“I feel honoured to have met so many extraordinary people across East Asia and around the world,” Sylvia Yu Friedman writes near the end of A Long Road to Justice: Stories from the Frontlines in Asia. “I’ve had the privilege of interviewing survivors of modern slavery who have experienced the unspeakable. … They have led me on a long road to justice—to tell the untold stories of human slavery survivors and to help bring attention, funding, and change to those who are suffering.” 

Only one chapter of Friedman’s book deals directly with North Koreans. Reading that chapter in 2022 is remarkable, however, and not just because of the inherent tragedy of North Korean women sold into sexual slavery. Unfortunately, many of us have been aware of this tragedy for many years and the road to justice for them still appears long, and with little sign of reaching a satisfying destination. 

But this could be said about the other women who have survived the sex trade as well. The book is divided into three parts, with the first recounting the author’s experiences reporting on the sex trade in China, and a network of missionaries and NGO workers (referred to as “Door of Hope” in the book) who try to rescue those forced and/or tricked into selling their bodies. The deep-seated factors that contribute are not only financial – causing women to enter into this trade, but also men to charm and entrap them in it – but also moral: one of her sources notes those who ensnare women in the sex trade often have no conception that what they are doing is wrong. 

The middle chapters document the historical issue of the sex trade in Asia, beginning with Japanese wartime “Comfort Stations,” the quest for international recognition of this atrocity, and attempts at reconciliation between Comfort Women and not only Japan’s government, but also Imperial Japanese military veterans coming to terms with their role in propping up this system. While this section may seem out of place among Friedman’s accounts of modern-day trafficking horrors, she does use it to effectively demonstrate how, when left unaddressed, such atrocities can fester and sow animosity for generations to come. 

In the final section of the book she examines aspects of the problem as they exist today, and it is here where she addresses the trafficking of North Korean women, along with the trafficking of women in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. That women, especially from the northern provinces of North Korea, are being bought and sold will come as no surprise to those who remember the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 2014 – some of the most terrible sections of that grim document concerned these women. Nor will it be a surprise those familiar with the defectors’ memoirs seen in recent years.

Women in North Korea’s northernmost provinces, driven by desperation that comes from food shortages and a lack of social or government support, are sold to men who abuse them, forcing them to contemplate escape, even if it means abandoning the children they’ve had with their abusive husbands. And yet the problem endures. One is tempted to say that the issue is the outside world’s lack of attention to the problem, and increased attention certainly could prove beneficial, but in reality the issue is where the trafficking takes places: China. 

The People’s Republic of China was resistant to cooperation on this matter when the UNCOI was released in 2014, as seen by its veto of punitive measures that came up before the UN Security Council that year. And this was when Beijing’s relations with the US and its friends and allies were relatively good: since 2018 they have soured over issues related to trade, the PRC’s threats against Taiwan and Beijing’s own human rights record. The Communist Party of China’s vitriolic reaction to criticisms of its policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang tell us all we need to know about how it would react to increased attention to trafficking within its borders, not to mention the treatment of North Korean women cajoled or coerced into abusive marriages to China’s “bare branches” – young men from the generation of the one-child policy who struggle to find marriage partners because their female counterparts were aborted, the victims of infanticide, or simply given away.

worker wages
North Korean women at the customs office in Dandong in mid-February 2019. (Daily NK) 

Is there any reason for optimism? Friedman does suggest that the PRC’s tolerance for North Koreans living in its territory is dwindling, and there is an increasing push to not only keep them out of China but punish Chinese who harbor them. There’s much evidence that the regime of Kim Jong Un has cracked down on outward migration, greatly slowing the number of defections even before it sealed the border with China in 2020, effectively trapping every man, woman and child inside its territory. These two developments should result in fewer North Korean women trafficked or forced into abusive marriages with Chinese men, fewer of them dying while attempting to escape the regimes that dehumanize them, and fewer of their children being born stateless. 

But not none. Sources I’ve spoken to have said that 2020 was actually a time when North Koreans in China became more urgent to escape China but that organizations involved in helping assist evacuations began to scale back – with a then-mysterious airborne virus spreading, such reluctance is understandable, even if it had tragic consequences. 

Furthermore, the prevention of abuse through even more tyrannical crackdowns by the North Korean and PRC regimes seems like less of a solution and more a case of one problem replacing another. China continues to have a large male population with unfavorable marriage prospects, North Korea is still plagued by food insecurity, and both states’ preferred responses to contingencies are to crack down ever more severely on the victims. Also, assuming the number of women escaping into North Korea has fallen, the decline may be temporary, as in times of dissatisfaction Pyongyang has allowed migration to China to function as a “safety valve” allowing malcontents to leave and not cause disruption.

Friedman notes in her chapter on North Koreans that one of the smugglers who helped her make connections with trafficked women was captured, arrested, and tortured in North Korea, and that this “further strengthened my resolve to continue putting a spotlight on trafficked women so their stories could reach people across the world and hopefully lead to positive action.” 

What would positive action look like? She suggests at the end of the book that readers can start through volunteering, charitable giving, and educating each other on important issues – not just sex trafficking – but I have a few others: 

  • In Seoul, the incoming Yoon administration should not only increase social support for defectors, but champion their presence South of the DMZ. This will require pushing back against narratives in Seoul that support for defectors should be going to South Korean-born citizens, as well as social stigmas against women who have been trafficked or forced to perform sex acts on the internet. President-elect Yoon himself could do this, and hopefully encourage more defections, by channeling Ronald Reagan talking about immigrants
  • The US should prioritize acceptance of North Korean defectors, which has long lagged and which ground to a halt under the previous administration. Many of the North Koreans who have arrived in the US have thrived; more deserve that chance. 
  • South Korea, the US, and other countries where North Korean defectors are prone to settling should pump funds into providing social services for them. 
  • The treatment of women caught in sex trafficking – not just North Koreans – should join the oppression in Xinjiang, in Tibet, in Hong Kong and of dissidents to become part of the overall narrative regarding China’s human rights record. The Communist Party and its functionaries will certainly howl in protest, but the evidence is already overwhelming that we cannot help the victims of their oppression by pretending that it isn’t happening. 

Friedman’s moving, meticulously documented book shows that the road to justice for sex trafficking survivors—North Korean, Chinese, Southeast Asian or otherwise—is indeed long and full of obstacles. That’s no reason to abandon hope, however; the road will remain long if we avoid walking it.

Views expressed in this guest column do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

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Rob York is director for regional affairs at the Pacific Forum in Honolulu, Hawaii, and a former production editor at the South China Morning Post. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.