Category Archives: Human Trafficking

“The first words she said were, ‘let’s die together.’ But I was still happy.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 8.02.27 AMNational Geographic recounts the story of Eunsun Kim, who survived the Great Famine and a dangerous journey from North Korea to the South:

Many people died because of malnutrition, including my grandparents. In 1997, my father passed away too. My mom sold or bartered everything from our apartment until we had nothing left. So she decided to go to the city to search for food. She left me at home, but took my older sister who’s two-years-older than me. She said she would be back in three days, but if she got food earlier she would be back sooner. She gave me 15 North Korean chon—enough to buy just one piece of tofu—and left.

Three days passed, then four, then five. I was waiting for her to come home but on the sixth day I had no energy left and thought maybe today is my last day. I wasn’t afraid of death. I had seen so many people dying during that time. What made me sad was that I felt my mom didn’t want me. She took my other sister but didn’t come back for me. So I decided to write a will, at 11 years old.

I wanted to say I would miss my mom, that even if she came home after I died, I wanted her to know what I had felt while waiting for her.

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RFA: North Korea tells overseas workers to attack journalists

Ever since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry issued its report last year, North Korea has been particularly sensitive to accusations of human rights violations. It shouldn’t surprise us that this sensitivity is especially keen when the scrutiny threatens to cut off a growing source of hard currency — its export of what amounts to slave labor to places like Russia, Malaysia, and Qatar. Press reports on the working conditions of these workers, and the regime’s spotty history of paying their (paltry) wages, have embarrassed the regime, embarrassed companies and governments that use North Korean labor, and sometimes, disrupted those arrangements.

Now, according to a new report from Radio Free Asia, Pyongyang is reacting to renewed media scrutiny of overseas North Korean laborers about like you’d expect Pyongyang to react to that:

“Particularly, when a foreign reporter or human rights activists tries to take a picture or film you, take the camera, camcorder or cell phone from them and smash it,” the document said, according to Do.

“They [North Korean workers] must physically smash them, but also they must pull out internal memory cards such as SD cards and then return the broken cameras or camcorders to their owners,” he said.

Workers are also directed to physically attack the journalists and investigators:

The action guide also instructs workers not to hesitate to respond with violence and to gang up on those trying to video or photograph them, he said.

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Hard times for North Korean mines, and miners

Please pardon me for taking a few days of rest with my family during the holidays. I’ll have much to say about The Interview, Nate Thayer’s intrepid reporting on the AP, and other exigent matters after we’re all played out on Legos and board games. Meanwhile, I have a few posts that I’d written last weekend and had planned to publish when North Korea hit the front pages. Here is the first of them.

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A series of possibly conflicting reports from North Korea’s outer provinces claims that North Korea’s mining industry is under unusual strain, due to commodity price disputes with China, or due to drought causing a lack of hydroelectric power to pump water and run hoists. Despite promises of ten-fold wage increases for miners, those increases have failed to materialize, and the payment of baseline wages is unsteady:

“These days, because of a dispute over prices with China, iron ore exports have been halted, and in many cases salaries go unpaid,” the source said. “With operations suspended at the mine due to the extreme power shortage in the country, people are worried that they won’t even receive their 30,000 KPW.” [Daily NK]

Yet copper demand has risen … due to a “recent order for copper to produce bronze statues of the son and father Kims all across the country.” Imagine that.

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Qatar, the sponsor of ISIS, is using N. Korean slave labor to build a World Cup village

One North Korean worker helping to build the high-rise said: “People like us don’t usually get paid. The money does not come to the person directly. It’s nothing to do with me, it’s the [North Korean recruitment] company’s business.”

A project manager of the lavish development said the workers “don’t have a single rial themselves” and “borrow money from us if they need small things like cigarettes”.

“The descriptions of the conditions North Korean workers endure in Qatar – abuse of vulnerability, withholding of wages and excessive overtime – are highly indicative of state-sponsored trafficking for forced labour,” a modern form of slavery, said Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International.

