North Korea defector's death reveals plight of trafficked women

By Elizabeth Shim
The death of a North Korean woman and her infant son in South Korea has shocked the country. North Korean women refugees are easily exploited in China before they defect to the South. File Photo by How Hwee Young
The death of a North Korean woman and her infant son in South Korea has shocked the country. North Korean women refugees are easily exploited in China before they defect to the South. File Photo by How Hwee Young

NEW YORK, Aug. 21 (UPI) -- The deaths of a North Korean defector and her infant son in their apartment in southern Seoul have shocked South Koreans and the growing community of North Koreans in the country.

The incident, first reported in late July, is also shedding light on the difficulties faced by South Korea's overwhelmingly female population of North Korean refugees, as their numbers surpass 33,000.


Jung Gwang-il, founder of activist group No Chain in Seoul, told UPI defectors are "immensely angry" over the neglect that contributed to the death of the woman -- identified only by the surname Han -- and her young son.

Jung, a defector who's led efforts to break North Korea's information blockade with flash drives, said Han slipped through the cracks of South Korea's support system for resettled North Koreans while struggling with domestic violence and a disabled child.


Han is believed to have been 42 or 43 years old at the time of her death. South Korean press reported she met the father of her child after resettlement.

Jung says her life history points to a more dark and difficult past.

Trouble in China

Han met her "husband," a Chinese citizen whom she later divorced, after her initial escape to China where she became the target of human trafficking, Jung said by phone.

Human- and sex-trafficking practices in northeast China explain why the majority of defectors in the South and in China are women, he added.

"Men do not get trafficked. They only make up 20 percent of South Korea's defector population," the defector said.

"Taking up residence in China is hard for them, but for women it's easier because they have a dwelling place" after being fixed with a man who buys her from a broker, he said.

North Korean women defectors have previously said there are more women who are able to leave their country because of the division of labor in North Korean society. While men report to state-run factories and enterprises, women are less noticed when they go missing, defectors have said.

But the high demand for women of reproductive age in rural China, the systemic inequalities between undocumented North Koreans and the Chinese nationals who buy them, may ultimately be the reason why women, not men, make up the majority of North Korean migrants.


Jung, who survived abuses at a North Korean prison camp, said "almost all" North Korean women fall prey to trafficking or choose to be trafficked due to poverty.

Han was no exception, and she and her husband had two children together. After Han was granted residence in the South in 2009, and her husband followed her, the couple had a second child. The child was born with disabilities because Han's spouse beat her during her pregnancy, Jung said, recounting conversations he's had with other defectors.

The couple moved back to China after South Korea resettlement, with Han returning only with her second child after divorce. The North Korean woman asked for her first son, but her husband refused to give her custody, Jung said.

Discovered dead in apartment

Han was found dead on July 31, when her building's technician noticed something odd with her water meter. The woman and her son may have died of starvation at least a month before local authorities entered her apartment to find their decomposing corpses, South Korean media reported.

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Washington, told UPI that North Koreans in the South are in dire need of better networks from which they can seek help in difficult times.


Most North Koreans also may not be ready for life in the advanced and industrialized South.

About 80 percent of defectors are women, come from rundown areas "even by North Korean standards," and do not have high school degrees, Scarlatoiu said.

Critics have blamed the current administration of President Moon Jae-in for the neglect of the defector who may have never quite adjusted to life in the South after arriving 10 years ago.

But Scarlatoiu said it is easy to pin blame on the South Korean government and forget South Korea continues to improve upon support programs for defectors that include vocational training, extra remuneration for defectors who keep their jobs and maintain savings accounts. All defectors receive substantial financial support upon arrival, a "pilot program for Korean unification," the analyst said.

The blame game

Casey Lartigue, a co-founder of Seoul-based Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center, said he dismisses the idea that a lack of state support in the South is responsible for the tragedy.

"The danger is not that the South Korean government is not doing enough, but rather, that it is doing too much and is expected to do even more for North Korean refugees," Lartigue said.


"The surprise is not that a refugee starved to death, but that more don't do so, because the various levels of South Korean government seem to be teaching North Korean refugees learned helplessness."

Lartigue, who has helped hundreds of North Korean refugees learn English through his volunteer program, said defectors need to seek help from people they know rather than suffering in silence or isolation.

Lartigue and Scarlatoiu agree the deaths also need to be placed in the context of contemporary South Korean society, where public opinion polls continue to indicate high levels of anxiety and unhappiness prevail among the majority of the population.

"From what I have heard, about 35 South Koreans on average commit suicide every day," Lartigue said.

Jung, who arrived in the South nearly two decades ago, says life is difficult even after a lengthy period of time because of South Korean indifference to the plight of defectors.

"These are people who left North Korea because they were hungry," he said.

"To come all the way to South Korea then to starve -- that doesn't make any sense."

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