North Korea Fails To Combat Trafficking of its Citizens

Posted by Mark Lagon
March 5, 2008
Trafficking in Persons

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.



Syrian P.
March 10, 2008

SNP in Syria writes:

The world's most troublesome area for trafficking in persons and sex slavery is Israel. It is wide open in the brothels of every town. How about you make a visit, listen to the poor ladies horror stories, they talk openly about the ordeal of their enslavement. You could not be that ignorant that you do not know this fact, but you choose DPRK instead, hmm... bio...Kirkpatric, AEI, that figures.

United States
March 10, 2008

Zharkov in U.S.A. writes:

Why was the DPRK's side of the story not posted? What are their objections to stopping execution of emigrants and human trafficking?

In the DPRK it is lawful to execute illegal emigrants and all returned illegal emigrants are executed, with the possible exception of a few too valuable to kill. While China could be willing to deport them to America, that may trigger flashbacks or PTSD in one of our presidential candidates, so perhaps France is a better choice.

The problem with the DPRK government is similar to that of a child raised by wolves, who, upon entering civilized society, doesn't know how to act. It requires slowly building trust, friendly relations, and careful explanations of why certain types of behavior are not acceptable to other countries. Killing one's emigrants is one of those things that just isn't done in civilized western societies and cannot be tolerated whether done by Kim Jong-Il or Fidel Castro, or anyone else. In western countries, until the Iraq War perhaps, life was held in the highest regard.

North Korea must be persuaded that illegal emigration isn't treason against the state but a normal occurrence throughout the world and that government permission to emigrate should not be mandatory. This may be a difficult selling point because U.S. government permission and clearance from the IRS are required for an American citizen to emigrate (with a passport), and that process is perhaps an incremental step away from arresting and executing citizens who ignore the requirement. Indeed, the seizure of undeclared cash at airport checkpoints by U.S. Customs officers is becoming a routine news story, so perhaps summary execution of U.S. travelers is the next big idea in America's War on Tourism?

The distinction between "illegal trafficking" of humans, and labor contractors, marriage brokers, and related lawful occupations is nearly impossible for governments to accurately draw. In many countries, prostitution is legal, in others it is not. If all parties consent and it is lawful, should it be America's job to regulate prostitution world-wide at U.S. taxpayer expense? America isn't exactly on moral high ground when it comes to obeying laws. Spying is illegal in every nation, yet America's government does this activity itself in violation of foreign law. Out of necessity, Americans routinely violate everyone's espionage laws.

Labor contracting is lawful everywhere as long as a country's labor laws are obeyed so the definition of "trafficking" must include an element of consent.

In a free society, people are allowed to contract their labor in any manner they wish, as long as their consent to do so was freely given. Poverty, threat of government reprisal, regulatory oppression, taxation, all affect the voluntariness of consent, but do not negate it.

Slavery is never by consent. Anti-slave laws exist almost everywhere except in Asia, so perhaps that is the place to begin. A simple DPRK law to ban slavery, transport slaves, and execution of emigrants, would help solve many problems of human trafficking. So what is the DPRK argument for not enacting such a law?

New York, USA
March 10, 2008

Ronald in New York writes:


Trafficks humans, drugs, arms,nuclear and dual-use commodities, counterfeits U.S. currencies, and kidnaps for ransom. Why has the U.S. has allowed release of seized laundered funds in a failed effort to force DPRK compliance with international nuclear sanctions. This will never work, and continues to subordinate one crime for another.Trying to engage China as a partner to rein in North Korea,is not a good approach either. Judgments on China's dismal human rights record should not be traded away for help with DPRK. Let's get real about our values and standards as a leading nation. Do you really think we can reason with a mentally-ill dictator in a criminal country?

South Korea
March 10, 2008

Kenneth in South Korea writes:

Having studied about North Korean issues for quite some time now I always find it is disheartening to see such violations of human rights overlooked when it comes to six party talks and other international agreements concerning North Korea.

Hopefully leaders like Mark (above) will be able to bring more the attention to the international community about such serious problems. I also hope that I can make a small difference as well through the field that I work in.

Unfortunately for the North Korean people, the hardships mentioned above are only a few among many.

United States
March 10, 2008

Zharkov in U.S.A. writes:

What is the North Korean side of this story?

What objections do DPRK officials offer against stopping the execution of emigrants, human trafficking, and so on?

Do they want money? Is it a matter of the U.S. paying them to do what common sense and ordinary decency require? Is there a U.S. law against bribing foreign officials? If so, how did we settle the nuclear program issue?

Do they have any legal objections that DPRK law considers unlawful emigration as treason against the state, or that human trafficking is lawful under their law?

Tennessee, USA
March 10, 2008

Joe in Tennessee writes:

Peculiar that this is found in countries with the same leadership values isn't it?

Then again, Kim when questioned as to his pornographic collections: QUOTE: America welcomes, enriches and honors Michael Jackson and honors privacy. End quote.

We also let Chavez continue protecting the bordellos in Caracas.

March 9, 2008

Mark writes:

Interesting... first time to this blog. Never seems to surprise me how unfriendly China is and that they don't follow the agreements they signed should come as no surprise either...

Just sad.

March 10, 2008

NB in Pakistan writes:

@ Mark -- Me too, very sad. Angry too on governments of the third-world countries for not doing enough to control human trafficking.


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