Sources in Qatar estimate there may be as many as 3,000 North Koreans working on projects across the emirate. [The Guardian]

I realize that choosing the most loathesome friends imaginable is an established custom in Qatar, but does FIFA have any standards? Oh, right. But on the positive side, at least the presence of the North Koreans should make it easier for Qataris to sneak a drink now and then.

The Qatari Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs insists it takes the issue of worker payment very seriously, but says that no North Koreans have complained.

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Escape from North Korea: An Incremental Review

Nov. 7, 2012.  Early in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape from North Korea, you start to find powerful phrases that stay with you — phrases that make you stop reading and chew on them, to extract the full significance of some aspect of life in another reality.  I couldn’t help quoting two of them.  The first is illuminating:

So accustomed are North Koreans to the lack of light that when I asked a North Korean who had settled in an American city if there was anything she missed from home, she replied, “the darkness.”

The second is ghastly:

“I keep thinking, maybe he would still be alive if we hadn’t buried him,” the young man told the reporters in Washington. He didn’t want his name used, for fear of retribution against his family in North Korea. But he told us the name of the man he buried, and I record it here: Kim Young-jin.

On a related note, I saw this quote in a link from another review that registered in my comments:

Interestingly, Haggard’s research is quoted at multiple points in the text, while Stanton does not merit a mention by the author.

Oh, my.  This is more than just a passive-aggressive blog post; it’s a life lesson:  Just as a reader shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, a reviewer shouldn’t judge a book before he actually reads the last chapter (beginning with its title).

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China Targets North Korean Refugees and the Activists Who Help Them

So those reports that China would stop repatriating North Korean refugees were probably disinformation after all. Instead, China is launching yet another pogrom against North Korean refugees, which coincides with a wider sweep against foreigners that got its impetus (or pretext) from one drunken Brit. China is also targeting foreigners who are helping North Korean refugees:

“I heard that police and security staff are in every nook of the streets. All defectors must take shelter and cannot come out of it,” he said. “Most of the brokers appear to have returned home due to the crackdown. Chinese residents also refuse to help defectors in dire need of their support.” [….]

The clampdown also targets activist groups that have been operating near the border areas to help North Korean refugees. Chinese authorities take issue with their visas, which are mostly intended for tourism, not activism, activists said. Kim Young-hwan, a renowned human rights activist, and his three colleagues have been held in China for unspecified reasons since late March. They have been denied access to their families, the South Korean consulate and legal assistance.

“In recent weeks, more and more missionaries and activists have been ordered to leave the country. (The Chinese authorities) even threatened to punish them out if they don’t return home quickly,” said Peter Chung, chief of the Justice for North Korea, an activist group based in Seoul.

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Kaesong Updates

A bus accident, apparently caused in part by bad weather, has killed 10 North Korean workers and injured 40 others at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which, by the way, subsidizes Kim Jong Il to the tune of $50 million per month.

Give a thought to the poor families of the dead … and the wounded as well. I’m not sure how much of that substantial sum goes into providing suitable medical care for the North Korean people, but my best information about health care in North Korea falls short of the expectations U.N. apparatchik Margaret Chan raised last May Day.

Meanwhile, we all eagerly await angry calls by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions for an investigation into the safety of the North Korean workers.

The complex itself continues to persist as an artificial, subsidized entity despite a growing consensus that it’s a failure as a business model.

[T]he managers’ biggest difficulty has been a decline in orders from South Korean buyers, who they said had stopped buying from Kaesong factories for fear the complex might suddenly be closed down for political reasons. They also said they were worried that the North would close the complex if the South resumed its political broadcasts.

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The Comfort Women of Our Time: North Korean Women Are Turning to Prostitution to Survive

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Laura Ling and Euna Lee went to China to tell the story of what it means to be a North Korean woman today. What it means, increasingly, is having no future, and often, having no means to keep body and soul united but sacrificing the latter to preserve whatever remains of the former. If the historically weighty term “comfort woman” means a woman coerced into prostitution by the actions of an oppressive government, the women of North Korea are the comfort women of our time, and in these times, men and women in China and both Koreas are their exploiters, and often, their means of survival.

