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Imagine two sisters, one in her teens, one in her 20s, holding hands as they cross a river border. They are led by a courier, a woman who appears to be in her 50s. They make their way through the river, emerging on the other side to what awaits them: the promise of a better life.
But the two girls are escaping from North Korea.
And they don’t know their courier.
And they can’t know the person they thought was going to help them find a better life in China was actually going to sell them as brides.
From starvation to something worse
Nari was a young adult in North Korea during the brutal famine of the 1990s. Even the most conservative death toll from the era puts the number of deaths from starvation of hunger-related illnesses in the hundreds of thousands. Some estimates suggest millions of North Koreans died during the famine. That gnawing hunger and desperate hopelessness drove people like Nari to try to flee to China, where there were rumors of help—and food.
“I went to China with my second younger sibling,” Nari remembers now. “Food was so expensive in North Korea that it was hard to eat even a meal a day. There were times we starved for 10 days. And it reached the worst of times. My father had relatives in China, and we wanted to get some help.”
Nari and her sister decided to head to the North Korean region of Namyang, which borders China along the Tumen River. She hoped she could contact her father’s relatives and find a way to make the crossing into China.
“I spent a month [in Namyang], trying to contact [my father’s] relatives, but it did not work out,” she says. “I asked people in the neighborhood if I could stay in their houses, paying for their food. I spent the money I had saved to provide food for the families whose house I stayed in, and I also ate. I chose random houses to stay in. While staying in those houses, I tried my best to get in touch with the relatives. I went to the customs office near the Tumen River border to get in touch, and I gave my number to the North Koreans who [did] work in China to search for my relatives in China. I waited for their calls.
“But I did not get any news. The owner of the house we were living knew about this situation. And she recommended that we cross first to look for the relatives ourselves. But even if we want[ed] to, we could not cross ourselves, she told us. There had to be someone who could take us. We had to know what to do upon arrival as well. There were so many people like us who were coming to customs to get help from China. In North Korea, it was common to see people who had relatives in China and who wanted to get help from them. We were not an exception. We went to customs every single day. Out of all the people crossing for merchandise, we would pick those who looked more generous and asked if they could help us communicate with the relatives in China.
“Many people offered that they could take us to China. It seemed a little suspicious at times, though. Especially, the men, we could not trust. Then, a woman in her mid-50s approached us. She said she had many acquaintances in China and that she could take us safely to our relatives. She promised safety. We just put trust in that woman because she looked like she was of similar age as our mom. We chose that woman, and we made an arrangement with her to meet at a specific place at a specific time.”
Even after they found a courier to smuggle them across the border, the process was not a simple one. The courier had an arrangement with the North Korean border guards, and when Nari and her sister met her at the appointed time, the crossing began.
“It was a rainy night,” Nari says. “Around midnight, when we went out of the woman’s house and crossed the fence from the river, [North Korean] guards came out when we approached a certain location. The guards were already in arrangement with the [courier]. When the guards signaled the woman to cross, the woman placed herself in the middle between me and my sister, crossed her arms with ours. And went into the Tumen River. The water was very cold and […] reached [up to] my waist. There were round pebbles and sand underneath. We experienced so much tension and fear as we crossed the border.”
At first, things didn’t seem so bad. “The woman who had taken us to China. put us with a Chinese family,” Nari remembers. “The daughter in that family was Chinese but went to a Korean school. She spoke Korean as well as we did. She translated for us.”
And what she translated would change Nari’s and her sister’s lives forever.
“She told us that she would take us to a good place,” Nari says. “So we waited. And at some point, the woman who took us to China disappeared. Instead, the Chinese girl kept telling us that she would take us somewhere good. We did not know what decision to make. We had nowhere to go. Then one day, a taxi came and took us. We left early [in the] morning and arrived at some guys’ house in the afternoon.
“A younger guy came for my sister, and for me, a man who was about eight years older came,” Nari says. “We were told to live with them. The women left us there. We did not have any choice—no option for rebellion. We [had been] sold.”
Later, Nari would find out the woman they had trusted to help them get across the border was a human trafficker known for selling North Korean girls to Chinese men. “We do not know how much money she got,” Nori explains. “She did not have any intention to help. But she wanted to make money out of it. So, without any consent or chance for resistance, we were sold.”
What is a North Korean life worth?
Nari and her sister were in a foreign country and had become victims of human trafficking, sold into marriage. It was an unimaginable circumstance.
“We were sold to [men in] the countryside, and we had a small wedding,” Nari says. “We obviously did not like it, but we did not have a choice. [The men] guarded us and told us that they bought us with money. They made us do a lot of labor too. Because it was the countryside, there was a huge field, and we had to do cultivate it. We went out at around 4 to 5 a.m. and came home at 8 to 9 p.m.
“And we had to sleep with them at night because we could not resist or escape to anywhere,” Nari says. “My sister and I both became pregnant with a difference of about 10 days. The husbands we were forced to marry were relatives. My mother-in-law and her father-in-law were relatives. Fortunately, I could see my sister. My sister could come to my house, and I could go to her house too.
