Perilous Passages: Human Trafficking and the “Underground Railroad”

Human rights evangelists provide details of N.Korea's "underground railroad"
February 11th, 2013

by Brian Marten

NEW YORK, NY – Involuntary and voluntary trafficking in North Korea continues across the 880 miles of border with China, says Human Rights Activist Steven Kim and author Melanie Kirkpatrick. Addressing an audience at the Korea Society in New York, the pair said that though there are no official counts, it is suspected that thousands of North Koreans attempt to leave North Korea, via China, each year.

Most refugees arriving in China, of which Kirkpatrick said “75 percent are women”, usually end up in the hands of “brokers”. Brokers are a “necessary evil”, claims Kim, who’s missionary on the Chinese border often deals with brokers to pay for refugees. Once in Kim’s care, the refugees
are provided information on how to utilize the “Underground Railroad” to successfully navigate to South Korea.

The “Underground Railroad” is similar to the one used in America during the mid-19th century to assist slaves with a safe passage to the North, says Kirkpatrick. Kim utilized this service when he was 13 years old and an orphan in North Korea. The route varies and refugees can pass through any combination of China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Countries such as Laos and Cambodia are more accommodating and will contact the South Korean Consulate and inform them of the refugees. In China however, refugees are mostly detained and sent back to North Korea. Although most refugees desire to end up in South Korea, Kim says he attempts to persuade them to return to North Korea and become “freedom fighters”.

One large ‘market’ for North Korean women is to become a wife for Chinese men. Some women who see no hope in North Korea decide that a life with a Chinese man is better than their current existence. And the market demand for North Korean women is high, due to China’s one child policy. In some areas, “men outnumber women by a ratio of 14:1,” states Kirkpatrick. Others are sold directly into prostitution. Trafficking grew mostly during the late 1990’s, due to North Koreans need for food. “The Chinese people saw a chance to make money,” says Kim, and took advantage of this. Kim explained that brokers would also go to North Korea, seek out women and then say, “come to China for a better life.”

Kirkpatrick said that many women “are tricked into coming to China” and that what is promised and what is provided usually differs significantly. If a Chinese man and North Korean woman have a child, there is often a fear of registering the child as required by local law. Families fear that the government could step in and dissolve the marriage. But if this child is not registered, as Kirkpatrick points out, “that child does not exist to the government.” Without being formally registered, a child is unable to attend school or get medical attention. “China is not sympathetic to these children,” Kirkpatrick concludes.

Both speakers were asked if Kim’s humanitarian foundation, 318 Partners, and Kirkpatrick’s book “Escape from North Korea” are providing too much detail on the Underground Railroad and the churches and shelters that assist North Koreans. Kirkpatrick explained that names and locations were not provided in her writings and that both North Korea and China are aware that this exists. Kim simply concluded that “silence is death in North Korea.”

Some observers suggest that notions of a North Korean “underground railroad” are significantly overblown, and that North Korean migrants form but a tiny fraction of a much more widespread illegal trafficking network that sees Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Cambodian and Laotian’s forming the majority of migrant flow.

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.