ELLE World: Escaping human trafficking
Three women share their heartbreaking stories of escaping North Korea and how they ended up in Canada and the U.K.
Lucia Jang bows many times. “Anyong haseyo,”she says in greeting as I arrive at her door. Her eldest son, who’s nine, smothers me in a generous hug. Jang, a petite 46-year-old North Korean woman, then whisks me into the tiny Toronto apartment that she shares with her two sons. To accommodate everyone, the den has been converted into a bedroom where Jang’s children sleep on bunk beds. The balcony doubles as both a play area and a storage room where Jang has hung some large flat fish to dry on a clothesline.
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Jang has been living in Canada and in this apartment since 2008—the building is home to many North Korean families seeking refugee status in Canada. Despite the fact that it is cramped, it’s home and it’s safe.
While it’s difficult to get hard statistics, it’s estimated that there are about 1,000 North Koreans living in Canada, says Jack Kim, co-founder of the Canadian- based human-rights advocacy group HanVoice. The vast majority of them live in an area just north of Toronto, where, from the tallest buildings, the downtown skyline is slightly visible.
Jang was born and raised in more rural environs, in a small city in North Korea near the Tumen River, which borders China. As a child growing up under the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, she had food to eat—rice, vegetables and tofu—although it was never enough. She went to school, but her studies focused on communist ideology and lessons that skewed world history to indoctrinate citizens into believing that China and the West were great evildoers.
In her early 20s, she fell in love, married and gave birth to a son. But during the two years she spent with her husband, he became an alcoholic and was physically abusive. It turned out he never loved her and had only married her to use her dowry to pay off family loans. Shortly after their son could walk, he sold him to a wealthy childless couple for a bar of soap and a few won—the North Korean currency. Jang was devastated and searched desperately for her little boy. When she couldn’t find him, she sought the prediction of a fortune teller, who said he was better off where he was but that one day he would come looking for her.
Find out what happens as Jang conducts the search for her son on the next page…
It was now the mid-1990s and the country was in the middle of a famine caused by weather abnormalities and mismanagement of the state’s food distribution networks. From 1993 to 1997, the worst years for the famine, between 600,000 and a million people died, according to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. From the mid-1990s until the end of the century, North Koreans were dying in the streets, and the country’s prison camps were flooded with people whose crimes were almost all related to desperation around finding food, says Stephan Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific program at the University of California, San Diego’s graduate school of international relations.
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Jang, who by this time had to scavenge for food in the forests and was eating tree bark and shrubs, eventually abandoned her search for her son. Like many North Koreans who lived in the border regions and were desperate for food, Jang started entering China illegally to trade petty goods, including her own clothes, in exchange for food. Contraband businesses began popping up along the border as well as trafficking operations that sold North Korean women into marriages with Chinese men, says Haggard. These marriages, however, were (and still are) illegal. China does not recognize North Koreans as bona-fide refugees; rather, it considers them illegal migrant workers and deports any caught within its borders.
China’s one-child policy and the infanticide of females have resulted in so-called “bachelor” villages, where there is a surplus of single men looking for wives, says Tim Peters, founder of the non-profit group Helping Hands Korea, which, among other things, assists North Koreans to escape to safe countries. In many cases, North Korean women agree to a Chinese marriage because they view it as the only way to escape starvation and death, says Soohyun Nam, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer whose clients include many women from North Korea. However, she also points out that many other women are sold into marriage without their knowledge or consent—and often by someone they know and trust. Jang agreed to an illegal marriage around 1998. (See “The Sale of Lucia Jang.”) She remained in China for several years before being deported back to North Korea, where she was placed in a prison camp. Eventually, in 2002, she made her way to Mongolia and then South Korea. (Under the South Korean constitution, North Koreans are considered citizens.) Four years later she came to Canada, gaining admittance on humanitarian grounds.
Since North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, took charge after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in December 2011, there have been increasing news reports of his unpredictability and ruthlessness as well as worsening humanitarian conditions in the country. In Canada, there have also been numerous headlines about an increase in refugee claims from North Koreans: Canada received 718 new claims in 2012, compared to the United States, which received just 60 claims from North Koreans in the same year. Many of the asylum seekers have filed applications stating that they fled directly from China. However, some, like Jang, have spent time in South Korea, which is seen as a “safe country” by Canada. Now, Ottawa is checking the fingerprints of all North Koreans; if they’ve been through South Korea, they risk being sent back there.
