Why were Laura Ling and Euna Lee in North Korea?

Absent from reporting on the imprisonment and release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, which has taken the disturbing turn of focusing on the power dynamic between the Clintons, is the story the journalists were investigating in the first place. A piece by Ji-Yeon Yuh at the Women’s Media Center discusses this story: human trafficking.

Proportionally, the trafficking of North Korean women into China is a small part of an enormous worldwide criminal enterprise. However, of North Korean women and girl refugees in China, an estimated 80 to 90 percent are victims of trafficking. This is likely the highest percentage of trafficking in a single population.

The available evidence points to a dramatic expansion in the trafficking of North Korean women over the past decade. Based on the aid workers’ estimate that 80 to 90 percent of the female refugees are trafficking victims, there could be as many as 168,000 trafficked North Korean women and girls in China, and thousands cross the border each year.
It is no longer a case of local Chinese gangsters tricking North Korean women already in China and selling them as wives to rural bachelors. It is now a systematic, albeit sprawling industry operating in both North Korea and China that lures North Korean women with promises of jobs and then sells them into commercial sex work or into servitude as personal laborers and sex slaves–“wives”–for men. While once North Korean women were sold primarily in areas bordering North Korea, now there is evidence that they are being sold throughout the area north of Beijing.

The article puts the situation in North Korea in a global context, including broad information on worldwide human trafficking. As Ji-Yeon Yuh points out, the arrest of Laura Ling and Euna Lee speaks to the danger of investigating human trafficking and the need for this important work.
The fact is, the slave trade has not gone away. Two women just went through hell because of this. Millions more people, the overwhelming majority of whom are women and girls, are trapped in this horrific reality. Human trafficking deserves much more of our attention.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • nikki#2

    How could the media have ignored that little tidbit of information. One would think that the head line ‘Two females journalists imprisoned in North Korea for investigating human trafficking’ would simply explode over every news station.

  • Hypatia

    My mom works for a company that provides assistance for victims of human trafficking here in the U.S. You would be suprised by how prevelant slavery (because that is what it is, essentially) is in our society–in our country!–today. And of course, most of the victims are women.
    @Nikki–I imagine it was very easy for the media to forget this *insignificant* detail. Just about as easy as it was for them to ignore the reason Hillary Clinton was in Congo, when they happened to witness her headline-worthy “breakdown”.

  • A male

    I would say I heard the most about trafficking of women while living in Japan, through English language newspapers from the UK – kidnapping and trafficking of Chinese women to provide rural men with brides, and North Korean women escaping poverty and starvation, being married off to Chinese men near the border. I also heard about the estimated 50,000 women per year trafficked in the US.
    I don’t know why the US doesn’t cover it. US media spends too much time taking issue with what public officials say, and the lives of famous people. Yes, I know Obama is still promoting health care reform, and Republicans and an increasing number of Democrats and citizens are skeptical. Yes, I think I’ve been told all I need to know about Secretary of State Clinton’s interview in Congo, and the translator’s error. Yes, I know Jon and Kate are having marital issues. Tell me real news.

  • ragdish

    I hope this isn’t too tangential but I have a question for any Marxist feminists here. Ideally, the transition to state socialism and eventually the classless communist state is the antedote to the patriarchy of capitalism. Yet historically, Marxist countries have rigidly maintained state socialism and deteriorate into brutal totalitarian societies such as North Korea that
    oppress women. My question is the following. Can Marxist societies therefore ideally achieve the aim of gender equality that does not happen under capitalism? Or will bourgeous patriarchy always be replaced by “socialist” patriarchy? Has any measure of gender equality been achieved say in Marxist states in democracies such as India (eg. Kerala)?
    BTW, I am not implying that North Korea in anyway resembles the ideals of Marx nor should it be used as an excuse for the excesses of patriarchy under capitalism. I know a number of socialist and marxist femininsts who tirelessly are trying to solve many social issues eg. universal healthcare, poverty, etc..

  • TD

    I had heard about the trafficking story in many articles about their capture, so it wasn’t completely ignored, and I have heard plenty about the conditions in the DPRK and the exploitation of North Korean refugees. Of course I travel in a few security/defense related circles so your mileage may vary.
    But as far as the mainstream media not focusing on the situation on the PRC/DPRK border it is somewhat understandable. The story has been the same for the past few decades, and while horrible, there is very little that can be done about the situation along the border. So to the public the story would essentially be “things still horrific in North Korea” which most of them already have the general idea of.
    China has already cracked down on the border yet this can’t be classified as an inherently good thing, because it turns refugees back to North Korea where they face horrific treatment, as well as blocks the infiltration of things like radios and cellphones into the DPRK. They won’t begin accepting refugees because this wouldn’t further their own interests to appear to be friends to both Koreas.
    For the US or South Korea the only way to truly solve the situation would require the collapse of North Korea, or its invasion. But not only would that risk millions of South Korean lives there aren’t the resources in the RoK nor in the US to rebuild North Korea even if they did collapse. So it has been in the interest South of the DMZ to wait until the DPRK collapses on its own, or forces a preemptive strike. (Alternatively their is OPLAN 5030, but its an incredible gamble)
    At the same time if the US government began actively publicizing the atrocities faced by the North Korean people this would only serve to terrify the South Korean government. To them it would sound like the United States beating the drum for war.