Although conditions have improved in North Korea since the famine of the 1990s, a new generation of defectors is fleeing the country because the situation remains bleak and hunger is widespread. North Korea has maintained its overwhelming control over its citizens in part because of a propaganda machine that over the years has caused its people to believe that the rest of the world has been suffering even more than North Korea has. But little by little, information seems to be seeping in the country.
The demilitarized zone, or DMZ, separating the two Koreas is the most heavily fortified border in the world. Soldiers on either side patrol their respective area along the thirty-eighth parallel, where in 1953 U.S. administrators divided the peninsula, three years after the start of the Korean War. The war was suspended by an armistice, but it never officially ended, meaning that the two sides are technically still at war. Because of the DMZ's impenetrable barrier, where on one side thousands of U.S. troops support South Korean forces, and where nearly a million North Korean soldiers are stationed on the opposing side, it has been relatively easy for the North to keep information from hi-tech South Korea from flowing into its country.
China, on the other hand, is North Korea's closest ally. The border between the two countries is extremely porous. In many areas there are no fences or actual barriers, only a narrow river, between the two countries. As a result, a thriving black market has emerged in North Korea as Korean-Chinese businesspeople take advantage of the North's isolation. Not only do products from China seep across the border, so does knowledge about China's economic prosperity. North Korea, the so-called Hermit Kingdom, is finding it harder and harder to keep information about the rest of the world from coming across its border.
One afternoon we took a taxi from our hotel in Yanji to a nearby location where we had arranged to meet with a young woman who had fled North Korea the previous year. Ji-Yong was in her early twenties and had a round baby face. She looked as if she was playing dress up in her black go-go boots, long, thick false eyelashes, and electric blue eye shadow. We picked her up and drove her back to our hotel.
While Ji-Yong was able to eat three meals a day in her village in North Korea, the portions were very small. Many North Koreans only receive meat on very special holidays, which occur roughly three times a year. Ji-Yong, like an increasing number of young North Korean women, was told by a broker that he could find her a job making good money working with computers. Unable to swim, and in the dark of night, these girls brave the cold, rushing water of the bordering river to reach the other side, where the promise of opportunity awaits them. Some perish along the way. While the broker did arrange for Ji-Yong to work with computers, it wasn't the office job she had envisioned. She was placed in the online sex industry, video chatting with clients and undressing for them online.
Many women like Ji-Yong are filling the ranks of China's growing prostitution and Internet sex world. They must pay back large sums in order to win their freedom, an almost impossible task given their paltry wages. Some are beaten and confined in their working quarters. Others are afraid to leave for fear of being arrested and deported.