The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a source country for men, women and children who are subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. Government oppression in the DPRK prompts many North Koreans to flee the country in ways that make them vulnerable to human trafficking in destination countries. Many of the estimated 10 000 North Korean women and girls who have migrated illegally to China to flee abuse and human rights violation are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. Some lure, drug, detain or kidnap North Korean women on their arrival, others offer jobs but subsequently force the women into prostitution, domestic service, or forced marriage. If found, Chinese authorities often repatriate victims back to the DPRK where they are subjected to harsh punishment including forced labour in labour camps or death.
In the 1990s North Korea experienced a wide scale famine that killed up to 1 million people. After her family was displaced, Ji-hyun was left to care for her dying father. To escape starvation, she and her brother left, travelling with traffickers into China. Ji-hyun was told that if she wanted to provide for her family, she must marry a Chinese man. After being in China for 6 years Ji-hyun was reported to the authorities., sent back to North Korea and placed in a correctional facility before being sent to Chongin labour camp in Songpyong District. After becoming ill and unable to work, Ji-hun was dismissed from the labour camp. Alone and homeless she arranged to be re-trafficked back to China in order to find the son she had left behind. Once reunited, they escaped with the help of a man who Ji-hyun fell in love with. They all now live as a family in the UK.
A lot of people died between 1996 and 1998. The train station platforms were full of dead bodies. I remember witnessing a scene outside the train station, a man was carrying a young child on his back. He was holding his older son’s hand and carrying the younger one on his back. A soldier gave him a piece of bread. He broke the piece of bread into two pieces. He gave a piece to his older son and tried to give the other one to his younger son. But the piece of bread fell on the ground. As he tried to bend down to pick up the bread, he realized the child was dead. He was dead from hunger.
Every morning, before going out to work, I would prepare a bowl of rice and put a blanket over it to keep it warm. I would ask my father to have the rice for his lunch. I would leave for work at 5 in the morning and when I got home in the evening, the bowl of rice would still be there, untouched. I’d ask my father why he didn’t have any of it, and he’d say ‘How can I bring myself to eat anything, when you’re out shivering in the cold?’ He’d go the whole day not eating anything and share the rice with me when I got home.
As my father’s condition grew worse, he wasn’t able to speak anymore. He could only gesture with his hands, telling me to go, to leave [North Korea]. My father kept gesturing to me to go. I couldn’t be there for him when he passed away. I left him behind in that cold room. I left him a bowl of rice and a change of clothes. I left North Korea like that. I wasn’t by my father’s side when he passed away. Like a selfish child I left just to save my own skin.
We’d been in China about two weeks, when the people we were staying with said to me, if I wanted to ensure my family’s wellbeing, I had to marry a Chinese man. My family would live on the money they got from selling me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The thought of marrying a foreigner on foreign soil hadn’t even occurred to me. When I said I couldn’t, they told me they would get my family deported. So, I agreed to go. I was at this other house for over a month. People would come to take a look at me. All sorts of people came, from children to the elderly. There were disabled people too. They would come and haggle over my price. It was no different from an animal being sold in the marketplace. I was eventually sold for 5000 yuan, which would be around £500 here in the UK.
When you get sold off, the person who bought you will say, ‘I’ve paid for you, so now you must do whatever I tell you to do. If you disobey in the slightest, I could report you. Even if I killed you, no one’s going to say anything, and no one will know what happened to you’. That’s how they intimidate and threaten North Koreans into forced marriage.
When I first discovered I was pregnant, I felt helpless and alone. Life was hard enough as it was, I couldn’t imagine bringing a child into this difficult situation. The village had a guard post up on a hill. The person in charge of the guard post told me I could stay there [while pregnant] if I wanted. I missed my mother, and I missed my sister so much. After suffering alone in that room for 11 hours, I gave birth to my son. Nobody came to check on us. I decided to name my son myself. For him to make it in this hostile world he needed to grow up strong and hardy. So I named him Chol, which means iron.
[After 6 years in China Ji-hyun was reported to the authorities]
My son and his father came with me as far as the police station, and then we got separated. I didn’t get the chance to say anything to my son. I couldn’t tell him I’d be back, and I didn’t even get to hold his hand.
