Ambassador-at-LargeMark P. Lagonserves as the Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a source country for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor, and for the fifth consecutive year has been placed in Tier 3, the lowest tier, in our annual Trafficking in Persons Report because it is making no discernible efforts to combat the trafficking of its citizens.
As the Ambassador-at-Large for Trafficking in Persons, my job is to lead the U.S. government's efforts to abolish modern-day slavery. In my role as Director of the office, I engage diplomatically with representatives of foreign governments, I meet and collaborate regularly with representatives of the NGO community, brief Members of Congress on issues related to trafficking, and I work with colleagues in the State Department to ensure that sex trafficking and slave labor are given proper consideration in our larger foreign policy calculations.
It has been well-documented, and publicized, that the dire conditions in North Korea include a severe shortage of food, a lack of basic freedoms, and a system of political repression which includes a network of government-operated prison camps, where as many as 200,000 prisoners are subjected to reeducation and slave-like conditions. The circumstances in the DPRK lead many North Koreans to seek a way out across the border into Northeast China where tens of thousands of North Koreans may reside illegally, of whom it is estimated that more than half are women.
Commonly, North Korean women and children voluntarily cross the border into China, but some of these individuals, after they enter the P.R.C. in a vulnerable, undocumented status, are then sold into prostitution, marriage, or forced labor. The trend of North Korean women trafficked into and within China for forced marriage is well-documented by NGOs and international organizations. Sometimes North Korean women are lured out of North Korea with the promise of a "better life" as waitresses or factory workers, and then are forced into prostitution in brothels, or exploitative labor arrangements.
A potential factor, among others, in the trafficking of brides is the gender imbalance caused by China's one-child policy. There is, in short, a demographic man surplus relative to marriageable women. All agree that the two governments are not doing enough to prevent or punish the practice of forced marriage. NGOs and international organizations find it difficult to work independently in the PRC, so little assistance reaches this vulnerable group of DPRK women who have crossed into China.
Unfortunately, China classifies North Korean refugees as "economic migrants" and forcibly returns some to the DPRK where they may face severe punishment, including in some cases execution. The PRC stands by this policy; however, the U.S. consistently urges China to treat North Korean asylum seekers in line with international agreements to which it is a signatory. China's poor transparency and the political sensitivity of the issue hamper our efforts to effectively advocate for change on this issue.
China has engaged the U.S. government and international and non-governmental organizations to work on anti-trafficking initiatives, and has made progress. For example, provincial public security officials have traveled to the U.S. to learn about how multiple sectors of U.S. society – federal and state law enforcement and courts and civil society – protect victims, whether in the U.S. legally or illegally – and prosecute traffickers.
It will be interesting to see if these officers are indeed affected and that there is an impact, but the United States is offering its experience on seeing that trafficking victims are indeed treated as victims, not criminals or illegal aliens to be deported. MTV's special, regionally-tailored anti-trafficking public awareness campaign, funded by the U.S. government, was broadcast nationwide and received state media coverage.
With sustained efforts to combat TIP and improvements in their identification and treatment of victims, and transparency in criminal law enforcement, China could be a constructive partner in the region on this issue.
While much of the world's attention regarding North Korea is rightly focused on the Six-Party talks, the goal of which is verifiable denuclearization of North Korea and even the visit of the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang last week, we must not ignore the tragic circumstance of thousands of trafficked North Korean men, women, and children.