For five years, Lee Yumi — whose name has been changed for her safety — had been imprisoned with a handful of other girls in a tiny apartment in northeast China, after the broker she trusted to plan her escape from North Korea sold her to a cybersex operator. Her captor allowed her to leave the apartment once every six months. Attempts to escape had failed.
Lee’s 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 the London-based non-profit organization Korea Future Initiative (KFI).
Lee grew up in a family of low-level party cadres in North Korea. One day, after getting into a fight with them, she decided to cross the border into China. Lee said she found a broker to facilitate the dangerous move who promised her a job in a restaurant. That promise turned out to be a lie.
Lee had crossed the Tumen River in a group of eight girls. When she arrived in China, Lee said she was taken to a apartment on the fourth floor of a pale yellow building in Yanji, a city in Jilin province about 50 kilometers from Tumen, where most signs are written in Korean and Chinese and scores of restaurants sell bibimbap and kimchi, due to the large population of ethnic Koreans. At the apartment, she realized there was no restaurant job. Instead, Lee said her broker had sold her for 30,000 yuan (about $4,500) to the operator of a cybersex chatroom. “When I found out, I felt so humiliated,” she whispered. “I started crying and asked to leave, but the boss said he had paid a lot of money for me and I now had a debt towards him.”
Two other North Korean women already lived in the two-bedroom apartment Lee was delivered to. One was 19-year-old Kwang Ha-Yoon, whose name has also been changed to protect her identity, locked up for two years when Lee arrived. “My parents split up when I was very young and I grew up with my mother and grandparents,” she said. “We never had enough to eat.” Kwang left North Korea to earn money to send to her family. “Both my mother and my grandmother had cancer and needed treatment,” she said. But all the money Kwang earned in China went to her captor. During the seven years Kwang spent locked up in his apartment, she said he never gave her a cent.
Lee and Kwang shared a room. “The only furniture was two beds, two tables and two computers,” recalled Kwang. “Every morning, I would get up around 11 a.m., have breakfast and then start working until dawn the next day.” Sometimes, she would only get four hours of sleep. If they complained, they would get beaten, although both women said they did not suffer sexual abuse by their captor. Work involved logging onto an online chat platform on which South Korean men can pay to watch girls perform sexual acts. Read more