Lee Meng Zu was an 18-year old girl, full of hope at the prospect of a new job working as a dishwasher in the hinterlands of China. It wasn’t until Lee arrived at her new location that she discovered the real reason behind her journey—to be sold as a bride for one of the restaurant owner’s sons.
Not asked, not proposed to, not promised—she was traded for an undisclosed amount that most likely didn’t exceed $2,000. Lee was one of the thousands of North Korean women who have their lives traded for an amount that’s a fraction of what we’d pay for livestock.
In 1998, Lee found herself in a position that many other young women never have the ability to escape from. She was treated as a bargaining chip in a sex-trafficking industry that sells North Korean women without consequence to a variety of places throughout China. Some of these women are forced to use this as a way out of North Korea—a country that is notoriously dangerous for women.
The Chinese government “rescues” these women by forcing them back to the country from which they were sold in the first place. Here, they face the possibility of forced abortions, being tried as a national defector, or even being interned in prison camps and potentially killed.
This places women who have been horribly abused between two evils. Many choose to stay the property of their captors rather than be sent to an uncertain future in a country that sees them as traitors.
According to NBC News, only 12 percent of North Korean defectors were women in 1998. By 2017, this number had jumped up to 83 percent–directly reflecting the growing atrocities being perpetrated against women in the country.
During the 1990s, North Korea lost nearly 2 million people to famine, and Lee points to difficult times as part of the reason she was in this position. She was being trained in a school for future female entertainers and fell just 2 inches short of the height requirement. This left her without a place in a society that dehumanizes women outside of what they deem a suitable purpose.
Lee found herself desperate, and a job opportunity offered by a Chinese-Korean businessman from her grandmother’s market seemed to be a way out for everyone. She trusted this man to deliver her for a job and found herself a victim of human trafficking instead.
Her “intended” was still away in the military when Lee arrived, and she was able to escape in 1999. She counts herself among the fortunate few able to escape without enduring years of potential abuse at the hands of an unknown. Unfortunately, she still wasn’t free.
She and her cousin found passage on a ship and were caught and sent back to North Korea. Lee spent only a month in prison at that time due to her age. She was still living in a country destroyed by famine and entered back into China with a $20 bribe to the border patrol. She hoped that the superior economy would allow her a better future now that she was free of her captors.
Here, Lee met a South Korean man and started her family. She later became a tour guide and discovered a different form of salvation with a businessman turned pastor named Ki-Won Chun who has helped women escape to South Korea since 1999. He understands his precarious situation between the two countries.
“North Korea announces that they’ll kill me once or twice a year,” Chun said. “China is emphatic about wanting to capture me.”
In 2008, Lee began her new life in South Korea—changing her name and settling down with a new husband. She still fears the consequences of her North Korean origins but has found her way to a happier life. This doesn’t replace the many memories of her childhood in North Korea.
While watching the 2018 Winter Olympics, Lee cries over remembered melodies and the family that she might never see again.