Joy Lee felt like a “monkey in a zoo” as she was sold as a bride in China’s north-eastern Liaoning province for less than $3,000 in 2010. The North Korean refugee, who asked the FT not to use her real name, said she faced a stark reality after escaping North Korea as an 18-year-old — to agree to be sold for marriage, to try to escape and risk capture and being sent back, or face the fate of many fellow defectors who have been sold into the sex trade.
Ms Lee said she was “lucky compared to other girls”. Many she knew were abused and beaten by their new husbands. Others, including a 17-year-old friend of hers, were forced into the sex trade.
No official data are available but estimates of the number of North Koreans in China vary from 50,000 to as many as 200,000, more than two-thirds of whom are thought to be women.
According to a report to be released on Monday by the Korea Future Initiative, a UK-based non-governmental organisation, more than half of all North Korean female refugees in China are sold into the sex trade. Of those, 15 per cent are trafficked for cybersex, where girls as young as nine are forced to perform graphic sex acts with footage streamed to a paying online audience.
“There has certainly been an increase in the number of women and girls being trafficked into cybersex from 10 years ago when the practice was virtually non-existent,” said Yoon Hee-soon, the report’s author.
“There are now brokers who only work on buying and selling North Korean women into cybersex; because an ordinary person in China now has the ability to buy and set up basic technology to exploit women and girls,” she said.
China does not treat North Koreans as refugees, instead classifying them as illegal migrants in search of economic opportunities. Beijing worries that millions of North Koreans could pour across the 1,400 km border it shares with the most isolated country in the world, fearing this would destabilise north-eastern China, one of the poorest regions in the country.
In recent years Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, and Xi Jinping, China’s president, have also tightened security on the border between their countries, sharply reducing the number of defectors.
Activists said Beijing’s treatment of North Koreans who have made it to China is in breach of United Nations protections for refugees.
“The Chinese government needs to abide by the [UN] 1951 Refugee Convention, which they signed, and treat North Koreans as refugees. Only then will North Koreans in China, including women and girls in sexual slavery, be able to be helped,” said Ms Yoon.
It is “critical” for the international community to put pressure on China, she added.
China’s leaders have attempted to crack down on prostitution. In a 2014 campaign, focused on Dongguan, the southern manufacturing hub known as the sex capital of China, thousands of people were arrested. But the sex trade, which is illegal, continues to thrive in massage parlours, karaoke bars and, increasingly, online.
Sokeel Park, a director at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an NGO working with North Korean defectors, said one concern was that a similar crackdown could lead to many women being sent back to North Korea.
But he also cautioned that with international focus on the North Korean military threat, many thousands of women have for decades been trapped in the Chinese sex industry.
“There will be North Korean women who have been locked up in these apartments . . . where they are online sex slaves. We just can’t imagine what it is like to have been there for years, and not have any clue when you might get out.”