Chinese police have busted a human trafficking ring that lured North Korean women into defecting and sold them into indentured labor or prostitution, the Chinese press reported Wednesday.
The human trafficking ring apparently included both Chinese and North Korean nationals, though the Chinese media merely referred to them as "foreigners." Diplomats in Beijing say it is unprecedented for the Chinese media to report the trafficking of North Korean women in such detail.
"At a time when the issue of North Korean defectors has captured global attention, China probably wanted to warn North Koreans that they are more likely to come into contact with human traffickers than with human rights groups if they defect," said an informed source in China.
Since the death of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in December 2011, China has stepped up a crackdown on North Korean defectors and brokers along the North Korean-Chinese border.
Local media reports said police in Yanji, Jilin Province, which is home to a large population of ethnic Koreans, arrested four foreigners and one Chinese. Police found 12 North Korean women who had been sold to Heilongjiang Province and other parts of China and sent them back to the North.
North Korean sources said that would mean sending them to torture or death and accused Beijing of violating humanitarian principles.
One woman identified only by her surname Choe (25) was arrested along with a Chinese national also identified only by his family name Shi, reports said. She was quoted as saying she lived a "rough life" after being targeted by human traffickers.
Choe said she crossed the border into China in 2007 at the age of 19 after finishing high school in order to make money for her family. But instead of finding a job in China, she was sold to a mentally disabled man in Heilongjiang Province.
She realized she was a victim of human trafficking, but her inability to communicate in Chinese made it impossible for her to escape. A few months later, she was sold to another Chinese man and had his child.
Choe met Shi early last year after he was released from prison after serving time for human trafficking and helped him recruit other North Koreans for their human trafficking ring, Chinese police said.
They lured 20 North Korean women between in their 20s to 40s to China. The gang were paid 10,000-15,000 yuan per woman, and accomplices in North Korea 3,000-5,000 yuan.
Before selling the women, they confined the women in a room where they were forced to perform sexual acts on the Internet. Chinese media said nine North Korean women were confined in three rooms when police raided their quarters.
Police in Yanji received a tip-off in July last year. In September, police arrested the gang aboard a bus en route to Heilongjiang after 10 days of undercover work. They also found one North Korean woman who was being sold.
A source in China said Beijing's crackdown on defectors and those who aid them hit human rights groups hard, but human trafficking rings are still thriving. "I think Chinese police announced the arrest because they want to back claims that North Korean defectors are not refugees but victims of crime or illegal aliens," the source added.