Photograph by Clay Gilliland, Wikimedia Commons

Christina Kim grew up in western North Korea, in a town where modest houses were attached and stood in a row. “If your neighbor farted, you could hear it,” Kim said. She lived with her parents and two siblings in the province of North Pyongan, reportedly a major military industrial area. Kim’s father worked in a munitions factory that produced chemical weapons. He often complained the factory was full of respiratory diseases, and he worried that the work—the details of which he could not disclose to his family—was shortening his life. (“Christina Kim” is a pseudonym; much about her story can be dangerous to loved ones in North Korea, even today.)

The family’s seongbun—the caste-like system that classifies North Koreans based on their political, social, and economic background—was average. Kim’s father eventually secured a place in a migrant worker program in Russia as a logger; all his income went back to the regime, and the family soon fell on hard times. Kim’s mother moved her children to a village where their grandmother lived, near the Paektu mountains. The mountain chain contains the tallest peak in North Korea, considered by some to have mythical qualities. It was so cold there that families built fires most months of the year.

Each morning, when the adults went to work for the regime, the children stayed home, warmed by coal. One day, a house nearby caught fire, with a boy inside. Kim watched the father race into the house and emerge with his most valuable possessions: a portrait of then-Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung and another of his first wife, Kim Jong-Suk. The child never came out.

At the time, Kim believed the man’s actions were valorous, and that prioritizing political iconography over his own child’s life was just and good. She also understood that speaking ill of the regime could end in death. By then, Kim knew an old saying, “one ends a long life because of a short tongue.” And, so, she came to accept that one day her body, too, could—and ought—to be sacrificed, should the Leader require it. Perhaps, she thought, her father would abandon her in a fire, or maybe hers would be one of the homes a black car would visit to take her family to a prison or re-education camp, never to be seen again.

Each day at school, the students bowed to a portrait of Kim Il-Sung. “Always ready,” they chanted in unison, indicating their loyalty and preparedness to sacrifice their lives. After she attended university, Kim became a kindergarten teacher and taught her students what she’d memorized years earlier: Kim Il-Sung’s birthday, known as the “Day of the Sun,” and how to sing gospel-like songs as a form of worship. “I used to look up to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il as my gods,” Kim said.

By the time Kim married and had children of her own, her gods had largely stopped providing salaries and food rations. Kim begged her parents for food to feed her family, but there was never enough. It was then that Kim began to imagine an existence outside of North Korea. Her loyalty to the regime, though, was abiding. It wasn’t until Kim wound up near death in one of North Korea’s forced labor camps, a punishment for having been trafficked through China in an attempt to ensure her family’s survival, that she understood she’d been deceived all along.

* * *

Leaving North Korea is considered a crime of “treachery against the nation.” Kim Jong-Un surveils the border, where guards are said to be authorized to shoot-to-kill anyone attempting to cross. China considers those who make it to be illegal economic migrants, and when its officials repatriate them, they are then imprisoned in one of North Korea’s notorious detention facilities, where they face a litany of abuses. Yet hundreds of people each year forge rivers, wade through snowstorms, or dash between trees to cross the 880-miles-long land border between North Korea and China. Roughly three-quarters of them are women.

Many of those women are then trafficked, only sometimes knowingly, into China’s sex trade. No reliable data exists on the number of North Korean women who are coerced, abducted, or sold into forced marriages, prostitution, or cybersex dens. The best estimate begins with a demographic generality—in 2012, as many as 140,000 North Korean women lived in China—and continues with an obvious question: Why so many women?

In a 2019 report, the North Korea Future Initiative—a London-based organization that documents human rights violations in North Korea—claimed that roughly 60 percent of the North Korean women in China are trafficked into the sex trade, often after being targeted at home in North Korea. A South Korean pastor and “rescuer” with the Seoul-based Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights told me that traffickers demand nearly $10,000 to “buy out” a woman who is a captive sex worker. The “industry” generates profits of over $100 million annually for traffickers and criminal organizations.

