Decades of Chinese parents aborting or killing baby girls have left nobody for their grown up sons to marry. This has led to the growth of trafficking women from Vietnam, Laos and, significantly, North Korea, to provide women for Chinese men.
Could this be an important reason why China seems reluctant to disrupt the status quo in North Korea?
Amid the tightest crackdown on North Korean refugees in China in recent years, “Mi-young”, a North Korean refugee and bride trafficking survivor, fled her hiding places across China, slipped into Laos and then crossed over into northern Thailand by boat last month.
“My life in China was horrible,” the 24-year-old told the South China Morning Post in an interview. “(I want) to go to South Korea for (my) freedom.” Mi-young is a pseudonym to protect her identity.
Mi-young and another North Korean woman, who also spoke limited Putonghua, had only a Chinese mobile phone to help them navigate from place to place. With support from Tim Peters and his organisation, Helping Hands Korea, the two young women endured a perilous journey from safe house to safe house, using different forms of transport to evade authorities and local Chinese citizens who have been encouraged to turn in North Koreans or report on them.
A fellow worker of Peters said: “We received an appeal for rescue in early August from a North Korean girl, a victim of human traffickers in China.”
“I travelled to Thailand [at the border of Laos] on August 6 together with Tim Peters … As planned, we met [Mi-young] in Thailand and spent hours with her to obtain the necessary information from her about her rueful predicament. I have been deeply gratified as I was a small part in helping her out.”
Peters said Mi-young broke into tears as she talked about the humiliating parts of her trafficking experience; but she remained resilient and hopeful.
Despite an international outcry, China does not consider North Koreans refugees but illegal economic migrants to be sent back to their home country, under a border protocol agreed upon in 1986.
Mi-young was helped by a group of daring volunteers whose goal is helping North Koreans make it to a third country safely. But sometimes opportunistic smugglers charge up to US$3,000 or more to assist a person in their escape from China.
The phrase used mostly by Westerners to describe the rescuers is “The Underground Railroad” – borrowing the name of the loose network of abolitionists that helped slaves escape to freedom in the US in the 1800s.
Today, the term refers to a highly secretive chain of rescuers and a safe passageway that stretches more than 3,000 miles across China from the bordering provinces of North Korea all the way to various crossing points in Southeastern countries such as Laos or Myanmar.
In a move that angered the Chinese government, the US State Department earlier this year downgraded China to Tier 3 status because it did not “not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.”
The rating reflected China’s acquiescing to allow North Koreans to be forcibly repatriated to face “severe punishment including forced labour (in gulags) and execution, without screening them for indicators of trafficking”.
Peters said life for North Koreans in China has become more dangerous than ever because of clampdowns at the border launched “to prevent a flood of refugees” from North Korea getting into China if the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is overthrown by a coup amid the escalating nuclear weapons crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
At the same time, he said, support for the rescuers and media coverage of their activities have shrunk considerably since Helping Hands Korea began rescuing North Korean refugees, bride trafficking victims and assisting vulnerable children of North Korean women in forced marriages in China about 20 years ago.
Global attention has been riveted on the hermit state’s recent nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches, Peters said.
Human rights observers say that China, in the past year, has been quietly expelling large numbers of South Korean Christian aid workers who help support, protect and harbour undocumented North Koreans.
“The situation is particularly harrowing now, based on our experience,” Peters said.
“The tolerance level by the Chinese authorities for North Korean escapees living in China seems to be dropping very noticeably. There seems to be a shift from rewarding Chinese citizens for turning in the North Koreans into authorities actually punishing citizens who are employing or harbouring the refugees in some way.
“Add to that the unique treachery that confronts the refugees in the form of Chinese human traffickers teaming up with profit-seeking North Koreans to especially victimise vulnerable refugee women.” – SCMP
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