After Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, border security was tightened to avoid the bad publicity associated with defections and prevent information about North Korea trickling into the country, according to Tim Peters, an American pastor who co-founded an NGO called Helping Hands that helps defectors flee. An electric fence was added, as well as cameras at the border.
“On the Chinese side, patrols were also increased because Beijing is afraid an influx of refugees could destabilize its own regime,” he added.
Usually, women defecting from North Korea pay brokers $500 to $1,000 to organize their safe passage to China, according to NGOs and defector accounts. To reach China, most defectors cross the Tumen River that separates North Korea from China on foot at night, sometimes in freezing weather with the water coming up to their shoulders. Upon arrival in China, North Korean women are then often immediately enslaved in brothels, sold into repressive marriages or made to perform graphic acts in front of webcams in satellite towns near cities close to the border.
Korean NGOs estimate that 70% to 80% of North Korean women who make it to China are trafficked, for between 6,000 and 30,000 yuan ($890 to $4,500), depending on their age and beauty. Some are sold as brides to Chinese farmers; more recently, girls have increasingly been trafficked into the cybersex industry, according to London-based non-profit organization Korea Future Initiative (KFI). Rising wages in northern China cities have led to a greater demand for prostitutes among the male population, according to a KFI report. In southern China, trafficked women from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia has typically met that demand. But in northeastern provinces, men have turned to North Korean refugees.
Within minutes of logging on to online sites, users are barraged by women on the platform sending text messages asking for a video chat in a private room. The minimum price to chat on the site is 150 won (13 cents), but girls can set the entry price for a room, with popular accounts tending to have a more expensive entry fee. Tips start at a minimum of 300 won (25 cents), but can go far higher as customers try to persuade the girls to fulfill their requests. The North Korean cybersex slaves are tasked by their captors with keeping the men online for as long as possible.
This sad story story is shared by thousands of North Korean girls and women, some as young as 9 years old, who are being abducted or trafficked to work in China’s multimillion-dollar sex trade, according to a report by KFI.
Korean pastors have set up a network of routes and safe houses in China inspired by the Underground Railroad, the secret passages enslaved African-Americans used to escape to free states from the late 1700s until the US Civil War.
“Each individual cell knows nothing about the other ones, to avoid compromising the whole operation if one of them gets caught,” said Tim Peters, the American pastor living in Seoul who is helping North Koreans flee.