“Because my sister was only 18 years old, the family she was living with was a bit freer about her visiting my house. Because I was older than my sister, they thought there was a higher chance of me taking her and running away. So they guarded me more. There was one time when I went to my sister’s house. I thought my husband was not home, but somehow he was. I did not speak fluent Chinese so we couldn’t communicate. I told him that I was going to my sister’s house but he did not understand what I said. So he beat me. I fainted after being beaten down. When I was unconscious, he dragged me to the house—I was full of scars and dirt. I was actually pregnant at that time too.”
Nari found a slight glimmer of hope when she was able to find a way to call her uncle in China, who got a message to her father. “Because my father could speak Chinese, he asked around and searched for us,” Nari says. “Because my father was fluent in Chinese, nobody was suspicious of him. And he was not noticed as a North Korean and could come safely to where we were. When our father was there, we were already pregnant.
“My father came with [his Chinese] relatives. And [he] told us to make a decision for ourselves. But we were already pregnant so we told our father, ‘Let us give birth first and do something afterward.’ Our father told us that he would take us to the relatives after giving birth to the children. But after giving birth, I could not leave the child behind. My sister also couldn’t, so she raised kids there. I raised my child there.
“I kept on working, too. There was not a single day I did not work. But our husbands took all the money and did not give us any. He thought that I would escape if I had money. My husband kept saying, ‘Because I bought you with money and because you’re from North Korea, even if I kill you, nobody would sue me.’ Didn’t this mean that they merely think of us as possessions, bought from North Korea?
“After living there [for long enough to learn Chinese], my sister heard her mother-in-law saying we were bought for about $1,000 dollars each. We were worth that much.
“At last, I really thought of committing suicide. My kid grew little by little. And my child was around 4 years old. I was about to commit suicide with a handful of medication. And at that point, my child ran to me calling me ‘Mama.’ Looking at the child, I realized that if I died, the child would lose his mom. I wasn’t the perfect mom because I was North Korean. But still, I could not die leaving him behind. I did not starve as I was starving in North Korea but it wasn’t a human life. I did labor just like cows or pigs. There was no compensation, and I was beaten up once every two or three days.”
Hope in a surprising place
By this time, to be closer to their daughters Nari’s entire family had moved to China.
“My mom resided at a place that was about 12 kilometers from where I lived,” Nari says. “My mom went to church at that time. I went to visit my mom. My mom, seeing me acting and talking in a weird way, without saying anything, took me to the church. Hearing the hymns and the sermon, I started crying so hard. I’ve got to live, I thought.
“I really wanted to keep attending the church,” Nari says. “I desperately wanted to go to church every Sunday. But my husband and his family were against it. They would ask where I was heading and when I told them I was going to church, they said ‘if you go to church, does the God feed you? Does He give you money?’ There was persecution.”
Even when she was able to go to church, Nari still faced uncertainty—Chinese security offers were known to raid the church services, and Nari didn’t have official identification. Her husband and his family had never bothered to acquire citizenship or even registration papers for her, which meant she was in the country illegally and technically always at risk of deportation.
In the meantime, Nari’s family had encountered additional tragedy. Her mother and father and some of her siblings were captured in China and sent to a North Korean prison camp. There, they endured brutal conditions and constant beatings, which grew worse after the prison guards discovered the family’s Christianity. Nari’s family was eventually released—her mother fled for China once again. But her father succumbed to the injuries he received in the labor camp and died shortly after his release.
After returning to China, Nari’s mother began trying to help her daughters escape their own situations.
“It was always nerve-wracking to reside in China,” Nari explains. “So my mom prayed that I would [get] nationality [papers]. She met a Korean Chinese woman who asked my mom why we did not go to South Korea. [The woman] offered to introduce her to her daughter-in-law, who was living in South Korea at that time.”
The daughter-in-law happened to be coming to China for a visit, so Nari and her mother met with her. She explained that it would be possible for Nari to get proper government ID if she could get to South Korea. Eventually, she introduced Nari to a broker who could smuggler her to South Korea.
“Out of my family members, I was the first to decide to come to South Korea,” Nari says. “It was a long journey and a difficult process. There were many dangerous moments such as the times when we went through the Mekong [River] and the mountains in Laos. Some of the mountains were slanted by 90 degrees and we could have slid down. The road was also so narrow, and the brokers drove us through those paths in rain. If we were to slide, everyone would have died. In those situations, I kept seeking God. [But] we safely arrived in Thailand. It was a miraculous journey for us.”
Eventually, Nari escaped to South Korea from Thailand, where she still lives. Thanks to South Korea’s nationality law, she was able to get official citizenship and finally not live life as an undocumented person.
Sometime later, her mother was able to join her, along with one of her other sisters. Her younger sister who fled North Korea with Nari remains in China, living with her husband and child as an unregistered person. Nari’s brother remains in North Korea, and the family has no way of contacting him.