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Thousands of North Korean women and girls are being subjected to forced marriage, prostitution and sadistic abuse by trafficking gangs running a multi-million dollar illicit sex industry in China.
A report by the Korea Future Initiative (KFI), which will be presented in the House of Commons on Monday, forensically details how vulnerable women and girls as young as 12 are being tricked into escaping North Korea only to be sold as sex slaves in China.
The women ensnared by the gangs face the sickening choice of becoming sex slaves or being repatriated to the oppressive state where they face torture in bleak prison camps or possible execution.
The report – Sex Slaves: The Prostitution, Cybersex and Forced Marriage of North Korean Women and Girls in China – has been compiled by researchers who interviewed 45 women in China and South Korea over two years and will make difficult reading for MPs.
It reveals a widespread Chinese trade which plumbs the depths of human depravity.
One survivor reveals in stomach-churning detail how a girl forced into prostitution had been so brutalised that she could not stand.
“There is a house where women are taken before they are sold. When I arrived, there were many [North Korean] women, but also girls. One girl had her vagina and anus ripped apart. A woman told me there was nothing left: no skin, just a large hole,” said the survivor, named Ms Song.
“I was so shocked when I watched the girl crawl around the room and try to stand and lean on the wall. I could see where she had leaked fluids and there was blood on the floor. She was crying.”
A 14-year-old girl tells of how she had been sold for marriage for £2,740. Others describe being starved, imprisoned and abused live on camera in sordid cybersex dens that feed the world’s insatiable desire for online pornography.
“The man … drove me to his apartment. It was shocking to see [North Korean] girls there. I do not know how old they were. I saw two girls who had not yet developed breasts,” said a woman called Ms Choi.
“I was taken to a room that had a bed in front of a table with a computer and a webcam. Four men came [and] gang-raped me.”
Yoon Hee-soon, the report’s author and a researcher at KFI, a London-based not-for-profit that rescues North Koreans in danger, estimates that the exploitation of North Korean women and girls generates at least £82 million a year for the Chinese underworld.
“Commonly aged between 12-29 and overwhelmingly female, victims are coerced, sold, or abducted in China or trafficked directly from North Korea,” she said. “Many are sold more than once and are forced into at least one form of sexual slavery within a year of leaving their homeland.”
North Korean women are especially vulnerable to the vast transnational network of people traffickers and brokers who operate in the knowledge that their victims cannot turn to the Chinese police for help.
However, a pattern of exploiting and enslaving women and girls for sexual purposes has sprung up across the borders of almost all developing countries bordering or trading with China.
At the heart of the problem lies a shortage of women in China and an entrenched national misogyny that commoditises women and views them as inferior, say experts.
“There is a sense that women are property, that they are objects of desire, that they are there to please men and that [still] exists today,” said Prof Susan Tiefenbrun, emeritus faculty director at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, who has written extensively on trafficking in China.
Meanwhile, China’s huge working population, the secret behind its extraordinary economic growth, faces the crippling consequences of the former “one-child policy”, created in 1979 and relaxed to a two-child decree only in 2016.
According to United Nations projections, China’s 1.4 billion population is likely to decline sharply, beginning as soon as 2023. The policy, combined with a preference for boys, has resulted in a gender imbalance that has had a profound impact across south east Asia.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicts an excess of 40 million men of marrying age by 2020.
This has fuelled the lucrative trafficking industry which lures tens of thousands of “brides” from low-income communities in countries including Pakistan, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam and Laos into China.
Sokha – whose name has been changed to protect her identity – was just 19 when a Chinese family from Hunan used brokers to pay her struggling parents in Cambodia’s Kampong Cham province £3,135 for her hand in marriage to their son.
She went willingly – if afraid – to help her ailing father and mother after a neighbour, in league with the brokers, won her trust, promising she could send money back home. She even met the prospective groom in advance, who seemed to be a pleasant man.
But when she arrived in China her documents were confiscated and the promised wedding ceremony did not materialise. “What I was told was not true,” she told The Telegraph last week in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
Trapped in the family’s home she was forced to clean and work all day on their farm without payment. At night, her new “husband” proved to be impotent and sexually abused her out of frustration. His mother pressured her to have a child, while his father harassed her whenever they were alone.
Once I decided to jump, I considered whether I would live or die but it made no difference. If I returned to the house, I would have no freedom
Sokha, trafficking victim
In desperation, Sokha arranged for a nearby Cambodian woman, also married to a Chinese man, to rescue her, but she faced another shock.
“My husband wants you to get another Chinese husband and I have to follow the order otherwise he will beat me and you as well,” the woman told her.
Fearing for her life, Sokha was taken to a house party. “The men ate and drank together, then one man paid 70,000 yuan [£8,000] for me,” she said.
After the second man beat and forced her to have sex, she finally found a way to contact her parents. Panicked, they contacted the initial broker, who demanded the £3,135 back and threatened to file a police complaint because she had run away.
“My parents are very poor, from the countryside. They were very scared and had no idea of what was right or wrong. They gave the broker all the information about where I was,” she said. The first family took her back and this time locked her up.
Sokha’s only escape route was a window located about five or six metres above the ground. A steel pin now holds her spine together where she was terribly injured as she jumped.
“The fear made me strong. I had a lot of fear – fear of dying, of being abused. Once I decided to jump, I considered whether I would live or die but it made no difference. If I returned to the house, I would have no freedom,” she said.
After her medical treatment and a 20-day jail term for being undocumented, she returned to Cambodia. Now 21, she often warns other young women about her experience.
In 2016, Phnom Penh said it had identified 7,000 Cambodian women living in forced marriages in China but anti-trafficking groups said the real total could be double that.
