The Tumen River runs from Mount Peaktu to the East Sea. It serves as part of the border between North Korea and China. In the winter it freezes solid. In the summer it flows heavy and is hard to cross for North Korean refugees. Both sides of the river are lightly populated for most of the river’s length. The Tumen is mostly surrounded by mountains and trees. On the North Korean side, there are signs with propaganda messages in bright red. There are hidden military bunkers along this side with thin, horizontal windows for soldiers to peak and point their guns out of.
Mrs. Jo crossed the river in the summer. It was pitch dark. Just as she was instructed, she gave the guard the name of the boy’s uncle. And she was able to cross unmolested.
The Tumen River still is a major crossing point for North Korean refugees today. But the North Korean government has made it harder to cross. Border guards are changed regularly and are instructed to shoot to kill anyone who attempts to cross. Seemingly endless barbed wire fences line on both sides. Explosives are hidden under the river’s currents, according to recent reports.
After Mrs. Jo crossed, she was instructed to go to a boy’s uncle’s house nearby. She did. She was given a meal, new clothes and was told to wait in a room with a few other North Korean women.
The women, all younger than Mrs. Jo, were picked one by one by Chinese men and taken away. Mrs. Jo soon realized that they were being sold.
Most North Korean refugees are women and a large number of them, an estimated 80% of the women, are sold to Chinese men as forced brides to supplement China’s gender imbalance.
This imbalance between men and women is one side-effect of China's One-Child Policy. Chinese couples are forced to help keep the country’s population under control. With the introduction of ultrasound technology in the 1980s, it became easy for couples to make a decision on what gender they wanted. Many have chosen to have a boy.
In 2010, The Economist reported a gender ratio of 275 boys for every 100 girls born in some of China’s provinces. This is almost a three-to-one ratio. What has resulted is an almost hopeless gender gap. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences stated that by the year 2020, there will be 30 to 40 million more men than women in China.
The demand for women is high in China and the country’s poorest men have to go to the open market to find a wife.
Mrs. Jo was duped by the little boy in North Korea. She was on the selling block and could do nothing to stop it. This boy was part of a coordinated trafficking ring, which paid for her bowl of noodles, paid off the border guards and captured tens of thousands of North Korean women to sell.
Mrs. Jo watched as the women around her were sold. But because she was older, it took over a month to find her buyer. She was eventually sold to a pig farmer as a slave.
For a year Mrs. Jo carried large buckets of water from a well to give the pigs water. She was beaten when she didn’t understand orders, which was often since she didn’t speak Mandarin. She begged her owners release to release her for months. One day they let her leave, but not on her terms.
Her captors found someone else to purchase her. At this point, her back was so strained from her time on the farm that she was permanently hunched, a condition she is still in today.
The man who purchased Mrs. Jo did not mistreat her. He was an ethnic Korean man and he was older, with grown children. They lived together for about a year in Northeast China. But then he received a South Korean work visa. Within a week he was gone.
The South Korean economy has advanced so much that the country now needs to import a pool of cheap labor. It is estimated that there are about 500,000 Korean-Chinese people who have legal work status in South Korea. This is about 20 percent of China’s ethnic Korean population.
This mass migration has decimated the working-age Korean-Chinese population in China. There are less people to help North Korean refugees. Many Korean-Chinese churches in China are almost empty of working-age congregants.
Mrs. Jo’s husband would send money to his children but not to his purchased wife. She was again in need. He would call infrequently and make promises to her that he hardly ever fulfilled. She took to picking herbs and mushrooms on a mountain nearby to sustain herself. But she still couldn’t make ends meet.
This is when she met another North Korean refugee woman connected to Crossing Borders who said there are Americans who can help her.
Part three of “Rebounding” will be posted in one week.