Before looking into the individual experiences of the women of the Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights, it is worthwhile to explore North Korean society, the women’s struggles within that society and also in China. Notorious for male dominance and paternalism, North Korean society relies on women to sustain the system that has been in place since the leadership of Kim Il Sung. Although Journey for Survival indicates that women became a larger part of the economy after the financial crisis of the 1990s, the testimonies that follow its introductory pages reveal that violence has been projected against them both while they lived in North Korea and when they journeyed abroad in search of food and work to provide for their families.
According to Journey for Survival, most defectors come from Hangyeongbuk-do and Yanggang-do because these regions, which are closest to the border between North Korea and China, are the first victims of any standstill in the distribution of food. This is especially because the region is home to people from the lower classes. Consequently, most of the early defectors originated from this area; however, as of late, members of the middle class have also started to migrate in search of something new because information about possible escape routes have spread and the opportunity for a different kind of life in South Korea has grown more attractive to the masses (Journey for Survival, 14).
Moreover, the lives envisioned in South Korean dramas and movies that have reached viewers in North Korea have also played a role in expanding the dreams of the North Korean people. It may seem strange to some that North Korean people have seen South Korean dramas considering how isolated North Korea has been and how little we know about what happens inside North Korea. According to Lee Sung Jin’s online article in the DailyNK, “North Korean People Copy South Korean TV Drama for Trade,” residents of the Hwanghae Province receive South Korean television broadcast signals well enough to watch South Korean dramas among other programs secretly. As evidenced in the title of the article, access to South Korean television has led some to copy programs on CDs, which sell at large volumes. Copies can be bought from both North Korea and China, and their popularity alludes to the proliferation of the media throughout North Korean society.
Though the reasons for defection have begun to vary, most defectors defected because of the hardship they faced when the 1990s brought food and job shortages. According to Journey for Survival, over half of the women escaping North Korea do so by voluntary or involuntary human trafficking. The gap between the number of Chinese men and Chinese women has created a “demand” for women that has played a role in the growth of human trafficking organizations that arrange marriages.
The crisis of the mid-1990s led to the birth of the formerly prohibited market system, allowing North Koreans to engage in market activities for a regulated amount of time. However, some of the officials in charge of overseeing the market exploit those involved in the market, forcing them into sexual favors and sometimes the dealing of drugs. The corruption of those in charge, in addition to the already dire situation brought upon by famine and economic failure, have pushed many women to escape to China and perhaps one day to South Korea. Many women agree to human trafficking and arranged marriages in China because the more abundant jobs and resources in China would sustain them in a way that life in North Korea really no longer can.
Journey for Survival explains that, if women voluntarily engage in human trafficking, various groups recruit them. However, those who become involved in human trafficking by force have been either kidnapped or tricked by bogus opportunities for employment. They are traded anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 Chinese Yuan to work at restaurants, adult entertainment businesses, video chat services intended for South Korean clients, or as the wives of Chinese farmers. Because of their illegal status, these women are often the victims of violence, deception, financial exclusion, intimidation, and sexual assault. Those who are caught by the Chinese police are returned to North Korea where they are interrogated and sent either to detention, labor, or re-education camps, where they are subject to more exploitation. Those who eventually reach South Korea and establish new lives continue to face hardship because of the cultural difference that has emerged between North and South Koreans (Journey for Survival, 15-16).
Please continue reading the continuation of this serious of articles on the Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights for particular testimonies about their journeys for survival.
For Lee Sung Jin’s full online article “North Korean People Copy South Korean TV Drama for Trade”: http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk00100&num=3290