And as China embarks on what may be the most ambitious foreign investment campaign in history – the Belt and Road Initiative, extending to Western Europe and other parts of the world by land and – some the country’s toxic sex trade will spread further.
“It will make this trafficking problem worse, because the more China gets involved with trade, which will be enhanced by that programme, I think more women will come into China and women from China will be going out from the country,” said Prof Tiefenbrun.
According to the US state department, Chinese women and girls are sexually exploited throughout the world, including construction sites, remote mining and logging camps, and areas with high concentrations of Chinese migrant workers.
Meanwhile, the potential diplomatic fallout from the sale of human beings was in evidence last week in Pakistan, one of China’s major trading partners, after frenzied media reports of Chinese men, including some working on Pakistani development projects, paying up to £19,000 for local Christian brides.
“They take girls with them and exploit them physically, sexually,” claimed Ijaz Masih, Punjab’s human rights minister. “Unfortunately, this is being done in connivance with some pastors and priests. Gangs have engaged them for certifying marriages and saying that the Chinese groom is Christian by faith.”
The police claim to have smashed a series of well-connected gangs in Punjab, arresting Pakistani and Chinese nationals.
China, which vowed to protect legitimate marriages and combat crimes, was also at pains to deny reports alleging forced prostitution as “fabricated facts.”
But Heather Barr, acting co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, said that while Beijing claimed to embrace gender equality, the reality of intense discrimination was “far darker” and that activists were silenced in the name of social stability.
“We see authoritarianism go hand in hand with efforts to crush women’s rights in many countries – women’s movements are a real threat to authoritarian leaders,” she said.
Ms Barr, who authored a recent report detailing how Burmese women were locked in rooms in China and raped until they were pregnant, said that while Beijing had signed several international anti-trafficking agreements, genuine political will to address the issue seemed to be missing.
“There are many practical steps the government can take – better cross-border law enforcement and prevention efforts, developing services in China for women who have been trafficked, and a genuine effort by law enforcement to pursue traffickers and buyers,” she said.
Johanna Ransmeier, an associate professor of modern Chinese history at Chicago University, said that domestic trafficking was rooted in a long-established pattern that women could be moved around as families needed.
“Women and girls have always been at the centre of this paradox because they are a liability because girls are expensive to raise but also a valuable resource that can be sold and resold,” she said.
China officially abolished slavery and trafficking in 1910. “What they drafted in the early 20th century amounted to an abolition document, but they also created numerous loopholes that allowed trafficking to continue,” said Ms Ransmeier.
Fast forward to 2019 and the US state department identifies China as a source and destination of trafficking, and a “Tier 3” country – meaning it does not meet minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to do so.
Its 2018 “trafficking in persons” report accused China of insufficient law enforcement efforts, failing to adequately pursue corrupt officials, and of reducing efforts to protect victims, including forcibly returning them to fraudulent marriages or detaining them for months.
It said women were sometimes arrested for prostitution – illegal in China – without being screened for sexual exploitation, and that North Koreans were not offered legal alternatives to repatriation.
A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in London denounced the “so-called annual report” for making “irresponsible remarks and groundless accusations.”
He added: “China believes such an act is not constructive and firmly opposes it.”
China strongly condemned trafficking, especially of women and children and had taken strong measures to prohibit it, including harsher punishments for forced prostitution, national action plans, working with international NGOs and ratifying the UN protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking, he said.
March figures showed that China’s joint anti-trafficking operations with neighbouring countries had cracked 634 cases in the Mekong region, including 126 of marital fraud. A total of 1,130 women and 17 children had been rescued.
“Human trafficking stands as a shared problem for all countries around the globe and no country is immune from it. Countries should step up cooperation to jointly crack down on the crime of human trafficking rather than point fingers at others,” said the spokesman.
Matt Friedman, a former international trafficking expert with the UN, who now heads the Mekong Club, an anti-human slavery group, said the sheer size of China complicated its fight against trafficking.
“China at the highest level of the government had the right policies and procedures,” he said of his time at the UN.
“They had it on paper but when it came to implementing it you’re talking about 1.36 billion people and you have a certain amount of feudal systems and fiefdoms and various entities that have to be bypassed to move forward with things.”
But the increasingly sophisticated criminal syndicates and illicit brokers eager to cash in on human slavery presents a daunting challenge.
The case of Thida, 20, who was trafficked from Cambodia into an abusive marriage in Hunan two years highlights the loopholes and disjointed approach to law enforcement.
Thida was transported via a chain of ten brokers, who avoided Cambodia’s heavier screening measures on travel visas by sending her by road via Vietnam and circumventing border posts.
She tried twice to escape months of sexual violence at the hands of her Chinese husband but was returned to the family the first time by the police.
The second time she refused to go. “I thought I would die,” she said. Instead she endured two weeks in a “horrible” prison, and was beaten up by inmates as she waited for the police to process her repatriation.
Thida is now safely at home but the painful legacy of her brief Chinese marriage will last a lifetime. “I was forced to leave my baby daughter behind,” she said. “I really miss her and want to go and see her but I’m afraid to go back.”
For Park Jihyun, who wrote the foreword of the North Korea report, the fight against trafficking is also very personal. She too was sold into marriage in China for £564 before being repatriated to a labour camp in North Korea and “forced to endure acts that will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
“Making a difference in the fight against human trafficking is daunting but not impossible,” she says in the report’s foreword.
“I will not give up, and it is my hope that the voices of my countrywomen that fill this report will speak for all the voiceless North Korean women and girls, and that the world will finally listen.”
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