SEOUL, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- As more North Korean women slip over the border into China for work, more of them are also being caught -- often with severe consequences.
China works aggressively with the North Korean government to repatriate women who enter the country illegally. Once back in North Korea, they are charged with political offenses and may be sent to prison camps, where abuse and sexual assault are believed to be widespread.
And for those who return pregnant, forced abortions have become state policy.
Still, thousands of women are taking the risk, even though they have been the main players in the surge of free market enterprise as the impoverished nation slowly moves away from a planned economy.
"Women have a bit more ability to slip through the net and cross that border, and a number of these women want to increase money and possibilities for their families," Roberta Cohen, co-chairwoman of the Americas of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, told UPI in a recent phone interview.
David Hawk, author of the Hidden Gulag reports on North Korean prison camps, explained how migration occurs despite heightened control at the China border.
"Part of this is natural labor flows," Hawk said in a recent interview with UPI. As Chinese women in the "rust belt" provinces of their country's northeast leave for work in the manufacturing centers of the coast, or ethnic Korean women migrate to South Korea for higher paying jobs, the shortage of female labor has created a demand for North Korean women.
"There are jobs available for North Korean women, like waitressing, service industry jobs," Hawk said. "The wage is a lot higher than in North Korea."
The journey, usually a short river crossing away from North Korean border towns like Musan or Hoeryong, is extremely risky.
"The Chinese consider them to be illegal immigrants and repatriate them to North Korea where they are imprisoned in [North Korean penitentiaries] for having crossed the border without the permission of the authorities," Hawk said. "That's a nonpolitical offense that's being criminalized. Thousands of women are in penitentiaries for crossing into China."
China's restrictions extend beyond North Koreans on Chinese soil, to rescue organizations and church groups that try to provide a safe haven for the women.
Cohen said South Korean groups and ethnic Koreans in China who help defectors have been subjected to crackdowns. According to a recent U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on North Korea human rights, China has even allowed North Korean security agents to cross the border to track down and abduct defectors.
"One of the results of that crackdown, according to the U.N, is that this has helped really increase the influence of smuggling and trafficking groups," she said.
"The church groups and those helping the Korean community were acting as a sort of protector against these traffickers, by helping these people get jobs, or hide, helping women find husbands in a more normal way."
Cohen said traffickers have a great deal of power over the women, even when they are still in North Korea, where they are sometimes drugged, then brought over the border and sold to Chinese men or farmers who find it difficult to find a wife. China's gender imbalance, which reached a peak of 1.22 men for every woman in 2008, now stands at 1.16 to 1, according to China's National State Population and Family Planning Commission.
"Or they're sold into prostitution," she said.
More commonly, however, the women can end up staying in China as long-term residents when they marry Chinese locals, either by choice or necessity.
Jung Kwang-il, a North Korean defector and activist in Seoul who endured several years of hard labor in a North Korean prison camp for a crime he said he did not commit, told UPI the state-sponsored abductions of North Korean women, or their sudden disappearances, have led to a developing problem in the Chinese border region: children without their mothers, abandoned by their fathers and left to fend for themselves in the cities of China's "Rust Belt" northeastern provinces.
"There are about 1,000 children in China now, born of North Korean mothers and Han Chinese fathers," Jung said, citing a survey his organization, No Chain, recently conducted in the region. When their mother is captured and sent back to North Korea, the children may never see her again and are left to struggle with their own identity as "neither Chinese nor North Korean," he said.
The racial identities of the children could be playing a role in North Korea's decision to perform abortions on pregnant, repatriated women, a grave human rights violation that has surfaced in defector testimonies alongside stories of other forms of abuse that include rape or the granting of sexual favors in prison camps, as well as "very humiliating body searches" in detention centers, according to Cohen.
Cohen said North Korean women who testified in South Korea were among the first to mention witnessing forced abortions, as have former guards who have resettled in South Korea.
"They've given testimonies about the infanticides and forced abortions. Those testimonies are particularly difficult to read because they saw this or were part of this. And it's very brutal what occurs to the women," she said.
The abortions are conducted on the women because of the racial identity of the unborn child. The child would be considered racially impure in North Korea, and women are often made to feel like criminals when they overhear guards say they would "not share food...with a half-Chinese child," according to defector testimonies that Cohen has studied.
North Korea has slammed the U.N. COI report on human rights and has not heeded urgent recommendations to change its policies regarding women and prisons, including a suggestion that male prison guards be replaced with women, which could reduce sex abuse in prison camps.
In the meantime, North Korean women who have been arrested, detained then released after a period try to leave again, and a growing number manage to find their way to South Korea, sometimes by luck but often by tough determination. More than 80 percent of the 28,000 North Korean defectors in the South are now women.
"Even if they're freed again, they realize they have no future in North Korea," Cohen said. "That's another reason they want to leave."