This lucrative trade in women’s bodies has its genesis on both sides of the border. In the late 1970s, China introduced economic reforms and trade liberalization, and quickly became one of the world’s most powerful economies. With new opportunities to work and study in urban centers, Chinese women abandoned the countryside en masse, leaving behind what became known as “bachelor villages.”

Almost in tandem, in 1979, the country imposed the “one-child policy.” Though the policy ended in 2015, its demographic effect is still felt. There are 34 million more men than women in China today—a result of sex-selective abortion, infanticide, and ongoing restrictions on reproductive rights. By 2030, more than a quarter of Chinese men in their thirties are expected to be unmarried. The consequences of this gender imbalance for Chinese men’s marital prospects underpins China’s illicit sex-trafficking markets, and vulnerable women are traded across borders like raw material.

As China’s economy thrived, North Korea’s slumped. The country was crippled by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had backed North Korea with military and economic aid, and by a ruinous famine in the 1990s, which maimed its centrally-planned system. Food rations and wages decreased or stopped altogether. Because men worked predominantly in state employment and the military, women became responsible for the family’s survival, and their ingenuity led to the emergence of informal markets.

By the mid-1990s, women increasingly crossed into China to trade goods like foraged mushrooms and wild herbs. This informal earnings system, coupled with bouts of drought, starvation, and privation, made women vulnerable to traffickers who promised lucrative jobs in China. Corrupt border officials capitalized on this vulnerability. A woman can knowingly sell herself, like a mail-order bride, into a forced marriage or sex work; or she can buy her way into China, paying a “broker” thousands of dollars to smuggle her to China for a job, or onward to South Korea. Even when she pays, she’s likely to find herself exploited in China.

Over the decades, sex trafficking and organized criminal networks have become more sophisticated, and the number of North Korean women ensnared in the trade has ballooned. In the spring of 2018, I took the first of five trips to South Korea and the United Kingdom to meet with victims, “rescuers,” former North Korean officials, researchers, and attorneys to understand the roots and reach of the trafficking economy. I talked to more than 30 people who escaped North Korea, and reviewed testimonies and NGO files on women rescued from trafficking in China. Most of the women I spoke to had been sold, surreptitiously or knowingly, to networks in China, and some had been exploited several times over.

The North Korean regime denies official involvement in trafficking women into China’s sex trade, and North Korea’s criminal code criminalizes human trafficking. But human rights groups have found that the law is rarely, if ever, enforced. A former North Korean diplomat told me, “North Korea is aware that women are being sold to China, but North Korea is purposely ignoring it.”

* * *

In 1990, eight years before she would come to know anything of the world that later turned her into a product, Kim was thinking only of love. She was nineteen, and she married a man she found movie-star handsome. “Although we were poor, I was loved very much,” she said. Because she had married, Kim was dismissed from her teaching job and expected to fulfill the traditional role of a stay-at-home wife. The couple moved onto Kim’s parents’ property, and Kim gave birth to a girl, followed a few years later by a boy.

This joyous period in Kim’s life was a dark moment in the country’s history. In the mid-90s, a famine stemming from economic mismanagement, later known as the “Arduous March,” felled the country like a tsunami and killed hundreds of thousands of people. How one survived depended, in part, on their seongbun. Those from the lowest echelons subsisted on a porridge made from plants, while the ruling Kim family and friends reportedly indulged in fine wines and cheeses imported from France, among other excesses.

When food rations dried up for most of the country, Kim stole oil from her parents and sold it at the local marketplace. To feed her family, Kim secreted away scraps of rice, kimchi, and a mixture of corn syrup and dog meat her mother stored underground to nourish Kim’s father. “Back then I didn’t know how sorry I was, because I was so hungry,” Kim said.

In 1997, while he was trying to break up a fight, Kim’s husband was kicked in the stomach. Hours later, he complained of a stomachache, and en route to the hospital, a two-hour drive away, he died in Kim’s arms. “I still don’t know what exactly exploded,” she said, “but during the funeral, I saw that there was a puddle of blood beneath his body.”

