A 26-year-old North Korean woman, Mun Yun-hee crossed the Duman or Tumen River into China in the dawn of Oct. 22 last year, which at that point was some 40 m wide, guided by a human trafficker. She was being sold to a single middle-aged Chinese farmer into a kind of indentured servitude-cum-companionship. Both of them wore only panties, having stored their trousers and shoes in bags, because if you are found wearing wet clothes across the river deep at night, it is a dead giveaway that you are a North Korean refugee.
Mun was led to a hideout, and the agent left. Asked why she crossed the river, she replied, "My father starved to death late in the 1990s, and my mother is blind from hunger." Her family owed 300 kg of corns, beans and rice and sold herself for the sake of her blind mother and a younger brother. The middleman paid her 350 yuan, or W46,000 (US$1=W939), equivalent to half of the grain debt.
A Chosun Ilbo news team became the first in the world to see the scale of human trafficking in the China-North Korea border. The exodus in the famines of the latter half of the 1990s has degraded into blatant human trafficking. In the 10 months since May, 2007, the team witnessed the lives of North Korean refugees in five countries: China, Russia, Japan, the U.S. and Britain. In China, the refugees live day and night in fear of deportation to the North and poverty.
"I was first sold to a 34-year-old Chinese man in Shandong Province. Six months later, public security officers arrested me one day at midnight. Asked how, they said on a notification by a neighbor," Mun said. She was immediately sent to Dandong prison, from where a group of North Korean detainees were deported to Sinuiju chained two and two. There, she was thrown into a North Korean State Safety and Security Agency camp for a month. "They took a quantity of blood to check possible venereal disease. Undressing the women, they checked even inside the sexual organs with gloved hands," Mun recalled. If you repeat sit-and-stand 20 times, you vomit up everything you have eaten. Male inmates are forced to strike their heads against the steel door and beaten with clubs when they resist. Pregnant inmates were forced to miscarry on the grounds they were bearing Chinese children. "The meals of corns with one side dish served were so poor that we longed for the meals we were given by the Chinese prison." Transferred to an escapees camp in Chongjin, North Hamgyeong Province, she was released after a stint of hard labor in 17-hour shifts. Several months later, now 25, she again entrusted her body to a trafficker.
An officer from the Durihana Mission, an organization assisting North Korean refugees, asked her, "We won't sell you to a Chinese. Will you go to South Korea?" Without hesitation, she replied, "I'll go back to the Chinese man who bought me first. I want to live with him, eating plenty and earning money, and send money to my family at home." For the benefit of her blind old mother and younger brother, she opted to stay in China, risking another deportation. The Durihana Mission officer, failing to persuade her into going to the South, bid her farewell after buying her a few pieces of winter clothes.
The title given to North Korean refugees until the early 1990s was "hero defector." Symbolized by Lee Woong-pyung, a North Korean air force officer who flew a MiG fighter jet to South Korea in 1983 and died of cancer in 2002, hero defectors offered the South Korean government meaningful information and were used as a propaganda tool for the superiority of our system. Then, in the latter half of the 1990s, famines hit the North. The food shortages, described by the North Korean regime as "the Hardship March", claimed an estimated 3 million lives. The exodus to China followed. North Koreans crossed the border to escape from hunger braving strict patrols by the Chinese border police. The food shortage has moderated in the past decade, but the flow of North Korean refugees never ended. North Koreans who have come to the South now number more than 10,000, and an estimated 40,000 North Koreans live in third countries including China.
North Korean refugees in China are officially illegal migrants. They enjoy no legal protection, and when discovered they are deported to North Korea. With the political thaw expanding throughout Northeast Asia, "hero defectors" have become "new arrivals" in search of a new life. With China, North Korea and South Korea almost equally unconcerned about them, the rights of North Korean refugees in third countries, are thoroughly trampled down.