[Ji-hyun was sent back to North Korea and placed in a correctional facility]
Guards are called ‘teachers’ there. If the teacher is in a good mood, he lets us go and use the toilet. I found myself really having to go, and I rushed to the toilet without asking for permission. I was punished for that. I was instructed to unclog and clean the toilet with my bare hands. If you got caught trying to wash your sanitary towel, you were ordered to wear it on your head, dripping blood and all, and beg for forgiveness.
From here, those caught defecting to South Korea get sent to political prison camps, and don’t ever get released. While other who left simply for economic reasons get sent to labour camps.
Our working day began at 4.30 in the morning, before we could have anything to eat. In the summer, when the days are longer, we would work until 8 or 9 in the evening. We could only stop working when it got pitch dark. And the day doesn’t end there. After eating we had to reflect on our day’s performance, recite the Party’s principles, and learn songs. By then it’d be close to midnight. We were worked harder than animals.
We went to a valley surrounded by mountains in Gudok, Ranam Distict. We had to clear the mountainside to create terraced fields. We cleared the land with our bare hands. Four women had to pull and oxcart, two in the front and two in the back. Carrying a ton of soil in the cart. We couldn’t do this at a walking pace either. We had to run. In July, when we harvested potatoes, the very small ones would get eaten raw on the spot, with dirt still on them. Really, it was unspeakably bad. You could say the whole of North Korea is one big prison. The people are all hungry. And now, there aren’t even rats, snakes or wild plants left for them to eat.
[Ji-hyun contracted tetanus in her leg. Her condition worsened until she was unable to work, or even walk. The authorities discharged her from the labour camp. Now back in her hometown, Ji-hyun was sick, homeless and alone]
I prayed and prayed. Even when I was in pain, all I could think about was seeing my son again. And then at the end of that month, in late October, I got traffickers to take me to China. It was the only option I had, when I couldn’t even walk properly. I couldn’t tell them about my leg though. Again, I was being trafficked to China.
[back in China, one year after being expelled, Ji-hyun was determined to be reunited with her little boy.]
I told the traffickers about my son, and thankfully, they understood and were sympathetic. They said I could phone him. So I dialed the number I knew from memory and asked for my son. I asked to speak to him, and he came to the phone only to hang up on me. I called again the next day, and he hung up on me again. I kept calling and telling him I was his mother. Eventually, after a long pause, he say “Mummy…’ and started crying before hanging up again. He was told that his mother had abandoned him and that she would never come back. I could not believe my eyes when I first saw him. His neck was covered with black dirt, his skin was completely flaking. I was so shocked. I asked him what happened. When autumn came, he was told that if he wanted to eat, he had to go out and bring back grains of rice; he would have to pick them up from the ground. He told me that his meals consisted of plain rice and soya sauce, nothing else. I had believed that at least in China, the child would not starve. But in fact his life was worse than the starving, begging children in North Korea.
It wasn’t very safe for us to remain in China, so I arranged for us to leave China for Mongolia. There were nine of us headed for Mongolia, and we had to cross the border on foot. My son was still very young. There were wire fences, two on the China side and then another on the Mongolia side. The two on the China side were very high while the one in Mongolia was quite low. We had to climb over them without getting caught by the border guards who were patrolling. Everyone made it over the fences except for me and my son. I thought I saw Chinese police cars driving up to where we were. If I got caught again, I would be sent back to North Korea. I would lose my son again. I could see somebody in the distance running towards us. I thought it was the Chinese police officer and that it was all over. He grabbed my son and put him on his shoulders, took my hand and we started running. He cut the wires for us and that is how we finally managed to get into Mongolia. Only after we reached Mongolia, I realized that the stranger who saved our lives was also a man who’d previously bought us food.
[Ji-hyun fell in love with the man who saved her and her son at the Mongolia border. Now the couple live in Manchester, UK with their three children]
My first son found a father. He looks after my first son like his own child and for that I am grateful forever. In fact we haven’t had an official wedding as of yet. My daughter is 5 years old. She too asks about our wedding. She says she wants to be the flower girl and scatter petals down the aisle. I told her the wedding will be really soon.
Courtesy of Amnesty International UK