Now on her own with two children, Kim found it increasingly difficult to survive. Starvation overwhelmed the country, forcing people to contradict their Supreme Leader by looking outside, to China, for food and jobs. Officials, also suffering from hunger, took bribes at the border and looked the other way.

After several failed attempts to sell fish from North Korea’s coast, Kim asked her brother-in-law for help getting a job at a car-manufacturing plant in Chongjin, on the northeast border with China. There, the regime provided Kim and her colleagues with second-hand Japanese cars, whose parts they assembled into new vehicles, and sold the finished product to a Chinese buyer, with profits going back to the Kim regime.

A few months into the job, Kim traveled alone to the Chinese border and oversaw a sale. She’d been staying on the North Korea side for a few days when a security official came to the house where she slept and apprehended her. The officer drove her a few miles away and shoved her into an office, where she was left alone for most of the day. As Kim fell into a light sleep, the officer burst in. “You’re arrested because you’re smuggling [cars] into China,” she recalled him saying. She was baffled; her company had been trading vehicles for the regime. He hit her, then mocked her for being a widow. Then he pulled her close to him. “If you sleep with me, I’ll let you go.” It was more of a threat than an offer, but she refused. Incensed, he threw on her the dirty floor, where he raped her. “I couldn’t even think of telling anyone,” she told me. “It would be shameful.”

* * *

Kim’s experience offers a glimpse of one factor that pushes women to escape North Korea: structural oppression and gender-based violence, often perpetrated by men in positions of power. There’s almost no place in North Korea—not at home or school, not at the market or the police station or on public transit—where women aren’t abused. Since the early 2000s, an exodus of North Korean women has exposed what human rights groups say is a system of state-sanctioned violence against women. In 2014, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released a scathing report, based on the accounts of more than 300 witnesses, victims and experts in at least four countries, describing “the male-dominated state” that dates back to 1950, where “agents who police the marketplace, inspectors on trains, and soldiers are committing sexual assault on women in public spaces.” One witness told the UN, “Guards also take young girls on the train for sexual acts, including rape. Everyone knows this is happening; it is an open secret.”

Human Rights Watch released a report in 2018, presenting the accounts of fifty-four women who fled North Korea since Kim Jong-Un’s ascent to power nearly a decade ago; the organization also spoke with officials who had served in his government until they, too, defected. The report described sexual and gender-based violence as common, with perpetrators including high-ranking party officials, prison and detention facility guards and interrogators, police and secret police, prosecutors, and soldiers.

In June, 2018, I visited the offices of Kim Seok-Hyang, a professor in the Department of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. By then, she had interviewed nearly one hundred North Korean women, beginning in 2010. She told me that “every one” of them had described abuse from officials. Half of the women she’d interviewed told her they’d also experienced domestic violence but that they never reported it—partly because it’s so “natural” that reporting simply didn’t occur to them, and partly to minimize their contact with police, who can be dangerous. Police officers are close to people’s everyday lives, she explained, and a woman often has no choice but to “try to be submissive, to protect herself,” when confronted with people in positions of power. Otherwise, she said, “you will be killed.” High-ranking officers or party officials are “almost untouchable,” she said, and the higher a man’s position, the greater the opportunity he has to force a woman into a sexual relationship.

Lee So-Yeon, a North Korean who runs New Korea Women’s Union, a Seoul-based association for women escapees, affirmed Kim’s findings. Lee served in North Korea’s military for nearly ten years, beginning in 1992. “Sexual assault, violence, and rape—it was just the norm,” she told me. Women became playthings for whoever had power. Lee served with thirty women in a division based in South Hwanghae province. The male leader of the regiment shared accommodation with the women; he promised younger women in his dorm promotions, then sexually assaulted them. “All the women in that building were sexually assaulted,” Lee said, without disclosing whether she was one of them. When two of those women became pregnant, they were forced out of the military.

