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North Korean refugees frequent victims of human trafficking

News and Press Release
Originally published
State's Miller cites rampant trafficking from North Korea into China

By Todd Bullock, Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery that thrives on coercion, fear and brutal exploitation, says Ambassador John Miller, the director of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

"North Korea is one the world's worst abusers because its government fails to comply with minimal international standards to prevent the trafficking in persons from its borders," Miller said July 19 at a conference entitled "Freedom for All Koreans" sponsored by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Freedom House.

Miller's office produces the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report. In the 2005 report, North Korea was rated as a Tier 3 country, the least favorable rating. Tier 3 is reserved for countries whose governments not only fail to implement international standards but fail to make progress in prosecuting rampant trafficking and engage in acts such as state-sanctioned use of forced labor.

Between 80 percent and 90 percent of the refugees from North Korea, especially women and young children, end up as trafficking victims in China, according to Miller.

Women and children are particularly vulnerable to traffickers in China because the Chinese government's policy of detaining the refugees and sending them back to North Korea, where the penalty for returned refugees is often death, keeps them from going to the authorities, he said.

"The largest category of trafficking victims end up in sexual slavery and others are sold into domestic servitude in factories and farms," Miller said. The ambassador noted that North Korean children between the ages of 11 and 17 were sold in Northern China for as little as $100.

He said there is evidence suggesting trafficking occurs not only within China's borders but also from inside North Korea, where women are lured into selling themselves for the prospect of a better life in China.

"We must address the demand side of this horrific trade," Miller said. "We cannot ignore the demand and this requires tougher enforcement in destination countries."

He cited recent anti-trafficking progress in Southeast Asia, such as the 2004 prosecution and conviction of a Cambodian national for trafficking under-age women for a brothel in Malaysia. The investigation and prosecution were made possible through the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (UNIAP).

UNIAP was established in 2000 to facilitate a stronger and more coordinated response to human trafficking in the greater Mekong subregion; its enforcement activity is concentrated in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

"This type of agreement needs to be made for Northeast Asia," Miller said.

The ambassador also urged China to change its laws to protect victims of trafficking instead of returning them to North Korea, and to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to operate along the border region with North Korea.

Miller concluded his remarks with the story of a North Korean refugee, Ki Young-cha, who escaped to China in 1997 with her two daughters and son. Human traffickers sold them for domestic labor. Ki was arrested by Chinese police and sent back to North Korea, while her two daughters were sold to Chinese men for wives. Ki managed to flee from North Korea a second time and continued to work in China until she raised enough money to buy back her children. Ki was reunited with her family in 2004 and eventually defected to South Korea.

"Mrs. Ki's story personifies the plight of the millions of North Koreans," Miller said.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: