She fled North Korea for a life of online sex work in China. Now she is escaping again
Sometimes the men just wanted to talk with the North Korean women. “Face cam,” it’s called.
But most of the time, they wanted the other option: “body cam.”
Watching through a smartphone app, the men would ask the women, some of the unknown thousands of North Koreans sold to Chinese husbands and living secretly in northern China, to show their breasts or their backsides, to touch themselves or perform sex acts on one another.
Most of the time, the women did as requested. They needed the money - even if it amounted to only a few dollars a day.
“In the beginning, I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. I thought it would be OK because I wasn’t actually sleeping with anyone,” said Suh, who had been one of the legions of North Korean women performing online sex work in back rooms in China. “But then I found out how many perverts there are out there.”
Suh, a 30-year-old who escaped from North Korea in 2008, resorted to doing “video chatting” after her second child was born and her husband’s meagre construction earnings wouldn’t stretch any further.
“There are some people who just want to look at your face, but the majority of them are there for their sexual desires,” Suh said, putting her head down so her long hair covered her cherubic face. “I felt so disgusting.”
Together with two women from her village in northeastern China who were also doing chatting work, Suh fled over the summer. She made the heart-wrenching decision to leave her five-year-old daughter with her Chinese husband.
The women travelled by bus and car down through China to the border with Laos, which they crossed illegally in the black of night, Suh carrying her 18-month-old daughter, Ji-yeon, on her back.
The women made it to Vientiane, the Laotian capital, where they were interviewed as they paused on their journey to what they hoped would be a better life in South Korea or further afield.
Most of their stories could be verified with the pastor and broker who were helping them escape, and it was clear that the women, faced with no other options, had resorted to performing on camera for men.
The women had a friend film them at work before they left, so they could prove what they had been doing. The videos showed the women - sometimes in brightly coloured underwear, sometimes naked - sitting against a low bed covered with a purple Hello Kitty quilt in front of two computers on a low table. Men, sometimes visible, sometimes not, gave them instructions. Most of the men they “chatted” with online were in South Korea, but a few were in America and even Africa.
Safely out of China, the other two women, both called Kim, wanted to get to South Korea, but Suh had her heart set on a more ambitious destination: the United States, “the strongest country on Earth.”
“I think my daughter is one lucky baby,” Suh said, sitting on the bed in a grimy room in Vientiane and looking at Ji-yeon as she slept, snoring lightly. Their few possessions were in plastic shopping bags, save for the clothes drying on coat hangers dangling from the light fittings. The baby had not even one toy. “All the suffering is worth it. Our destiny has changed,” Suh said.
Defections such as that of Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom who fled to South Korea over the summer, make headlines because they are so rare. But less sensationally, a steady if diminishing stream of North Koreans is making their way out, down through China, across to Laos, then into Thailand and eventually to South Korea.
Most are women from the northern provinces, considered down-and-out even by North Korean standards, and face an extremely precarious life in northeastern China.
“These North Korean women in China faced a dire dilemma, either having to remain hidden and submit to this kind of sexual exploitation, or risk working outside of their residence with the very real possibility that Chinese authorities could arrest them at any time and force them back to North Korea,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.
Although some women take the risk of working outside the home, shuttling between cleaning and babysitting jobs or working behind the scenes in restaurants, an increasing number feel they have no choice but to try to make money behind closed doors.
That is where video chatting comes in.
About one-fifth of the North Korean women living in hiding in China are involved in this kind of online sex work, said Park, a broker who works to get women out.
Suh was sold eight years ago to a man in northern China who, she said, treated her well - he beat her “only a few times.” But the arrival of their second child made a tough financial situation untenable. She heard about video chatting through a friend of a friend and began chatting with South Korean men at night when everyone in her house was asleep.
On her first day she earned US$3. In her best week, she netted US$120.
A few months ago, Suh decided she couldn’t take it. “I wondered why I had to do this. I’m a human being, the same as everyone else,” Suh said, breaking down into heaving sobs. “I wanted to be a good mother, a strong mother for my daughters.”
After speaking to this reporter, the women continued on the next leg of their journey. But the day they were to cross into Thailand, heavy rain had swollen the Mekong River, and their boat missed the drop point.
They were discovered by local police and taken
to Bangkok, where they are now being held at a detention centre, the pastor said.
Suh has applied for asylum in the United States, even though she speaks no English and knows she will receive little support, unlike in South Korea.
During the pause in Vientiane, the relief of being out of China had washed over the women, and the challenges ahead loomed. The women had begun to dwell on the handicaps that North Koreans face. “I have no passport, no papers, nothing,” Suh said. “Why are our lives so different, just because of where we are born?”