For North Korean defector and bestselling author Hyeonseo Lee, the women of North Korea are left with only two choices in life: stay in the country living an oppressed life or escape with the risk of being sold into a lifetime of sexual slavery.
As a daughter of a military official, her defection was not fueled by desperation at all, but rather, of curiosity. Yet, for almost 20 years, she has remained an active voice against the oppressive regime under the Kims. In her widely-acclaimed memoir, “The Girl with Seven Names,” Lee has shed light into the lives of the millions of North Koreans who remain trapped by the brutal dictatorship
In her continued fight for her oppressed countrymen, she is currently seeking to help protect North Korean women who were able to flee but remain in vulnerable conditions, according to the Agence France-Presse.
“All but the lucky few will live the rest of their lives in utter misery,” she was quoted as saying. “They will be repeatedly raped day in and day out by an endless supply of customers who enrich their captors at their expense.”
The activist is now spearheading a new NGO called “North Star NK”, in which agents are sent across South East Asia and China to provide assistance to those trapped in the sex trade, so they can aid their freedom.
“They are so humiliated and broken, they don’t want to speak out, so I decided I should try to help,” Lee told AFP.
According to Lee, after successfully crossing the Chinese border via the Tumen and Yalu rivers, defectors are often left in very vulnerable and dangerous conditions as they are given no asylum in China. Since they are considered as illegal migrants, they usually get deported back to North Korea when captured, where they may face severe punishment. Having very few options, escapees often entrust themselves to the brokers who smuggle them out.
“North Korean women and girls run a gauntlet of forced marriage, and sexual abuse, in China as a de facto requirement to escape to a third country,” Human Rights Watch in Asia deputy director Phil Robertson was quoted as saying.
In her memoir, Lee recalled that she herself once faced the danger of being forced into the sex trade when she escaped to China. A broker convinced her she was going to work in a hair salon but ended up in a brothel. Fortunately for Lee, she was able to escape and run away.
She shared that North Korean women also end up as ‘forced brides’ after being sold to men in the countryside. China’s shortage of women of marriageable age, due to its one-child policy and traditional preference to having a male child, has led to families paying large sums of money for brides. Often times, such arrangement ends in a miserable life for the purchased bride.
“One trafficked woman I know was severely beaten by her husband and his family. To prevent her from escaping, they chained her inside a shed when they weren’t monitoring her,” Lee revealed.
“Some of these trafficked North Korean women commit suicide, while others hold onto a sliver of hope that they will eventually escape. Almost none of them succeed,” she added.