It would be an overstatement to suggest that the North Korean regime is directly impressing women into prostitution against their will, [Update: I stand corrected] but the regime’s actions, while less direct than those of the Japanese 60 years ago, frequently have the same ultimate effect. For an apt illustration, let’s return to the story of Ban Yong Mee:

Born in the town of Sinuiju, the city across the river from Dandong, Miss Ban studied hard at school to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a doctor. But despite getting excellent grades, a medical college refused her application on the grounds that she was from an ideologically “unreliable” family.

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The Blood of Children on Their Hands (Updated)

[Update: Someone I trust tells me that Laura Ling and Euna Lee are anguished by the blog posts and news stories going around about this aspect of their story. Obviously, we’d love to hear Ling and Lee’s side of it, but according to my friend, they’re under a great deal of pressure from Current TV (among others) not to talk. Expect Ling and Lee to say more in the next few days about the precautions they took to prevent incriminating information from falling into the hands of the North Koreans, and much more about the very harsh treatment they endured from the North Koreans themselves. They may dispute some of what Durihana is saying to the Chosun Ilbo and other media. I got no additional information about how they crossed the border. I look forward to hearing their side of it, but every day they don’t speak up for 25 hunted children is another day those children are vulnerable to the Chinese police sending them to their deaths.

Al Gore, if you’re reading this, it’s time to speak out against Manbearpig before he kills again.]

I’m now being flooded with e-mails with links to this story, and I’m simply horrified.

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The Winding Road to Redemption

It may be the ultimate case of paving someone else’s road to hell with good intentions.

You may have heard it reported that on a lark, Laura Ling and Euna Lee crossed into North Korea and were captured while carrying video showing the faces of refugees and rescuers, whom Chinese police duly rounded up to send back to a firing squad or worse in North Korea.  Intentional?  Of course not.  Reckless?  Yes, perhaps fatally; yet it’s damage that can’t be undone now, and perhaps Ling and Lee can redeem themselves in some way that can save others from the same fate:

One of the two TV reporters who were freed after being imprisoned in North Korea said Wednesday she hopes her story will lead to more public awareness of …

North Korean refugees?  Political prisoners?  The kids who starved and the women who sold themselves into slavery while Kim Jong Il bought himself yachts, luxury cars, and palaces?  The people (you might faintly recall them) you were doing your original story about?

… the plight of journalists held captive around the world.  [….]

She added that she hopes her ordeal would bring more attention to the plight of other journalists placed under arrest.

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State Dep’t: NK Trades in Slave Labor

What the State Department is saying about North Korea’s use of forced labor is at least as strident as anything we heard during George W. Bush’s second term.  I suspect we’re seeing a combination of two things here — first, the State Department has internal politics of its own, and the bureaus that deal with labor and refugee issues tend to subscribe less to the diplomacy of connivance than the East Asia Bureau.  Second, with North Korea’s recent behavior pushing an otherwise unimaginable policy shift in the Obama Administration, the East Asia Bureau is no longer able to censor what other parts of State say:

The North Korean government is directly engaged in the trafficking of slave labor, claimed Luis de Baca, the director of the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, on Wednesday. He was peaking at a video press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. He said the regime is sending North Koreans overseas to work under exploitative contracts with Southeast Asian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern nations.

De Baca said European countries no longer accept North Korean workers, citing the example of the Czech Republic which has concluded no labor contract with North Korea since 2007.

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China’s “missing women phenomenon” fueling bride trafficking of North Korean refugees

I’ve been reading a few of the articles to come out of North Korea Freedom Week which was April 26-May 2 in Washington, D.C. and among them was particular story focusing on the bride trafficking industry in China.

Not surprisingly, China’s history of favoring baby boys over girls, coupled with its one child policy, has resulted in a severe shortage of women for a generation of bachelors. This shortage is referred to as “the missing women phenomenon” by the World Economic Forum which publishes its Global Gender Gap Index each year. Capitalizing on this major social problem, human traffickers have found a way to make money by selling North Korean brides to single Chinese men along the China-North Korea border.

The problem is so big that the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2008 mentioned the problem in a “Topics of Interest” section, referring to North Korean refugees (interesting word choice compared to the common “defector” label we usually hear) as “highly vulnerable.”

