Hundreds of thousands of North Korean women and girls are being trafficked in China’s “Red Zone” border region as they flee repression in their home country, in what has been described as the “real-life Handmaid’s Tale”.

The defectors face systematic rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, pregnancy, forced labour and cybersex trafficking in the dangerous “Red Zone”, in what is estimated to be a £105m (£85m) industry, according to a report by international human rights organisations.

The practice of trafficking women and girls as young as 12 is becoming increasingly normalised, with women routinely beaten at villages and towns across China and sold for as little as a few hundred dollars, say the rights groups.

It is estimated that 70-80 per cent of female North Korean refugees in China are trafficked into the sex trade.

International human rights law firm Global Rights Compliance and Seoul-based North Korean human rights organisations are calling on the international community to take immediate action to recognise these “atrocities”.

They say that Covid lockdowns, closed borders and information blackouts in China and North Korea have created a “black hole” of information around the defectors.

Chinese agents and guards are reportedly operating with impunity and enabling sex and bride trafficking.

“A black hole of information currently exists around China’s Red Zone which means that many more North Korean women and girls are falling victims to China’s sex slave industry,” said Sofia Evangelou, North Korea Lead Legal Advisor for Global Rights Compliance.

​​Previous reports have indicated that about 150,000-200,000 North Korean defectors are in China but the organisation says that the number of North Korean women in the Red Zone is far higher, reaching into the hundreds of thousands.

Evidence analysed by Global Rights Compliance shows that border shutdowns between North Korea, China, and South Korea during the pandemic have significantly reduced the official number of defectors from North Korea, leaving thousands to be exploited by sex and bride traffickers.

The business of trafficking North Korean women is a lucrative, reportedly generating more than $105m per year for the Chinese and North Korean organised crime networks.

A North Korean woman, trafficked to Yanbian, north-east China, told investigators from NKDB (Database Center for North Korean Human Rights): “I was sold to a Han Chinese living in Yanbian. We lived together for one year and we couldn’t have a child, so he beat me. He kicked me. He kicked my head … I have depression now.”

The NKDB has recorded more than 82,000 cases of violations.

Women and girls living in the Red Zone are in constant fear of forced repatriation – financial incentives are high for locals reporting North Korean refugees. Defectors who are forcibly repatriated to North Korea are labelled “traitors” and subjected to invasive strip searches during interrogations and imprisoned, often without trial. Some defectors are issued an automatic death sentence on re-entry to North Korea.

Those who escape death are often sent to North Korea’s forced labour camps, where there is a blanket policy of forced abortion for pregnant women.

One defector, Lee Keum-Soon, reportedly concealed her pregnancy from authorities at North Hamgyong Provincial Police Holding Camp to avoid foced abortion. After weeks of malnutrition and intense labour, she fell into a river and drowned while under orders to collect stones from the riverbed. Fellow inmates found her body.

Guards discovered her pregnancy, concealed with tightly-wrapped kudzu rope, and allegedly stripped naked all the other female inmates, to find any other expectant mothers and immediately force abortions.

“The illegal sexual slavery of women and girls will not stop until a​ concerted ​international effort is mobilised. The international community can no longer turn a blind eye to the atrocities being committed against women and children, fleeing for their lives and – in too many cases – those of their unborn children,” said Ms Evangelou.

The 52nd session of the United Nation Human’s Rights Council is currently underway in Geneva, where the Special Rapporteur has identified women and girls in North Korea as the first priority.

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