Addressing the causes of the North Korean bride trafficking in China

By Arianna Russano

Since the beginning of the Arduous March -the North Korean famine that caused up to 3.500.000 deaths from 1994 to 1998 (Chang, Haggard, Noland, 2005)- numerous North Koreans have fled their country in hope of survival. Most people escaped to China, North Korea’s northern neighbor and closest escape from the more devastated areas that had been affected by the famine, particularly the Hamgyong province. The emigration from North Korea to China continues to this day, for variable and debatable reasons, and constitutes a profitable opportunity for criminality to proliferate. Human trafficking is a prevalent crime, which usually is conducted by kidnapping migrants on the border and exploiting them for the benefit of the brokers. The acts pursued by the brokers fit the definition of “organized criminal groups” expressed in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime which recites the following: “ “Organized criminal group” shall mean a structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences established in accordance with this Convention, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit” (Art 2.a). The emigration from North Korea to China is perilous for its illegality and severe consequences, and also presents dangers at a social and personal level for the migrants. Given the fact that the majority of the defectors are women, the ones “who flee to China from North Korea are vulnerable to forced labor and sexual servitude. Some are sold into forced marriages with Chinese nationals” (Hepburn and Simon, 2010). This phenomenon is regarded as transnational marriage migration, which “takes place under structural conditions that places the local spouse in a position of power, and the marriage-migrant in a position of dependence” (Tyldum, 2013). As for virtually all criminality, its existence is interdependent with the demand for illegal services. In this case, the demand in China is for wives, and is intertwined with the inability of the country to provide adult females due to a combination of strict demographic regulations and traditional culture. To compensate for this insufficiency, foreign migrants in weak social, political, economic and sometimes even physical conditions are illegally trafficked. In this research paper I analyze the extent to which policies in China such as the one-child policy and the household registration system (hukou), in a Chinese cultural context, are responsible for the increasing presence of trafficking of North Korean brides. I also look at various solutions adopted in order to control the problem, and the difficulties encountered in their implementation. On the basis of my research, mainly consisting of the study of the literature, I hypothesize that the afore-mentioned policies as well as cultural factors are the main reasons for bride trafficking in China.

The classification of migrants is the subject of numerous debates not only between scholars, but in the International community as well. Many scholars, such as Russell Aldrich, argue that North Korean asylum seekers in China are refugees “owning a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of […] political opinion” (UNHCR) and should therefore be granted asylum by China. However, China adopts a more neoclassical approach, and views North Korean migrants as economic migrants rather than refugees, therefore it is not bound to abide by International law and by the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention that it signed and ratified. China thus proceeds with forced repatriation to North Korea, where the defectors can be punished by death. A study conducted by Chang, Noland and Haggard in 2008, based on a survey of defectors living on Chinese territory, actually supports China’s view of North Korean defectors as economic migrants, escaping North Korea for economic reasons. Large North Korean immigration into China would lead to two dramatic consequences. Firstly, it would constitute a serious threat to China’s economic growth by damaging the labor market. Secondarily, the mass migration could “increase social unrest in North Korea and then possibly lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime” (Kim, 2014). However, according to Fan & Huang, the neoclassical approach fails to notice the “institutional, historical and sociocultural complexities of human movements” (1998). Opposed to this view is the structural perspective, which looks at gender as a meaningful variable in the analysis of migration, in particular studying the strategies women adopt in order to improve their original conditions, marriage being one of them. Precise statistics on migration in East Asia do not exist and are also limited in number due to the political nature of the countries taken into consideration as well as the fact that many migrants stay hidden or cross borders more than once. According to a 2008 estimate by Amnesty International, however, North Korean migrants in China are approximately 50.000. Currently the vast majority of North Korean defectors are women (almost 80%). This percentage has been rapidly growing since 2002, when women constituted only 20% of the total migrants entering China (Park, 2011).

The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, also known as the Palermo Protocol, is a supplementary protocol to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Article 3(a) of the protocol defines human trafficking as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” Most of the characteristics are in common with what is expressed by the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women (GAATW), a network of non-governmental organizations. It provides a more specific definition of “trafficking of women” as “all acts involved in the recruitment and/or transportation of a woman within and across national borders for work or services by means of violence, abuse of authority or dominant position, debt bondage deception or other forms of coercion” (1999). The Palermo Protocol’s definition, used as a worldwide standard, identifies three parts to the process of human trafficking, which are then re-stated by the GAATW. The first part is concerned with the recruitment, the second entails the use of violent measures, and the third deals with the intent and motivation for the act. (Hepburn & Simon, 2010) This is the order the paper will follow in the analysis of the crime many North Korean women are subject to once they surpass their home country’s borders.




The use of social capital is always an essential element for a successful exchange of services in the illegal market. In this case, the mixed national origin of the people residing along the border between China and North Korea facilitates the proliferation of illegal activities in the area. As a matter of fact, it is estimated that in 2004 up to two million ethnic Koreans lived in China as Chinese citizens, of which great part residing in the Jilin and Liaoning regions adjoining the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Their ethnicity allows them to have connections with their relatives, friends, acquaintances and colleagues living in the DPRK, which they were allowed to visit until the end of the 1980s. (Lankov, 2004; Kim, 2014) In this stage, recruiters become brokers or call themselves guides whom the North Koreans willingly contact to facilitate their escape. The connections with individuals across the border constitute the social capital criminals need in order for their activities to exist. Often, following migration, “female refugees move to China to find employment and food and then are kidnapped by gangsters who sell them to their future husbands” (Lankov, 2004). Other times, the relationship between brokers and victims becomes one of debt bondage, where the woman is sold to a man as a way to pay for her debt towards the broker.