From the article covering the bride trafficking problem:

The shortage of women in China is nothing less than a national disaster ““ in some rural areas Chinese men outnumber women by a 14 to 1 ratio, according to the U.S.

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North Korean Johns in Need of More Effective Consumer Protection

As a worker at a state enterprise, at Chongjin city, North Hamkyung Province, he came to Pyungsung City on a business trip. As a beautiful woman approached him and said the motel had a warm cozy room as well as a “high-class waiting room” (rooms where prostitutes wait for travelers who want sexual intercourse), he went to a one-story house in Yangji-dong. [Open Radio for N. Korea]

What could possibly go wrong with a story that begins like that?

For those of you with a more (ahem) academic interest in the subject matter, Open Radio offers a comprehensive history of North Korea’s newest oldest profession:

Prostitutes form groups with other ones. Each group has the ringleader (the “Big sister”). Rank among prostitutes is decided according to the age and work experience. Best customer unconditionally goes to the “Big sister. If someone disobeys this rule, one has to leave the group and the region. “˜Cadets’ are put together a team with the “˜Drillmaster Sister’ and two people help each other in serving the customer. Each prostitute group has its territory. There are other kinds that wander around one province to the other. [Open Radio for N. Korea]

Despite the martial rank structure — no surprise to observers of camp town culture in South Korea, by the way — the industry’s customary military discount is now a thing of the past.

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The Power of Truth

Freedom rises over Korea, into the air over the most oppressed and darkened place on earth. The video clips that follow are from the BBC, Al Jazzeera, the Voice of America, and New Tang Dynasty Television.


The people who are launching these balloons are, in large part, North Koreans who could not live — or stand living — in their homeland, and who can find no other means to connect with those they left behind. Others are South Koreans whose loved ones were stolen from them by North Korean abductors. How emotionally stunted must one be not to consider, for an instant, the sorrow these people must feel? Who could fail to understand their need to somehow connect with those they love, but with whom ordinary means of communication could, if they were possible at all, be a death sentence for them?

The balloons are being launched from South Korean territory, and from South Korean waters — from a country that thousands of Americans soldiers who helped to defend it were told was free. The balloons also contain money that hungry people might use to buy food and seed a nascent underground economy, and that economy might feed even more people Kim Jong Il won’t by drawing smuggled food from across the Chinese border.

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“On the Border”

Today, on Capitol Hill, I had a chance to see an excerpt of that Chosun Ilbo documentary on human trafficking in North Korea. As my friend had said, it does indeed depict drug smuggling. One smuggler is actually interviewed on night vision, just as he emerges from the freezing Tumen River with a load of drugs he is smuggling into China. His source? His brother, a soldier, who is pilfering from a state pharmaceutical factory in Nampo. I wasn’t able to determine what kind of drug, but it was probably either meth or opium.

I’ve been promised a chance to see a longer piece, and begged (probably without success) for a teaser clip I can post here. You won’t want to miss this one.

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Chosun Ilbo Produces Four-Part Documentary on N. Korean Refugees

[Update: OK, that TBS network that’s showing this series turns out not to be this one, but a Japanese network. I’ll let you know about U.S. broadcast times when I hear more.]

Yesterday, I wrote about a disturbing economic trend in North Korea that I hadn’t known previously — the regime’s practice of lending food at usurious interest rates. The original report from Good Friends doesn’t specifically say what the penalty for non-payment is, but it must be starvation or worse, since women are willing to sell themselves into sexual slavery to help their families repay those loans: 

A 26-year-old North Korean woman, Mun Yun-hee crossed the Duman or Tumen River into China in the dawn of Oct. 22 last year, which at that point was some 40 m wide, guided by a human trafficker. She was being sold to a single middle-aged Chinese farmer into a kind of indentured servitude-cum-companionship. Both of them wore only panties, having stored their trousers and shoes in bags, because if you are found wearing wet clothes across the river deep at night, it is a dead giveaway that you are a North Korean refugee.

Mun was led to a hideout, and the agent left.

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