It is a well-known fact that the North Korean migrant community in South Korea has a gender imbalance which is, frankly, quite unusual. While in most countries male migrants outnumber female migrants, the opposite is true in the case of North Koreans in South Korea.
According to the Ministry of Unification’s (MOU) most recent data, females constituted an impressive 72% of all talbukja — North Korean migrants recorded to have “escaped” to the South — over time, and their prominence is even more pronounced among recent arrivals, making-up 83% in 2017 and 85% in 2018.
There are many reasons for this gender imbalance. To start with, it is easier for a female to evade the surveillance inside North Korea. It also helps that women play a major role in North Korean small private businesses, and hence they tend to have more money and better networks than most males.
However, a very significant — and overlooked — factor is the situation in China, where many would-be talbukja stay for long periods of time before they depart for the final leg of their journey to Seoul.
Actually, a significant share of talbukja (perhaps even the majority) initially did not even intend to go to South Korea. They flee their impoverished villages and towns in the North, hoping to spend some time in China, earn money there, and then come back home.
In many, or even most cases, the very idea of going further crosses their mind only when they are already in China.
Some still would prefer to eventually return across the border to their hometowns in the North
Another factor is that China is more hospitable for female North Korean refugees — or perhaps it’s better to say that China is less inhospitable to them.
Most of the low-pay, low-skilled, no-questions-asked jobs the undocumented migrants can hope to get are traditionally seen as ‘female jobs.’ In Northeast China, the undocumented migrants work at restaurants as waiters or cleaners, look after the sick and old, or are employed as housemaids.
The second — arguably more important, even if less well-articulated — reason is that women can get a modicum of protection from extradition, as well as some relatively stable income, by having common law relationships with Chinese men.
As we will see, these unions are often forced on women, and are frequently highly exploitative — but still, a North Korean woman cohabitating with a Chinese man has more ways to evade police raids, allowing her to stay in China for much longer.
This gives her time to develop networks and build up experiences which allow her to depart for South Korean when and if she wishes.
PUSH AND PULL FACTORS
One thing that we must consider is the deep and growing gender disproportion in the villages of Northeast China, where nearly all North Korean refugees find themselves after crossing over.
The young women in the region leave their native villages and move to large cities or even overseas, while young men are far more likely to stay at home, take care of the ancestral land, and remain bachelors.
In 2006, in a small ethnic Han village in Liaoning, an anthropologist described a situation where “almost all women between the ages of twenty-six and fifty were married […] in contrast, there were twenty-five bachelors between the ages of twenty-six and fifty” – out of a male population of some 400. Since then, things have not improved.
In this situation, the less successful rural bachelors have little chance to ever get married. If a man is in his 30s or 40s, or poor, or known to have some personal problems (like gambling or alcohol addiction), he stands no chance in the tough competition for the few locally available females.
This means that he, as well his family, is likely to try his luck with a North Korean woman, who can be found via professional brokers.
These unions are often forced on women, and are frequently highly exploitative
In the early 2000s, when the situation in North Korea was still desperate and while the border was poorly protected, it was quite common for North Korean women to ‘volunteer’ to go to China for marriage, thus becoming a peculiar type of ‘mail-order bride.’ Such situations are less common nowadays.
However, in most cases such unions are not voluntary; there’s often deception and outright violence involved.
In 2016-17, Kim Dong-wan and Ri Chong-seok conducted a study of one hundred North Korean women currently residing in China. Compared to the meager standards for typical North Korean studies, this is a rather large sample — and it was studied thoroughly.
Nearly all of these women are cohabitating with Chinese males. Additionally, Kim and Ri found that over half of their sample — 53 out of 100 women — had been forcefully kidnapped while in China before being sold to their husbands. Only less than a quarter of their sample entered their relations voluntarily.
A story I heard from one such woman in China seems to be typical. Let’s call this woman “Ms. Pak.”
She was lured to China in the early 2000s by promises of reasonably well-paid seasonal work in the fields, and told by a broker that she could go back home after a few months, once the season was over.
Some women in her village had made such trips before and returned home alright — and with pocketfuls of money.
Encouraged by such experiences, Ms. Pak believed the broker’s promises and left for China, only to be sold to a farmer in a remote ethnic Korean village.
In most cases, these women cannot run away, even if they wanted to. They are sometimes watched by their captors, but even where that is not the case they often prefer to stay where they were taken against their will.
They are in a foreign country, where things are incomprehensible and bizarre. They understand that in all probability, they would be immediately discovered, arrested, and extradited back to North Korea where a stint in prison is almost unavoidable.
Most of them are terrified by the thought of this, so they stay. They grudgingly accepting the fate of the common law wife, providing labor, sex, and, if they’re lucky, sons to the Chinese male and his family.
There’s often deception and outright violence involved
The transaction always requires money: predictably, ‘forced marriage brokers’ do not work for free. All money is paid to the brokers, while the ‘sold’ woman and her family get nothing.
The price varies, and changes over time, gradually increasing. Using Kim Dong-wan and Ri Chong-seok’s study as a guide, around 2005 the ‘price’ of a North Korean woman would have been around 15,000 Chinese yuan, and by 2015 it would have been close to 50-60,000 yuan (some $8-9,000 U.S. dollars).
The record ‘price’ in their study was 70,000 yuan, or some $12,000 USD. This amount was paid in two separate cases in 2017. In both, the North Korean women involved were very young, in their early 20s.
