Articles on Modern Day Enslavement - Zola M Dube

North Korean ‘bride trafficking’ linked to China’s ‘bare branches’

In 13 Days of Awareness: 13 Nations Profiled, North Korea on July 9, 2010 at 10:46 PM

It will create a potential threat to national security. Too many men increase the likelihood of sexual crimes occurring. It will make the existing phenomenon of prostitution and the selling of women much worse.

Professor Zhu Chuzhu, Xi’an Jiaotong University (China, 2005)

After a century of wars, unrest and epidemics the People’s Republic of China experienced a population boom, due to improved medicine and sanitation. Mao Zedong became ruler of China in 1949. As the nation’s first communist leader, he encouraged married couples to have large families to strengthen China’s capacity for industry and production. The government denounced birth control and banned contraceptive imports. By 1955 population growth took a strain on the nation’s food supply. There was a brief period of birth control promotion, to only be reversed in 1958 under Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” population growth campaign to develop manpower. Mao died in 1976. Under his successor, Hua Guofeng, China implemented the one-child policy in 1979.

The old-child-policy is credited for stemming China’s population. The Chinese government claims that from 1980 to 2000, 250 million births were prevented. Critiques point to mismanagement and acute human rights abuses over the past 30 years. Chinese culture favors male children, particularly in the countryside, where families rely on sons to assist in farm labor and care giving in old age. Girls are married off to families and are not a source of security. As a consequence of these two factors – one child limit and male preference – China is plagued by a legacy of forced abortions, female infanticide, and selective abortion of females.  Grossly understaffed orphanages are nearly all female. In these institutions an estimated 9 out of 10 children die before the age of one due to neglect and starvation.

Today’s young generation is shrinking. It is projected that in the near future there will not be enough people to support the economy and care for the elderly. China’s one-child-police favoring males has resulted in 119 boys for every 100 girls. For rural China, where in some area the ratio of 14 males to 1 female, the problem is exasperated with Chinese women leaving the country to find more financially stable partners and modern lifestyle in the urban areas. Furthermore, there is a growing trend of Japanese men seeking Chinese women oppose to independent and self-made Japanese career women. This year, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences projected that by 2020, 24 million Chinese men of marrying are will not be met by Chinese women. These men are known as guang guan, or “bare branches“. Other, non-governmental agencies report that the number could be as high as 40 million guang guan.

As a consequence of the deficit, bride trafficking has soared among North Korean women(1). Where northern China meets the border of North Korea, North Korean women are tricked and sold to Chinese rural farmers for as little as $700. As the following paragraph will indicate, not all North Korean women disapprove of forced marriages – an indication of how dire the conditions are in their home country.

For decades North Korea has suffered widespread food shortages. Economic challenges and policy mismanagement, limited arable land, lack of agricultural machinery, insufficient fertilizer, and energy shortages has taken a huge toll on the nations 23 million inhabitants. In August 2007 severe flooding caused widespread damage to crops and infrastructure in six provinces. Key donors China and South Korea have reduced their direct aid to the country over the past few years. In 2008 the World Food Program estimated that already 6.5 million people were short of food. It said state rations were dwindling while prices in markets had doubled – with a kilogram of rice now costing approximately one-third of a worker’s monthly salary. Under these conditions a significant number of North Korean men, women, and children have faced enormous daily, relentless hardships, including conditions leading to starvation. In 2010 North Korea continues to be crippled by food shortages and UN sanctions that limit the country’s ability to profit from weapons sales. In a May 2009 article written by Kristin Butler; Mark Logan, Executive Director of the Polaris Project on Human Trafficking, describes the victimization of North Korean women as “thrice victimized– starved in North Korea, sexually exploited once they escape to China and tortured if they are repatriated to their home country”.

Some North Korean women report choosing to stay in a forced marriage because of the birth of a child and/or they have developed an emotional attachment to their husband(2). There are also trafficked women who have expressed the view that despite everything, their current situation is better than risking repatriation or starvation in North Korea. These attitudes may sound counter-intuitive, until one understands how severe the situation in North Korea. While China scrambles to sort out its gender imbalances with new government sponsored health and education programs, like Care for Girls, North Korean teens and women continue to bear the brunt of North Korea and China’s social, cultural, political, and economic challenges.

– Zola Dube

1. Davis, Kathleen. Brides Bruises and the Border: The Trafficking of North Korean Women into China. SAIS REVIEW 26, no. 1 (2006): 131-142.

2. Muico, Norma Kang. (2005) An absence of choice: The sexual exploitation of North Korean women in China. Anti-Slavery International.


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