The Sex Slaves of North Korea

“I saw the dead face of my baby when it was taken out of my womb.”

By Rena Mainetti


Ms. Lee was from the Heilongjiang Province in northern China. Her father died when she was young, so her mother was left to provide for her starving family. Lee heard from a friend that she could earn money working on a farm in Yanbin, China. When she crossed the border into China, she was drugged and thrown into a box truck. After she woke up, she discovered that she was sold to be the wife of a Chinese man. Lee’s prospects for financial freedom and success were replaced by insurmountable fear and insecurity. 


Lee’s story is like so many others. In an attempt to escape the poverty and poor conditions of their homeland North Korea, tens of thousands of women and girls escape to China only to discover conditions worse than they left. Their stories need to be heard. 


The Problem

This egregious problem is rooted in both economic stagnation and political repression. Women in North Korea are generally more vulnerable than men because of North Korea’s economic fragility. 


“Women often fill low-level jobs that pay relatively poorly compared to men’s wages. Those who marry are expected to leave the workforce and are subsequently cut off from state rations—forcing them to rely solely on spousal income,” one report notes. 


These women escape starvation and repression– but are met with forced marriages and prostitution instead of freedom. Approximately 80 to 90 percent of the women entering China from North Korea become trafficking victims. China’s one-child policy and preference for boys distorted the country’s gender balance, creating a demand for young women. The desperation of North Korean women, paired with Chinese demand for young women, creates a vicious cycle of selling and exploiting innocent humans. 


One disturbing study found that the moment refugee women crossed the border– and sometimes before they even left North Korea– they were targeted by marriage brokers and pimps.


Fear and Exploitation 

Research indicates that half are trafficked into prostitution, about a third are sold into marriage, and most others are forced into cybersex. Those forced into cybersex are forced to perform sex acts or are sexually assaulted in front of webcams. These girls are as young as 12.


“(There) was a bed in front of a table with a computer and webcam. Four men … gang-raped me. When the third man began raping me (I) was bleeding … I cannot remember anymore,” one survivor recalled


In the case of forced marriages, Chinese men purchase their “wives” from traffickers– typically resulting in abuse from their “husbands”. They must bear exploitation and insecurity in China to avoid punishment if they return to North Korea. Even if their partners are not abusive, they are still denied basic rights because these “marriages” are not sanctioned by the Chinese government. Therefore, they do not become legal residents of China, and their children are usually not protected under Chinese and North Korean law. 



Women who become pregnant are often forced to undergo abortions. Ms. Seok, a North Korean defector, ran away from her abusive Chinese husband. She was soon introduced to another man to live with, but she discovered she was pregnant from her previous husband.

Her second husband’s family forced her to abort her child. “Even though I was already eight months pregnant, I was made to go through an operation at the hospital,” she recounts.

“I even saw the dead face of my baby when it was taken out of my womb.”


Pyongyang’s Response 

According to the U.S. Department of State, North Korea has not made any efforts to counter trafficking, nor did they report any law enforcement, victim protection services, efforts to raise awareness of human trafficking, or efforts to lower the demand for commercial sex acts. 

Victims returned by the Chinese government are subjected to forced labor, torture, forced abortion, and sexual abuse by prison guards. In the most extreme cases, defectors face death. 

By ignoring the problem the North Korean government continually worsens the issue. Innocent women are trapped in endless cycles of suffering because of government greed and incompetence. Traumatized women are provided with no medical or counseling services. Instead, if they are returned to North Korea, they face extreme punishment, including death.


Beijing’s Response 

China has taken more action to reduce human trafficking than North Korea. The country introduced a new Women’s Rights and Interests Protection Law which allows cooperation with foreign law enforcement to eradicate PRC nationals suspected of trafficking abroad. 

The government, however, undertook no efforts to protect the highly vulnerable North Korean migrant population. 

“Authorities continued to detain North Korean asylum-seekers and forcibly return some to the DPRK, where they likely faced severe punishment or death…the government did not report screening these individuals for trafficking indicators,” reports the State Department.

China is a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which prevents refugees from being returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. 

The PRC is aware that North Korean migrants face torture and possibly death if they are deported. However, the PRC labels North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants,” not refugees. Beijing continues to deny its obligations under international law and refuses to label North Koreans as refugees. 


International Response

Efforts to end this problem have largely been unsuccessful due to sovereignty issues and a lack of international pressure. North Korea continually denies the existence of trafficking and refuses to allow UN workers to investigate. 

The international community’s response is little more than verbal condemnation. China, the country that should be placing the most pressure on North Korea, continues to watch while innocent women suffer. 

 Solving this problem begins with North Korea recognizing that human trafficking is a global problem, not an attempt by other nations to soil its reputation.


A Time For Reckoning

These are the true stories of intense human suffering that the international community ignores. These women deserve protection and opportunity. Opportunities to enjoy a full life and watch their children grow are ripped away. Instead their vulnerability is exploited. They are forced into a life marked by cycles of abuse and distress.

It is up to the international community to increase pressure on China and North Korea to mitigate these human rights abuses. 


About the Author

Rena Mainetti is a junior at Grove City College and the social media coordinator of Checkpoint, majoring in political science with minors in psychology and national security. She has worked as an intelligence analyst for private data firm Zero Trafficking using Open-Source Intelligence to discover domestic human trafficking networks. Upon graduation, Rena hopes to continue her studies in national security and eventually pursue a career in foreign policy.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the writer alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grove City College, the Institute for Faith and Freedom, or their affiliates.


  1. Christine on March 23, 2024 at 12:49 pm

    Thank you for you research. This is a serious issue that needs more worldwide awareness.