In 2006, at the age of thirty, Lee attempted to escape North Korea. “We all need to use brokers to get to South Korea, and if you meet the wrong broker, things can get very twisted,” she told me. Lee’s broker helped her escape North Korea, but he also attempted to sell Lee to a Chinese man. Because she resisted, the broker wrapped tape around Lee’s wrists and feet, shoved her in a van, and tossed her in the river. North Korean officials spotted her, then apprehended and detained her. After six months in a forced labor camp and another grueling escape, Lee reached South Korea in 2008. Though she is safe, recovery has been slow. “If I talk about it, it comes back in my dreams,” she told me.

Lee told me it wasn’t until she arrived in South Korea that she learned the concept of sexual assault. Another woman told me she made the same discovery more than a decade later. During mandatory re-education at a South Korean facility, she said she learned for the first time that women have rights, including within a marriage. Marital rape and abuse, she said, was such an alien concept for the group that they “roared in laughter.” Imagine, Lee told me, that there are more than 20,000 North Korean women now in South Korea: “For [these] women to survive, they must endure all this.”

* * *

Despite how vulnerable the work made her, Kim went back to selling cars, and, in the process, she placed her trust in the wrong people. By the spring of 1998, Kim and her colleagues had lost touch with their Chinese buyer, but they still had to sell the cars: they were afraid they’d go to prison if they couldn’t pay the monthly profits they owed to the regime, which by then had reached several thousand dollars. Desperate, Kim decided to venture into China. She brought along an antique vase, hoping to sell it on the side for a little extra money. To the border guards, whom she’d come to know, she promised cigarettes upon return. “I’ll be back in three days,” she told them.

Kim waded through the shallow Yalu River, which separates the two countries, and made her way to the house of a broker she knew, who said he would help her sell the vase and find the buyer of the vehicles who’d disappeared. When she arrived, she learned the buyer had been imprisoned for illegal trading. As for the vase, the broker said he first needed to have it authenticated in a nearby village. “He ran away with it,” Kim recalled.

She was stuck without any money in the home of the thief’s family, and she was exposed. Kim knew that Chinese officials had been deporting North Koreans, so she believed one of the men living there when he said it was too dangerous for her to stay so close to the border. He offered to help her get to a safer city deeper into China, where she could stay with his cousins and find temporary work. He accompanied Kim on a bus, then on foot, traveling through mountainous terrain until they reached the house of a young Chinese-Korean couple. A few hours later, Kim overheard the woman whisper into the telephone, “There’s a North Korean woman at my house.” She feared she had been betrayed.

Soon, a man arrived to pick up Kim. He was in his early 30s, only five years older than Kim, but “he looked like a grandpa—uglier than my husband,” Kim said. She presumed they would work together in a nearby market, but as they traveled deeper into the mountains, Kim understood there was no market.

The man took her to his dilapidated farm where his family lived, and she became his “wife.” “I asked myself what went wrong and why I was sold to become like a sex slave, why was I treated like some kind of product,” she told me. She couldn’t ask for help: if officials caught her escaping, Kim not only risked her own life, but her family in North Korea could be punished, too. “I really wanted to die,” she said.

Kim lived on a vegetable farm with her “husband.” For five years, each day duplicated the one before it: cooking, cleaning, working the fields. Her “husband” and his family often insulted and mocked her. Eventually, the tolerability of daytime would subside, and at dusk, in anticipation of having to give over her body, Kim would drink a large bottle of Soju. She would drink the alcohol and lose consciousness while fully clothed, sometimes pretending to menstruate by wearing a sanitary pad to bed. In the morning, she would wake up naked. “This is basically like having sex with a dead person,” Kim said.

Kim had a daughter with the Chinese man in 2003—one of as many as 20,000 children born to North Korean women in China. She called her Anna, meaning “grace.”

* * *

On an unremarkable day in June, 2004, Kim got a phone call. “Do you want to go to Korea?” the voice on the other end asked. She accepted immediately. “I trusted this person, although I’d never seen him,” she said. By then, Kim’s daughter was little more than a year old, and she knew that her baby could be killed by North Korean officials if the two of them were caught and sent back. Kim left her daughter behind in China, hoping she could sponsor her officially from South Korea.