Read why the majority of North Koreans seek asylum in Canada on the next page…
In December, the Canadian government made headlines when it overturned the refugee status of one North Korean asylum seeker and her daughter on the grounds that they are not refugees because they are automatically citizens of South Korea—perhaps setting a new immigration precedent and raising alarm bells for North Korean refugees. What is missing from the dialogue, say the advocates, is that the vast majority of North Koreans seeking asylum in Canada today are trafficked women who are in need of physical and emotional care. “At the immigration-board level, by international standards, South Korea does do a relatively good job of assisting North Koreans,” says Nam, who was born and raised in South Korea before immigrating to Canada in 1998. Prior to becoming a lawyer, she reported on North Korean issues for Radio Free Asia out of Washington, D.C. “But many refugees, especially women, still report feeling heavily stigmatized in South Korean society,” she says.“Because of their distrust of authority, and because of the shame of their experiences, they often fear coming forward. These women feel that in Canada they can be perceived without stigma or bias.”
While the safe-country principle is sound in law and policy, says Mark Persaud, a Toronto lawyer, “the unique situation of North Korean refugees and the difficulties they face should prompt our government to allow this relatively small group of refugee claimants to remain in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.” Nam agrees: “These are extremely vulnerable people who are at risk of being left in the margins as true victims of circumstance.”
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THE SALE OF LUCIA JANG
Around 1998, in China, Jang arrived on the doorstep of a man whom she had traded with on a previous visit: a puppy in exchange for rice. He told her that if she married a Chinese man, her new husband would help her send food and money back to her parents and siblings. Jang, starving, dirty and desperate, agreed—not knowing that the marriage in China would never be recognized. She was made to dress in a tight-fitting pair of lime-green shorts and matching tight top. The man sold Jang to a human trafficker named Gwangwon, who drove her deep into China, put her on display in his own home and then sold her.
The heartbreaking tale of a woman sold against her will continues on the next page…
Here, in her own words, is what happened next: “The first man to whom I was introduced was old, my grandfather’s age. He came with an even older sister, who wore a long flowery silk gown and a feather in her hair. She sat across from me, a red lacquer table separat- ing us, while the prospective husband, who walked with a limp, moved in beside me. One of his legs was so stiff, he could not bend it. He stuck it out underneath the table, like a log stretching across the river.
“He started speaking to me in Chinese. His deep voice reminded me of gurgling water at the top of a waterfall. I couldn’t understand a word he said. Gwangwon, my human trafficker, and his wife sat beside me, taking turns translating the conversation. They told me the man was 70. He had grown children and grandchildren. He owned a factory. He was rich. He would care for me. The old man then began to negotiate something with Gwangwon, who kept his left hand up in the air and shook his head. The old man eventually pulled himself up with his cane and, on his way out of the room, spat into the corner.
“While I sat quietly waiting for the next man, Gwangwon’s wife cleaned up the saliva. I fiddled with my fingers in my lap, listening to the house, the wind hitting the shutters, the sound of laughing children outside. Freedom, I thought, when I heard their footsteps move past Gwangwon’s house. Freedom to go home.
“Four days passed like this…man after man…in total, I must have seen about 10 future husbands, all of whom owned factories and showed up for their meeting with a female relative, a sister, an aunt, even their mothers.
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“Every night, Gwangwon moved a little closer, his hands fondling my breasts, his tongue licking my neck. I stood like a rock. Only my mouth moved. It said ‘No.’ And every night he would leave for his own bedroom, cursing me in one breath and begging me to take him into my bed with the next.
Read on for a look into how Lucia’s trafficking story comes to an end…
“On day five, I was told there was only one man left. His name was Wangxiung, and he sat beside me at the table. He slipped his hand under the table and started rubbing my bare leg up and down. I tried to pull away, but Gwangwon’s wife was on the other side of me, the weight of her body pushing me toward this stranger who smelled like liquor and gasoline.
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“Very little was translated to me this time, other than the man owned an explosives factory, making fireworks for festivals, including New Year’s. ‘He’s very rich,’ said Gwangwon, sitting across from me, and winked. ‘Very rich.
“This time the bickering back and forth in Mandarin over what I had finally discerned was my price lasted three sentences. I was sold for 5,000 Chinese yuan [$850]. As tea was served, Wangxiung’s hand moved beneath the table and further up my thigh. Soon he was stroking my skin underneath my shorts. I flinched. I started to plead with Gwangwon to not go through with the marriage. His wife took my hands, which I had been flailing around the room, and folded them on my lap.
“‘Go to the house and run away. That is all you can do. You’re going with this man,’ she said in Korean, with a smile so that my new husband didn’t think we were talking badly about him. ‘My husband paid a lot for you. We need the money back from the sale.’”
