Inside China's 'Red Zone' where North Korean women are sold as slaves

Women cross from North Korea into China, seen from the Chinese side of the border. - DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS
Women cross from North Korea into China, seen from the Chinese side of the border. - DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS

One woman was allegedly stripped and raped in a police holding camp, another sold to a Chinese farmer who beat her for not bearing a child, and a pregnant woman was repatriated to a North Korean detention centre where she drowned in a river during hard labour.

The chilling accounts offer a snippet of the horrors inflicted on hundreds of thousands of North Korean women and girls who face violent beatings, sexual violence, forced abortions, forced marriages and slavery in the dangerous region along the China-North Korea border, say rights activists.

A new study released today by Global Rights Compliance, an international human rights law firm, reports a rising number of women and girls, some as young as 12, have been forced into a sordid $105-million-a year sex and bride trafficking industry after escaping North Korea only to become trapped in China.

Dubbing the region China’s “Red Zone”, the firm is calling for a full international investigation to address an urgent and worsening human rights crisis impacting vulnerable female North Korean refugees.

Sofia Evangelou, North Korea Lead Legal Advisor for Global Rights Compliance, told The Telegraph the situation had intensified during the pandemic as North Koreans were unable to escape beyond China’s locked down borders and service jobs had stopped, leaving them easy prey for sex traffickers.

While exact numbers are impossible to verify, she said evidence analysed by researchers, including information from North Korea diaspora groups in Seoul, suggested the number of refugees at risk in China had more than doubled from previous United Nations estimates of about 100,000.

Ms Evangelou said the pandemic had also helped create a “black hole of information” in the Red Zone which meant “many more North Korean women and girls are falling victims to China’s sex slave industry.”

She added: “The current situation leaves North Korean women and girls exposed to the stark reality of either being sold into a lifetime of sexual and mental abuse, slavery, forced labour, or reaching freedom.”

Some 70 per cent of defectors from the oppressive North Korean regime are believed to be women, and the perilous journey across the border leaves them at risk of exploitation by trafficking gangs.

North Korean female soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade in 2017 - DAMIR SAGOLJ/Reuters
North Korean female soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade in 2017 - DAMIR SAGOLJ/Reuters

Many are forced into at least one form of sexual slavery within a year of leaving their homeland, unable to escape out of fear of being caught by the Chinese authorities and deported back to face torture or death in harsh North Korean prison camps.

One North Korean woman, trafficked to Yanbian, north-east China, told investigators from the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights, that she was sold to a Chinese man.

"We lived together for one year and we couldn't have a child, so he beat me. He kicked me. He kicked my head a lot. I have depression now,” she said.

Another woman who was caught told the harrowing story of how she was raped by a camp supervisor in a police holding centre when she was forcibly repatriated to North Korea.

“He ordered me to take off my pants and wash my genitals. He ordered me to lie down naked. When I refused to do so, he took me by force and proceeded with intercourse,” she said. “I was ashamed. Where (and how) could I report this?”

In another tragic account of the dangers of defecting, the report documents how a young woman called Lee Keum-Soon who was sent back to a forced labour camp tried to conceal her pregnancy to avoid a forced abortion.

After weeks of malnutrition and intense labour, she drowned in a river where she had been ordered to gather stones. Guards discovered she was expecting and strip-searched all the female prisoners to forcibly terminate any other pregnancies.

“The international community must take a stand against these atrocities and work together to ensure that the rights of these women are protected,” said Ms Evangelou, urging governments to push China to treat defectors as refugees and not illegal immigrants.

“A full investigation into the human rights abuses suffered by women in and around North Korea is urgently needed,” she said.

“If nothing is done to address the urgent human rights situation for North Korean women, the situation will only get worse.”