Today we will be speaking with Lee Hyon Woo, who worked as a broker between 2004-2006 aiding North Koreans who wanted to escape into China. Mr. Lee is going to tell us about the defection process and the role that brokers play.
Can you start by introducing yourself?
I lived in North Hamgyong Province’s Chongjin City. In July 2006, I crossed the Tumen River and arrived in South Korea in February 2007. It has already been 10 years since I’ve been here in South Korea.
We know that you worked as a broker. Can you explain what this means?
North Koreans don’t refer to people who do this kind of work as “brokers.” They call them “human traffickers.” In general, human traffickers like me help North Korean defectors to escape so they can meet family in South Korea, go to a relative’s house in China, or get sold to a husband in China. I was a so-called “path guide,” leading people into China. But anyone involved in the process is complicit in human trafficking. Even if they receive a mere 100 KPW (US 1 cent).
How did you end up in that line of work?
I grew up in a wealthy household. But when my parents died, I entered the army. By the time I was released and returned home, there was nothing left in my house. I didn’t even have enough to eat for a single day. I decided to go and meet some relatives in China to borrow money, but when I arrived, they didn’t give me any money. Instead, they showed me how to earn it myself. According to what my relatives said at the time, there were people in North Korea who wanted to defect and meet with their families in South Korea. They also said that some defectors just want to live in China. I found out that I could earn money by helping them cross the river. I was thinking about earning money, but I became worried that accepting money for bringing them over was tantamount to selling them myself. I knew some residents would still want to go despite this, but I was worried that the work was basically trafficking.
I had reservations about the work when I returned to North Korea. By chance, I happened to meet a person who was looking for some help to escape to China. It was extremely hard to make a living in North Korea at the time. Some people saved money up, but then were robbed and lost it all. A lot of the people I met were females who wanted to marry a Chinese man and earn money in China. That’s how I got into the work. I was trying to earn money, but I also thought that it would be possible to help people make a better life in China. That was my primary motive.
Do most of the people who go to China, particularly the women, get sold? What percentage of people do you think get sold?
In 2000, it was about half. But when I was working, it was about 70 out of 100 people. The remaining 30% had family members from South Korea who met them in China, or they were otherwise able to get help from relatives in China. However, even when the relatives came to help, they often ended up advising the defector to get married in China. This is no different from being sold. China is a socialist country in name, but it operates as a capitalist country, so not many people want to give their hard earned money to their North Korean relatives. So if you include these people, I’d say the real proportion is about 90%.
Most defectors want to end up in China or other countries like South Korea. I’m curious how you recruited and met all these people.
Brokers work in networks. First, there are people that find and prepare North Koreans who want to defect. They are paid by brokers on the Chinese side depending on the age of the defector. The next broker meets them on the Chinese side of the Tumen River. They check to make sure that the ages are correct, and then they complete the transaction. On the Chinese side, some of the brokers are North Korean female defectors who have lived in China for a long time, and some are people like me who cross the river and go into China with the group.
The brokers who contact and recruit potential defectors cannot do so openly. They can’t just stand in the street and ask passersby if they want to go to China. Doing so could result in getting accused of being a human trafficker and getting arrested by the Ministry of State Security. I went to regions like Hoeryong and asked around if there were any people who wanted to go to China. If I went to the market and talked to the food vendors, they would all know people who wanted to go to China. They would let me know that someone from a certain household wants to go, but hasn’t been able to find a guide yet.
So you were directly involved in meeting with these people, bringing them across the river, and handing them over to the China-based brokers?
Yes. In most cases it works like this: there is one broker who takes the female defectors across the Tumen, then another broker brings them deeper into China. Another takes them out of the dangerous parts of China where they could be easily caught, and finally, another broker connects them directly to a Chinese man to be sold. The reason that I brought the defectors across the river into China myself is because the person who recruits the defectors doesn’t earn that much money. So I was able to earn more. Going into China myself meant that I was taking on a bigger risk, but if I just handed them over to another broker, there was no way I could be sure where they were being sent. By taking this extra step, I was able to control who I introduced them to.
Can we hear a little more specifically about the escape process? You gathered the defectors together, and then crossed the Tumen River or the Yalu River?
That’s right. There are pretty strict regime crackdowns along the Tumen River near Hoeryong, Kilju, and Chongjin, so before we departed, we would gather at a village near Hoeryong and leave for the river at around 7pm. We would gather and wait in houses near the Tumen River. I hear that the houses we used have all been torn down. At around 1 – 2 am, a border guard would come and knock on the door. I made arrangements with the guards to help us cross the river before each trip. The soldier would lead our party of 3-5 people, bringing us across the section that he was assigned to guard.
