NEW YORK, May 16 (UPI) -- Human traffickers are increasingly targeting young North Korean women, including girls as young as 9, in China's lucrative sex trade, according to human rights researchers with Korea Future Initiative in London.
Yoon Hee-soon, a researcher with KFI, told UPI her team has noticed a shift in the way North Korean women refugees are being exploited by Chinese brokers and crime rings. They interviewed more than 45 survivors of sexual slavery and other eyewitnesses: North Korean male defectors in South Korea and men who formerly solicited North Korean women in brothels.
"Historically, forced marriage was the most common form of sex trafficking," Yoon said. "But after speaking with victims still in China and particularly with our rescue teams, we soon realized broker-led sales of North Koreans to brothels had overtaken sales into forced marriages."
The brothels, and online rape dens, operate without interference from local Chinese authorities, and represent a burgeoning $105 million industry operated by the Chinese underworld, according to KFI. Women victims, most of them between the ages of 12 and 29, are abducted and sold, or sometimes trafficked directly from North Korea at a time when more people could be attempting to leave.
Prostitution is gaining ground because of greater profits, according to Yoon.
"A broker may sell a woman into prostitution for a lesser price than marriage, but he knows he can sell multiple women and soon earn far more money than trying to sell a woman for marriage, which could take months," the researcher said. According to her estimates, 60 percent of North Korean women defectors in China are trafficked and nearly 50 percent are forced into prostitution.
Many of the women are sold more than once and are "habitually subjected to penetrative vaginal and anal rape, forced masturbation, and groping." They are used by men "until their bodies are depleted," according to KFI.
Exploiting a vulnerable population
North Korean women escaping to China for economic reasons are defenseless against abuse from brokers and underworld crime rings. China remains friendly with the Kim Jong Un regime, and local authorities do not protect North Koreans, or recognize them as refugees.
Women sold into marriage with Chinese men often find themselves stuck after having children, but sexual assault is becoming increasingly common from the moment North Korean women cross into China. According to a testimony from one refugee, male brokers beat and raped her when she couldn't give them any money or could not prove she had relatives in South Korea.
Chinese police are aware of the sexual violence. One eyewitness told KFI girls as young as 14 were left in their blood-stained trousers at a detention center in northeast China.
Trapped between two authoritarian countries, one that prevents its citizens from leaving and another that does not want refugees gathering at the border, North Korean women cannot seek help from the Chinese state.
"The government of China has done very little when it comes to North Koreans trafficked into sex slavery," Yoon said. "In the border regions, police work with and know brokers. Some take bribes, sell arrested women and girls, and frequent brothels."
Another issue is the sheer scale of the illicit sex trade. According to Yoon, Chinese police have brought down 6,885 criminal groups since January 2017, but that doesn't even "scratch the surface of the problem."
Michael Glendinning, chief executive of KFI and a North Korea human rights activist in London, said international pressure on the Chinese government should continue, although the pressure for improved refugee rights has a limited impact on the average victim on the ground.
Glendinning, who works to raise awareness of North Korea human rights abuses in Britain, said rescue teams, often involving Christian activists, are the most effective in extracting refugees before criminals can access them. But more needs to be done, he said.
"They need to be there before brokers and traffickers deceive these women," he said. "We need to get in before and extract them to South Korea or to any other safe country."
Don Baker, professor of Korean history and civilization at the University of British Columbia, told UPI the missionaries are typically South Korean. The presence of an ethnic Korean population in northeast China helps them to "hide" as they work to help refugees get to South Korea.
South Korean Christian activists who risk their lives in a dangerous part of China are motivated to get refugees to freedom, but also to convert them to Christianity, Baker said.
"Some defectors feel used by the churches but they are a minority," Baker said, referring to defectors who accept the faith while being rescued.
About 90 percent of North Korean refugees who make it to the South become Protestant Christians, the analyst added.
"If you're looking for an absolute value system to replace another absolute value system, Christianity is the only alternative."