Human trafficking in North Korea remains a serious problem, according to Mark Lagon, director of the office to monitor and combat trafficking in persons at the U.S. State Department. For the fifth consecutive year, the United States has placed the North Korean government on Tier Three -- the lowest ranking in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
Conditions inside North Korea are dire. They include a severe food shortage, a lack of basic freedoms and a system of political repression that includes a network of government-operated prison camps. The approximately two-hundred thousand prisoners in these camps are subjected to reeducation and slave-like conditions. Under these conditions, it is little wonder that many North Koreans choose to flee across the border into Northeast China, where tens of thousands may be residing illegally. It is estimated that more than half the refugees are women.
The North Korean women and children who have fled into China find themselves in a vulnerable position with no legal status. As a result, they are often sold into prostitution, marriage, or forced labor. The trend of North Korean women trafficked into and within China for forced marriage is well-documented. A potential factor in the trafficking of brides, among others, is the gender imbalance in China caused by the government's one-child policy. There is an imbalance in the number of Chinese men relative to the number of marriageable women.
The U.S. believes an effective anti-trafficking strategy must focus on the protection of victims. Unfortunately, China classifies North Korean refugees as "economic migrants" and forcibly returns some of them to North Korea, where they face severe punishment, including execution.
But China has taken some steps to address trafficking. Non-governmental organizations are working with local officials on trafficking prevention and education projects. And in December 2007, the Chinese government agreed on a national plan of action to combat the criminal activities of trafficking women and children.
The American people, said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "are major proponents of the North Korean people." The United States is determined to help those who are vulnerable to human trafficking in North Korea and when they flee North Korea. The goal is to foster regional cooperation to end this violation against human dignity and to abolish modern-day slavery.