North Korean women trapped as cyberslaves in China

ST 20190915 XNKOREA8IVB 5116332VIENTIANE (Laos) • For more than two years, Lee Jin Hui, 20, was not allowed to leave a three-room flat in north-east China. Seven days a week, she had to sit at a computer from noon to 5am, performing sex acts before a webcam for male clients, mostly from South Korea.

Lee and other North Korean women each had to earn about US$820 (S$1,100) a week for the Chinese pimp who had bought them from human traffickers. When they failed, they were slapped, kicked and denied food.

"We had to work even when we were sick," Lee said. "I wanted to get out so badly, but all I could do was peek out the window."

Each year, people smugglers take thousands of women seeking to flee North Korea, promising them jobs in China, say human rights groups and trafficking survivors. But once in China, many of the women are sold to unmarried men in rural towns or to pimps for exploitation in brothels and cybersex dens.

If they are caught running away from traffickers, China sends them back to North Korea, where they face torture and incarceration in labour camps. With nowhere to turn for help in China, they remain trapped in sex slavery.

An estimated 60 per cent of female North Korean refugees in China are trafficked into the sex trade, and increasingly coerced into cybersex, the London-based rights group Korea Future Initiative said in a report in May.

"Girls as young as nine are forced to perform graphic sex acts and are sexually assaulted in front of webcams, which are live-streamed to a paying global audience, many of whom are believed to be South Korean men," the report said.

When she was smuggled out of North Korea in early 2017, Lee was told she would be a waitress in China. When she arrived, her boss said her job was "chatting" at the computer. Till then, she had never seen a computer, let alone know what a webcam was. She was 18.

Kim Ye Na, 23, was smuggled out last November, believing she would be a mushroom picker in China. "I thought 'chatting' was some kind of bookkeeping with a computer. I never imagined what it would turn out to be," she said.

Kim and Lee managed to flee their captors on Aug 15.

Six days later, they arrived in Vientiane, Laos, with a man who was paid US$4,000 to smuggle them across the China-Laos border. Waiting for them was Reverend Chun Ki-won, a Christian pastor from South Korea who had funded and orchestrated their rescue.

The women agreed to interviews while in Vientiane, using nicknames they were given on the run to protect their privacy and avoid the North Korean government's possible retaliation against their relatives in the North. Though The New York Times could not independently corroborate some details of their flight, recordings of online conversations between Rev Chun and the women made before their escape supported their accounts.

"Given China's increasing crackdown on undocumented foreigners, locking North Korean women in apartments for cybersex has become a favourite way for human traffickers to exploit them," Rev Chun said. "They drug the women to dull their shame and make them work long hours."

Since 2000, Rev Chun, who used to be a hotelier, has helped move 1,200 North Korean refugees in China to South Korea, including many women trafficked into forced marriages. But in recent years, his Durihana mission in Seoul started getting anonymous online messages from women trapped in cybersex dens in China, and calls from men who wanted to rescue them.

One such call was from an animal feed deliveryman in South Korea in July. He had sent Kim's boss 15 million South Korean won (S$17,000) to buy her freedom. But the smuggler who promised to take Kim to South Korea instead sold her to a Chinese man in his 50s.

The South Korean man sent another 15 million won to Kim's original boss to free her from the forced marriage. By then, he realised he had been duped.

Around the same time, Rev Chun got a call from a man who wanted to help Lee. Rev Chun contacted Lee and Kim, pretending to be a client.

A former sex trafficking victim helped Rev Chun find Lee's neighbourhood. Kim memorised the telephone number of a nearby restaurant that her boss once took her to. By peeking out the windows, Lee and Kim identified as many landmarks as possible to help Rev Chun pinpoint their locations on Google Earth. Rev Chun then sent seven volunteers to China, including two trafficking survivors.

On Aug 15, one team waited in a taxi outside Kim's flat and followed her, another girl and their boss when a sudden water outage forced them to go out for food. Kim pretended to be sick on their way back, vomiting on the sidewalk and running into a public toilet. When the boss entered another stall, Kim rushed out into the rescuers' taxi and it sped away.

On that same August day in Helong, Lee slipped out of her room while her Chinese pimp was out for drinks. Through the window of the living room, she saw an air mattress and a rescuer beckoning. She climbed out, then hesitated.

"The height was terrifying," she said. "But it was the only way out." She jumped.

In late August, a black van stopped across the street from the South Korean embassy of a South-east Asian country where defectors can apply for asylum. Holding Rev Chun's hands, Lee and Kim got out and crossed the road, walking their last yards to freedom. The steel gate slid open, and the girls stepped inside.