When Kim appeared for their rendezvous, she met several ordinary-looking men. One asked her, “Are you going to South Korea?” “Yes,” Kim eagerly replied. The men whisked her away on one of their motorcycles, but she soon saw that they were approaching a police station. “Please don’t send me back to North Korea!” she begged.

That is precisely what they did. Kim was transferred to a state security department in Onsong, North Korea, near the Chinese border. There, she was made to line up with four other prisoners, all naked and facing a wall. Three male and female guards stood behind the prisoners, forcing the women to squat up and down. The movement, which Kim said she was made to do hundreds of times, is meant to loosen body cavities to release contraband. “You lose strength in your legs, and that’s when whatever money you’re hiding inside your body falls out,” Kim explained. Kim had hidden fifteen hundred yuan, more than $200. “When the money fell out of my body, I tried to reach for it, and they kicked me,” Kim remembered. “My body flew over, and they took my money.”

After the initial search, Kim and the prisoners were packed into a cell. Kim was given an identification number, and remembers being asked three questions during her interrogation:

“Was there a church nearby your house?”

“No,” she replied.

“Have you met a South Korean person?”

“No,” she replied.

“Have you had access to South Korean television?”

“No.”

“I did watch some South Korean T.V., but I couldn’t say ‘yes’ to that because I would have been a political prisoner,” she told me. For forty-nine days, the pattern was the same. “Every day, we would get called out to write down what we did in China,” she said. “If they found one little difference then we would get beaten up.” Interrogators have been known to regularly use torture and abuse, including sexual violence, to extract confessions, despite prison regulations against these practices. Kim was made to give a thumbprint on a report, and on the basis of its contents, she was sentenced to four years in prison. Others said they went through a type of trial to determine their guilt and punishments.

Officials stuffed Kim and the other prisoners into a cell; she was given a watery, fetid porridge, which she had no choice but to drink. She began to feel ill. She thought of her daughter, wondering if she, too, had been punished for Kim’s “crime.” Soon, Kim got diarrhea, and on the third day of her illness, she lost consciousness. When Kim woke up the next evening, the guards mocked her: “Oh, you survived without passing away,” they sneered.

Their reaction shifted something in her. Kim had grown up with great love for the Leader. Even while she was held hostage in a “marriage” in China, she defended the regime and its leadership. But when Kim understood that the guards would have reveled in her death, she knew she had been fooled. “When I ended up in prison and experienced all these human rights violations, I felt determined that I couldn’t die until I let other people know what I went through,” she remembered. “I felt intense fury.”

* * *

Kim was transferred to a forced labor camp for two months, where she worked on different construction projects, and then to a prison in Chungjin. There, she met an elderly woman who taught her about God. “If you want to get out of here, you should pray,” she said. At night, as Kim pressed her palms together like the woman had demonstrated, she would hear women weeping for the children they’d left behind in China. The guards would punish them, and many died. “Every day, I saw corpses.”

Even with the maltreatment and beatings, Kim’s experience was comparatively tame. A UN official based in Seoul told me when a person is sent back from China, anyone the regime determines to have worked or traded in China is sent to a short-term labor detention camp or ordinary prison, called kyohwaso. Women who tried to reach South Korea or engaged with religion may be subject to harsher sentences and sent into kwanliso, or “control center”— North Korea’s infamous political prisons, which the regime denies exist. “Kyohwaso is just like a regular prison and kwanliso is just like Auschwitz,” said Kang Cheol Hwan, a North Korean who spent ten years in a kwanliso and now directs the Seoul-based North Korea Strategy Center.

Kim was released from the cruelty of “regular prison” in January, 2005. She went to stay with her mother, who lived in the countryside of Ryanggang province, close to the Tumen River. She spent the next week lying awake at night, consumed by thoughts of her daughter and plotting her escape. During the warmer months, the Tumen River would be narrow and shallow enough to wade across, but now, in winter, the water was frozen, and Kim would have to venture over the ice.