Such money is by no means trivial for the average Chinese farming family, even in more affluent areas of the rural Northeast.
The would-be family of Ms. Pak spent a few years saving money, even though in the early 2000s, more than 15 years ago, brokers charged much less. The ‘buyer’s’ family had to raise a dog for sale, and also collect medical herbs in the surrounding mountains.
REASONS TO STAY
Not all cases involve violence and deception. In roughly one-quarter of cases in the Kim-Ri study, the women entered such relations voluntarily — driven by the economic pressure and pragmatic considerations mentioned above.
So how are such arrangements working out? It depends. I remember how one of my close local Chinese acquaintances, himself a resident of the Northeast, reacted when I asked him about how well marriages with the North Korean women tend to work.
He smiled dismissively and said, “Well, these marriages are not doing well, and cannot do well. After all, why on earth would a decent male be interested in getting a North Korean woman? These men are losers, frankly.”
This seems to be a generalization, but, like most generalizations, there’s a grain of truth.
Most reports indeed tell ugly stories about the family lives of these North Korean women. They are abused and beaten and they despise their husbands, who are often much older, drink heavily, and are ready to resort to violence.
Not all cases involve violence and deception
There are other stories, though — less common but by no means exceptional.
Some women discover that their husbands are kind, loving people. This was, incidentally, the case with Ms. Pak. She soon discovered that her husband was a good and kind person, she came to like her in-laws, and she now says that they live in a nearly perfect marriage that she never expected to have.
The only two things she feels sorry about, she says, are that they could not have a child together and that her health problems, stemming from the famine years in North Korea, are preventing her from taking on more strenuous work.
Ms. Pak is not the only one who has been lucky. In many cases, the women who eventually entered happier marriages had to first leave their ‘first common law husband’ — that is, the male who initially ‘purchased’ them from brokers.
This often means running away from their abusive spouses. Usually, this happens after the women have spent some time in China, so they know the local situation better and are therefore less terrified of the risks of escape.
Once a woman is free, she often enters into another relationship with a local man, this time often of her own free will — even though she still risks being abducted.
The second relationship might work much better, even though some women like Ms. Pak succeed in their first, not quite voluntarily, attempt.
UNDER THE RADAR
The major problem women face is the absence of any legal standing — not a small issue in a society like China.
North Korean migrant women have no Chinese ID, so it’s very difficult for them to get regular jobs (even though it might be possible), buying train or plane tickets, and, generally, moving around. The fear of detention and extradition is always looming over them.
Actually, such detentions and extraditions happen often. Fortunately, since the late 1990s, the North Korean authorities do not see illegal border crossing as a major crime. Unless a woman is, rightly or wrongly, accused of interacting with (non-Chinese) foreigners or Christian missionaries, she is likely to be released within a year, usually spending a few months in detention.
I am aware of cases when a woman’s new Chinese family collected money and arranged bribes to be paid to the North Korean police so the woman could be released even sooner.
Upon release, many — perhaps the majority of them — take the first opportunity available to cross the border again and return to their established and relatively prosperous, if permanently insecure, life in China.
A significant number of talbukja (perhaps even the majority) initially did not even intend to go to South Korea
There is a way around the difficulties, of course. If a marriage is working well, and the family, including the in-laws, do not see any reason to keep the North Korean woman under control, they might consider acquiring a fake Chinese ID for her.
But this will involve some costly bribes. And the task is becoming increasingly difficult in the era of Chairman Xi and his digital authoritarianism.
However, once the coveted Chinese ID is somehow acquired, life gets much safer, and opportunities multiply.
THE BIG MOVE SOUTH
So what about South Korea? A significant number of migrant women hiding in China would like to go there — they just do not know how and/or lack the necessary resources.
One of the reasons local families are wary about getting a North Korean wife or daughter-in-law is the widespread belief that such women are too likely to eventually run away, departing for South Korea and leaving their husbands and, as in often the case, their young children.
This fear is not completely unfounded; the allure of prosperity and security in South Korea is too great.
Also, in many cases, women, being essentially deceived or forced into their relationships, understandably feel no reason to care about their Chinese husbands.
This has resulted in a significant number of North Korean female refugees who currently reside in the South having gone through a period of cohabitation with a Chinese man — even though they tend to remain silent about this part of their life.
A significant number of migrant women hiding in China would like to go [to South Korea] — they just do not know how and/or lack the necessary resources
Things might be different, of course — not all North Korean common law wives eventually run away, abandoning their new families and children. Sometimes North Korean refugee women go to the prosperous South first and, having acquired the much-coveted South Korean citizenship, invite their husbands and children to join them.
There are also (admittedly rare) cases when women abandon the idea of leaving China since they enjoy their life and their families there.
There are even some known cases of ‘returnees’ — that is, North Korean migrant women who, having spent a few years in China, went to South Korea but then returned to their Chinese families and homes with a South Korean passport in their pocket (a highly reliable protection against the threat of extradition).
However, loyalty to their new Chinese families and children is not the only reason why many women are not considering a permanent move to South Korea. Some are simply afraid to go to the South, and some still would prefer to eventually return across the border to their hometowns in the North.
But it seems that the idea of someday going to Seoul is very common, even prevalent, among these migrant women. Many of them will eventually make the journey, but many others, unexpectedly or not, will stay in China’s Northeast.
Edited by Colin Zwirko and James Fretwell
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