Use of force

In order for the woman to comply with the activities of the brokers, the criminals often threaten the victims by endangering their family in North Korea or by taking advantage of their vulnerability by threatening to reveal their citizenship to the Chinese authorities (McSherry & Kneebone, 2008). Residing in China without proper permission after having defected North Korea is clearly illegal, therefore the marriages between Chinese locals and North Korean migrants cannot be officially recognized and lack legal value. Traditional wedding ceremonies are celebrated for symbolic reasons, in order to disguise the illegality of the act. (Lankov, 2004). The Notification from the Ministry of Interior on Opinions Relating to Marriages between Chinese People and Korean Women states the following “[North] Korean women that have illegally crossed the border for marriage, in principle we will repatriate all of them.[…]” (Smith, 2012).


Once married (although just symbolically), the women is very often abused by the husband and by the acquired family, having to cover the role of “ “wife”, “care worker” for the parents-in-law; […] “worker” on the farm” as well as being a mother. (Kim, 2014). Furthermore, because demand is often located in rural areas of China where the income is low, and given the fact that foreign brides (although costing less than local brides) do constitute an expensive investment for the Chinese family, they are often forced into prostitution as a source of income for the entire family (Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2009).

Causes of Demand

The Chinese culture, which is currently strongly present in traditional rural areas, is prevalently a patriarchal one with son-preference. Men are also pressured into getting married, as a way to abide by the social norm.  For this reason the possession of a wife and the wedding ceremony, although holding no legal value, are important elements for Chinese men, who can still confirm their social status to other villagers (Lankov, 2004). According to Lee, the places where North Korean brides are sold the most are rural villages in the Chinese regions of Shaanxi, Ningxia, Guangxi, Hainan, and Guangdong (Lee, 2005). In these regions, not coincidentally, the gender imbalance is significant. Gender imbalance in China is a weighty contributing factor in the illegal trafficking of North Korean woman for marriage, constituting one of the main causes of the increasingly high demand. A study in 2011 estimated that there were around 45.6 million more men than women in China (Hepburn & Simon, 2010).
This imbalance can be attributed to a combination of the one-child policy and son-based preference of the Chinese population. The one-child policy was introduced by the Chinese State Council in 1979 and then supported and sponsored by Deng Xiaoping (Pots, 2006) to deal with the extreme birth rate that during the 1960s grew from a minimum of 3% to over 7% per annum, hindering the economic growth of the country (Gu, 2009). In order to prevent an internal mass migration of Chinese citizens from rural areas to the more developed urban areas, in the 1950s the “hukou” (household registration) system was introduced. The hukou is present to this day, and it is a way to identify the place where a Chinese citizen “belongs”. However, the hukou system has caused a national social structure based on social classes, attributing negative stereotypes to people from more rural areas and leading to discrimination. Considering the difficulties of changing one’s hukou, the household registration system therefore restricts the internal mobility of the citizens, who also encounter the problem of limited social contacts, and get in touch with the criminals to satiate their demands for marriage and reproduction. The Chinese government does have well-founded reasons to block organized crime, yet the more obvious solutions –abolishment of one-child policy and hukou system- would have drastic consequences at a demographic and economic level in the country. Also, one of the difficulties in stopping crime within the country is the complicity of law-enforcing agents in the illegal activities. (Hepburn & Simon, 2010)


Before repatriation, illegal migrants who have been victims of trafficking should have access to rehabilitation centers. The centers offering this service are present solely in two out of twenty three regions in China: Yunnan and Guangxi. In practice, this does not always occur, especially for North Korean defectors. (Hepburn & Simon, 2010). In 2010, Li Keqiang, Vice-Premier, stated that the country would be committed to managing the gender imbalance and other demographic problems without abolishing the previously imposed measures to control birth rate (i.e. the one-child policy). However, after five years, the problems tied to gender-imbalance are ever so present (Hepburn & Simon, 2010), and the consequences of political actions taken will require years to produce visible results. At the moment, numerous non-governmental organizations work with the victims of trafficking. UNIAP, the United Nations Inter-agency project on human trafficking, works with local and international partner NGOs in order to provide support for the victims and develop a solution to alleviate the problem of human trafficking. At a grassroots level, ethnic Koreans residing in China commonly give assistance and aid to migrants, particularly to the ones who are victims of trafficking. They sometimes employ the defectors by risking a monetary sanction for illegal employment and provide them with a small yet modest income (Lankov, 2004). The United States approached the issue by signing the North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA) in 2004, which provides humanitarian aid to the migrants and financial support to NGOs tackling the issue.

My study presents certain limitations that could have allowed for a more comprehensive understanding of the issue. Among these is the inability to access sources in the Mandarin Chinese and Korean language, which could have allowed for more specific and updated data on the issue. Also, the statistics mentioned do not refer to the same time period, due to the afore-mentioned lack of precise information on the North Korean bride-trafficking phenomenon in China. Despite this, the sources used were able to successfully convey the gravity of the crime and the imminent need for intervention. The above-stated solutions, despite being just a part of the strategies adopted internationally to solve the problem, are nowhere near enough to put an end to human trafficking in the East Asian region. While they attenuate the life conditions of the victims, they do not address the direct causes of demand for foreign brides. As seen, the demand for marriageable women is caused by demographic conditions which are a product of decades-long policies in China. These policies are, however, indispensible in order to maintain satisfactory life conditions of Chinese citizens by properly distributing the resources and achieving national economic growth at the same time. What can be, instead, effectively implemented is education. Although a radical change in traditional culture is unlikely, informing the population –especially the rural citizens- of the implications of human trafficking would raise awareness and hopefully diminish the percentage of demanded brides, ergo the supply. The combination of international cooperation, national approaches of China as stated by Li Keqiang and a change in social perception of the issue will most likely achieve improvements in the treatment of North Korean migrants in China in the long run.



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