The United States Department of State designated North Korea in 2019 as one of the world’s worst perpetrators of human trafficking for the nineteenth consecutive year. Those who desire to escape from forced labor and human trafficking in North Korea mostly head to China.

When they flee North Korea, they have high hopes to reach freedom only to be captured by human traffickers who lie in wait, in some cases right across the border. An estimated 74.6 percent of North Korean defectors become victims of human trafficking in China.

The situation is worse for female defectors, who are a majority of the defector population in South Korea and China. After getting married, North Korean women are usually not required to work in formal government-mandated employment, which makes running away easier. Consequently, more women than men defect and are subsequently trafficked.

China’s flourishing sex trade is a major reason why women fall prey to trafficking.

Human traffickers approach victims by speaking in Korean and promising them food, shelter, and even the opportunity to move to South Korea. With no one to rely on, victims easily trust and follow what deceptive traffickers tell them, but the result is usually disastrous.

The Korea Future Initiative, a London-based nonprofit organization, recently released a report, including interviews with 45 victims of sex trafficking. Based on their testimonies, it is believed that about 60 percent of female North Korean defectors in China are trafficked into the sex trade. Among them, around 50 percent are forced into sex trafficking, over 30 percent sold into forced marriages, and 15 percent forced to engage in cybersex.

Demand for young women to marry is high in rural China. This is largely due to the one-child policy, now two-child policy, that adversely created a deficit of females. Many of these so-called missing women are believed to have been forcibly aborted due to the Chinese government’s draconian family planning policies. Exhausted and helpless North Korean defectors fill the demand in northeast China. Some voluntarily choose to marry a Chinese man for protection, but many are forced to marry and treated like slaves.

One victim was told that her relative arranged for her to work in a factory in Yanbian, China. She crossed the border, hopeful for the promise of a nice job. However, she was sold to a man for ¥24,000 ($3,500) as his wife.

Another victim testified that the broker, whom her mother arranged for her and her sister’s escape, sold them to a brothel. Brokers sometimes ask for more money on the way. If defectors cannot afford it, brokers beat and even rape them. Victims tend not to want this to be revealed, so they keep silent even after arriving in South Korea.

The internet allows human traffickers to expand to new realms for exploitation, including cybersex. Instead of selling victims to brothels, they confine female defectors in an apartment and force them into online sexual exploitation. These sex abuses are live-streamed and consumed by a paying online audience.

Sex trafficking of North Korean defectors is done systematically with transnational networks involving brokers, human traffickers, and even public officials. Guanxi (关系) culture, which means “personal connection” in Chinese, plays an important role here. Even though Chinese law criminalizes sex trafficking, criminal organizations are deeply involved in this industry with the secret support of corrupt government officials and local police. Reports keep emerging from victims who say Chinese officials arrested and then sold them to brokers.

North Korean defectors are not protected by any measures in China because the government does not grant them refugee status. They are treated as illegal migrants, and if caught are forcibly sent back to North Korea. Returning to North Korea can be a death sentence for defectors, so victims cannot escape the vicious cycle of being deceived and sold.

While human rights challenges in North Korea are routinely discussed, China’s role is an oft-overlooked aspect of the abuses. The international community should develop a stronger response to North Korea’s human trafficking problem and should treat China as complicit. The US and South Korea should pressure China to discontinue its forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees and punish Chinese officials involved in these human rights violations.

The cycle of abuse must stop, but it won’t stop without international pressure.