This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A repatriated North Korean escapee who was recently released from a prison camp for health reasons asked police to take her back when she was unable to support herself on the outside, sources in the country told RFA.
The woman, who had been sold in China by human traffickers seven years ago, was caught by Chinese police and repatriated sometime last year. While in detention, she was transported across the country on the back of a truck in the dead of winter and lost her toes to frostbite.
The prison camp released her in June after doctors gave up on finding a way to treat her.
“When she was completely blocked out from making a living, she went to the law enforcement agency and asked to return to prison,” a resident of North Hamgyong province, bordering China and Russia in the country’s northeast, told RFA Sept. 19.
The woman was back in prison only a month after she was released.
“The woman is known to have suffered severe violence at the hand of her Chinese husband in Shandong province. She could not withstand the violence and tried to flee last fall, but she was arrested by Chinese police and sent back to North Korea because her husband reported her,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
According to the source, the woman was first held in a detention center across the border from the Chinese city of Dandong in northwestern North Korea.
“She was in a detention center in Sinuiju until winter because the police officer in charge of her registered residence area did not come to take her away. The transport was delayed because electric trains do not run often, and internal combustion trains are too expensive. So, they transported her by a servi-cha,” the source said, referring to privately-owned and operated transport trucks.
“She was only wearing a single layer of clothes, so she suffered severe frostbite riding in the cargo compartment of the truck in the freezing weather. When she finally arrived in Puryong county, North Hamgyong province, she was sentenced to five years in prison for illegal border crossing and imprisoned at the No. 9 correctional labor camp,” said the source.
The source said she lost all ten of her toes to frostbite.
“The prison camp released her, saying there was no way to treat her, but after returning to her town, she had no way to make a living and no home. She could have died of starvation, and had no way to get medical treatment,” said the source.
“The poor woman was first living at a temporary shelter that the local government provided for her and she ate corn donated by local residents for her meals. But when she ran out of corn, she went to look for jobs, but it is of course difficult to work if you can’t even walk well,” the source said.
The source said it was then that she went to the public security department, asking to be sent back to prison.
Another resident of North Hamgyong, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA that tales of the woman had been circulating among the public.
“The residents are shocked to hear the story of an illegal border crosser who voluntarily wanted to return to prison. Once you’re sent there, you may come out dead. How tough is her life that she decided to go back to prison on her own volition?” the second source said.
The second source confirmed that the repatriated escapee lost her toes to frostbite and was released by the prison for health reasons.
“Normally the police collect the cost of transporting a prisoner from relatives, but the transport was delayed until the cold winter because she had no family to pay for her transportation.”
North Korean women are “uniquely vulnerable” to sex trafficking in China, according to a 2019 report published by the London-based Korea Future Initiative.
The report said exploitation of North Korean women generates profits of at least $105 million each year.
“Victims are prostituted for as little as 30 Chinese Yuan (U.S. $4), sold as wives for just 1000 Chinese Yuan ($146), and trafficked into cybersex dens for exploitation by a global online audience,” the report said.
Trafficking of North Korean women in China was at its peak in the late 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of desperate people fled the country during the 1994-1998 famine that killed millions.
Estimates place the number of North Koreans illegally in China at about 150,000 in 1999 according to a 2019 report published by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
RFA reported in August 2019 that China had begun a crackdown on North Korean refugees, with Chinese authorities repatriating 60 recently arrested refugees held in detention centers in northeastern Liaoning province.
The report said the spike in arrests could have stemmed from increasing North Korea-China cooperation following more than a year of warming relations between Beijing and Pyongyang.