When we crossed the river and arrived on the other side, there were already cars waiting for us. Because crackdowns were severe, the car would wait for our arrival at a location that was a bit distant from our actual designated meeting spot. The car would then pick us up and take us to villages like Yongjeong and Hwaryong. But to get there, we had to go through a guard post. In many cases, cars are just waved through the checkpoint, but if you have bad luck, the car can be subject to inspection. That’s why I used to get out with the defectors about 300 meters before reaching the guard post. We would go around the post by walking over a hill or through an orchard. We’d meet up with the driver after he went through the guard post. Then we headed over to Yeongil.
The Chinese men who wanted to buy and marry the women generally came from areas near Hanam and Simyang. Until all the women were sold, I stayed at a private residence with them in Yeongil. At the time, my cousin was also working as a broker. He recruited Chinese men who were looking for a defector wife. After he arranged the deal with them, he picked up the women from the safe house in Yeongil and brought each of them directly to the men’s houses.
You worked from 2004-2006. Over the course of that time, how many people did you bring into China?
About 40-50 people.
Were most of the defectors able to work in China and send money back to their families in North Korea?
That wasn’t easy to do. Husbands who are able to give lots of money to their wives generally don’t need to resort to illegal means to get a North Korean defector wife. Some of the women met good husbands and lived happy lives, but most of them lived like slaves. Domestic violence is a frequent occurrence. Despite this, many of the defector wives would save all their allowance and send it to their families, refraining from purchasing anything to benefit themselves, like new clothes. I knew of one defector who sold her blood for money to send home.
Why did those women have to make such a difficult decision?
First of all, many of them had nothing to eat and no money in North Korea. As a woman, there were few options available to them. Going to China gave them at least the chance to eat and survive. That’s why many of them chose to leave.
Can you tell us about the human rights abuses these women suffer?
According to people who have experienced and witnessed this sort of thing, the women can be brutally beaten simply for returning late after going downtown. One woman experienced this after she went downtown with her child. Her husband searched the entire town looking for her. He said he was going to break her ankles so she couldn’t escape. A different woman married a sterile husband, who blamed her and beat her for not giving him a child. Eventually, the man forced the woman to have a child with his brother, who acted as a sort of surrogate.
Because you played a part in this process, do you ever feel sorry or guilty?
In the beginning, I was more afraid than guilty. Being a broker is illegal. People arrested for human trafficking are given 7 years in re-education centers. Behind bars, human traffickers are regarded as “traitors” by other prisoners. Many have been beaten, some have been killed.
I didn’t start out being a broker with any ill intentions. If the women could get into China, at least they wouldn’t starve to death. If they were able to save up their strength and start a new life, they might even be able to help out their families back in North Korea. So while I wasn’t confident, I thought to myself that it would be worth it if I can help just one of these families survive.
I wondered what defectors in South Korea thought about the brokers who helped them escape into China, so I asked a few. They said, “If it wasn’t for people like you, it would not have been possible for us to go to China and then South Korea. We didn’t even know what capitalism was.” Some of them said that while they don’t have negative feelings about the brokers, they have very deep wounds from the awful experiences they had in China.
I believe that the North Korean authorities are to blame for starving their own population. Those who are sold and those who help them get sold are not to blame. We gave them just a tiny bit of freedom by bringing them to meet relatives in China, or made it possible for them to work for a month in a restaurant in China so they could earn some money and not starve. The authorities placed restrictions on everything, giving us no choice.
Is there anything you would like to say now to the North Korean authorities who may be listening to this broadcast?
North Korean residents have no choice but to escape the country. Defectors who have come to South Korea say that it would have been much harder to abandon their hometowns and leave North Korea if there was freedom of movement and freedom of speech. I want to tell Kim Jong Un that it’s time to give the North Korean people freedom and stop suppressing them.
Oppression drives resistance. Before the people rise up, the authorities have to give them their rights. It might look like things aren’t changing at all, but North Koreans are listening to human rights advocates in South Korea and other countries who are campaigning for freedom in North Korea. When I was in North Korea, I listened to foreign broadcasts such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. That’s how I know that people in North Korea are hearing my voice right now. To those listeners, I want to encourage you to be strong and wait for reunification to come.
The North Korean authorities are engaging in extreme oppression in order to maintain the stability of the regime. Restricting freedom of movement is one such measure. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees all individuals the right to travel within their own state and to leave their home country if they so choose. The North Korean authorities must acknowledge and protect this right.