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Human Trafficking Center

Women for Wives: State Enabled Exploitation in China and North Korea


Feb 2016



By Jillian ‘JJ’ Janflone, Graduate Director

This is the first in a two-part series about North Korea and human trafficking.  The second entry can be found here.

Too often forced marriage is framed as an issue of culture, socio-economic need, or religion. Yet forced marriage stretches far beyond these perimeters. Indeed, there are cases where forced marriage occurs as a result of government policy both creating the conditions under which brides must be imported, and for continuing legal policies that permit it.

Since the mid-1990s, the only practical method of escaping North Korea has been through China. Roughly 80% of those refugees have been “women and girls who have become ‘commodities for purchase.’”

Young women without the financial ability to bribe border guards often indebt themselves to smugglers or fall prey to human traffickers. An increasing demand for young, single, fertile women in male-heavy rural China has made North Korean women prime targets for human trafficking and forced marriage.

Since 1990, Chinese demographers have reported that more women than men have left Chinese villages in search of jobs in cities or industrial centers, due in part to factory owner’s preferences for female workers. This female shortage, coupled with the lack of women brought on by the one-child policy introduced in 1979, has left the Chinese countryside brimming with bachelors. Failing to marry and continue on the family line is a major sin in these rural areas where filial piety still reigns supreme.

The act of bride-buying, an old tradition legally ended under Mao, has seen a resurgence along with China’s growing economy. In many cases the buyers are farmers, poor laborers, mentally or physically disabled individuals, or people otherwise “unwanted” in the eyes of local Chinese women.

The United States Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Person’s estimated in 2012 that between 80 and 90 percent of North Korean migrants in China are actually the victims of human trafficking, with the great majority of those migrants engaged in sexual slavery. Women are coerced, tricked, or forced from the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) to China in a number of ways.

When women do voluntarily contact human traffickers, smugglers, or marriage brokers, neither they nor their families receive any of the funds derived from the bride price. Women are also picked up and trafficked to China via kidnapping.

As marriages between undocumented North Koreans and People’s Republic of China (PRC) citizens are not legally acceptable, women in these marriages are at constant risk of deportation. Their illegal status makes them further open to physical abuse or sexual exploitation. If identified as illegal immigrants, they will be repatriated to North Korea, where the crime of defection is punishable by death. Fearful of being arrested for harboring illegal immigrants sometimes trafficked women will be given up by their captors, forcing victims to choose between their abusers and possible death in North Korea.

North Korean brides also cannot participate in any Chinese civil processes, meaning they cannot register the births of their half-Chinese children, nor legally work. As such, these women—and their children—rely entirely on their husband. Fearful of being caught by PRC authorities, they have no access to health care or other forms of government assistance. Their only support networks outside of the home come from local Chinese, underground aid organizations, or Christian missionaries. All of this aid is illegal, making many women reluctant to reach out for assistance.

These North Korean victims are therefore harmed by two governments: their own DPRK, and the PRC. China does not recognize North Koreans as refugees despite their labeling as such by the UNHCR, and “prioritizes the bilateral agreement with North Korea over its international obligation of non-refoulement under the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to which it is a party.” The Chinese government offers no comment on the known number of North Korean women serving as forced brides in China.

Image via Roman Harak.

About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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