Jang lived with Wangxiung for several months. She was not allowed to leave the home she shared with him and his family. Wangxiung was impotent, so Jang was not raped. Over time, she gained his and his family’s trust, and one evening they left the front door unlocked. Jang escaped and walked for several days and nights in the barren countryside until she found people who helped her return to the border area, where she became the concubine of another man.
Youngjoo, a young woman from North-Korea shares her story of being sold into human traficking next…
YOUNGJOO’S ESCAPE FROM NORTH KOREA
Youngjoo, who asked that she be identified by a pseudonym to protect family members remaining in North Korea, was trafficked into a forced marriage in China in 2008. Here, in her own words, is why she made the decision:
“In December 2007, my husband died on the job at the factory where he worked. I was 32 and now alone with our four-year-old daughter. To avoid dying of starvation, I arranged for a broker who would assist my escape and hand me over to a Chinese man looking for a bride. I was told he would pay the broker for his services. I knew I was getting sold into de facto sexual slavery, but I was desperate to keep myself and my daughter alive; as I had no money to pay the broker myself, this was my only solution. In February 2008, I crossed the Tumen River with my daughter and escaped to China. Usually the border security is extremely tight, but as it was Kim Jong-il’s birthday, which is one of the biggest national holidays, the border was less tightly guarded. Through the broker’s arrangement with some of the border guards and the slightly lighter surveillance, I was able to cross the river around midnight with my daughter. The river was not completely frozen, and midway across the ice cracked under my feet and I fell into the water. Fortunately, I made it out.
“We crossed the river and reached the border city of Tumen, China. About four days after my arrival, I was sold to a Chinese man who paid the broker 5,000 Chinese yuan [$850]. My daughter and I were then taken to the Chinese man’s home in Meihekou, Jilin. He turned out to be an extremely violent man. He would beat me up if he was in a bad mood for any reason. Sometimes he would be so overcome by his anger that he would even smash beer bottles against his own head. I was also forced into sexual acts against my will on a regular basis.”
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In 2009, with an infant son born into this illegal marriage, Youngjoo managed to escape her husband. With a difficult and uncertain journey ahead of her, she left her daughter, then six, with a Chinese family she trusted until she could find a safe country in which to live and support herself and her children. She remained in hiding with Christian missionaries in China until she escaped to South Korea. In 2011, she came to Canada with her son but had to leave her daughter behind in China. She is still trying to be reunited with her.
Ji Hyun shares her gripping story on the last page…
JI HYUN PARK’S LIFE AS AN ILLEGAL BRIDE IN CHINA
I was taken to a home on the Chinese side, near the border, with other North Korean women for sale. The man I was sold to, the broker, would take us around to rich people’s homes and also invite people to his home to look at us. After that, he wanted to have sex with us. The women and I refused, but he threatened to call the police and have us deported if we didn’t. We all lived in terror.
I was sold to a farmer in Heilongjiang. It was a long journey to get to his home and he said he didn’t have enough money to take the train. We had to take a bus and he didn’t talk to me the entire way. But he drank and he stank. He moved me into his cabin in the middle of farm fields. The toilet located in an outhouse was about to collapse, and the foul smell of our own waste came into the house. People in the village, where we lived, always stared at me. After a while, some would come right up to me and threaten that if I didn’t do everything my husband said, they would strip me naked, the men in the village would rape me publicly and then report me to the police. I was told that if I didn’t obey, the police would secretly kill me. I hated living in China. I wanted to die.
I became pregnant after about two months of marriage. My husband had no money to buy us a house. He was a gambling addict. He went out early in the mornings and didn’t come home until very late. I had to lift water and walk up the steep hill to the house, even when I was pregnant. I once fell in the deep hole in the ground dug to store kimchi. Passersby heard my screams and helped me out. The house was so cold; the water basket and the windows were frozen in the mornings when I woke up.
On a very cold morning in the middle of winter 1999, I felt the labour pains. The baby was coming, but the man who was supposed to be my husband was out gambling. I went through labour for 11 hours all by myself. I thought both the baby and I would die. A passerby found me and went and got a midwife. The old lady said going through labour alone was too much even for the ones who were sold to this place. When I gave birth to a son, I forgot about my pain and screamed with joy.
My husband wanted to sell the baby to pay off a gambling debt. I cried and said, “Look at him. He’s your son. If you sell him, I’ll kill you and all your family.”
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Her husband didn’t sell the child, but when her son was five, Park was arrested in China and deported to a North Korean prison camp. Within six months, she contracted gangrene on her foot from an open wound, but she survived. In 2005, with the help of an uncle, she paid a North Korean human smuggler to take her back to China to find her son and then to Mongolia, where she made her way to the west. Today, she, her son and the human smuggler, now her husband, live in the United Kingdom.