Human trafficking victim shares her harrowing journey to freedom

[As Heard in North Korea]
Unification Media Group  |  2017-04-12 20:38

Daily NK and Unification Media Group will be interviewing victims of abuses and broadcasting excerpts of the recorded testimonies to listeners in North Korea as part of broader efforts to support the Center for Investigation & Documentation on Human Rights in North Korea, established in November 2016 pursuant to South Korea's North Korean Human Rights Act. It is hoped that this will raise awareness among the North Korean population that the outside world stands in solidarity against their oppression, as well as serve as a warning to the perpetrators that they will one day be held accountable.

Calls are mounting to hold those in the North Korean leadership accountable for crimes against humanity. The Center for Investigation & Documentation on Human Rights in North Korea was established in Seoul to document abuses perpetrated by the North Korean authorities and record the testimonies of victims of abuse. One of its major goals is to prepare the groundwork for a legal basis to prosecute those responsible in the North's leadership.

In order to understand the importance of why South Korea and the international community must undertake such work, we are interviewing victims of the North's human rights violations themselves.

Today we are speaking with Ms. Go Ji Un, a human trafficking victim who was sold to a husband in China. 

Can you please introduce yourself? 

I was born and raised in Ryanggang Province Hyesan City. In September 1997, I crossed the Yalu River and defected for the first time. 

You were 28 years old when you first defected. Can you tell us about the motivation behind your decision to escape North Korea? 

I was heavily influenced by a friend. She had previously escaped to China, but was caught and repatriated. When she told me about what she had seen in China, I was shocked. The most surprising thing was what she had learned about South Korean society. It wasnt at all like the country that the North Korean authorities portray. I realized that the North Korean authorities are liars, and that the country has no hope and no future. 

Hearing about the outside world like this, I started to develop my own dream. I wanted to go out and see it for myself. My parents were sick at the time, so I couldnt leave right away, but there was an incident that strengthened my resolve to escape. 

Can you tell us about the incident? 

I was on my way back from seeing my older sister. I had just given her something in a backpack. A soldier stole the entire backpack and its contents. My mother pleaded for them to return it, but the soldiers insisted that I had stolen it, and so they had a right to take it from us. Then they struck me with the butt of a gun. 

I was sad that the soldiers had stolen my things and hit me. But the thing that really got to me was that my country was going down the drain. The soldiers did not get enough to eat from the public distribution system, so they were forced to steal from residents. The army is advertised as the Peoples Army in propaganda, but they act like highway robbers and steal from the people. 

How was the food situation at that time? 

I saw many people starve to death. There were many people lying on the ground near the train station and on the road. I once asked a rice cake salesman near the station if the people lying on the road were sleeping or dead. He responded, They died a few days ago. But the security officers are not even thinking about taking their bodies away. When I heard that, I knew that the country really had no hope at all. 

So seeing this helped you decide to defect. I heard that you were a victim of human trafficking. I know this is a sensitive subject, but can you tell us a bit about what happened? 

After I defected, I worked at a Chinese restaurant for four months. But they didnt give me any money at all. So I ran away from that place and went to another area, where I met an ethnic Korean woman selling kimchi. That woman took good care of me and treated me like a real person. She introduced me to this man. He inquired about where I lived. He introduced me to another ethnic Korean man. I later found out that he had sold me.  

How did you find out what had happened?

I didnt know right away. He introduced me to the man, and they took me to his house. But I told them that I didnt want to live there. But the man responded, I paid for you. So you have to live here. Thats how I found out that I had been sold. 

After you were lived at that house, were you repatriated back to North Korea? 

Yes. I lived in that village and then I was caught and repatriated. I was sentenced to hard labor for about one year. 

So when did you try to defect for the second time? 

I was released from the labor training camp, and then I defected again after only four months. I wanted to go home to see my mother and siblings. I also had to heal my body. I thought, If I get caught this time, Im going to die. I had to prepare myself. I let my body heal for a short time, and then I escaped again. 

Can you tell us about that escape? 

At the time, they were becoming much more serious about defections. Surveillance in general was more intense. I met a woman who was working in the jangmadang [markets, official or otherwise], who asked me if I wanted to go to China and offered to introduce me to a broker who could make that happen. I later found out that this offer was also linked to human trafficking. This woman was finding people like me who wanted to escape and was selling us. A dealer in Jangbaek, China, was paying her for young women. 

So that woman was also involved in the human trafficking network?

Yes, you could say that. 

I have heard that a lot of female defectors who are sold by human traffickers end up getting married to ethnic Han Chinese or ethnic Koreans in China. How does the process work? 

There were safehouses in Jangbaek where female defectors would hide. These places were designed to facilitate human trafficking. Intermediaries would connect the defectors with the houses. They would tell the house owners, X amount of women were on their way, so get ready for their arrival. The people operating the houses would prepare for their arrival by dispatching taxis. 

Because defectors who use buses in China are at risk of being identified and arrested, most end up using taxis instead. So taxis are used to get all the women transported to the trafficking safehouse. At the house, the women are introduced to Chinese or ethnic Korean men who run the operation, and the intermediaries receive money from the house for their service. 

All these people - from the North Koreans who introduce the women to brokers, to the brokers themselves, the taxi drivers, and the house operators - are all involved in the trafficking process. 

Can you explain a little more about how the trafficking houses connect the women to buyers? 

Women are trafficked in groups. We were all brought together in a park and lined up. Then the men came. It was like the men were shopping. They picked the girl that they liked. And then money changed hands on the spot and the deal was completed. We had no idea where we were being sent. It was like our destiny was decided for us. We knew we couldnt stay in China if we werent sold.  

Were most of the other female defectors you met at that time in a situation that was similar to yours? 

Most of them were sold before arriving. When I arrived at the village, I started asking the other North Korean women how they ended up in China. Most of them were victims of trafficking. Our husbands were all Chinese and ethnic Korean men with financial troubles. The men who seek out North Korean brides tend to lack the assets or time to get married in the normal way. Some of the men were divorced. 

This must have been extremely hard for you to talk about. Thank you for sharing your story with us. What motivated you to offer your testimony today? 

We were the first to come to South Korea. I dont want other women to go through the same sort of pain that I endured. The international community must investigate the human rights violations occurring in China. I also want to bring up the problem of the Chinese authorities forcibly repatriating North Korean defectors. It is inhumane to repatriate someone who has risked his or her life to escape. Sending us back is akin to a death sentence. I know that merely saying this wont automatically solve the problem, but I welcome the day when testimonies like this are used to start addressing the human rights abuses. 

North Korean women continue to be subjected to human trafficking in China, despite the practice being banned under domestic and international law. Desperate women fleeing North Korea are being sold into marriages against their will. The international community calls upon the Chinese authorities to guarantee the rights of these women and protect them from human rights violations. 

*Edited by Lee Farrand

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