she had been pregnant they stripped all the other female inmates naked to check for more hidden pregnancies. They then carried out immediate forced abortions, according to the account gathered by the activists.

"A black hole of information currently exists around China's Red Zone, which means that many more North Korean women and girls are falling victim to China's sex slave industry," said Evangelou. "The​​ current situation leaves North Korean women and girls exposed to the stark reality of either being sold into a lifetime of sexual and mental abuse, slavery, forced labor, or reaching freedom."

Evangelou urged the end of the "pandemic of international silence" on the issue.

"The illegal sexual slavery of women and girls will not stop until a ​concerted ​international effort is mobilized," she added. "The international community can no longer turn a blind eye to the atrocities being committed against women and children, fleeing for their lives and — in too many cases — those of their unborn children." 

Seoul pushing for more accountability

Meanwhile, the government of South Korea seems to be growing more interested in Pyongyang's human rights violations and holding the leaders of the isolated state accountable.

Park Jung-won, a professor of international Law at Dankook University, said the previous South Korean administration of President Moon Jae-in was "silent on the situation around human rights abuses in the North," but that tides are shifting under President Yoon Suk-yeol. 

"There has been a significant change in the attitude of the government and South Korea this month jointly sponsored a United Nations draft resolution on human rights in the North, for the first time in five years," he said, pointing out that Yoon has also appointed a new ambassador to promote human rights in North Korea.

Tokyo, Seoul ties thaw amid North Korea worries

"This is a complete change from before and a very positive thing for human rights in the North," he said. "I am hopeful that this government will continue to push on this matter, raising questions at the UN and other international forums to increase the pressure on Pyongyang."

The pressure from Seoul will "enable the international community to take more concrete action to respond to these terrible human rights abuses in the North and this very dangerous border zone," Park added.  

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

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