NEWS:For Some Food, North Koreans Deal Daughters

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Subject: NEWS:For Some Food, North Koreans Deal Daughters
From: Jyothi Kanics (
Date: Fri Feb 12 1999 - 15:28:52 EST

For Some Food, North Koreans Deal

                  By John Pomfret
                  Washington Post Foreign Service
                  Friday, February 12, 1999; Page A30

                  WANGQING, China—On Dec. 30, the mother of Han Jin O and Han Eu
                  No was arrested as she tried to sneak back into North
Korea with a sack
                  of rice on her back and her children by her side.

                  The police let the teenage girls go but detained the
mother. The next day,
                  North Korean police came to the family's house in the
northern city of
                  Hyesan and demanded a $125 bribe -- a fortune for poor
North Koreans
                  -- to release the woman from one of North Korea's
notorious labor
                  camps, the girls said. With a father so malnourished that
he is unable to
                  work and with no savings, there was no way to get the
mother out of jail --
                  until a gut-wrenching solution was found.

                  A North Korean businessman with contacts in China promised
to raise the
                  money. His price? The girls. There are many men who need
wives in
                  China, the girls said he told their father. But the man
assured their father
                  that he would settle the girls within miles of the North
Korean border. With
                  relatives over the border, you will have the right to go
to China, the
                  businessman told him.

                  "I was willing to be a bride so my mother could be free,"
said Han Jin O,
                  an extremely thin 15-year-old who looks barely 12. "I
wasn't going to let
                  them sell my sister." Han Eu No is 13 but looks no more
than 10.

                  The Han sisters are part of a river of girls and women
flowing out of North
                  Korea as that isolated Communist country stumbles toward
famine and
                  self-destruction. As many as 2 million people are feared
to have perished
                  in North Korea since food shortages swept the country in
the mid-1990s.
                  Interviews with 20 refugees and aid officials during a
recent four-day trip
                  to the North Korea-China border painted a picture of a
society in
                  desperate straits. Malnutrition and hunger are the norm,
the all-consuming
                  search for the next meal the obsession.

                  As such, women and girls in North Korea have been turned
into chattel to
                  be traded by their countrymen in the quest for food and money.

                  According to officials in private aid agencies working on
the North Korean
                  side of the border, an increasing number of young North
Korean women,
                  many in their early teens, are being smuggled out and sold
to Chinese
                  farmers and laborers from throughout the country who have
trouble finding
                  wives. Others are sold to karaoke halls and brothels,
which line the grimy
                  streets of the small cities in northeastern China. But
most are sold to single
                  men from villages that many young Chinese women have
abandoned for
                  the perceived brighter vistas of bigger cities.

                  Aid officials said they had no estimate on the number of
women streaming
                  into China but several officials, who have operated on the
North Korean
                  border for three years or more, said they believe the
number of smuggled
                  women is increasing. The reason, they said, is that North
Koreans have
                  already cannibalized a large portion of their factories
and clear-cut a large
                  percentage of their forests to trade to China for grain.

                  "They need other things to trade, so they are trading
their girls," a South
                  Korean aid worker said.

                  Chinese smugglers, engaged in moving everything from spare
parts to cars
                  and women from North Korea to China, corroborated this
view. In their
                  smugglers' den -- a circle of three houses on Chinese
territory just opposite
                  the North Korean city of Musan -- two Chinese acknowledged
that the
                  four women they were keeping in one of the red brick
buildings were
                  North Korean, and bound for customers in China.

                  "They don't have anything else," said one of the men,
referring to his North
                  Korean partners. "We've cleaned out the mine, and the
chicken farm" -- a
                  reference to Musan's two biggest industries. "Now we are
taking their
                  pretty girls."

                  A source in Yanji, a regional center near the border, said
the price for a
                  "pretty North Korean miss" ranges from $800 to $1,150,
depending on
                  her age, looks and health. Health is very important, he
added, because so
                  many of the girls are malnourished and gaunt.

                  This source arranged for one North Korean woman, Kim Jin
Hai, 23, to
                  marry a Chinese farmer of Korean extraction in a village
near Helong, a
                  township 30 miles from the border. Kim hailed from Hyesan,
a North
                  Korean border city. She was smuggled to China by a North
                  businessman after her parents decided she would be better
off there.

                  Kim is the daughter of well-placed local officials but
even they determined
                  that life was deteriorating at home, her husband said.

                  "Everything was fine at home," Kim said. "We lived better
than these

                  "So why did you come to China?" countered her new husband,
Piao Erzi,
                  26, a farmer who married her in January. "She refuses to
admit that things
                  are better here."

                  The smuggler said he paid $500 for Kim but gave her to the
Piao family
                  free because they are distant relatives. And, he added, he
has significant
                  dealings with Kim's mother, who is a part of a network of
North Korean
                  officials who regularly travel to the Yanji region for
business -- such as
                  selling antiques and ginseng and smuggling cars.

                  The selling of wives to Chinese men in this region has
prompted a battle
                  between the Chinese government and the smugglers of human
cargo. In the
                  last two months, Chinese authorities have increased the
fine for this activity
                  to more than $1,000, according to local sources, although
that hasn't
                  dampened business much because by simply selling one
bride, smugglers
                  can recoup the fine.

                  The smugglers, for their part, have taken to selling the
women to Chinese
                  not living in the region, such as transient laborers from
as far away as
                  Zhejiang and Shandong, more than 1,000 miles to the south.

                  Operating in between the smugglers and the authorities are
private aid
                  officials, often South Koreans, who -- at great risk to
themselves --
                  attempt to save the women from being sold. They also try
to keep them
                  from border police, who will forcibly repatriate them to
an uncertain future
                  in North Korea. Some aid officials attempt to help the
women leave China,
                  via Mongolia, to Kazakhstan in central Asia, which has a
large population
                  of Koreans.

                  The private aid groups operate illegally on Chinese soil;
China does not
                  recognize North Koreans as refugees and has thus outlawed
any attempts
                  to help them.

                  Late one recent evening a private aid official was
patrolling the border
                  when the headlights of his car raked across two women
being led by a
                  man. "Korean girls!" the man shouted to his driver. The
pair jumped out of
                  their jeep onto a snowy road and gave chase into the
forest, shouting after
                  the girls in Korean, "We're here to help you, we're here
to help you."

                  Nine North Korean refugees, mostly elderly women and men,
waited in
                  the jeep -- fearing a sudden sweep by Chinese border
police, which would
                  have meant deportation.

                  "We reacted too slowly," said the aid official as they
returned to the jeep.
                  "Those girls got away."

                  Private aid officials were luckier with the Han sisters.
The girls were
                  rescued after a local Chinese contact tipped the aid
officials that a North
                  Korean businessman was trying to sell two teenagers. They
would not say
                  if they paid for the girls.

                  In Wangjiang, a small town 50 miles north of the border,
the Hans have
                  been placed in the house of an elderly Chinese couple of
                  extraction. Private aid officials are giving the family
food to feed them. Still,
                  the fate of their mother weighed on their minds.

                  "Will you save her?" Han Jin O asked a visitor in a soft
voice. "Will you
                  save my mother?"

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