Thousands of North Korean refugees are working as sex slaves in China under threat of being returned should Chinese authorities catch them, the U.S. ambassador for fighting international slavery said yesterday.
After two days of talks with Chinese officials, John Miller, director of the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said many victims of the modern-day slave trade were women and girls forced into prostitution or marriage.
"Sometimes they're trafficked out of North Korea. North Korean officials are complicit," Miller told reporters.
"If they are caught by the Chinese authorities, they are sent back to North Korea and punished."
China views North Korean refugees on its territory as illegal economic migrants who should be sent back.
But the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States and other countries have pressed China to treat at least some of them as legitimate refugees who should not be repatriated.
Miller said there were no accurate statistics of the number of North Korean women forced into prostitution or marriage in China.
But he said charities and church groups working in the region estimate between 30 percent and half of the many thousands of North Koreans who cross into China every year are "trafficking victims," forced or tricked into slavery.
Chinese press reports on the cross-border trade have said North Korean women are sold to Chinese brokers for several hundred to a thousand dollars each.
The repatriated women can face prison sentences of five years or longer, or even execution. But most often they are held for several months in forced labour camps, London-based organization Anti-Slavery International said in a recent report on the slave trade between North Korea and China.
Beatings and torture
"There are countless testimonies of beatings, torture, degrading treatment, and even forced abortions and infanticide from those who have escaped," the report said of these camps.
Most of the North Korean women caught in slave trafficking were forced into marriages with Chinese farmers, the report said.
China's growing population imbalance means many poor farmers cannot easily find brides.
The women often face abuse and beatings but several interviewed said "their current situation is better than risking repatriation or starvation," the report said.
Miller said the human trade between North Korea and China was part of an international slavery business that claims as many as 800,000 victims every year.
"We believe this issue of modern-day slavery affects every country in the world, including China and the United States of America," he said.
Miller said China was emerging as a source of women sold into prostitution in Southeast Asia, the United States and elsewhere, partly displacing traditional sources such as Thailand.
But Miller, a former congressman, said he was encouraged by some steps China had taken to help women forced into international prostitution and sweat-shop labour.
Chinese police officials told Miller the government had stopped fining women who escape and return to China. Chinese officials had also asked for information about the North Korean sex slaves and their legal status, he said.