North Koreans have increasingly been crossing into the northern border cities of China, with women outnumbering men. 'Women represent about 70 percent of some 200,000 North Koreans who fled from North Korea into China in the past few years,' Kim Tae Jin, a North Korean defector who leads a nongovernment organisation to protect the human rights of fellow North Koreans tells IPS.
North Korean men are less tempted to cross the border because, with little local connections in China, they are easily tipped off for arrest by security guards and subsequently sent back to North Korea, Kim explains. 'Besides, North Korean men could hardly compete with the Chinese for the few jobs available.'
In contrast, young North Korean women are sold as brides to Chinese farmers in northern border villages, while older ones take menial jobs working in restaurants or karaoke rooms. 'We estimate about 80 percent of North Korean women who fled the North are sold as brides to Chinese men,' Kim says.
'Once in China, fear of being sent back to North Korea grips them, keeping them silent and obedient no matter how abusively they are treated,' Kim adds.
Some former brides managed to make it all the way to South Korea. 'My Chinese husband regularly reminded me of how much he paid for me. I felt like his possession,' says one North Korean woman.
The price for each North Korean girl aged 15 or so reportedly ranges from 3,000 to 10,000 yuan (463 to 1,500 dollars) depending on her physical condition.
'When I visit China’s northern border villges, I often see a group of North Korean teenagers-turned- brides of Chinese husbands,' Kim says. 'They gather around a village well, chatting and laughing. Many of these brides must stay there for fear of being captured by North Korean guards to be sent back to the North.'
In the face of the harsh reality in China, some women even consider going back. 'When I first arrived in China, I went through shame, fear and humiliation. I even missed my home in North Korea. Although I was starving at home, I was at least a citizen there. In China, I had to be invisible and dumb,' says Yoh Su-Wa, a woman who fled North Korea and made her way to South Korea after four years in China.
Within North Korea it’s hard. To be a North Korean woman is to be tough and brave, fighting all odds in an impoverished country that gives priority to nuclear and missile testing over feeding its population of 23 million, North Korean defectors say.
The mother usually overrules the father in North Korean homes, contrary to the traditional family picture of the obedient wife and mother coupled with the sole breadwinner father, defectors add.
Hunger forced women to take to the streets after North Korea's food rationing system collapsed during a famine in the 1990s. Markets sprang up across the country, and North Koreans bought and sold whatever was available. With shrinking rations at home, the only way to survive was to sell or barter their belongings in the black market in exchange for something to eat.
In North Korea, a woman is usually the family’s main breadwinner, while her father, husband and sons are mostly idle, kept away from state-run factories that have shut down or seldom operate.
'Maybe my father was used to the cosy system of communism where rations are equally given whether he works hard or not,' said Lee Sung-Min, who fled North Korea and made his way to South Korea in the early 2000s.
'My father found it humiliating to hawk goods in the street,' said Lee, who asked that his real name be withheld.
Many women who make it to South Korea find menial jobs cleaning buildings, or work as waitresses or housemaids. 'Women tend to be faster than men in fitting into a new life in South Korea,' Kim says.
Meanwhile, North Korean men have a harder time finding jobs. Even if they do get employed, Kim says, many soon quit. 'North Korean men find it hard to adapt to a different work culture in the South where men are treated differently depending on their performance and efforts.'
Also, the frailer North Korean men could not compete with their South Korean counterparts, who are usually a head taller. 'The long harsh journey from North Korea crippled one arm of a North Korean defector in Seoul. He worked with one arm at a construction site, and had to leave the job unable to work as productively as the South Koreans,' said Lee Hoon, pastor of the Seoul-based Onnuri Church that shelters North Korean defectors.
© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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