Rev. Chun Ki-won,
director of Durihana Association
By Lee Tae-hoon
Young female North Koreans have become a commodity in China, where they can be purchased at around $1,500 per head, according to Rev. Chun Ki-won, director of the Durihana Association.
Rev. Chun has smuggled more than 900 North Korean refugees out of China into South Korea and other countries, including the United States.
The 53-year-old pastor claimed that marriage brokers used to "buy" North Korean women for under $75 and sell them to Chinese men for around $150 in the late 1980s, but the price has soared to $1,500.
Of the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 North Korean refugees in China, women make up about 80 percent nowadays with more than 90 percent of them falling victims to human trafficking, Chun said in a recent interview with The Korea Times at his office in southern Seoul.
He attributed the change to human trafficking and a high bounty that the Chinese government, which treats North Koreans as "illegal economic migrants," rather than refugees, has placed on them.
"The majority of defectors were predominantly males in the early days, but it has become extremely difficult for them to find safe shelter in China," Chun said.
He noted that an average bounty payment of between 100 and 500 yuan ($15 and $75) is given for reporting a North Korean defector but in some cases, it can go as high as 2,000 yuan.
"The majority used to cross the border in search of food, but that is no longer common due to tighter border controls and incentives given to Chinese people for reporting undocumented North Koreans."
Lives for sale
Young North Korean females have been in demand among old and handicapped Chinese men in rural areas where the preference for male babies has led to an acute shortage of women.
As they are traded at such high prices to an extent that would make some Chinese farmers deeply in debt, brokers find human trafficking a lucrative business.
"North Korean women are highly vulnerable to sexual slavery and other exploitation in China, but many prefer selling their body to repatriation to their famine-stricken country," Chun said.
An estimated one million people died of starvation in North Korea in the mid-1990s alone ― nearly 5 percent of the reclusive regime's population.
Chun said not only marriage brokers, but also some of their past clients sell North Korean women for monetary gains.
"Quite a few Chinese villagers sell their unregistered North Korean wives to another man at a premium," he said.
"Those sold more than three times are literally treated as a dispensable item that can be purchased by paying a little extra."
The more worrisome issue is the growing number of children born between North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers.
They have to live in a legal limbo, deprived of formal education, medical services and other social support.
It is estimated that the number of the North Korean-Chinese children has exceeded several thousand.
"China is a matriarchal society. A baby born out of wedlock to an illegitimate, alien mother cannot be registered under the household registration system," he said.
"A considerable number of such poor half-Korean children have become stateless orphans, largely because their mothers were caught and sent back to the North."
Some North Korean mothers also leave their children behind when they run away from their new families in China to escape beatings and other physical abuse.
Currently, the South Korean government does not grant asylum to deserted Korean-Chinese children unless their North Korean parent applies for a DNA test, according to Chun.
"I have been looking after an orphan boy, called Seong-nam," he said.
"But the government keeps refusing to grant nationality to the stateless little boy, despite the fact that it is impossible for his mother to make a trip to the South."
He also pointed out that a great number of young North Korean women, mostly under the age of 25, are also lured to cross the border by middlemen who make them false promises of getting them a computer-related job in China.
"Chinese brokers pay North Korean border guards in return for handing over young women who hope to find a better life in China," Chun said.
Many, however, belatedly realize that they are forced to strip for Internet shows, rather than working for a legitimate computer company.
They are also forced to pay back the money they allegedly owe to the brokers.
Interestingly, one of their main clients for the North Korean "body chatters" are South Korean men, Chun said.
The pastor said though the girls are constantly under surveillance, they also get the chance to acquire knowledge about the outside world and sometimes seek help from their clients.
As he turned on his computer after the interview, a semi-naked, petite North Korean teenage girl greeted Chun through an MSN video call, while waiting for her next client.
She was one of many North Korean refugees in China desperately trying to get in touch with South Korean humanitarian organizations, such as Durihana, in pursuit of freedom and happiness in South Korea.
His organization is always inundated with letters, e-mails, faxes, phone calls, mostly collect calls, and MSN messages from North Koreans in China desperately trying to seek asylum.