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The World | COLUMN ONE

N. Korea's Brides of Despair

Thousands of women are fleeing to China and secretly 'marrying' to escape starvation. The unions aren't idyllic and are sometimes brutal.

August 18, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

YANJI, China — It was hardly the most romantic of courtships.

Kim Hye Soon, a 36-year-old divorcee, met the man she considers her fourth husband one day and agreed to marry him the next. Only there was no gown, no music, no celebratory meal -- no proper wedding at all. Kim simply followed him to his one-room cottage down a dirt road flanked by rice paddies.

Li Dong Gil, 38, was admittedly not the greatest catch. He had been badly disabled in a work accident that left him hunchbacked and unable to perform physical labor. What little money he was able to earn he spent on drinks and gambling, according to Kim.

Still, she was grateful to have found him. As a North Korean refugee, Kim had lived on the run, spending sleepless nights in fields and farmhouses in fear of being caught by Chinese police and deported back to North Korea. She had just escaped from a brief liaison with a Chinese man so violent that he was later imprisoned for killing his own mother.

"What choice did I have?" demanded Kim, a petite woman with girlish features but hard eyes and weather-worn skin.

Together now for three years, she and Li live with her daughters in a village on the outskirts of this city 15 miles from the North Korean border. "If we had stayed in North Korea, we would have starved to death," she said.

She spoke under a name she has assumed and asked that the village not be identified for security reasons.

Each year, thousands of North Korean women swim or sneak across the 800-mile border with China in search of food or work. It's relatively easy to get out; in some places, the Tumen and Yalu rivers on the border are no more than a muddy trickle. But the women quickly discover they have no way of surviving on their own in China, which considers North Koreans illegal migrants.

For these women, finding a Chinese mate has become the refuge of last resort.

Almost from the moment they cross the border -- and sometimes when they are still in North Korea -- the women are tapped by brokers. The preference for male babies in rural China has led to a shortage of marriage-age Chinese women. Unable to woo a partner with the usual blandishments, men are often willing to pay $300 -- more if the woman is especially pretty.

"Women are very scarce in the countryside," explained Li, Kim's husband. A handsome man despite his misshapen physique, with a tawny complexion and leonine features, Li said he never had so much as a serious girlfriend before Kim.

"They say that North Korean women are more obedient than Chinese, but I wouldn't know since I had no experience with women before," Li admitted sheepishly. "I've had nobody but the one I'm with now."

It is almost impossible to determine how many North Korean women are in similar situations, because Chinese authorities do not recognize or register the marriages.

Choi Jin I, a North Korean who eventually escaped to the South, estimates there are tens of thousands. In the northeast China villages where she lived, about 1 out of 10 women with mates were North Korean defectors, she said.

"It is easier for women to get out of North Korea than men because at least they have their own bodies to sell," said Choi, who was a well-known poet and writer in North Korea. She believes that nearly three-quarters of the estimated 100,000 North Korean defectors in China are women and that many, if not most, live with Chinese men.

"They figure it is better to find a man, any man, than starve to death in North Korea," she said.

Kim Sang Hun, a prominent human rights activist in the South Korean capital of Seoul, agrees that the numbers are high. Chinese authorities arrested and deported about 8,000 women in a March 2000 crackdown called the Campaign to Eradicate Human Trafficking, he said. But Kim added that those women represent just a small percentage of those in secret unions, and the numbers have been climbing ever since.

"The women keep coming out," he said. "They are looking at any chance to survive. They don't expect happiness out of marriage, only survival."

The life of a peasant wife in China is not an easy one, often entailing long hours of work in the fields and at home. Li and Kim live in a single room, almost entirely unfurnished except for the rolled sleeping mats and traditional earthenware cooking pots sunk into the vinyl-covered floors. A freshly slaughtered chicken waited to be prepared for lunch. Outside, chickens and rabbits ran loose in the yard.

The North Korean women, in effect, are kept hostage by their illegal status, unable to go to the police or even seek medical treatment if they are abused. Few speak much Chinese, which isolates them further.

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