On the day she fled, Kim wrapped a few treasured family photographs in plastic and tucked them under her shirt. Heavy with the understanding that they might never meet again, Kim committed to memory the moment she last saw her mother, her face weary and troubled. With only the clothes she wore, and all the money she had—approximately one dollar in the North Korean currency, the won—Kim set out for a marketplace a few miles away, walking along a dusty mountain range and passing barren fields. She thought as she walked that her homeland looked as if it had been manacled in much the same way as its people. At the market, Kim spent all her money on a type of insurance: two bags of rat poison. One pouch could kill roughly five rats, and so she reasoned that two bags would be sufficient to poison a human.

Kim hurried the remaining mile to the edge of the Tumen River, where she hid in the bushes. The bank was flat, and, although she is petite, it was difficult for Kim to conceal herself from the soldiers patrolling the area. Scanning the stream, she imagined the sight of her daughter, whom she was desperate to hold again.

Kim crouched in the brush for hours until the guards finally changed shifts—a brief window of time when the area was unmonitored. The water had frozen over, but Kim spotted sections of ice that had melted. She would brave the frigid current there. Kim silently began to pray, “God, if you let me cross this river, I’ll be faithful to you for the rest of my life.”
Kim removed her shoes and held them with one hand. She quickly tore open the rat poison, clutching it with her other hand, ready to be consumed if she heard guards yell, “shoot her.” She took one last deep breath before plunging in.

When she reached the other side, she tossed the rat poison in a bush, careful not to further contaminate the river. She went to a nearby home and asked the family who lived there to borrow their phone to call her Chinese “husband.” She stayed the night there, promising them money once he arrived. He picked her up the next morning and brought her to her daughter at the farm. “When I told my daughter, ‘I’m your mom,’ she didn’t recognize me,” she told me. “So I held on to her and cried because she had forgotten me in less than a year.”

By then, Kim had gained the trust of her Chinese husband and his family, so when she proposed to take her daughter to a nearby town for school, they allowed it. Kim met missionaries there, and she joined a group of North Koreans learning about the Bible. When, in 2009, Chinese officials began rounding up members of the group and deporting them to North Korea, Kim started to research how to get to South Korea. She relied on members of the Chinese-Korean church to finance her trip and to connect her with a missionary who was also a professional rescuer. Kim left her daughter with someone she trusted at the church, and, in August, 2012, she began the journey to South Korea from China. Thousands before her had made the same attempt through a network of rescuers, mostly affiliated with the church. The odyssey has since been termed the “Underground Railroad.”

The route changes every few years, but when Kim went, she traveled with a missionary through China to Vietnam, and then on to South Korea. She arrived in October 2012, and was released from Hanawon, the re-education facility in South Korea, a few months later. She requested to have her daughter join her; they’re now both South Korean citizens.

One mild day in October, 2018, I met Kim at her church, an unmarked building in Seoul. She and her husband—also a North Korean, whom she’d met at a prayer meeting months before—had spent the morning packaging rice, Bibles, handwritten notes, and dollar bills for a journey through the sea. This is the closest Kim can get to her children and family in North Korea—the moment she takes the packages to the western coast of South Korea and places them in the golden yellow water. The packages drift upstream until the current, like a gust of wind, catches them, swiftly carrying them up to towns and cities on North Korea’s western coast.

There, when the tide is low, people hurl nets into the water, scoop out the containers, and pack them in boxes, burying them in fish to conceal them from inspection and confiscation. Kim hopes the North Koreans who receive the boxes nourish themselves with the rice and surreptitiously proselytize once they read from the Bible. Kim said she’d heard from recently-arrived North Koreans that the containers make it over, and that people ate and appreciated the rice, once they discovered that it wasn’t poisonous.

“God makes miracles work, even in North Korea,” Kim told me.

Annie Hylton

Annie Hylton is a magazine writer and investigative journalist based in Paris. She reported this story with support from the Reporting Award at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University and the International Women’s Media Foundation Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. Kathy Yun, a translator and fixer from Seoul, contributed research.

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