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A Struggle for Survival: Trafficking of North Korean Women

Speaker: Ambassador Mark P. Lagon, U.S. Department of State

Date & Time

Mar. 3, 2008
9:00am – 10:00am ET


In a sobering presentation, Ambassador Mark P. Lagon described U.S. actions in dealing with the trafficking of North Korean women, primarily in China. He said the Chinese government, under various United Nations conventions, had an obligation to protect people on its soil, even if such people were illegal aliens. "They should be treated as victims," stated Lagon, "not criminals."

Lagon noted that the exploitation and trafficking of North Koreans in China consisted mostly of women and girls, although it included males as well. These people are victims of sexual exploitation as well as forced labor. He pointed out that the North Korean government makes no discernible effort to prevent the trafficking of its citizens. Food shortages and other poor economic conditions in North Korea lead many to flee, especially to northeast China. Although statistics are difficult to obtain, he believed there are tens of thousands of such people. Commonly, they cross into China voluntarily, and afterwards, the abuses begin.

Forced marriages are common, and this is well documented by non-governmental organizations. The problem is exacerbated, emphasized Lagon, by the fact that there is a "man surplus" in China. In many provinces, there are 120 male births to every 100 female births, creating the surplus, and thus the need for brides. In Lagon's opinion, neither the government of North Korea nor the government of China is doing enough to prevent forced marriages.

The U.N. Protocol on Trafficking calls on governments to protect the victims of such trafficking. Unfortunately, China classifies such victims as economic migrants, and returns them to North Korea, where they often face harsh retribution, and sometimes even death. China is, however, making some positive efforts. The All-Chinese Women's Federation has ongoing projects to alleviate the problem, including, in four provinces, the establishment of transfer, training and recovery centers. Over 1,000 victims have been assisted to date. China also hosted a Children's Forum in Beijing, with representatives from all over the country, to raise the awareness of child trafficking. China has sent representatives of the police to the United States to see how the United States deals with cases of trafficking. Most notably, remarked Lagon, China agreed in December 2007 on a Plan of Action Combating Trafficking of Women and Children.

Lagon concluded that while most attention is rightly focused on the Six Party Talks aimed at getting North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, "we must not ignore the trafficking of men, women and children." Our goal, he said, is not to mitigate trafficking, but to eradicate and abolish it.

Subsequent to Ambassador Lagon's remarks, a 13-minute excerpt of a film produced by the Chosun Ilbo Daily was shown. This film, entitled "North Korean Women Trafficked to China," was aired last night in Japan and South Korea, and will be aired in the United States next month by the BBC. Using a hand-held camera, the excerpt showed people crossing the Tumen River from North Korea into China, and interviewed several women who had been trafficked.

For a full text of Ambassador Lagon's speech, click here.

Drafted by Mark Mohr, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program. Ph: (202) 691-4020


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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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