This article appeared in Hong Kong’s AmiraCulture

Every year North Korean women are trafficked into sex slavery or sold as enslaved brides to Chinese farmers and disabled men. Exact numbers are not known but nonprofit workers estimate it’s in the thousands. The traffickers pounce on starved residents of the alienated country who cross over illegally into China in search of food, medical aid and freedom. In 2011 North Korea was rated one of the top 23 worst countries for human trafficking by the U.S. Department of State. Here is one woman’s tale. “I wish my country was a place I didn’t lack anything.” Su-jin (not her real name) spoke with a small voice as she began to explain why she had to leave North Korea. Her hair was unwashed, in an updo, and her skin had a dull yellow pallor. It had taken me several hours to reach her hiding place in a village by car in the northern China countryside. Su-jin went on to tell me in a flat tone that the traffickers had lured her from North Korea, promising to give her a job, knowing she desperately wanted to send money back to her impoverished parents. After a dangerous raft ride across the Tumen River and a walk across the border into China, Su-jin’s dream of stable employment vanished. She was quickly taken by the traffickers to the man who would purchase her as a wife. She was sold for RMB1,000 (US$154). She and her “husband” then went “home” to a smelly, dank cave. A few traumatic years later, Su-jin found a way to escape her husband and the cave. But she could only do so on her own. She had to make a hard decision to abandon her young children. Here she began to cry, and I could feel her deep sadness. Su-jin was then captured by other traffickers and sold again to another Chinese farmer. Eventually she escaped this marriage too and found refuge with an ethnic Korean man who forced her to work in a dance bar, pouring beer for local businessmen. “I was so scared to dance and pour drinks,” she said. In order to calm her jitters and to escape her misery she sought solace in alcohol. She became an alcoholic and her unhealthy lifestyle caught up with her when she was diagnosed with liver cancer. A few Christians reached out to her during visits to the bar and after resisting for weeks, she succumbed and underwent a dramatic conversion. She says that’s when she began to hope again. After years of abuse and uncertainty Su-jin has finally found freedom. She knows she’s extremely fortunate to be free and to have a newfound inner peace. And she is grateful to the NGO workers who reached out to her and for the risks they take daily to help refugees from North Korea. Without them she would not be alive today. Sylvia Yu is a journalist based in Hong Kong.