Many North Korean Women Face Forced Marriage in China, or Rape in North Korean Prisons

December 13, 2017 Updated: December 14, 2017

Of all the illegal trade between China and South Korea, China’s import of enslaved North Korean women is among the darkest.

For many women, leaving North Korea is the best way to escape rampant sexual abuse and degradation in Kim Jong Un’s prison state where rape is one of the ways officials use their power and even pedophiles go unpunished.

But often those that flee or are trafficked into China fare no better, and China’s own history of gender-based violence has fed into the problem.

China’s decades long one-child policy, and the infanticide, forced abortions, and sex selective abortions it engendered, have created a population crisis. There are now 33 million more men than women. And for many of those men, particularly poor farmers in provinces near North Korea, an acceptable way to get a wife is to buy one.

China’s demand for women partly explains why up to 85 percent  (up from 70 percent in 2015) of North Korean defectors who eventually make it to South Korea are women.

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A sales assistant looks at a leaflet as she waits for customers at a vehicle parts shop in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Nov. 16, 2017. Women face violence and sexual abuse in North Korea without hope of police or other authorities punishing the perpetrators. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

The result is a sad tale repeated over and over again by North Korean women who managed to escape to South Korea through China.

They end up in China, forced into marriages they can’t leave because they are in the country illegally. If they are caught and forcibly repatriated, they will go to prison where rape is sickenly common.

North Korea’s horrific treatment of women, and China’s complicity, are well known and extensively documented.

A  2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in North Korea found what Human Rights Watch described  as an abuse of women “at a scale without parallel in the contemporary world—including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence.”

Worse, these crimes are also committed against children.

“Abuses faced by children included, detention of children in political prison camps, trafficking and sexual exploitation of North Korean girls by Chinese men as wives or in the sex industry, and lack of civil and political rights and freedoms starting from childhood.”

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In a photo taken on Oct. 8, 2017, participants described as “working people, youth, and students of Pyongyang” perform during a mass gala event marking the 20th anniversary of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s election as general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) on Kim Il-Sung square in central Pyongyang. 
(KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Gender-based violence is common in North Korea, according to Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“The harsh reality is that every day North Korean women face severe gender discrimination at work and home, and sexual harassment and violence that the authorities do nothing to stop,” Robertson said in a release.

North Koreans who have escaped report women and girls face gender-based discrimination starting from childhood at school, work, and home.

“They also said women frequently face violence from men at home, in public spaces, including the market, and there is virtually no official recourse or protection mechanisms for victims,” reports Human Rights Watch.

Domestic violence is considered a private issue, and women don’t report rape for fear of stigma and because the perpetrators are not punished.

Women also dare not report rape by government officials for fear of retaliation.  

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North Korean soldiers on the border with South Korea on Nov. 27, 2017. (Korea Pool/Getty Images)

The same holds true for pedaphiles that molest children.  

The North Korean government claims the reason no one has been punished for raping, sexually abusing or exploiting a child since 2008 is  because “such acts are inconceivable for the people in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] who regard such acts as the most disgraceful.”

Human rights groups say that explanation is proven false by testimony of many defectors.

The situation inside North Korea explains why many women flee, but the situation they experience in China is often worse.

“North Korean women fleeing their country are frequently trafficked into forced marriages with Chinese men or the sex trade. Even if they have lived in China for years, these women are not entitled to legal residence there and face possible arrest and repatriation at any time,” notes HRW.

According to the State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report,  North Korean women trafficked into China are subjected to forced prostitution and forced marriage, as well as slavery.

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In a photo taken on Nov. 21, 2017, a woman shields herself from the cold at the port in Rason at the northeastern tip of North Korea, where the isolated, nuclear-armed country meets its giant neighbors China and Russia. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

Those that are caught and returned to North Korea face the same.

According to women who were formally detained in North Korea but escaped after 2011, detention centers are hellish for women.

Many report they were sexually abused or raped.

On Dec. 11, one women who managed to escape told the United Nations how her three failed attempts at escape before her fourth successful one resulted in horrific punishments.

North Korea’s Ministry of State Security forced her to abort her first child after being captured a third time and her little sister was trafficked and sold into slavery.

China has faced calls from human rights groups, the United Nations, and countries around the world for years to stop repatriating North Korean refugees.

It continues to do so.

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